This photograph shows Benjamin F. Stewart (1866-1932) with his grandson, Thomas Calvin Stewart, on 6 June 1932 in their Kingston, New Jersey yard. Benjamin looks plumb worn out, but he was only 65 years old. He died the next month on the 16th of July. His death record stated the cause was stomach cancer. Tom, named after Benjamin’s oldest son, Thomas Robert Stewart, was almost four years old in this picture, born on the 4th of July. The juxtaposition of youthful Tom standing next to his aged grandfather is very striking to me. Benjamin was remembered with great fondness by his grandchildren as a well-mannered man, and that he always called each of them child, instead of calling them by their names.
Benjamin F. Stewart was born on 15 December 1866 in Fulton Township, Lancaster County, PA, near Chestnut Level, the fifth child of Nancy McCollough Stewart. His father, Robert, and his grandfather, William, were also both from Chestnut Level. His father, Robert, was a river pilot on the Susquehanna River near Peach Bottom. When Benjamin was very young the family moved about about twelve miles south into Cecil County, Maryland, to Conowingo. Benjamin and his nine surviving siblings stayed in this area when they grew up, in the small towns on the eastern bank of the Susquehanna River such as Conowingo, Port Deposit, and Oakwood, with a few settling back into southern Lancaster County.
Benjamin married Olive Albert on 28 March 1889 with her father’s written permission, since she had just turned sixteen. They were married at the Zion Lutheran Parsonage in York City, PA. She was from York Haven, in York County, PA. They had a son, Thomas Robert, in 1890, another son, Benjamin Albert, in 1893, and then a daughter, Hazel May, in 1894. At some point Benjamin moved with his wife back to Conowingo, but she was very unhappy and moved home to York Haven, and they separated. The children stayed with Olive and lived with their grandparents, Paris and Susan Albert.
Benjamin was employed in 1900 as a laborer in the paper mills as a paper cutter. Later, he worked as a highway contractor, and also on the construction of the Conwingo Dam, built between 1926-1928. In 1900 he was living with his sister, Sadie Stewart McDougal, and her family in Port Deposit. In 1910 he was still living in Port Deposit, but in a boarding home. In 1920 he lived with sister, Lily Stewart Geisler, in Lancaster, Pa and worked in a linoleum factory. By 1930 he was living with Tom and Lilly Stewart in Kingston, NJ, and worked as a laborer at the Kingston Garage next door for his other son, Benjamin [Federal Census Records found on ancestry.com].
Below are two pictures of the Conowingo Dam on the Cecil County side of the river, taken by the Stewart family in September of 1931. The building of the dam resulted in the submersion of most of the village of Conowingo. The Conowingo Post Office was then relocated to the hill above the dam. Conowingo is a Susquehannock word for “at the rapids”.
Benjamin’s granddaughter, Evelyn, said that her grandfather moved in with her uncle Tom (also called Jake) and her aunt Lilly in the other side of their two-family house in Kingston after he retired and left Conowingo. Evelyn helped me with many names in her old photograph albums. She said, “My grandfather was the nicest old man you could ever know. My grandmother, Olive Albert Stewart, was either murdered and/or drowned when she was young, and then my father and his two siblings were raised by her parents. Olive was considered very beautiful.” Hold the photo album page right there! A murder mystery? We then looked at photos of Olive Albert Stewart’s (1873-1897) gravestone in York Haven, York County, PA taken in the early 1930s. Evelyn showed me the funeral photos of Benjamin F. Stewart, showing where he was buried in the Bethesda Church Cemetery, in Oakwood with his family. Evelyn asked that when my sister and I next did more genealogy research, could we please look into how her grandmother really died.
My sister and I enjoy a genealogy challenge and also a mystery so we started to investigate. A trip with my sister and youngest daughter to the York County Archives, York, PA in 2004, gave us an answer to Olive’s death, but it also raised many more questions. The coroner’s jury ruled the day after her lifeless body was found floating in a pond that her death was a suicide. This was their conclusion, ” . . . Olive E. Stewart, was found dead, that there were no marks of violence appearing on her body, and came to her death upon or about the 24th day of August 1897, by falling into (crossed out) drowning herself in a body of water known as the “settling-pond” of the York Haven Paper Co. while laboring under temporary mental aberration due to the habitual use of opiats and alcoholic stimulants.” To my way of thinking it’s possible that she simply received medication from her own doctor, after suffering from a postpartum depression or “female problems” since drugs like opium, morphine, and cocaine were often prescribed in the late 19th century.
Using the Google Newspaper Archives and also the Library of Congress’ digitized Historic American Newspapers, my sister and I have recently found articles about Olive Albert Stewart’s death in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. newspapers from August 27 and 28, 1897. These indicate that her death could indeed have been murder, and not suicide as the coroner so quickly ruled. The Baltimore American Newspaper, 27 August 1897, page 4, under the headline, “Young Woman Murdered” stated that there were marks of violence on her body, signs of a struggle on the banks, and that her hat and spectacles were found at different locations along the banks of the pond. Olive’s body was identified by two of her brothers who worked at the York Haven Paper Mill. What is known is that all three of Benjamin and Olive’s children claimed they were told that their mother was murdered. She was buried close to her childhood home at the Cassel Church Cemetery, York Haven, PA. Benjamin never remarried. From his wife’s gravestone is this epitaph: Tho thou are gone / And thy form lies mouldering / In death still Olive fond / Memory clings to thee. – Gladfelter.