Saturday, January 4, 2014

52 Ancestors: #1 A Second Look at the Life of Susan Bliss

This blog post was inspired by Amy Johnson Crow 's "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks" challenge.  Learn more at her blog.

In all the research I have done into the lives of my ancestors, never have I uncovered such a chronic set of poor circumstances than those of Susan Bliss.  There is just something about her life story that is so sad, but brings up so many questions.

She was born in 1838 in Pennsylvania, and married Jacob Givens there.  Three children were born to them - Ella, Josephine, and a little boy, who lived such a short time that, except for Ella's obituary, there's no trace of him.  And they would lose little Josephine within a few years.

About 1865, Jacob, Susan, and Ella came to Princeville, Illinois, where Jacob was a wagon-maker for O'Brien Brothers.  When the company expanded operations to Kewanee, Illinois, Jacob took his wife and daughter there, but he contracted typhoid fever and died.  Susan moved back to Princeville, where several of her siblings had made their home.

Two years later, Susan married William T. Lair, a young farmer and Civil War veteran.

William had no children of his own, but apparently was close to Susan's daughter Ella, who named one of her sons after him, and William provided for Ella in his will.  A young man by the name of Franklin Stallman also made his home with William and Susan, and shortly before his death, William added a codicil to his will stating that he considered Franklin "a member of my own family."  Franklin was also an heir in the will, provided he stayed with Susan after William's death, and that he contributed to her support.

During William's Civil War service, he contracted a "lung disease" from sleeping on damp ground and in swamps.  The last two years of his life, he was unable to perform any manual labor.  He did, however, own properties in Princeville.  William died in 1877.

By this time, Susan's daughter Ella had left home and married; Franklin Stallman, whom William considered one of his own family, was gone.  Seven months later, Susan married prominent druggist and grocer Solomon Bliss.  I found Franklin Stallman in the 1880 census, and he was in the home of Susan's sister Sarah, listed as her grandson.  I was surprised to see that he was just 12 years old.

1896 would be a difficult year for Susan.  Her third husband Solomon Bliss would die in September, but prior to that, it appears, trouble was brewing.  The Bureau of Pensions received an anonymous letter from someone in Princeville accusing Susan of pension fraud.  That anonymous person, who later was revealed to be a man named D. M. Potts, stated that Susan had been drawing a pension on the service of her husband William Lair, and had continued drawing it after her marriage to prominent businessman Solomon Bliss.  The letter alleges that she was still using the name "Lair" and getting her mail in nearby Peoria.  An agent was sent to Princeville to investigate.

Three men seemed to be the most knowledgeable about the situation: D. M. Potts, Fred Gladfelter, and J. A. Pratt.  All three were interviewed under oath.  Potts said he had no firsthand knowledge, only that there was "considerable talk" among the people of their small town.

Gladfelter did a fair amount of backpedaling in his testimony.  His only firsthand knowledge, he said, was that he heard Susan's sister remark that it was odd that some soldiers' widows got $12 a month pension, and others (which he inferred to mean Susan) got only $8. 

Pratt said the bulk of his knowledge on the subject came from Gladfelter.  Gladfelter told him that his sister, Susan Tarbox, who lived with Susan for a time, told him that Susan Bliss was drawing the pension and getting her mail in Peoria.

While Potts and Gladfelter signed their testimonies, Pratt refused.

After all was said and done, it appears that Susan never received a pension at any time, let alone committed pension fraud.*

However, Susan's headaches with the Bureau of Pensions was just beginning.  Solomon Bliss died in 1896, and perhaps he didn't have as much money as generally thought, or perhaps Susan went through it quickly.  But in 1901, she applied for a widow's pension from William Lair's Civil War service.  Apparently bureaucratic red tape was alive and well in the early 1900s, as it took 2 years for her to receive an official rejection letter based on the fact that she was not William's wife during his military service.  Appeals were filed.  Reading over the correspondence between the Bureau and Susan was frustrating and heartbreaking.  Numerous affidavits were given by men who served with William, testifying about his health both before and after his military service, and his lung problems in general.  The government chastised Susan for not providing William's death certificate, though Illinois did not require them in 1877, and no such document existed.  The same documents and affidavits were required of Susan over and over again.  In a letter dated Jan. 2, 1906, Susan states, "while I would not wish to be troublesome to the Department, yet I am very anxious that some action be taken in my case.  I am an aged woman and my health is very poor.  Added to this, I am somewhat in want for the reasonable comforts of life.  I feel if I were to receive anything under my application, I ought to have benefits soon."

Her appeal was finally rejected, again, in January of 1907, this time because she could not prove that William's lung disease was a result of his time spent in the swamps and sleeping on damp ground.  A local attorney came to her aid, and officially questioned the rejection in light of the evidence provided, and on July 23, 1908, received notice that the claim was rejected due to her remarriage.  Unfortunately, it no longer mattered, as Susan had died two weeks earlier.  

As I went through all of this, several thoughts came to mind -

How did Susan go through two estates so quickly?  Were the estates of William Lair and Solomon Bliss not as large as it seemed?

Regarding young Franklin Stallman - how did he come to be in William and Susan Lair's household, and being only nine years old when William added the codicil to his will, how did William expect that Franklin would be able to contribute to Susan's support?  Was William presuming he had much longer to live than he did?  He had been bedridden for the two months' prior to his death. 

Why were some people in Princeville so anxious to conclude Susan was involved in pension fraud?  That the federal government was brought into it based only on conjecture, it would seem that Susan had made enemies.

Regarding her desperate financial condition and poor health when Susan wrote to the Bureau of Pensions - she had written another letter a few months later asking for an update on her appeal, and said that friends and neighbors were concerned about her living alone, but that she had no money to pay anyone to stay with her.  She did not mention that her family was concerned, just friends and neighbors.  Considering that her daughter, and numerous siblings still lived in this small town, it seems that someone could have taken her in.  Was her family not involved with her, and if so, why?  Did she deliberately not mention her family in that letter, and if so, why?

These are all questions that I have little hope of answering, but you never know! 


*The official investigation concluded that if Susan had received a widow's pension, $8 would have been the appropriate amount, but the investigator never cited any records of a pension, which I found odd.  He also concluded that if Susan were receiving a pension after William's death, it would have gone up to $12.  It seems like it would have been an easy matter to consult the Bureau's own records.  In addition, in one of her appeals, Susan asked to collect a widow's pension for the time between William's death and her remarriage to Solomon Bliss, but was told that she did not meet the criteria, so it seems unlikely that she was ever able to receive any monies.


  1. For someone supposedly struggling financially, she has a nice tombstone. Interesting story, and I can see why Susan continues to fascinate you.

  2. Thanks, Wendy, good point about the tombstone. It's large... and not cheap, I'm sure.

  3. Possible pension fraud seems to be a common thread between our ancestors. I, too, have a story that fascinates me: Why was his first wife still living when J. J. Moncrief die? Did the marriage between Moncrief and Sally Everett really take place? It seems I find one answer and have two more new questions!

  4. Fascinating story. I hope your're able to get some answers someday.