Led Astray by His Brother?

Mortimer Emerson Rohleder

My great-granduncle’s first bit of misfortune (this week’s prompt) came at birth when he was given the name Mortimer. Poor guy. At least he went by his middle name, but you know at the beginning of each school year the teacher called out for “Mortimer” not realizing the kid called himself Emerson.

Emerson was the baby of the family, born 21 January 1882 in Petersburg, Virginia, the tenth child of Frank William Rohleder (1833-1904) and Susan Ann Elizabeth Gentry (1842-1919). Two sisters and a brother died before he was born; his youngest sister, Susan, died when he was four years old, and his eldest sister, Mary, died when he was 13, leaving three brothers and a sister. (I wrote about his sister, Grace, a couple of weeks ago.)

By 1894, the family had moved to Richmond where Emerson’s father worked as a tailor. Emerson did well in school, making the honor student list. After high school, his education didn’t stop—he took part in a Tuesday evening literary class. Emerson worked as a shipping clerk at B. F. Johnson Publishing Company in Richmond. After his father died, the family moved to another residence and Emerson started working for Stieff Piano Store.

In October 1905, Emerson was part of the original Richmond Choral Society, singing bass and serving as one of the librarians. The backbone of the group was the combined choirs of First Presbyterian Church and Grace Episcopal Church. The conductor of the newly-formed musical group, Dr. W. H. O. McGehee, was the director of music at the two churches. The first performance was in February 1906 and included Bach’s Sleepers Wake (Cantata No. 140) and Schubert’s The Song of Miriam (D. 942).

As the baby in the family, Emerson had four older siblings to look after him and influence him in different ways. Dick and Grace were lawyers, and Andrew was a clerk for the railroad. His eldest brother, Joe, probably wasn’t the best role model, always getting into trouble: getting arrested and suing people, for example. But Joe’s occupation was the one Emerson took to heart, working in the real estate and investment fields for much of his adult life.

Photo of Emerson in a Richmond, Virginia, newspaper article in March 1907.

An article from The Times-Dispatch issue of 31 March 1907 titled “J. A. Connelly & Co., Young, Hustling Firm” describes Emerson:

“Mr. M. Emerson Rohleder, who looks after the rental department and assists in the matter of selling and buying, is a hustler, and has the reputation of being one of the most affable and successful collectors on the streets. He is a growing business man, and some day will make a decided mark in the real estate realm.”

The article also provided a photograph of Emerson. This was in an age where the word “hustle” didn’t have the negative connotations it does today.

The 1910 census doesn’t list Emerson as living with his mother, but the Richmond City Directory for that year does. He may have been living on his own before he moved back in with his mother and sister. Ethel Applegarth lived next door. In the next couple of years Emerson became a Notary Public and opened Smith & Rohleder, a real estate company, with Walter F. Smith.

On 2 January 1913 Emerson married the girl next door, Ethel Applegarth. They had a quiet wedding at Grace Episcopal Church. Nine months later, on 14 September, their son was born and named after his father. (I suppose Emerson wasn’t that displeased with his name after all.)

The year 1916 marked the beginning of several moves for Emerson and his family, and probably the start of the road to misfortune. He moved his family to Norfolk, where he worked as a clerk and lived in the Hotel Norfolk. Joe may have been living in Norfolk as well, but it’s hard to know if the J. L. Rohleder listed is Emerson’s brother. In 1917 the family is in Washington, D. C.

In 1918 Ethel worked briefly for the Government Printing Office as a skilled laborer, and Emerson was a salesman with J. W. Holloway Co, a real estate firm. When he registered for the draft that year, he listed his address as the same as the firm, but a different room; Ethel’s address, however, is listed as Cambridge, Maryland. Maybe he stayed in the city during the week and commuted across the bay on the weekends.

In 1919 misfortune struck. Emerson was living in New London, Connecticut, and declared bankruptcy in June. He had many creditors and a claim of $10,000, from his co-endorsement on a note with Walter Smith. His mother died in August. It was not a good year for Emerson.

At some point he returned to Washington, D. C. and moved in with his sister Grace. In 1921 he worked for the audit dept. lab. That job lasted a while and he was able to move out of his sister’s place and into the New Commercial Hotel in 1922. By 1926 the family moved to Baltimore where Emerson worked as a salesman. Eventually he became a manager at Thomas B. Hutchinson & Co. In 1929 he was self-employed at Emerson Investments, selling stocks. He was still selling stocks at the time of the 1930 census, but that may not have lasted very long.

Not much information is available for Emerson for the next decade. His sister Grace died in 1933, brother Joe died in 1937, and brother Dick died in 1942. Emerson’s paper trail picks up again in 1942 where we find him in Baltimore working as a chief clerk for the Federal Works Agency. His last sibling, brother Andrew, died in 1950. Emerson died in Washington, D. C. on 29 Dec 1951 at the age of 69.

I hope my affable uncle Emerson, who liked singing and literature, found some peace and stability in his later years.


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2 Responses to Led Astray by His Brother?

  1. Pingback: My Immigrant Ancestor | Leafy Vines

  2. Pingback: The Universal Language | Leafy Vines

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