Ben Riddner c 1923

I seem to be focused on family mysteries, so here is another one. This one has to do with my husband’s family and is a result of his mother not talking much about her parents or upbringing, or her life prior to marrying. The mysteries revolve around Ben Riddner, my mother-in-law’s father. The basic family information I started with was that there was a son who died, that there was a divorce, and that he was remarried and killed in an accident between a car and a train with with second wife and one of their two children. That’s it. No names, no dates, no places, no personalities. This is not only about the mysteries but also about my spending a lot of time hitting my head against a variety of brick walls, but in some cases finally breaking through.

The first wall was the son, brother to Sarah, and what his name was and the circumstances around his death were. I was told that his name might be Daniel and that he died as a young child before my mother-in-law was born. So I started combing online databases and writing letters requesting searches. Since many of these resources were Wisconsin vital records, I also searched for the marriage of Ben and Pearl.

Riddner-Scheier Marriage 1905

Lots of negative results. However, as it happens in the genealogy world, persistence and records becoming available finally produced answers. I acquired a marriage record (which also provided their parents’ names, hurrah!) and a death certificate.

I was interested to discover that Ben and Pearl married about 7 months after he arrived in this country.  He and his sister arrived in New York in June 1904 and the marriage was January 1905.  That’s fast work!  My current speculation is that they might have been some degree of cousins, and known each other (or at least known of each other) before they both settled in Milwaukee.

The death certificate for their son, Samuel, showed that he had been born September 6, 1906 and died July 28,l 1908 at not-quite 11 months old. Cause of death was given as Enterocolites (which would have been some sort of severe stomach pain). He died 4 months after my mother-in-law was born. So now we know his name was Samuel (probably named after Ben’s father who had died in Russia before Ben emigrated), not Daniel as my sister-in-law had originally guessed.

Samuel Riddner death certificate 1908

I also tried to locate the family in the federal census, and the Wisconsin state census. Tough going. The 1910 federal census was the first one I expected to find them in, and I knew that they were married and had a daughter at that time. They weren’t there. Anywhere.

Then I did something that you know you should do, but don’t always. I went back to Ancestry and looked for Ben Riddner again. Just casually, just for fun. And discovered that there was a new database up: Canadian border crossings; and look! there was Ben, crossing back into the US at Detroit in December 1910.

Detroit Crossing 1910

The records said he had been in Canada since 1908. Humph. No wonder I couldn’t find him in the 1910 census, he was not in the country. But where was his wife and daughter? As I have posted earlier, I still haven’t found Sarah but I did eventually find her mother (and grandmother and an aunt and an uncle all living together).

When Ben returned to this country in late 1910, he went to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where his sister and her husband lived. I think he and his sister must have been pretty close. They emigrated together.  Why didn’t he go back to Milwaukee?  We may never know.

He settled in Fort Wayne, and two years later divorced Pearl. Interestingly, he claimed that she deserted him. The truth is less clear.

Divorce filed, March 1913

On the border crossing records, when he crossed back from Canada to the US, he said he had been in Canada since 1908. Missing information question: when in 1908 did he go and why? In 1908 there were two significant events in his family with Pearl: his daughter Sarah was born in March and his son Samuel, less than 2 years old, died in July. Both of these events happened in Milwaukee according to birth and death certificates. When Ben left did he ask his wife to go with him? Or was he leaving alone to look for work, planning to send for the family? Or was he leaving to escape the family? There is probably no way to know.

In 1914 Ben married Bessie Ganellin, in Chicago.

Ben Riddner and Bessie Ganellin, possibly wedding picture


So far, we don’t know when or why he went to Chicago, or how they met. There is some family belief that the Riddners were related to a Scheier family, and he may have had family connections in Chicago. Ben’s first wife, Pearl, was a Scheier and her younger brother was a physician in Chicago as early as 1917 and perhaps earlier. In 1914, Ben’s widowed mother, Leah Baile or Bella, emigrated to the US, and for some time she lived in Fort Wayne with Ben and Bessie (as listings in city directories show). By 1920 she was living in Chicago, just down the street from one of Bessie’s brothers. When she died in Chicago in 1930, the physician who signed her death certificate was Abe Scheier – a younger brother of Pearl. So there were certainly interactions, whether there were family relationships remains to be discovered.

And now we come to the mystery that started much of my searching for information about Ben Riddner. I had always been told that Ben and his wife and young son died in a car accident involving a train. I looked in every nook and cranny online for several years, trying to find some mention of such an accident. I figured that there would have to be newspaper coverage of an accident like that. But I didn’t even know where they were living, when I started my search. I looked all over the internet, focusing on Wisconsin and Indiana. Again, the strategy of going back and looking in places already searched finally paid off. The Friends of the Allen County Public Library put a death index online, and the Riddners were on it. I finally had a specific date and place, and I ordered the death certificates.

With the information about when and where the accident happened, I was able to find newspaper articles that described it and included pictures of Ben and Bessie. It turned out that they had recently had a stillbirth (a son) and Bessie’s father and 2 nieces were visiting from Chicago – probably to comfort her. Ben had just purchased a car and was still learning to drive. He decided to take a drive on a Sunday to practice, figuring there would be little traffic on the road. So Ben, Bessie, her father Carl and her little niece Evelyn went for a ride. The car reportedly stalled on the tracks of a railroad crossing just as a fast-moving train came through. Carl apparently saw the train approaching and broke the back window and tossed little Evelyn out of the car, saving her life. The three adults were killed at the scene.

Riddner gravestone

2 Responses to “Tracking Ben Riddner”

  1. Pat says:

    Thanks, this is not an easy story to pull together let alone to tell. I begin to understand why my mother-in-law refused to talk about her family.

  2. Susan says:

    This is one of those stories one wishes weren’t fundamentally true. Still, great job walking us through your research and results!

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