There are two ancestors in my family tree that I continue to revisit whenever I’m up for a challenge. One of those is Walter H. Bell (1881-1934), my great-grandfather. Chipping away at Walter’s past has been tricky but fascinating. He moved all over the country during his life. It seems he had three or four wives, my great-grandmother being the last of these, and at least three children all in different states, but a lot remains unknown. The mystery of his life before meeting my great-grandmother just draws me back to research again and again.
Walter was born in Illinois in 1881 to parents of Quaker descent from Pennsylvania. As a teenager his father won a contract as an architect for the Montana State Capitol and moved the family to Helena, Montana. As a young man of 24 years, with some experience as a bank clerk under his belt, Walter set out on his own in Minneapolis in 1906. He took a job as a traveling sales rep at the Kettle River Quarries Company and traveled to surrounding states to propose paving project to city councils in the region.
Through research, I have learned a lot about Walter’s first wife, Anna Marguerite Hertel (1882-1921), who was born to German parents in Minneapolis. Walter and Anna probably met because her older sister worked as a receptionist at the same company where Walter worked. As a traveling salesman, I have no doubt that Walter’s charm and charisma won her over despite her parents’ disapproval. The couple became engaged a few months later. Although Anna was 24 years old, her parents’ opinion of her fiance kept them from getting married for several months.
By studying death and census records, I learned that Anna suffered from tuberculosis for many years, and likely did before she met Walter. Newspaper social columns show that as a young woman she frequently traveled to places popular for improving health. Using this ailment to their advantage, in January 1907 the couple concocted a ruse with the help of Anna’s doctor. The conspirator suddenly decided Anna needed to travel to Montana for her health.
Anna departed Minneapolis for Great Falls, Montanta on January 5th and her parents expected her to remain for three months. Unbeknownst to Anna’s parents, Walter arrived in Great Falls on a train the following morning and the couple eloped on January 7, 1907.
This is where the newspaper account seems to get things a little wrong. It says that Walter’s brother Emlen was married on the same day and they returned together, however, the marriage records show that Walter was a witness to his brother’s marriage in Helena. This suggests that the newlyweds made a quick trip from Great Falls to Helena on January 8th and attended the marriage on the 9th before both couples returned to Minneapolis together on the 10th.
Although the couple shared a whirlwind romance, unfortunately, wedded bliss wasn’t long-lived for Walter and Anna. Their daughter, Claudia Margaret/Marguerite Bell was born in December 1907 but by 1910 Walter is living in a New Jersey rooming house and working in New York. The census says he’s been married to another woman for 2 years, although I have not been able to identify her beyond the first name in the census. In the 1910 census Anna is living with her parents while raising her daughter and still using the surname Bell but she is listed as “widowed.” In the 1920 census Claudia is living with her grandparents but Anna is now living in a tuberculosis hospital and is listed as “divorced.” The story came to a tragic conclusion when Anna died in 1921 at the age of 39 and is buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Did any of your ancestors elope? I’d love to hear the story in the comments below.