January 2011, Edition 70 Jerrems Family Newsletter
Reaching out to the Past
Dear Donald,

This edition fills a gap in the family tree: the stepsons of James Jerrems in the late 1800's.

Next month we will get the annual report from Angie, the guardian angel of the Jerrems family. The Colbrook brothers could have benefited from her guidance.

Ray Jerrems with Research and Recollections by Sandra Walcyk    

This article is one of a series of articles about the Jerrems family's Civil War veterans and their families. It follows on from the article in the November 2010 Jerrems Journal about Robert Colbrook, the Civil War veteran, railway employee and stepson of James Jerrems. It covers the lives of Robert's children, Robert and Benjamin, drawing upon information garnered by Sandra from various sources.

It is not the story of heroism and the overcoming of adversity so common in my stories. Instead it is a sad Dickensian story of two little boys who got off to a bad start in life through no fault of their own, probably as the result of the effects of the Civil War on their father and the early death of their mother. They had colourful careers, as you will see.

The boys are born and later go to an orphanage

Robert Colbrook, Jr. was born on 20th September 1873 and Benjamin J. Colbrook in April 1875. As outlined in the previous article we are not sure who their mother was. Presumably their mother died when they were young. They are shown in the 1880 Census (at the tender ages of six and four) as living at the House of the Good Shepherd in Utica, a home for orphans and wayward children. It is sad to think of two little boys living in an institution at their age.

Perhaps after Robert Sr.'s first wife died his work as a brakeman on the Black River Railroad made it difficult for him to look after the boys, and his relatives (for instance his two married sisters Sarah and Harriet) could not take them in (as was done so often in those days), so they were sent to the home. Sadly, Benjamin was still in the orphanage in 1885 (see later), so it does not seem that when Robert Snr remarried in 1881 he and his second wife (Sarah) took the boys back in. It is of course possible that Robert was taken back, but Benjamin was not.
The House of the Good Shepherd

The website of the House of the Good Shepherd (which is still in existence, but with a much broader role) tells us that the orphanage dates back to 1872 when, during the post-Civil War period, there were growing numbers of orphans and an increased disruption in family life in Central New York.

In response to this need, a small group of concerned men and women gathered together on February 8, 1872 to establish "an asylum for children in Central New York that would provide a permanent home for the infirm and a temporary shelter for the friendless, neglected and destitute without making their surrender to the institution a prerequisite to their admission." It opened its doors to two children and a matron on May 11, 1873, at a rented house in Utica.

The orphanage obviously grew quickly, because the 1880 Census listed 50 children.

Benjamin's life

I will start with Benjamin, the younger brother, because his life is the easiest to summarise.

The next record of Benjamin after the 1880 Census is where we find him in October 1885 in the Utica City Court, charged with larceny in the third degree (indicating that a comparatively small amount of money was involved because penalties were graded into three categories, larceny in the first degree being the highest) from the House of the Good Shepherd, following which he was committed to the Western House of Refuge For Juvenile Delinquents (see photo) in Rochester, 130 miles to the west of Utica. It seems to me to be terribly sad that a mere nine year old lad was subjected to being charged in an adult's court and sent to a reformatory for older boys.

Benjamin the bridge builder

When he joined the Army at the age of 24 (see later) Benjamin described himself as a "Bridge Builder". Although this occupation sounds grandiose to us he would have meant that at the time of enlistment he worked as a carpenter or bricklayer building bridges, possibly on the numerous railways in the area, on roads or on the offshoots of the Erie Canal).

It is likely that Benjamin was trained at the reformatory and left it at the age of about fourteen.

Utica was a growing city, a person having the necessary experience to be a bridge builder would have readily found work in other types of construction projects and in Utica factories.

Benjamin's work as a bridge builder would have been quite fulfilling, using his building skills, with the "social" component that although he did not have any family he would probably have been working in a construction gang .
Benjamin joins the Army

In August 1899 at the age of 24 Benjamin (of 106 Whitesboro Street Utica) emulated his father by signing up in Utica for the army, joining the 41st Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was being trained in Pennsylvania.

This seems to indicate that Benjamin had mended his ways otherwise he would probably not have been accepted for the US Army.

When he enlisted Benjamin's statistics were shown as "RC, blue eyes, black hair, dark complexion, height 5 ft 7". In later hospital records he showed his residential address as Syracuse (about 90 km west of Utica) where he possibly boarded, and his marital status as being single.

Why did he join the Army?

I described the background to the Spanish-American War in the September 2010 Journal.

One reason Benjamin signed up could have been a sense of patriotism. The patriotism felt by the public had been fuelled by the Press. However his childhood spent in institutions had been very proscribed and the Army offered the prospects of regular employment, a worthy cause and the opportunity to "see the world". Another component could have been his lack of family roots.

It would be nice to think that the two lads were reunited in their adulthood, but I doubt if this happened, at least for any substantial period. The two brothers had been sent to different institutions in different cities during their childhood and may not have seen each other for some years. Although Benjamin had later returned to his city of birth (Utica) his brother Robert seems to have stayed in cities to the west (see later), often as a guest of the Government. However it seems that they kept in touch to a certain degree (presumably by letter) because when he signed up he nominated Robert as his next of kin, giving Robert's address as Ashtabula, Ohio.

Benjamin was discharged from the Army in San Francisco in June 1901, so it is very likely that (like Billy Bohling, described in a September 2010 journal article) he served in the Philippines with 125,000 other soldiers. He must have liked Army service because the next year (April 1902) he rejoined the Army for another stint as a private and was appointed to a Coastal Artillery Unit (probably operating in Florida, where he received his discharge), where he served for 3 years in what must have necessarily been a very routine existence. The objective of the Artillery Unit would have been to protect the United States against a very unlikely attack from enemy ships.

Aftermath of the American-Spanish War

This was an interesting time in the history of the United States. These artillery defenses were designed to protect the US from attacks from the Spanish Navy, who never obliged by attacking Florida. As outlined in my earlier article, in 1898 the US had invaded Cuba and defeated the Spanish navy, leading to the US taking Cuba and the Phillipines from Spain. Presumably the US wanted to guard against potential retaliation from Spain, however the US also embarked on a big program of naval build-up which culminated in the assembling of the "Big White Fleet".

This Fleet, consisting of 14 battleships (painted white for the occasion) and support vessels, toured the world in 1907-8, calling in to Sydney en route. It received a stupendous welcome as it steamed "line-a-stern" up Sydney Harbour. The only time that such a fleet has ever entered the Harbour, it must have been an awesome sight, watched by my great grandfather and his family.
Benjamin after his Army service

Benjamin's military records show that he sustained injuries during his military service. He suffered from a tender cicatrix following an operation, had a hernia operation, and sustained an injury to his left hand resulting in the contraction of the tendons.

Although these were not serious enough to require his early discharge, it seems likely that they (particularly the injury to his hand) would have prevented him from returning to his earlier occupation as a bridge builder.

This is borne out by his subsequent record. We find him in a Home for Disabled Soldiers in Virginia, admitted in 1908. He was also found on the 1910 census in Ohio in a Military Home, and again at a Disabled Soldiers Home in Bath, NY-admitted 1912, discharged 1914.

Having to spend such a long time in such institutions in his 30s must have been a sad time for Benjamin, no doubt reminding him of his childhood years in orphanages and reformatories. Instead of being able to work outdoors as a fit young man as a bridge builder he was classified as disabled, with its limitations regarding future financial and social prospects.

Finally he was granted a pension in 1915, no doubt due to his medical situation. Not long after, he entered a veterans' village for Spanish-American veterans-at Sandusky, Ohio, on Lake Erie, where he was appointed as the village's historian and married.

Benjamin finally marries

Within the next few years Benjamin finally married and lived with his wife in the veterans' village, which was in an area known locally by the imaginative name of "Homeville". He worked as a waiter in the dining room of the Soldiers Home, no doubt finding this gave him a welcome addition to his war pension. Readers would consider that Benjamin had finally found his niche.

He was financially secure, had married, lived in a house with his wife, and lived in a community where he fitted in very well. But there were ominous clouds on the horizon. Benjamin and his 44 year old wife (like most people at the village, according to newspaper reports of activities in the village) obviously liked a drink or two to ward off the winter cold.

In January 1916 after an all-night celebration with some other veterans a fight broke out after Benjamin had gone off to work in the morning. Mrs Colbrook was hit on the head with a hatchet and was rushed to hospital in a confused state which was attributed by the medicos to the blow on her head (but in retrospect was probably due also to her intoxicated condition).

She blamed a Mr Dolan for the injury, with the rather fanciful story that he had come to the house to rob her and she was defending herself, and he was initially charged with attacking her. He reciprocated by saying that she had actually attacked him at the party.

The judge decided fairly quickly (and possibly somewhat charitably) that everybody was so drunk that nobody knew what had happened at the party, so he gave Dolan the benefit of the doubt. However the village management was far less charitable, the upshot being that Benjamin resigned from the village (possibly under pressure), and Dolan was kicked out. Although from one perspective the circumstances at the party had their humorous aspect, one would surmise that this was a tragic turn of events for Benjamin. He had through events beyond his control lost his home, a source of income, and his extended family of veterans. One would hope that he was able to move to another area with his wife and start again. However we have no further information about him despite searches of veterans' records, newspapers (perhaps a good thing!), the 1920 and 1930 Censuses and the US Social Security Death Index.

Robert Jnr falls foul of the law

We now go back to Benjamin's older brother Robert. Our next records of Robert Jnr after the 1880 Census (when he was in the House of the Good Shepherd orphanage with his brother Benjamin) are a series of newspaper articles. It seems that at the age of about 15 Robert and a friend had decided to emulate Robin Hood by going on a spree of burgling the "poor boxes" in churches in Utica. In those days the churches kept "poor boxes" where donations were specifically made to help the poor. Helping himself to church funds was not therefore a good PR exercise on Robert's part, and for this peccadillo the wrath of the law descended on him. He and his friend were sentenced to 3 years jail, quite a hefty sentence.

Robert breaks out of jail and is later charged for this

A number of newspapers devoted articles to a daring jail break-out in Rochester, in which Robert and his friend participated, in 1892. After he escaped he served a three year sentence in another town for a robbery in that town, but after his release he was re-arrested for the jail-break in Rochester. Here is how the Rochester Democrat Chronicle of 3rd September 1896 described the situation (there were a lot of earlier verbose newspaper accounts, but I have chosen the simplest one):

Robert Colbrook, who has just been discharged after serving a three year's term in the State Reformatory at Elmira [NY], for burglarising St. Michael's Church, was brought to this city yesterday by Deputy Sheriff Hawley. He was arrested on the charge of breaking jail, and the event recalls not only one of the most daring jail breaks of recent times, but the history of a number of criminals whose lives demonstrate plainly enough that the way of the transgressor is hard.

Between the hours of midnight and 2 o'clock, Saturday morning, September 24, 1892, seven prisoners escaped from the Monroe County Jai l[NY]. It was one of the cleverest pieces of jail breaking in the history of the State, and was chiefly planned by Clarence Tear, a man of ingenuity and great mechanical skill as a locksmith. The seven men were Clarence Tear, Richard Gardner, Eugene Day, John B. Davis, Ed. Johnson, Robert Colbrook and James Crawford. Crawford and Colbrook were boys who were arrested for breaking into and stealing from the Church of the Immaculate Conception. But the whole escape was planned and carried into execution by Tear, who was one of the cleverest criminals in the country.

He picked the lock to his cell with a lead key attached to two sticks fastened together at right angles. He put the key through the bars and got it in to the key hole from the outside, and by means of the sticks worked the key around so that it turned the lock. He then released Day, Gardner, Colbrook and Crawford. Finally Davis was released and the men sawed the bars from a window, dropped into the jail yard fifteen feet below, and scaled a fifteen-foot wall, and made their escape.

Robert obviously made an error of judgement (to say the least) in joining the principal escapees. The imposing four storey jail (see photo) had only been built seven years earlier, so one can imagine the annoyance of the jail authorities when they heard that there had been an escape from their imposing "state of the art" jail.

The State Reformatory at Elmira was a maximum security reformatory 150 miles SW of Utica.

Robert registers for the First World War

In his Army enlistment application in 1899 Benjamin showed Robert's residence as being in Ohio. We then have a gap until Robert registered for the World War I in Pennsylvania, presumably because he was required to register rather than because he wanted to serve in France at the age of about 43. He describes himself as being single, and his occupation as "crane operator" working at a foundry in Erie, Pennsylvania.

In a somewhat curious entry he shows his closest relative to be a J. Austin Springer of Albany (not his brother Benjamin), who was about a year older than Robert and is shown as a musician (piano and organ) in early Censuses and later as a music teacher. The City Directory lists him as the organist at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany. Perhaps Robert had seen the error of his ways and had joined the Presbyterian Church?

Robert in Alms House

Like his brother Benjamin, Robert seems to have been doomed to spend his days in institutions. Several years later we find Robert in Berks County Almshouse in Pennsylvania. An Alms House is another name for a Poor House, where destitute men and women were accommodated. The Berks County Almshouse was a farm (see photo), so he could have done a lot worse. In return for free board and lodging the inmates carried out a range of tasks (in the case of men, labouring on the farm, repairing or building furniture etc), the proceeds of which went to the Alms House. Local benefactors and churches donated funds to these Houses, somewhat of an irony in the case of Robert when one remembers that he was originally jailed for burgling Church poor boxes and later broke into a church after escaping from jail. The curtain probably falls on Robert's life

Sadly, Robert is shown in the 1920 Census (at the age of about 47) to be in Pennsylvania in a TB Sanitorium. This was of course in the days when TB was treated by hospitalizing patients in areas with cool climates in the hope that it would help them (now TB is treated with antibiotics). By the time people with TB were diagnosed and then hospitalised it was probably too late. As noted above, Robert worked earlier in a foundry. Foundries (and similar factories) in those days were very dusty, mainly due to the dust produced by the coal in the coal-fired furnaces used to melt the iron and other metals. If Robert had worked in these conditions for a long time it is quite possible that he contracted a lung disease where the treatment for TB was similar.

Many of our Australian readers will have heard of the large number of sanitoriums set up during and after the First World War to treat soldiers who contracted TB in the terrible conditions in France or were "gassed" (requiring similar treatment).

It is therefore probable that Robert died in the Sanatorium.


I think you will agree that this story is different to my usual "happy ending" theme. Still, it is interesting to occasionally balance the ledger with sad stories.

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