Family Secrets

June 24, 2010

“Every family has secrets. It’s what we do with them that counts.”
—Kay Elizabeth, Editor/Owner, The Cuckleburr Times

A few months ago I read an intriguing, at times heartbreaking, book called Annie’s Ghost, by Steve Luxenberg. It’s the story of his mother and how she hid the existence of her disabled sister throughout most of their lives.

The story initially caught my attention because it takes place in Detroit. My attention then grew to fascination because Luxenberg comes through with this ace investigative journalism—as well he should since he’s an associate editor at The Washington Post.

Luxenberg’s methodical research into his family’s secret interests me because we too have a family secret—unanswered questions that I would love to further investigate.

And like Luxenberg, who at times questioned revealing his mother’s secret, I too have been unsure of what to do with information many of my family members already know, but others do not.

Here’s a quote from Luxenberg’s blog. It’s the comment a reader made to him, and I’m taking it as my cue.

“I was talking about your book at a family gathering, and it led to a conversation about some family secrets that we had always avoided discussing. Thanks for making it safe for us to talk about things that we needed to bring out.”

—Comment made to Steve Luxenberg from reader of Annie’s Ghost

So here goes…

Years ago, there was an afternoon when three generations of my maternal family sat reflecting on the past—my grandmother Ruth, my mother Carol and I. We talked about things we remembered, some of them funny, some of them not so much. Naturally, I was intrigued by the story of Ruth’s father, Carl Hooge, who was a Chicago policeman and shot in the line of duty.

After our time together, my mom was upset. In private, she told me Ruth’s father was indeed shot in the line of duty, but there were rumors he wasn’t shot by someone else. He shot himself.

Does Grandma know this, I wondered?

My mother didn’t think so, and she wanted it to stay that way. She was insistent that Ruth be allowed to keep the noble image she’d always had of her father.

Well, it’s been more than 15 years since that afternoon together. My dear mother Carol died in 1999. And Ruth died seven years later at the wondrous age of 97. As far as we know, Ruth always believed her father was shot in the line of duty.

So what of those rumors? Are they true?

After reading Annie’s Ghost, I emailed Steve Luxenberg. He emailed me back. He even called. What a super guy!

Steve offered many helpful suggestions on how to research Carl Hooge’s death. He also did a little looking himself—apparently the reporter in him couldn’t resist. He sent me a Chicago Daily Tribune article, dated June 13, 1917, which reads:

Policeman Carl Hooge of Deering Street Station, 36 years old, 5340 South Wood Street, shot himself in the head while on duty at the South Halsted Street bridge yesterday. He died at the People’s hospital. A sealed letter to his wife will be opened at the inquest today.

Policeman Martin McFadden, who went to relieve him at 6 o’clock in the evening, found him in the bridge shanty shot. Hooge’s revolver lay beside him.

“So long, old pal,” Hooge murmured as he sank into unconsciousness.

No cause for the suicide is known to his comrades of the Deering Street station, where he had served four years.

—Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Jun 13, 1917;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 – 1986) pg. 17

A copy of Carl’s death certificate verifies this same thing and states that the officiating undertaker was Edward Hornburg, Carl’s brother-in-law.

Not too long ago, I called Edward Hornburg’s grandson. Mr. Hornburg is, at the least, a third generation mortician for the Hornburg & Sons Funeral Homes. He’s recently retired and has closed the doors of his family’s business.

Imagine the stories that come with three generations of working with people in their greatest time of need. Perhaps Mr. Hornburg knew something of ours? After all, we are distantly related and stories do get passed along.

Mr. Hornburg, however, said he knew nothing.

I asked if it was possible for Carl’s death to be publicized in the newspaper, yet facts kept so quiet that Ruth never learned of them, even later in life?

“Yes,” he said, in the nicest of ways. “In those days if something seemed disgraceful, they would have just kept it under wraps. They didn’t want to bring shame to themselves, they thought it was a reflection on their family.”

Here’s where the questions start to arise, some of them hypothetical and some of them ethical.

First and foremost, did Carl really shoot himself?

Could it have been a murder and cover-up?

Was it right or wrong for an 8-year-old girl to be safeguarded from the truth? To be allowed to grow up with the confidence that develops when a daughter can idolize her father?

Did Ruth ever know the truth? Did she choose to ignore it? Hide it?

And finally, there’s the question of transparency. Transparency—what a cliché word this is nowadays. We’ve become such an open society and we talk about everything, including family secrets.

Should we talk about ours? Here’s why I think we should.

Of the many possibilities concerning his death, one is that Carl could have suffered from depression. Knowing what we know today of this merciless disease—that it’s a medical condition no different than diabetes or heart disease—it’s important we be aware of our family’s full medical history. Our possible medical history.

Talking about Carl’s death also compels us to think with compassion. We wonder about his life, his work, his agonies. We sympathize with his wife Emma and the decisions forced upon her. Our hearts ache for his children, his daughter—our grandmother.

And finally, Carl’s death is part of Ruth’s story. It’s who she is. It’s what made her to be. It’s our story, as well.

Certainly, there’s no shame in that.

What do you think?


20 Responses to “Family Secrets”

  1. Dave Says:

    A very diplomatic post.

  2. Dave Says:

    Makes you wonder why no one talked about it even though plenty of people knew what happened. Aunt Charlotte told me the story years ago. I always wondered if Grandma’s brother Carl knew the truth as well, since he was older than Grandma.

    You should post the death certificate on your blog.

  3. Ann Says:

    Wow! Amazing story!

    I’d be inclined to tell people, including children, the truth about family happenings. Because it’s always likely children will find out some other way, and that can be painful and shocking.

    When I was eleven or twelve, my sister and I were going through some of my parents’ stored-away treasures (with permission). We found the obituary of my mother and father’s first child, a baby girl who died shortly after birth.

    Both of us were extremely upset, and it took us a long time to get our heads around that we had a deceased sister we’d never heard of.

    And that secret is pretty tame compared to the possible suicide of a father.

    I think if Ruth had found out how her father died it would have been awful for her. And she may in fact have known and just never told anyone.

    But I also know that people in my parents and grandparents generation had different ideas about family stories. I hesitate to judge behavior that took place in a different world.

    But I’m glad that now people are more open.

    • di Says:

      Wow, Ann. I’m wondering how hard it must have been for your parents not to talk about their baby. Would they have talked about her amongst themselves? It must have been a great joy for them when you were born.

      I also can’t imagine learning of an unknown sibling. Did you have a different feeling about yourself, knowing you weren’t the oldest?

      I agree with your statement about not passing judgement. I think most people try to do their best, given the time and situation in which they live.

  4. Terri Says:

    I agree with Dave – a diplomatic post. :-)

    I feel that Grandma probably knew, (when? I don’t know) but she either chose to ignore it, didn’t believe it, or she wanted to preserve her father’s good name for his descendants. Who knows, maybe it was Great Grandma who tried to keep it all a secret!

    It would have been very traumatizing to explain suicide to an 8 year-old, especially knowing how mental illness and suicide were thought of back in those days.

    But now, I feel it’s time to air the family secrets. Knowing does not hurt us now, and as you said – it’s good to know one’s family medical history.

  5. Buck Says:

    Agreement with Dave and Terr. Very well written, Di.

    I never even thought of the possibility that Grandma did know and just chose to not tell the future generations till Ann and Terr mentioned it. I can almost see her doing that too.

    I wonder how Aunt Charlotte came upon this knowledge? The adventure side in me still thinks there’s more to it.

  6. Dave Says:

    Since Carl was not Aunt Charlotte’s father, I assumed someone in the family felt they didn’t need to keep the secret from Charlotte. It could have been her father that told her, since neither were related to Carl – you know, “That kind of thing never happened on MY side of the family!”

  7. Terri Says:

    I’ve been watching too much CSI. I’m wondering how Great Grandpa Hooge could put a gun to his head, fire at point blank, still be with it enough to talk to his replacement, and make it to the hospital before dying. Maybe we should suggest having “Cold Case” (CBS) look into it. The suicide story just doesn’t seem right to me.

  8. Dave Says:

    He could have been holding the revolver at an upperward angle against his head so the bullet grazed his head instead of penetrating straight into it.

  9. Dave Says:

    Hmmm, I don’t think upperward is actually a word. How did I manage to tyoe that?

  10. Buck Says:

    I’ve been wondering the same thing, Terr. I keep thinking that there’s more to it. And personally I wouldn’t want to have a body laid out in my home for all to see if they had shot themselves in the head.

  11. di Says:

    Joel did this Google search on the Hooge’s address. Google’s possibly a bit off because the house it shows doesn’t fit Grandma’s description (also if you type in one house number lower or higher, the red arrow reacts weird).

    Perhaps either of the two story houses on the right or the left was hers? I think a trip to Chicago is in order on of these days.

    Thanks Joel for the super sleuthing!

  12. Dave Says:

    When I look at the Street View picture, Google shows a boarded up one story house. The building on the right, however, is a brick two flat, so maybe the building on the right is where the Hooge’s lived.

  13. Terri Says:

    House numbers could have changed over the years. Did Grandma say it was a brick house? Otherwise, maybe the one story house was once 2 story, and a bit of renovation occurred. Seems funny having a small single story house on a street of 2 story houses.

  14. Becky Says:

    I wonder what happened to the “sealed letter to his wife” that was mentioned in the news paper article? I think that would answer a lot of questions!

  15. adunate Says:

    Way to go Becky! You’re the first person to bring up this very good point. When I spoke with Steve Luxenberg, he offered advise for pursuing information on the inquest. He said it’s possible the letter was recorded in its data.

    This is something I’m interested in but realize it’s definitely a pandora’s box.

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