Received a message from a distant relative

I’m afraid the story I have to relate is quite tragic. My interest in genealogy research was inspired, in part, by a longstanding desire to discover the truth behind family stories about the fate of my great grandparents, Ethel Brown and Frank Todd. Their son Norman Todd (my grandfather) died when my mother was very young, and his brother Herbert died in 1973. There was no one to ask for the details of what had happened, and I got the sense growing up that there was a reticence to discuss it. When I began my research, I didn’t know the name of Ethel’s second husband, when or where she had died, or whether the story about her death was true. Frank Todd’s death in Hoquiam, Washington was another mystery, and the circumstances of both were my primary research interest.

As you likely already know, Ethel was born in London and moved to Washington with her parents in the early 1880s. Her father Harris worked at a sawmill, which is perhaps how Ethel and her sister Alice Kate met the Todd brothers: Frank and Otis.  Alice Kate married Otis in 1895, and Ethel and Frank married two years later. Frank and Ethel lived with their two sons at various logging camps, where a number of labourers lived and worked under Frank’s supervision. Ethel acted as bookkeeper and cook, and apparently as a kind of mother figure to the men at the camps. Growing up I had heard that Frank was killed breaking up a fight at a tavern in Hoquiam Washington. That turns out not to be true. He was bludgeoned to death in their wood shed in the early hours of September 1, 1907. I have found quite a few newspaper articles reporting on the murder, which was evidently quite a sensational story in the northwest at the time. It has been quite some time since I read these articles, so I won’t attempt to recreate the story too much here.

Just to summarize, shortly after the murder a camp labourer named Albert Strong confessed to the sheriff and hung himself in his cell. Subsequently it was proven that he could not possibly have committed the murder, and he may have confessed as a result of an alcohol-fueled delusion of some kind. A second man, Albert Normal, was also suspected. He was another camp labourer, going by the alias Richard Steele. It emerged that he had some kind of relationship with Ethel, and had killed Frank Todd as a result of his fixation on her. Although she did not come forward right away, Ethel later admitted that she had known it was Steele that killed her husband. It was reported that she was afraid of him and had cooperated with the sheriff on the promise that she would never be left alone with Steele. If I am remembering correctly, Ethel had several meetings with Steele with the Sheriff McKinney and his men hiding nearby. The sheriff was shot at a few days after the last of these meetings, and Steele was suspected. He was arrested, and shortly afterward hung himself in his cell.

The newspaper articles I found make it clear what a sensational case it was, and that Ethel’s reputation in her community was ruined. The case was tied up in local political skirmishes over the election of the Hoquiam sheriff, and it was widely reported on. My mother and I found the portrayal of Ethel in the coverage to be quite sensationalistic and less than fair. It is not difficult for us to believe that she acted out of fear and not malice. One of the articles mentions that Ethel moved her two sons to her parent’s house in Hoquiam, and that is where I find the boys when the census was taken in 1910. Ethel was not listed.

Just to stick to the chronology, it seems to me that Albert Brodhagen was married to an Emma Emerson in Traverse City, Michigan – and that she died in October of 1910. I cannot find any marriage record for Albert and Ethel in Washington or Alberta (these may not be online), but Albert was living with Ethel and her boys in Victoria, Alberta when the census was taken there in 1911. By 1916 they had moved to a farm outside of Vermillion, Alberta, which is the place I heard about my grandfather living as a child. Unfortunately, what my grandmother (Norman Todd’s wife) told us was that it was an unhappy household, and that Albert was a violent man and a heavy drinker. On a least one occasion he apparently threatened Norman with a shot gun. It pains me to relate this detail to Leonard and Kenneth’s family, but I hope you’ll agree that it is a credible one and provides some context for what follows.

My grandmother told us that Norman and Herb left as soon as they were able to, and that Ethel subsequently ran away from her husband’s abuse and got a job at an inn in British Columbia. The story went that her husband tracked her down there and shot and killed her. My grandmother could not remember the name of the town or Albert’s name, but I was able to find both through Ethel’s death record and a newspaper clipping from the day after she died. On February 12th in 1921, Albert took a train to Yahk, British Columbia. He walked into the kitchen of the inn where Ethel worked and shot her and then himself. The news article referred to him as her ‘divorced’ husband. I’ve attached it here and taken a clipping of the same small article as well.

1921 Todd Brodhagen clipping - Copy

We had no idea that my great grandmother had two younger boys by her second husband. I can see from the border crossing record that they left Winnipeg in April of 1921 on their way to Traverse City, accompanied by a family friend. It is very sad to think of them losing both their parents when Leonard was 9 and Kenneth just 5 years old. From there I saw that Leonard was living with an aunt and Kenneth with an uncle in 1930 in Traverse City. My mother and I have wondered about them and whether or not they kept in any kind of touch with their half-brothers or with their grandparents in Washington. We hoped that they had happy lives and were well taken care of.

1921 Lethbridge Daily – Copy

When I was younger, I hoped that I would be able to find out where Ethel was buried so that I could bring flowers to her grave. It always bothered me to think of her alone and forgotten in that remote place. I still plan to do that someday. I found it difficult to write this sad history. Genealogy is really a labour of love, and I know this is not what Albert’s descendants would hope to discover. I can only say that I imagine that it was a very difficult life for them, trying to start over by farming in the prairies. For people without a background in farming, it would have been very difficult. Funnily enough, in relating this to you I have better understood the reticence that my grandparents felt in talking about my grandfather’s family. I feel it myself, even though I believe it is best to tell the truth and let others discover their family’s history as much as possible.

I don’t yet know much about Herbert Todd, but my grandfather Norman put himself through university and became a Baptist minister in Brandon, Manitoba. He had a radio show on the CBC here in Canada called ‘The Baptist Hour’ and married a nurse. Unfortunately, he was only 56 when he died, but he had a happy family with three kids.


One thought on “Received a message from a distant relative”

  1. Kenneth and Leonard both went on to have good lives. Each married and would have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Leonard would come to work for Gilmore in Kalamazoo, MI. Sponsors of Gilmore Foyt Racing with A.J. Foyt, Gilmore Communications, Gilmore Brothers Stores and Gilmore Festival.

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