The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 5, 2006

A Life in Stone

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 9:19 am

When I think of Cornelius, I picture my father. I have a photo of Dad and me from my babyhood. He’s in his undershirt, his arms and shoulders bare. A tall skinny guy with pop-out muscles, sandy hair in a brushed-back wind-blown mass, he’s squinting in the sun, kind of laughing. He’s got himself in a spidery crouch, holding up the arms of his summer-dressed little girl so she can stand. She’s squinting too, not smiling, seeming stressed by the glare.

My dad worked with his body. He was a contractor, but small–time; he did a lot of the work himself: lifting, hammering, carrying, reaching, bending, moving all the time. He was fit, long-limbed and lanky, strong with physical labor. That picture shows it.

He died young, but that was the other stuff, modernity: cigarettes, auto travel, television, and the fifties diet. Cornelius lived to be eighty-eight, dying just before the twentieth century began.

So picture Cornelius, like his great-grandson, like my Dad: lanky, hard muscled, physical. He hauled stones, built walls, put up houses. How many of the stone houses of Esopus, built after 1830, are his work? Stone after stone passing through his hands, stones grasped, heaved, slid, pushed into place, Mortar mixed and spaded on, smoothed back and forth with the tool. A brutal work, dirty, sweaty, a work of strain and sheer endurance. Physically I think I know Cornelius, his image, his silhouette, his shadow.

But in certain lights, that shadow swells and looms forbiddingly. He who seems larger than life disappeared into time leaving barely a smear. With Jennette Quimby, my great-great grandmother, he made at least ten babies over nineteen-years. By 1860, that marriage had crumbled. He married Hannah Benjamin, a girl of nineteen: she likely was pregnant at the time. He relocated to New Paltz, starting up his masonry business again. More rocks, more kids, four in all.

How could he? What kind of man would do this? And live, live, live all the way to 1899. His story bursts with strength: two women, two marriages, two families, two sequential lives, two ruins.

The records grow unclear after 1880; the missing census cheats us of a profile of Cornelius and Hannah in his old age. He lived apart from Hannah in 1880; he was a farm laborer in Fallsburg, a town in Sullivan County on the Neversink River as it curves south toward Pennsylvania. The same census finds Hannah and their second daughter Emma, using their middle names Jane and Jennie, as domestic servants in a German household in New Paltz. Everything had crumbled again, a second time, and Cornelius was on his own, 67, a farm laborer on Depuy land.

Then, nineteen years go by, and he dies, and someone takes him and buries him in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, back in Ulster County, south of both Fallsburg and Esopus. The only other Burger preceding him there is Alida A., his daughter by Hannah who died in 1892 after a short marriage to Charles Decker. Her stone is white and flat in the ground, and spells her name “Burgar,” as will all the stones that follow, including Cornelius’s.

Did he reunite with Hannah in New Paltz? Or did she retrieve him from Fallsburg to bury him where his second family lived? By 1900, she is living with her daughter, Mary Burger Schoonmaker, whose family is buried in the neighboring plot. Cornelius’s grave is set apart from the other Burgars, a row up and to the right, grouped with some unrelated stones.

But his stone is a match to Hannah’s, suggesting they were both cut at her death in 1910. They are thick, machine-incised, twentieth-century granite stones, unpolished but substantial. FATHER is cut in thick capital block letters across the top of his stone, and MOTHER across the top of hers.



  1. I am a Cornelius, grand-daughter of a Seventh Son of a Seventh Son who imigrated to the US from Ireland. I am 55. The sons all split up when they came to the states. I don’t know exactly how many came, perhaps 6.
    My grandfather was the youngest and settled into many trades, but who could be a cobbler or a business man and built businesses and lost them. He was a horrible alcoholic and gambler and married 5 times. I was very close with his last wife after my grandmother whom he divorced died.

    I would like to find my relatives in Ireland.

    Cool site.

    Comment by Alida — August 6, 2006 @ 2:38 pm |Reply

  2. Hi
    Jane and Jennie = Hannah J. and Emma J. in New Paltz 1880?
    How do we know?

    Comment by Jim — August 20, 2006 @ 5:24 pm |Reply

  3. Good question, Jim: in this blog, I’ve been focusing on the impact of what I’ve discovered, rather than on the chain of evidence. I do have quite a lot of circumstantial evidence for the supposition that Hannah Burger and her daughter were servants in 1880. The ages fit, and I can’t find Hannah elsewhere in the area. I also have some corroboration that she went by the name Jane at least some of the time.

    Hannah’s middle initial is J: it appears in the 1860 and 1870 censuses where she is recorded in the household of Cornelius Burger as his wife.

    In 1900, “Hannah J. Burger” appears in the New Paltz household of Moses Schoonmaker and his wife Mary as “grandmother.” Her age fits Hannah, wife of Cornelius, and Mary is the right age to be the oldest daughter of Hannah and Cornelius. In 1910, the same Schoonmaker household has “Jane Berger” listed as “mother-in-law”; again, she is the correct age to be Hannah J. Burger. She dies soon after: on her gravestone in New Paltz Rural cemetery, her name is given as “Hannah Jane Benjamin.” (There are graves nearby for Moses Schoonmaker and his wife Mary M. “Burgar,” b. 1860.)

    As for Emma, daughter of Hannah and Cornelius born about 1864, she appears as Emma J. in the 1870 census.

    In the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, along with Hannah and Cornelius, in the same plot, there are graves for George W. Jones, b. 1853, and his wife Jennie Burger, b. 1864.This seems to be Emma J., Cornelius and Hannah’s second daughter. In 1900, the census for Poughkeepsie shows a George Jones, b. 1851, with a wife “Jennie,” born 1864, and this is possibly the same couple. According to the grave, Jennie Burger Jones dies in 1904.

    Jennie was often a nickname for Jane, so it’s possible that Emma J. Burger was “Emma Jane,” and was called Jennie, as distinct from her mother, Hannah Jane, who seemingly was called Jane.

    Interestingly, in the 1880 census where Jane and Jennie Burger are servants, I also find an Alida Burger, age 13, as a servant in the Elting Snyder household in New Paltz. Alida appears in the 1870 census in Cornelius & Hannah’s household as a two-year-old ( has her indexed as “Mides.”), so this could well be Cornelius and Hannah’s third daughter.

    It seems that the family fell on hard times sometime before the 1880 census, and all the women went to work as servants.

    Comment by washergenes — August 23, 2006 @ 11:18 pm |Reply

  4. OK, it makes sense. Thanks for laying it out.

    Comment by Jim — September 13, 2006 @ 3:33 pm |Reply

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