Wilhelmina Bremer

Wilhelmine Caroline Amalie Bremer was born April 26, 1849, in Heinade, Germany. In the United States her given name of Wilhelmine became Wilhelmina and throughout her life was often shortened to Minna. Wilhelmina’s parents, both German-born, were Friedrich Wilhelm Bremer and Friederike Wilhelmine Müller.

Greetings from Heinade! Postcard scenes show the vicarage and unidentified half-timbered buildings (upper left), the creamery and school (lower left), and church (center). I hope to visit the still-standing Holy Cross Church (shown at right) someday to search for records of Wilhelmina’s birth, possible siblings, and whatever other mysteries may lie within.

Heinade is located in the Holzminden district of Lower Saxony. Holzminden lies within the Weser Uplands, a picturesque hill region that is the setting for the tales of the Brothers Grimm. However Wilhelmina’s story, as we know it, starts not in the village of her birth, but 50 miles to the north in Hanover, the capital of Lower Saxony. There we find, in the records of the Evangelical Lutheran Gartenkirche, that banns of marriage for Wilhelmina Bremer and Adolf Mainzer were read on January 11 and 18, 1874. Fast forward eight years: Frau Minna Mainzer (age 33) and her daughter Helene Mainzer (age 7) are listed on the passenger manifest of the S.S. India, departing from Hamburg, Germany on May 14, 1882, bound for New York. Although Wilhelmina is not shown to be a widow, it appears that her husband died sometime between 1874 and 1882. On August 29, 1882, Mrs. Minna Mainzer married Ernst Tornedde in Steubenville, Ohio.

Jefferson County Court House in Steubenville, built in 1874.

Immediately before boarding the India, Wilhelmina and Helen had been staying in Harburg, about 90 miles north of Hanover. Ernst Tornedde lived in Harburg also, just prior to his immigration to the United States in June 1881, and I think it’s quite possible that he and Wilhelmina knew each other in Germany.

View down Market Street in Steubenville, c. 1905.

Steubenville is situated on the Ohio River, 40 miles due west of Pittsburgh and 25 miles north of Wheeling, West Virginia, in what was then the industrial heartland of America. Ernst, an iron worker, no doubt supported his family working at one of the many iron works or rolling mills in Jefferson County. The Torneddes welcomed daughter Martha in April 1884.

This striking portrait of Wilhelmina was taken by Erler Studio in Peoria, Illinois (date unknown).

Peoria, c. early 1900s. This view down Adams Street from Main would have been familiar to Wilhelmina. On July 28, 1901, some 1,488 streetcars passed this intersection in a 24-hour period.

Not long after Martha was born, the Tornedde family pulled up stakes and moved west to another industrial river town, Peoria, Illinois. Ernst quickly found work as an iron molder. The Torneddes’ son Ernest was born in August 1886. The 1888 Peoria Township Census lists the family of five, including Helen (12), Martha (4), and Ernest (2), living on Howett Street. They also lived on Madison and Jefferson Streets before they purchased their home at 711 Johnson in 1890, where save for one year, Wilhelmina would live for the rest of her life.

South Adams at Cedar, c. 1875. I imagine the Tornedde Grocery looked something like the corner grocery pictured here. The Torneddes lived in the heyday of small, family-run stores—there were nearly 200 listings for retail grocers in the 1902 Peoria City Directory!

In 1902, the Torneddes bought a grocery store around the corner from 711 Johnson. The grocery included living quarters and the Torneddes moved in, renting their home to the Kitselman family. When a dispute arose between the two families, the story was reported in the local newspaper. Extra, extra, read all about it! No word on whether the white-winged dove brought peace to the neighborhood, but by 1903 the Torneddes had moved back into their Johnson home, landlords to the Kitselmans no more.

Wilhelmina died on March 29, 1907. She was survived by Ernst, Martha, and Ernest. What became of her daughter Helen? According to family history, Helen disappeared, never to be heard from again. The circumstances of her disappearance are not known. The last time Helen appeared in any public record was the 1897 Peoria City Directory, where she was shown to be living with her family at 711 Johnson. At that time she would have been about 22 years old. How Helen’s disappearance affected the Tornedde family, we can only imagine. Some years later Martha hired a private investigator to try and find her sister, to no avail. The last ten years of Wilhelmina’s life were surely colored by this sad turn of events.

Wilhelmina is buried in Peoria’s Springdale Cemetery. An elaborate headstone marks her grave, and was probably intended to later mark Ernst’s grave also, but Ernst remarried and that was not to be. However, Wilhelmina is not alone. Although the stone is unmarked, cemetery records show that Martha’s son, Paul Foster Cannaday, who died in 1916 when he was 18 months old, is buried in the same grave as his grandmother.

Wilhelmina’s grave on Linden Bluff in Springdale Cemetery. Her son Ernest is buried beside her, his grave marked with a military stone commemorating his WWI service.

Rest in peace, dear Wilhelmina.


Shortly after this post was published, a great-grandson of Wilhelmina e-mailed me with exciting news—he possessed a collection of letters and documents from the 1800s that had been saved by Wilhelmina. All were written in German and had been translated, perhaps by Wilhelmina’s daughter Martha. The collection includes an endearing love letter from Adolf to Wilhelmina dated February 25, 1873, nearly a year before they married. Documents confirm Helene was born in April 1876, in Hannover, and, sadly, that Adolf died in July 1877. Several letters provide rich detail about Wilhelmina’s immigration to America in 1882. The correspondence picked up four years later, in 1886, when Ernst relocated to Peoria to establish a new home for his family. Letters mention siblings of both Wilhelmina and Ernst, though more research will be required to determine their identities.

More than the facts contained within, there is a delightful serendipity in this treasured collection traveling through time and space–thousands of miles over 140 years–and coming to light as Wilhelmina’s story was being told in The Singing Oak. I feel the blessings of my ancestors!


Over the years, I have spent many hours searching for Wilhelmina’s daughter Helen, hoping to find some clue that would tell us what happened to her. After recently reconnecting with Tornedde cousins, I was once again inspired to take up the search. To my amazement, there she was, hidden in plain sight in a census record. It was a lead I had followed before, only to reach a dead-end, with no discernable connection to our Helen. This time around, however, a path cleared—first, a birth record, followed by another census record, a marriage record, and ultimately, Peoria city directories—and Helen’s story was revealed.

In 1897, Helen left Peoria with a man named Charles Alexander Leota, who was approximately 12 years her senior. According to later censuses, Helen and Charles were married that year, and in March of 1898, their daughter Helen was born in Chicago. In 1900, the Leota family lived in Will County, Illinois, just outside Chicago. By 1905, they had relocated to a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio where Helen would live for the rest of her life. She died on March 11, 1926, a month before her 50th birthday. She was survived by her husband of almost 30 years, her daughter Helen, and a granddaughter, Leota Ann Carroll.

From our vantage more than 120 years later, there is peace and a sense of relief in knowing Helen’s fate. No longer missing, Helen stands in her light in the Tornedde family circle.

12 thoughts on “Wilhelmina Bremer

  1. The one thing that I remember about the Tornedde family was their quiet reserve and silent forbearance. Wilhelmina was also known for her legendary put-downs of the Irish!


  2. I love that Ter! Extra, extra is so funny, can you imagine? Such a mystery about Helen, poor thing. I loved seeing the Peoria post card, I wish the Streetcars would have survived. Lets get planning our trip to Germany! Great job Cuzzie❤️


    • Yes, time to start planning our Germany visit…northern Germany looks really pretty, and bit magical, too, with the Brothers Grimm setting several tales there! This is gonna be fun! XO


  3. Great job Ter. Loved this story. I have started to learn German in hopes we can go visit that beautiful area with our traveling buddies! It would be fun to learn even more when we are there! I wish we could find out about Helen but that seems almost impossible now. How sad! I wish I could have known Great Grandmother Wilhelmina. Love, Mom


    • Mom, thanks. I want to start studying German before our trip, too! Ein, zwei, drei… Wouldn’t you love to hear Minna speak? She was in the United States long enough that she surely learned English, but I wonder how much? Enough to put Mrs. Kitselman in her place, apparently! XO


  4. I remember Wilhelmina’s portrait sitting on Grandma Martha’s chest. It had no particular meaning to me as a child or young adult. Why aren’t we more curious about our ancestors when we are young? You brought Wilhelmina to life for me. Thank you! I enjoyed the Tornedde/Kitzelman spat as reported in The Tale of Two Women newspaper article. Nice to know my preponderance for a quick temper is not my fault! Wilhelmina’s story and my German heritage has inspired me to study German. I like it in spite of the fact I made fun of the sputtering, spitting and throat clearing sounds as a child.
    Helen’s story was compelling. I do hope some day the mystery will be solved. I do know we have the best History Detective in the family to bring this sad tale to a conclusion.
    Bis Bald.
    Aunt Carol


    • Hallo Tante! I know, I so wish I would have asked more questions of my grandmas and grandpa when I had the opportunity. I love that you are studying German…that will come in handy when we make our family history trek there in 2018! With Helen, I feel that what is meant to see the light of day, will, eventually. But, perhaps, too, it’s enough that we all now know of her, mourn for her, and she is in her rightful place in our tree. Time will tell! XO

      P.S. Reading all those Nancy Drew mysteries when I was a kid is paying off in my new avocation!


  5. Re: Coda II
    What joy you brought to the family when you found Helen! Several of us had her meeting a tragic end in Chicago never to be found! It is lovely to think of her having a husband and family. We can only speculate why she never chose to reconnect with her family in Peoria. Maybe some things should remain a mystery? The important detail brought us comfort. And…kudos to you, dear History Detective!!


  6. Well Ter, congrats to our Nancy Drew!! You accomplished what we all thought would probably never happen. You found Helen! What exciting news that was. Especially since we entertained the thought that she might have died shortly after her disappearance from the family. How nice to be able to think of her having a family, but sad to think she never reconnected with Peoria family. I wonder if she ever thought anyone ever looked for her? I hope so…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s