The second and third parts are linked below.
Click here for Part 2: Roberta in School
Click here for Part 3: Courtship, Marriage, Family, and Old Age
Our Granny could wiggle her ears, each one independently. This astonished me when I was a small boy. She did it without being in any way goofy. She was an elegant old lady, kind and attentive, but always giving off a sense of properness. For my Catholic Confirmation, she gave me a map of the Holy Land. Goofiness didn’t fit the Granny I knew, but maybe wiggling ears for small children was a clue to more about her.
When I was little, we would load into the station wagon and drive from Bethesda, Maryland, to Riverside, Connecticut, to visit. She lived in a big, old Tudor-style house. The house had things we didn’t know about: a country lane ran right behind it. The kitchen had a Dutch door, opened only in the top half on a summer morning. The sink taps had separate spouts for hot and cold.
My mother’s sister, Aunt Joan, then in her 30s, and disabled, lived with Granny. We saw Joan in her room, visiting her while she was in bed, or once that I remember, while she sat in her wheelchair, downstairs. Someone would have had to carry her down from upstairs where her bedroom was. Granny was widowed and had, from Joan’s girlhood, cared for her daughter, sometimes with the help of a live-in nurse.
By the time I knew Granny, she was in her 60s. She was a cheerful, though proper woman who wanted to be sure we, particularly me and my brother Jim, who were preteen boys, knew how we should behave; hold doors for a lady, and never, ever hit a girl, which in this case would be our sister Margaret.
Granny also had an encyclopedic knowledge of card games. I think my sister Margaret, the oldest of our set of her grandchildren, spent the most time with her, learning games. Jennifer Farrar, another of her grandchildren, remembers Granny teaching her and her sister canasta. She told me: “I thought it was extremely complicated and that she was very smart to know how to play it and to teach it to us.” I remember playing crazy eights with Granny. And I’m rather sure she taught me solitaire.
When Granny couldn’t fit a jigsaw puzzle piece, or drew a card in gin rummy or solitaire that she could not use, she’d say “drat”. I can’t imagine her using language stronger than that, though that doesn’t mean she never did.
In 1966, Granny and Aunt Joan moved to Bethesda where we lived. Joan’s health had worsened, and they wanted to be near Roberta’s daughter Judy, my mom. Granny and Joan had a nurse traveling with them. All three stayed with us for a time, there were now six of us kids, three under 5 years old. We shuffled rooms to fit everyone, and the dinner table for a time had eleven people around it. But Joan soon died. She was only 41.
Before long Granny moved to her own apartment near us. Over her time in Bethesda, she made some good friends. She attended Little Flower Catholic Church. We saw her regularly, sometimes making visits for lunch at her apartment. She took the Washington Star, and would cut out the word jumbles and the Marmaduke cartoons for me. Despite her distinct differences in style and background with our other grandmother, Isabel Mahaffie, they got along well and socialized.
What I share here is mainly about Roberta’s childhood and young adulthood, the part of her story I wanted most to know about. I have explored each of my other grandparent’s stories, but of Granny I knew the least, until now.
Early childhood, losing her mom
Roberta Bartlett Becker was born on October 31, 1897, Halloween, to Augustus C. Becker and Susan Ann Bartlett Becker, in Brooklyn, New York. August was a first-generation German-American, engaged in the same business his father Valentine Becker had pursued, plumbing and gasfitting in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn was a fast-growing city by the late 1800s, spreading outward from the first strong connection between Manhattan and the western edge of Long Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, built in 1883. By 1890, Brooklyn was the fourth largest city in the United States. (It was later annexed to become part of New York City.) It was a great place for August’s business.
August and Susie had had two other children, but by the time Roberta was born, both children had died. Their daughter Beatrise was born in 1886. Their son Robert was born in 1890.
Roberta’s daughter Judy remembers learning that the two children each died of something different. In fact, fast-growing Brooklyn suffered multiple infectious disease crises in those decades.
Beatrise died at age six in 1892. The diagnosed cause was acute peritonitis an inflammation of the abdomen. This was likely caused by typhus.
On February 25, 1895, August bought a 3-story house at 148 Taylor St, Williamsburg, Brooklyn for $9000. He and Susie, with their young son Robert, moved in. Then Robert died in 1897 of diphtheria and heart failure. He was seven years old. It was only a few months later that Roberta was born.
August and Susie named their new daughter Roberta, perhaps in remembrance of both their lost son Robert, and after Susie’s father, Robert Bartlett, a Greenport, Long Island menhaden fisherman.
Roberta’s mother was a Roman Catholic and wanted her raised in the Catholic Church. Granny was and remained a Catholic, though August, her father, was likely a Lutheran.
Then, compounding the family’s tragedies, Susie died of a kidney illness in June of 1899 at age 38, when Roberta was about a year and a half old. This left August Becker a 44-year-old widower with an infant daughter.
August leaned on his two sisters for help. They lived nearby in Brooklyn. By the early 1900s, he and Roberta shared a home at 537 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, with his sister Louise, Mrs. August Stoltze. They were also close to his sister Lina (Karolina), Mrs. Adolph E. Brion, also of Brooklyn.
Roberta’s daughter Judy remembers her mother telling stories about how she would be shunted from one of her aunts to the other, the two women either not getting along or at least not approving of the other’s choices for the child. Each would take Roberta out for new dresses because she didn’t like what the other aunt had put Roberta in.
The Brions had a daughter Estelle, three years younger than Roberta. The two girls did much together then and later.
August Becker, sanitary plumbing and gasfitting
August Becker prospered in his business, which for a time had Brooklyn locations at 312 Grand Street, Brooklyn and 1230 Broadway. He got city contracts and also bought and sold properties around the city.
The A. C. Becker ad above notes the business was established in 1849. This is likely when August’s father, Valentine Becker, a German immigrant, commenced his work at the same trade.
A threatened kidnapping
In September 1901, when Roberta was just shy of four years old, August received a letter at his business which attempted to extort money from him. It instructed him to place $800 where the would-be kidnapper could get it, or his daughter would be kidnapped. The amount is equivalent to about $24,000 today.
This was a common scam in those years, often blamed on Italian immigrants.
At least three newspapers carried the story, the versions differing in each. It’s clear that Roberta (referred to in one paper as Katie, another as Edwina, and never as Roberta, was staying for the summer with her Aunt Louise Stoltz in Patchogue, Long Island. (The New York Tribune story has several names wrong; “Katie” for Roberta, and “Mrs. Shultz” for Mrs. Stoltze.) Possibly, the varying first names and other details were meant to obscure the little girl’s whereabouts, she had stayed in Patchogue for at least several weeks after August got the letter.
August told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle he hadn’t taken the letter too seriously and had taken no action. But he did tell the paper that his daughter had since been sent out West to stay with other relatives.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in 1899, referred to “the kidnapping craze”. A string of stories of kidnappings and threats to kidnap, which seem most often to be ascribed to Italian immigrants, dot the Brooklyn papers in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Often the articles note that a threat wasn’t considered too serious. The targets of kidnapping threats were often business owners. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle published a joke in its humor column in 1901:
“Are the Goldbanks up in society?”
“I should say so! Why, the have received no less than a half-dozen letters threatening to kidnap their son if they did not give up five thousand dollars.”