Casefile Clues

09 March 2014

An 1887 Suicide in Coffman's Harmony Township Barn

The first two images I have had for some time, it is just now that I sat down, put them together and realized what the solution was--at least in part.

20 September 1887 letter [partial] written by Noentje Lena Ufkes
 of Basco, Hancock County, Illinois
In 1887, great-great-grandma Noentje (Grass) Ufkes writes a letter to her husband's sister's family in Nebraska. Must of the letter is local news of fellow Ostfriesens. Noentje mentions that Dirk Frieden shot himself in the barn of Enne Kofffman and that an "English" girl is mourning. Frieden does not appear to have been a relative, but the nature of his death piqued my interest.

There is no indication in the letter of precisely when the shooting took place, but it is reasonable to assume that it took place relatively close to when Noentje wrote the letter, maybe as early as the spring of 1887, but probably (an assumption) not before 1887.

Quincy Daily Journal mention of Fayen suicide
from 6 September 1887
The Quincy Daily Journal of 6 September 1887 contains a mention of an event that most likely is the one to which Noentje is referring.

The the last name of the landowner is the same, but the other names are slighly different. However, it would be odd for there to have been two Coffman farmers both of whom had men shoot themselves in their employer's barn in September of 1887.

Newspapers are notorius for getting the names of low-Germans incorrect, so I concluded that the names as written in Noentje's letter were correct. However, there is an A. K. Coffman living in Harmony Township, Hancock County, Illinois, in 1880 and enumerated as a farmer.


While I did not perform a manual search of all the entire area near where Noentje Ufkes lived and did not come close to searching all of "near Carthage," I believe this is the individual in whose barn the suicide took place.

1880 U S Census, Hancock County, Illinois,
Harmony Township, Enumeration District 71, page 8D

The name matches the newspaper account. The last name is the same as the one in the Ufkes letter and Harmony Township is adjacent to Bear Creek Township in which Ufkes was living in 1887. It also seems probable that this A. K. Coffman is the one to whom the newspaper is referring seven years later. In fact, the farm on which Ufkes lived is on the extreme eastern border of Bear Creek Township--which borders Harmony Township. A plat map would confirm how "close" to the Ufkes family Coffman lived (or at least owned property), but it really doesn't matter where in Harmony Township he lived in the context of this problem--as it's all close to where Ufkes lived and close enough that any news would have reached the family fairly quickly.

Especially news of the suicide of an apparent fellow Ostfriesen.

But what of Enne Koffman to which Noentje Ufkes refers?

My working premise is that Noentje "translated" A. J. Coffman's first name (or perhaps his initials) to the closest low-German name she could. English speaking census takers translated names when taking the census. It is not a stretch to imagine German language letter writers doing the same thing, especially when the letter was written entirely in German.

At least now I know where the suicide took place. I still have more research to do on this event in local papers to see if there's any mention of the story behind the newspaper's use of the phrase "killing the farmer and marrying the widow" or Noentje's mention of "English" girl who is mourning.

The Quincy, Illinois, newspaper reference is not local, but finding it will help me search local papers which are not digitized and will require a manual search.

Genealogical Lessons:

  • Don't assume the newspaper is wrong.
  • Anyone can translate any name--even in atypical directions.
  • Newspapers a distance from the event may still contain a mention of the event. In this case that allowed me to get a date I could use to search other papers.