Family Lore: Fact vs Fiction

William Johann Carl Hell

Every family has stories passed down from generation to generation. Over time the details can become fuzzy, and factual information gets replaced with fiction. The story is not necessarily altered on purpose. Like the game of Telephone, when messages get passed through multiple tellings, things get left out and added due to our imperfect human memories. I have found over the years that most family stories have a mixture of fact and fiction to them. This is a story from the Witzel branch of the tree that is a great example of that mix.

The Legend

The family story says that the above pictured gentleman (who is my husband’s 3rd great grandfather) was a Lutheran Minister who changed his last name to Hall upon immigration to the United States. Hell being the German word for “light”, the name was appropriate for a minister, but upon immigration the name was changed because it was no longer appropriate. Mr. Hall was the grandfather of Lisette who was the mother of Bill Witzel (my husband’s grandfather). Mr. Hall lived to the ripe old age of 91 and his church was located in Freistadt, Wisconsin. As proof of the story, the family has kept one of the old books – written by Martin Luther no less!-pictured with Mr. Hall and passed it down from generation to generation. All this information was passed down from my husband’s grandmother and dutifully recorded on the back of his photograph for posterity.

Sorting out Fact from Fiction

Handwritten caption on the back of the above photo

Starting with the legend, I then needed to hit the records and see what I could find. After starting with recent generations and working backward to establish relationships, I found that Mr Hall came to New York in 1839 with a group of other “Old Lutherans” who were escaping religious persecution in Prussia. He was married in Buffalo, New York in January of 1840. His name appears as Hell in immigration records and in his marriage entry in the registry of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The Hell family then traveled from New York to Milwaukee by 1842 when they had their first child. Every census record from 1850 to 1880 lists this family with the surname Hell. Interestingly, the census records that include occupation consistently list Mr. Hell as a farmer. The Hell family located near Freistadt in Ozaukee County and remained there from 1850 until Mr. Hell’s death in 1900. I wondered where this idea of Mr Hell being a minister came from.

MORE Records!…

It turns out that Mr Hell was one of the founding members of St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. Mr. Hell’s signature in found among the founding documents for that church including the mortgage for the original plot of land purchased for the building. On that particular document, there is a note that states that Wm Hell was later called Hall – that is the one and only place I found that mentioned in a historical record.

Note in the founding documents of St Paul’s Lutheran Church, Milwaukee

The congregation of St. Paul’s had a split in 1867 and Mr Hell and family then began attending Trinity Lutheran Church in Freistadt. His name is also on the incorporation document for Trinity (signed Hell). He was a staunch supporter of the Buffalo Synod to his dying day.

The Truth

Although Mr Hell never was a minister as a profession, it is clear that he must have been someone of import in the churches he attended. His name remained Hell until he died – although some members of the family DID go by Hall eventually. He lived to the age of 83 and is buried in the old Zur Rhue Cemetery in Cedarburg, WI.

What about the books from the portrait at the beginning of the story? Well, that is one part of the story that is true.

The front page of the Luther Book printed 1558

Mr Hell must have divided up the set of 12 religious works that were authored by Martin Luther. His daughter Maria must have inherited Vol.11 and she passed it on to her daughter Lisette, who passed it on to her son, and so on….

It was printed on a Wittenberg press in 1558 just 8 years after Martin Luther’s death. The pages are made of rag and the cover is vellum (pig skin stretched over boards). It is beautifully preserved and still in our family.

I took it along on a trip to Antiques Roadshow a few years ago. It was confirmed authentic, but not highly valuable being only 1 in a set of 12 books. In any case, it is a priceless memento in our family to one Hell of a man!

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