Ted Robinson reveals how a chance discovery led to an fascinating research project to learn more about Titanic postal clerk William Gwinn and his bride Florence Rohde.
William Logan Gwinn was a US Sea Post Clerk who was lost on the Titanic in April of 1912. He was married to Florence Rohde, a young lady that he met at a party in New Jersey in 1904.
William Logan Gwinn, back row left.
Courtesy of Ted Robinson / Alan Gwinn
In the mid 1990’s I found among some old books and other items purchased at a yard sale in Brookhaven Hamlet, on Long Island, NY a packet of old letters and photos. It was several months before I examined some of the letters, which seemed to be love letters almost a century old. I found that I got a discomfiting voyeuristic feeling while reading them and put them aside. Taking them up again sometime later I saw that they were not so very intimate as I had originally imagined, and that they seemed to illuminate a lost age of the early 20th century and in that context would be of historical interest. It was even later that I found the important letter from the US Government that mentioned that Will, as he was known, had perished on the RMS Titanic. I then organized the letters by date and assembled what turned out to be a glimpse into the family dynamics of a couple that met, married, had children and later faced the ultimate disaster.
Although the provenance of the material is unknown the memorabilia was apparently collected by Florence and later probably came into the possession of their only son, William Thurston Gwynne, who was a long-time resident of Brookhaven Hamlet. Most of the letters have survived in excellent condition.
In order to preserve the collection of Florence Rohde Gwinn as much as possible, I digitally scanned all the letters, postcards and photos.
Having dabbled in my own family’s genealogy for over 25 years I found it irresistible to look for more information on the Gwynne and Rohde families. In this article1 I attempt to collate facts and leads that have been found via various sources. Necessarily, there is a modicum of inference and speculation required on my part to link together some of the background information. I have annotated some of the sources for information found in the following synopsis, most of which refer to items in the collectio and to URL addresses on the internet.
Florence Rohde graduated from Hackensack (NJ) High School June 23, 1899, one of 26 in her graduating class,2 after having completed the Latin Scientific course of study. From the June 5, 1900 Federal Census sheet for the Borough of Wood Ridge, NJ we learn that she was born in November 1879 in New York to Freeman J. and Hannah Rohde3. Freeman was born in August 1858 in New York, and his parents are both listed as having been born in Germany. Freeman’s profession is shown as “Bookkeeper; newspaper”. Hannah (no surname given) was born in May 1856 in England, and both her parents are listed as having been born in England. Her maiden surname was Scruten. Freeman and Hannah were married November 30, 1878 in Manhattan, NY4. Also shown on the census sheet is Florence’s brother, Charles- born Oct 1882. From a letter on November 7, 19085 her husband Will mentions that the next day is her birthday, so the exact birth date for Florence would have been November 8, 1879.
The earliest dated letter in the collection6 is signed L. Hale, is postmarked Sept 16, 1895 in Hackensack, NJ and is addressed to Florence in Wood Ridge, NJ. In the letter, her friend L states that she is happy that Florence’s father has consented to letting Florence attend school there (presumably Hackensack). From this I infer that in 1895 Florence’s family was living in Wood Ridge. Another letter, undated and without an envelope, is obviously from a girlish school chum named Bessie, who writes a fanciful letter to Florence who apparently is absent from school due to a sprained ankle. It makes reference to a Latin translation homework assignment, which is consistent with Florence’s High School major.
By 1903 her correspondence was being addressed to 1172 Park Avenue, NY. It is not clear whether or not this was her parents’ address at the time, or perhaps where she was boarding when she attended a Business College on 125th St. in Manhattan7. At any rate, she had a beau named Henry from East Rutherford, NJ who in 1903 wrote her twice at this address8. There is also an undated Christmas gift tag from Henry in her collection9. Although the relationship seems to have gone nowhere, he must have been important to her as she kept his missives all throughout her subsequent marriage to Will.
Next, chronologically, in the collection are a series of 57 letters over a more than six-year span from William Logan Gwinn, who ultimately would become her husband. (It is curious to note here that Will favored the spelling of his surname as “Gwinn”, while both his parents and children used the spelling “Gwynne”). In searching archives for data on Will’s family, I find in the 1900 Federal Census for the Borough of Manhattan, NY that his parents were Alexander and Emily Gwynne. Alexander was born in October 1831 in Massachusetts. His occupation on the census form is given as “leather finisher”. Both Alexander’s mother and father are listed as having been born in Scotland. Emily was born in June 1849 in New York, and both her parents were also born in New York. William Logan Gwynne (Gwinn) was born February 1876 in New York City, and his profession in 1900 is listed as “Clerk”. His middle name was given by his father after a Civil War Union officer named Logan. Will is shown in the census data as having 2 brothers and 2 sisters in 1900. His older brother Cornelius J. (also known as Case) was born in New York in March 1874 (his occupation is also listed as “Clerk”). Cornelius later lived in Wood Ridge and became the representative of the Rutherford Republican in that Borough. His younger brother Charles was born in New York in December 1885. Will’s two younger sisters, Olive and Elizabeth, were born in New York in August 1887 and November 1891 respectively. The 1880 census for the 8th Ward, District 5 of Manhattan shows that the Gwynnes had a daughter named Emily who was 2 at the time of the census and would have been born about 1878, and also a son aged 1 named Alexander after his father- born 1879. There is no later mention in censuses of either Emily or Alexander so I presume that they died young. Also shown in the 1880 census as living in the household were Lizzie McClelland, single, age 30, listed as a dressmaker and Sarah Trost, single, age 17, listed as a servant.
Will was “six-foot-four-inch(es) tall….. and 37 yrs old…”10 at the time of the Titanic disaster. Most probably he was visiting his brother Cornelius, who lived in Wood Ridge, in 1904 when he met Flo. Will often stayed between ocean voyages with Case in New Jersey, which was close to Manhattan, rather than travel the 90 or so miles to stay with his parents in West Shokan.
His letters to Florence are mostly written on stationery of various ocean liners that were in service at the time. He was employed by the US Post Office (under the US Treasury Dept) as a Sea Post Clerk, which was part of the US Postal Sea Service. “Sea Post Clerks were highly skilled and respected postal workers who sorted, canceled, and re-distributed the mail in trans-Atlantic transit. Regarded as the best of the best, these men typically sorted over 60,000 letters a day, making few, if any, errors in the process. Their hard work and efficiency allowed the mail to be delivered immediately or forwarded directly to other destinations at the end of a voyage.”11 There were five Sea Post Clerks on board Titanic on her maiden voyage - three American and two British - and Will was the chief of the American contingent.
Among the ships’ stationery used by Will over the years are: RMS Ivernia, the German Line’s Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, RMS Teutonic, German Line’s Deutschland, USMS St. Paul, USMS Philadelphia, RMS Oceanic, RMS Majestic, USMS New York, German Line’s Dampfer (Steamer) Kronprinz Wilhelm, German Line’s Dampfer Kaiser Wilhelm II, USMS St. Louis, RMS Adriatic, and Hamburg Amerika Line’s Kaiseren Auguste Victoria. While overseas awaiting another boat home to America, he frequently wrote Flo on stationery from the hotels where he stayed among which are Parkers Hotel, Southampton and the Hotel Gwalia in London.
The 57 letters are a poignant window into their lives from their meeting, through their courtship and marriage and then the births of their two children, William Thurston and Marjorie. The first of his letters to Florence,12 mailed April 19, 1904 chronicles their meeting at a party held 10 days earlier at the Wood Ridge Club, which date would have been Saturday, April 9, 1904. Will continued to court Florence over the next several years, and it seems quite clear that her family, especially her father, was not happy about Flo’s involvement with him - even though she was about 25 years old at the time. Will was reticent to visit her at her home13, and in several letters wishes that he could have been with her to take some of the scolding from her father14- presumably from Will’s having kept her out late. His first two letters are addressed to her at 1172 Park Ave, and the third at 101 E 92nd St. Her parents seem to have lived at the Park Ave address, and so perhaps the one to E 92nd St. was c/o a relative or friend who had become an intermediary. She subsequently seems to have landed a job at Clough Pike & Co., who were Manufacturers and “Sellers of Salt’s Dress fabrics in the United States”15, first located at 97 Franklin St., and later at 55 White St. in Manhattan, because that’s where Will began sending her letters, obviously in an attempt to preclude her father’s interception or knowledge of them. From June through September of 1904 he wrote her at the 97 Franklin St address of Clough & Pike, and then they moved to 55 White St., where his letters from November 1904 through May 1905 were sent to her c/o C&P.
It would seem that throughout her life Florence was prone to be sickly, or at least fragile, since there are many references to her being in poor health - both in Will’s letters and in those from others.
Sometime between April and November of 1904 Will’s parents relocated from New Jersey to West Shokan, NY - a small community that was located on what is now the bottom of the Ashokan Reservoir, about 15 miles west of Kingston, NY in the Catskill Mountains. Will wrote Flo on November 29, 1904 from West Shokan16, presumably as he was visiting his folks while home in the States between shipboard assignments. In this letter he is apologizing to her for some offense and asking her forgiveness.
At some point in their relationship, he began referring to himself in his signature as “Your Big Lover”, or “YBL”, seemingly in reference to his height of 6”- 4”, and she became his “Little Sweetie”. In his letter of Jan 1, 190517 (a badly mildewed letter), he makes reference to her father still acting up (presumably about their relationship) and refers to her father as a “boor”. In subsequent letters her father became “the ogre”18 or “the dragon”19. Needless to say, their relationship seems to have been strained due to Freeman’s unpleasantness.
In May of 190520 Will again is sympathizing for her father’s scolding her, and then a week later she apparently is very ill and her father is still making her miserable. There is a strange 26-month gap in Will’s letters- from May 17, 1905 to September 22, 1907. Several possible explanations come to mind: first, that any letters sent simply were lost, which seems unlikely since Flo kept all the other letters before and after this period. A second explanation is that Will didn’t write any letters to her during this long period. It seems impossible that if he was still working the trans-oceanic liners that he wouldn’t have written to her over this very long time. The one thing that belies the idea of his not writing is a single postcard21 of a scene in Germany that was sent to Flo from Liverpool on November 3, 1906- with the address unquestionably in Will’s hand. More likely, but speculative, is that he managed to be posted “ashore” for a few years and held a position at the main Post Office in Manhattan and thus would not have had to write her. If so, it is possible that he requested this duty because of Flo’s ill health; they may have been engaged to be married by this time. We know from the letter from her boss. Robert M Pike at Clough Pike & Co, dated January 2, 1906, that she was in poor health, since he hopes that she will recuperate and regain her strength so that she can again perform her full duties in an upcoming busy time. She must have eventually returned to work following her illness since Will’s postcard of 11/3/1906 was again addressed to her there at CP & Co.
Following the long gap in the letters, the series continues with the one sent on 9/22/190722. In a major departure, this one was addressed to Mrs. Wm. L. Gwinn (c/o Rohde) at 200 W 131st St, NY. Will and Flo had apparently managed to get married between 11/3/1906 and 9/22/1907, with no surviving letters specifically referring to it. Although unable to find an official record of their exact wedding date, a large clue is found in Will’s letter of June 2, 190823 – where he reminisces that a year earlier they had been on their honeymoon. Thus it seems that a date in late May or early June, 1907 would have been their wedding day. In contradiction to this is a posting on the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) genealogical website24, the FamilySearch International Genealogical Index v5.0, that gives their marriage as occurring on February 14, 1907 in Manhattan. I would note that postings on this site are neither necessarily factual nor checked for accuracy by the LDS, and may well be in error.
It appears that now they were married they were living with Mr. and Mrs. Rohde on 131st St.; one wonders how Will felt about living in the same house with the “dragon”. In the 9/22/1907 letter, Will asks Florence how the “nest building” is going, and if she had “found a place yet” – obvious references to moving out on their own and away from the in-laws. In the next letter, October 21, 190725, he again is urging her to locate a place but to not be in such a hurry as to tire herself after what seems a fairly serious illness and recuperation. He states that “…it will be such a relief not to be in anybody’s way and feeling like an intruder”.
A few weeks later his next letter26 is addressed to Flo at 511 W 131st St. – their new apartment where most of the rest of his surviving letters are addressed. It seems as though their new digs are only a few blocks away from the Rohdes, on the upper west side of Manhattan.
Flo apparently spent Christmas 1907 with Will’s family at West Shokan, as his letter sent on December 16, 1907 was addressed to her there- then forwarded on the 28th to 131st St. In it he informs her that he has been quite sick on the eastbound leg to Europe, and that the shipboard doctor intends to hospitalize him in Bremerhaven upon arrival. Three days later27 he writes again saying that they had thought that he had typhoid, but fortunately that was not the case and his recovery is at hand.
For the next several months, up until January 19, 1909, the letters continue to arrive at fairly short intervals and are unremarkable except for their lack of mention of a very important occurrence. From data in the SSDI (Social Security Death Index)28 their son, William Thurston Gwinn (later Gwynne) was born April 18, 1909. Flo therefore would have become pregnant (assuming a full-term delivery) mid July 1908, and they probably would have become aware of it in September or so. Except for vague references to not tiring herself out, and being sure to go to the doctor regularly, there is no specific mention of her being pregnant over these months. There is one oblique reference in December29 to a Mrs. Leonie (someone in their apartment building??) who had her eye on Flo like “a rubberneck”, but that it would be none of her business if she were “wise”.
Between the letter from Will on January 19, 1909 and the last one of his in the collection30, written on Nov 18, 1910 there is another unexplained gap – this one of some 22 months. This last existing letter from Will was written about 17 months before the Titanic disaster, and is addressed to Flo at 794 Washington Ave, Brooklyn - in the Prospect Park neighborhood. Sometime in this past 22 months Flo and Will had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In this letter Will specifically mentions missing Brooklyn, and asks of “Bill”, which was what Thurston must have been called as a baby by his parents. “Bill” must have been a handful at this time, being about 19 months old – Will says that Flo should “…tie him up or something….” because he is getting on her nerves. Apparently Will’s sister Olive was supposed to have visited Flo – seemingly for the first time since they had moved there - for in this letter Will asks what Olive thought of both Bill and their “little home”. Any letters that Will may have sent Flo in the 17 months between this one and the April 1912Titanic disaster have been lost.
Although there are no further letters or postcards from Will in the collection several others that were written during the 1909-1910 gap help shed some light on both the Gwynne and Rohde family dynamics. On August 17, 190931 Flo’s friend Julia wrote her in c/o her in-laws, the Gwynnes, at West Shokan. The handwriting is terrible – almost illegible -, but I have included my deciphered version32 on the CD as an adjunct. In this letter, Julia – who is vacationing for the summer in Rhode Island- refers to Thurston (not “Bill”) as being 16 pounds already (at 4 months of age), and that how the fresh air at the Gwynne’s in West Shokan is good for both the baby and Florence. It is apparent that the Gwynnes have been asked to leave their farm, and that Julia hoped that they would be able to remain at least through the summer so that Flo can continue her visit there. The Gwynnes seemingly were intending to relocate, probably to Kingston, and had some belongings of Julia’s that she would like them to forward to her at 611 W 112th St in Manhattan. Julia also refers to Olive and Bess – undoubtedly Will’s sisters Olive and Elizabeth.
As an interesting aside, the Ashokan Reservoir, which is one of the major sources of drinking water for New York City, was created early in the 20th century by flooding the Esopus River Valley in the Catskills. The approximately 2,000 residents of several communities there, West Shokan among them, were forced to relocate as construction of the dams went on in anticipation of the final flooding, which occurred in 1915. The construction of the reservoir is most certainly the reason that the Gwynnes were forced to leave their farm in 1910. For interested researchers there is a fine essay on-line33 which details the history of the area and the reservoir’s construction.
One month after Julia’s letter34, in September 1909, there is a postcard to Florence in Manhattan from West Shokan. The front portrays the train depot in Shokan and the signature appears to be “Mom”- perhaps Emily Gwynne. It references a package being sent and inquires about Thurston. In an interesting aside, note that the card - although showing a scene in the Catskills - was printed in Germany and displays a swastika on the address side.
The next letter in chronological order is from Will’s sister Olive35 in March of 1910. The Gwynnes have by this time relocated to Kingston, NY, as the return address is 53 Emerson St. in Kingston. In this letter Olive says that Mamma has just received a letter from Will and that she was surprised to hear that he was just sailing. Olive’s letter was sent during the last gap in Will’s letters (1/19/1909 – 11/18/1910), so apparently he was still sailing across the Atlantic, but his letters - if any - to Flo during this period have not survived. The 1920 New York census shows that both Alexander and Emile Gwynne were still alive and residing in Kingston at that time. There are no occupations listed for either of the Gwynnes in the census data but Alexander would have been in his eighties at this time.
Will was a member of the New York National Guard, and according to an article in the Asbury Park Evening Press, on April 22, 1912 “had long held a reputation for bravery. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and was at the front in Cuba with the Seventy-first New York militia. His reputation went unsullied with him to the grave”36. Among Flo’s keepsakes is a program for a dinner held at the Park Avenue Hotel on Thursday, April 21, 191037 - given by the Veteran Association Seventy First Regiment, N.G.N.Y. I presume that she and Will were attendees at the dinner, since she kept the program as a memento. A letter received by Florence on June 7, 191238 following Will’s loss on the Titanic offered a set of “resolutions”, probably of condolences, from “Co D. 71st Inf”. The signature is illegible but seems to be from a Justin M. J…., and he states that he would have liked to have delivered the resolutions himself but since he understood that Florence was “in poor health and prefer(ed) not to receive strangers at this time” he had prevailed upon her brother-in-law, Mr. C. J. Gwinn, to deliver them instead. This brother-in-law, C.J. Gwinn, was probably Cornelius.
Florence and Will apparently lived at several locations in Brooklyn, since he wrote her there at 79 Washington Ave on November 18, 1910 but there is a postcard from Olive four months earlier on July 16, 191039 addressed to 446 15th St, Brooklyn. This postcard features a photo of the Rondout Harbor at Kingston, NY (I presume that the Gwynnes were living in Kingston by this time). Olive speaks of postponing her visit to see Flo and on the obverse of the postcard opines that “I know Thurston would enjoy himself here we have such a nice yard for him to play in”. Thurston would have been about 15 months old at the time of Olive’s postcard.
There is a Christmas postcard in Florence’s collection mailed from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin on December 22, 191040. It is addressed to Mrs. F. J. Rohde, 485 6th St, Brooklyn and signed “Fannie”. I presume that “Mrs. F. J. Rohde” was Florence’s mother, Hannah (Mrs. Freeman J. Rohde). Another interesting piece of correspondence is a letter to Mr. F. J. Rohde41 c/o Cuba Review Bulletin, 82 Beaver St. New York. The postmark is Camaguey Cuba, June 12 1907. The salutation is to “My dear Brother”, and is signed “Your Sister IHN, Frieda E”. I don’t believe that the addressee (Freeman J.?) was actually her real brother since the letter contains many references to the writer’s family that would not have been necessary if they were siblings. The letter’s overtones are decidedly religious and I believe that they were probably fellow church members; perhaps the closing abbreviation “IHN” stands for In His Name. It is unknown why the letter was important to Florence or why she would have kept it for years.
On June 22, 1911 Will’s sister Olive was married42 in Kingston, NY to William Calvin Wilson, as is evidenced by a wedding announcement found among Florence’s papers.
The White Star Line’s RMS Titanic sailed from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 and was mortally damaged by an iceberg on April 14th. Among those lost were all of the US Sea Post Clerks, including Will Gwinn and all four of his colleagues in the mailroom.
Will was scheduled to have returned to the United States on a later vessel, the “Philadelphia”, but requested a re-assignment to the Titanic so that he could rush home to Florence, who was ill43. The nature of the illness is not known, but their daughter Marjorie seems to have been born about the time of the Titanic’s sinking.
According to an article in the April 22, 1912 edition of the Asbury Park Evening Press Florence, Will and the children had moved to Asbury Park, NJ on April 1, only a few days before the Titanic disaster- to an apartment at 1215 Kingsley street44. An April 26 article in the Newark Evening News claims that Will’s death was kept from Florence for some time after the disaster due to her ill health45, however this erroneous report was repudiated in the April 26 article in the Asbury Park Evening Press46.
Perhaps the most poignant in the collection of the documents kept by Florence is the letter47 dated October 24, 1912 from Chas. A. Kram, Auditor for the Post Office Department of the U.S. Treasury Department, awarding Florence $2,000 for her “Claim against the United States on account of the death of your husband, W. L. Gwinn, a U.S. sea-post clerk, who was lost on the Titanic”. This letter was sent to yet another Brooklyn address, 808 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn; perhaps this was Mr. and Mrs. Rohde’s address at this time and Florence was staying with them during her mourning and recuperation six months following the disaster.
I know an old-time resident - Buddy Corwin- of Bellport, NY whose father owned a local contracting firm (Brookhaven Asphalt) for which Thurston had worked. Another close friend of mine - Harvey Richardson, now 74 years old – has lived most of his life in Brookhaven and Bellport and also remembers Thurston well. Buddy remembers that Thurston was an artist of sorts, and was also a sculptor - but seemingly did not manage to make a living at this endeavor alone. Thurston never married and died childless. Buddy remembers Thurston well but was unsure of his sister’s name; he recalls that she had married a man named Brown from Blue Point, but he has no other information regarding Marjorie. Harvey states that Thurston lived on the corner of Beaver Dam and Fireplace Neck Roads. That address is 255 Beaver Dam Rd., and I have included on the CD a couple of pictures of Thurston’s house taken in July 200648.
If one does a search of the SSDI for Marjorie Brown there is one individual who was born March 28, 1912 and died in Johnson City, NY on October 22, 1992. Although admittedly a tenuous connection this Marjorie Brown’s birth date would dovetail nicely with the events around the Titanic’s sinking. If this is our Marjorie then she had just been born when Will left for England at the end of March or beginning of April 1912 – perhaps he even had to leave prior to Marjorie’s birth and that he never saw his daughter. It is possible that Flo had a difficult delivery, with or without Will being present, and that he was hurrying home to Brooklyn to be with her as he boarded the Titanic. It would seem that if she had delivered and was very ill prior to his leaving on the east-bound trip that he would have managed to get relieved of his duties to take care of her. It is interesting to speculate that perhaps Flo gave birth very shortly (and unexpectedly- perhaps a premature birth?) after Will had departed, and that word reached him of her condition via cable while he was outbound.
This speculation is called into question, however, by the Asbury Park Evening News article of April 26 that gave her children’s ages as “three and six months” which would have had Marjorie being born instead about October 1911. If indeed the Gwinns had just moved to Asbury Park a few days before the Titanic then they probably would not have done so with Marjorie’s birth immediately pending. The next day, April 27, the Asbury Park Evening News article49 mentions that Florence and the children had unexpectedly moved out of the Asbury Park apartment, accompanied by her mother. I presume that by this time Freeman must have died, as only Hannah is specified as being with Flo in the article.
Following the Titanic disaster there are only a few correspondences with Florence in the surviving material. The first is a letter on November 21, 191250 from “Peachy” Wilson in Richmond, VA- also addressed to Flo at 808 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn. This letter contains the earliest direct reference to Marjorie that I can find. I believe that Peachy is the sister-in-law of Olive Gwynne Wilson’s husband William. Peachy has children and a husband, so her maiden name was not Wilson, but she probably married a Wilson - perhaps William’s brother. In her closing, Peachy asks Florence to give Thurston and Marjorie a kiss for her.
There is a remnant of a postcard with a scene on the reverse of a cow and a flowering cherry tree, which was sent to Flo on November 7, 1916 from Gertye51. The interesting thing is that the address is Brookhaven, NY. I have wondered how Thurston had found his way from Brooklyn to Brookhaven Hamlet. Brookhaven Hamlet (not to be confused with Brookhaven Township- a much larger geopolitical area of Suffolk County on Long Island) is a small community on the south shore of Long Island nestled up against the Great South Bay about 70 miles east of Brooklyn. The next town west, about three miles, is Bellport where I currently reside. Five miles west of Bellport is Patchogue, and five miles further west is Blue Point, from which Marjorie’s husband is supposed to have come. I had presumed that Thurston somehow had come east to this area as an adult but this postcard suggests a much earlier connection, as Thurston would have been only about 7-1/2 years old at the time. A search of the 1930 census was very revealing, in that it showed that Florence was living with her mother Hannah (listed as head-of-household in the census) in the Village of Brookhaven at that time along with 20-year-old Thurston and 18-year-old Marjorie. My presumption is that Hannah, and perhaps Freeman (who seems to not have been alive in 1930, or even 1912) had come eastward to Brookhaven- perhaps as early as 1916. In the 1930 census Florence’s occupation was given as a bookkeeper for a grain dealer, Thurston was employed at a plant & shrub nursery and Marjorie was working as a stenographer for a trucking company. I note that the surname Gwynne (not Gwinn) was used for the census. Ten years earlier- in the 1920 census, dated January 17, 1910- Florence Gwynne was listed as living with Hannah Rohde in Brookhaven; no occupations given for either. It’s curious to note that neither of the children are listed in the 1910 census- perhaps they were visiting relatives or friends on the census day, although at 10 and 7 Thurston and Marjorie should have been at home in Brookhaven on a school day (January 17, 1910 was a Monday).
Seventeen years later, in 1933, there is a letter addressed to Mr. Wm. Thurston Gwynne52 in Brookhaven. It comes from his Uncle Charles who seems worried about the unsatisfactory path that Thurston’s life has taken – asking Thurston to write back and give “an account of things”. This letter is interesting in that it is written on stationery from a train named “The Columbine”, the “Flower of Travel Comfort” via “the Overland Route- Denver-Omaha-Chicago”. Uncle Charles could have been either Gwynne or Rohde- Will had an Uncle Charles on each side.
The most recent letter to Flo in her collection is one from “Mardy”53, most certainly her daughter Marjorie, and was sent from The Mountain View House in Port Kent, NY on Lake Champlain on August 29, 1934. The letter is addressed to Florence Gwynne (again note the dropping of the “Gwinn” spelling) at a previously unseen address, c/o A. H. Chambers, 248 Clinton Ave, Kingston, NY. Given a birth date of 1912, Marjorie would have been 22 at this time. Mardy speaks of having visited Lake George earlier, and she is having a wonderful time on the trip. She says that they have delicious meals at the Mountain House, and that “Al is very much afraid that I’m going to get very fat”. Since traveling with an unmarried partner was not accepted then as it is now, I suspect that “Al” is Mardy’s husband (Al Brown??) and that they even may be on their honeymoon.
In July 2006 I located Florence’s grave54 in the Oaklawn Cemetery in northern Brookhaven, located at the end of Arthur Ave. My friend Harvey Richardson directed me to this very secluded old cemetery otherwise I never would have known of its existence. Her headstone reads simply “Florence Rohde Gwynne 1879-1952”. There are no other granite headstones in the immediate vicinity of hers but a foot away from her headstone55 is a bronze memorial, flush with the sod and almost invisible, with the inscription “Alan G. Brown 1939 – 1942”56. The next plot to the right, 20 feet away from Florence, belongs to a Brown family. Brown is a common name in the area, and it is not clear if the adjoining Browns are relatives of the Brown that Marjorie is supposed to have married. I had hoped to find either a Marjorie or Alan in the Brown plot but those names are not among those interred there. I speculate that the 3-year-old Brown baby buried alongside Florence is a son of Marjorie’s who died as a very young boy and was buried in Florence’s plot ten years before she passed. Further speculation is that Alan was named after his father (the “Al” in Mardy’s 1934 letter from Lake Champlain??) and that perhaps the baby’s middle initial G was for Gwynne.
I had also hoped to find Thurston’s grave there at Oaklawn, but it is not. The SSDI listing for him shows his place of death at age 87 on September 20, 1996 as St. James, NY. St. James is a community on Long Island’s north shore, perhaps 25 miles from Brookhaven Hamlet. The first thought that crossed my mind is that there is a very nice nursing home located there- the St. James Plaza Nursing Home- and I suspect that this is where he was living at the time of his death. A possible connection to Thurston’s final resting place is that he was a Spanish War Veteran and as such would have been eligible for burial in the Calverton National Cemetery located in Ridge, about 15 miles from Brookhaven Hamlet. Perhaps a search of records at Calverton will turn up Thurston’s gravesite. Another possibility is that the St. James Plaza Nursing Home57 may have a record of where he was interred.
Besides several photos there are only two other artifacts among Florence’s belongings. The first is an engraved copper plate58 for printing her calling cards, engraved by H. C. F. Koch & Co., 125th Street, West, New York. It simply states “Mrs. William L. Gwinn”; a sample of the card is also in the collection. The second is a Christmas59 card signed by what seems to be “Flederbach”.
There are twelve photos in Flo’s collection, most of which have faded and are of poor resolution. Only one60 is dated on the reverse; this one of a very tall man and a woman. The date on the reverse is “Thur Aug 1. 07”, and I strongly believe it is Will and Florence a few months after their marriage. Next (not in chronological order, but rather alphabetically by the arbitrary captions I have assigned them) is a nicely preserved shot of a young tow-headed lad61, perhaps 3 or 4, with his hobbyhorse on a front lawn; I suspect that this is Thurston shortly after his dad died. The next shot is a sepia of a tall man and a young woman with a horse62. I, again with no proof, suspect that the subjects are Flo and Will.
The next two shots6364 are of a young boy and girl, perhaps 9 and 6 sledding in the snow; I suspect that they are Thurston and Marjorie. Next65 is a shot of four unidentified children sitting on the grass. The next photo is of a baby66, several months old, and is printed on a postcard backing. This one, however, was mailed from South Cairo, NY (very close to Kingston) on August 22, 1910. The postcard photographer is identified on the reverse as Tarr Studios, 500 Fulton St Brooklyn N.Y. It is addressed to “Mrs. F. J. Rohde (Hannah?) or Mrs. Gwinn, C/o Chelsea, 3rd St, Asbury Park, N.J.” On the address side there is a short note: “Everything OK How are you? Charlie”. I suspect that “Charlie” is Charles Rohde, Flo’s brother. (The signature “Charlie” does not seem to match the signature “Uncle Charles” on the earlier examined letter to Thurston in 1933 whom I take to be from Charles Gwynne). I would like to think that the picture is one of Marjorie, who would have been about 5 months old at the time of the postmark but I can’t explain why Charlie would be sending a shot of Marjorie to Flo. More likely, it is a picture of one of Charles’ children that he is sending to his mother.
The next picture67 is printed on a postcard backing and shows a treed rural scene in the snow including what appears to be a doghouse. There is next a tintype68, obviously much earlier in the 19th century, of six women, two men and a boy- all in hats. Perhaps this is a shot of Florence’s family- maybe her mother’s or father’s clan. It’s also possible that the tintype is of a later date, and one of the young ladies is actually Florence.
Next in the collection of photographs is a picture of an adult woman with a very large hat, bending over so that her face is not visible, and a very young girl of perhaps two or three years of age69. This may be a young Marjorie and either her mother Florence or her grandmother Hannah. There is next a photo that, because of the sign in the lower right stating “Coney Island Express”, I suspect is a souvenir of a trip to Coney Island70. It may have been taken at one of those stands with a contrived background, such as the train car rear that it seems to be. In the shot there are two young ladies in extremely large hats as was the mode around the turn of the century, but the outlines around the faces are solid enough so that it obviously was not taken at one of those trick photo stands that has an oval cutout for you to put your face through. I strongly suspect that one of the two women is a young Florence.
The last of the photos is an undated studio portrait of an attractive young lady71, with the studio’s signature of “Fieud”, or “Fiend” or perhaps “Ficud”, NY in the lower right. Again, this could have been Florence, but the girl in the portrait seems not to have a strong resemblance to either of the young ladies in the previous “Coney Island” photo.
As in any historical research project, there are always some unanswered questions- some leads not followed, some avenues not explored. As mentioned before time constraints have prevented me from following up on several lines of inquiry that may have answered some more questions. For someone who is interested in pursuing more information on the Gwynnes, Rohdes and/or Browns, I have several suggestions.
I suspect that both Thurston and Marjorie grew up in the Brookhaven Hamlet area and went to school here. The school district for the area is now the South Country School District; the Bellport High School is just a half-mile from where they probably lived- and perhaps the school library would have records or even old yearbooks with pictures of Thurston and Marjorie. Thurston would have graduated about 1927 +/– a year or two, and Marjorie about 3 years later. There must be several more older residents of Brookhaven Hamlet who still remember Thurston, and even perhaps Marjorie, Florence and Hannah. The Brookhaven Library72, located at 273 Beaver Dam Rd in Brookhaven (coincidentally only a few hundred feet from where Thurston lived), is a nexus for the residents in the village, and perhaps a notice posted there soliciting information from those who may remember them might be fruitful.
There is a Bellport-Brookhaven Historical Society73, located at 31 Bellport Lane in Bellport that may also have further information, since Thurston apparently was an artist and sculptor of some local repute.
Because Thurston had no children, the only possibility of finding direct descendants of Will and Flo is through Marjorie, whose history is still pretty much unknown and speculative. If indeed the lore of her marrying a Brown from Blue Point is true, then the chances are that they were married locally, probably in the range of 1930 (age 18) to 1934 (if the “Al” in the letter from Mardy from Lake Champlain is really her husband) is great, and a search of local church records or the Suffolk County Archives for marriage records for this period may bear some fruit.
There are several small local cemeteries in the Brookhaven/Bellport area, most associated with churches in the area. A larger public cemetery, Woodland, is located on Station Rd ¼ mile north of the Village of Bellport. A walkthrough of Woodland, while hardly exhaustive, failed to turn up any stones for Rohde, Gwynne or Marjorie Brown. A thorough search of these cemeteries may turn up a monument or two that may shed light on birth and death dates. A search of Suffolk County vital records may also be enlightening in regards to birth dates, marriage dates and death dates. Since Hannah Rohde is not at Oaklawn with Florence she may be buried with Freeman - wherever he may be.
1 The Gwinn Digest; T Robinson
2 Miscellaneous/1899 HS Graduation Announcement
3 1880 and 1890 New York census data
4 Data posted on the LDS website, FamilySearch.org
5 Letters From Will/1908-11-08
6 Letters from Others/1895-09-16 L Hale
7 Letters from Will/1904-05-04
8 Letters from Others/1903-06-16 Henry and 1903-10-29 Henry
9 Miscellaneous/Henry Christmas Tag
12 Letters From Will/1904-04-19
13 Letters From Will/1904-04-2
14 Letters From Will/1904-06-10, 1904-07-12 and others
15 Miscellaneous/1906-02-01 CP&Co
16 Letters From Will/1904-11-29
17 Letters From Will/1905-01-24
18 Letters From Will/1905-01-28 and 1905-04-26
19 Letters From Will/1905-02-28
20 Letters From Will/1905-05-10 and 1905-05-17
21 Miscellaneous/1906-11-03 Postcard
22 Letters From Will/1907-09-22
23 Letters From Will/1908-06-02
25 Letters From Will/1907-07-21
26 Letters From Will/1907-11-09
27 Letters From Will/1907-12-19
29 Letters From Will/1908-12-15
30 Letters From Will/1910-11-18
31 Letters From Others/1909-08-17 Julia B
32 Letters From Others/1909-08-17 Julia B/Julia’s letter translated.do
34 Miscellaneous/1909-09-17 Postcard
35 Letters From Others/1910-03-23 Olive
36 Mail Clerk Gwinn Died at His Post
37 Miscellaneous/1910-04-21, 71st Regiment Annual Dinner Program
38 Miscellaneous/1912-06-07 Co D Condolences
39 Miscellaneous/1910-07-16 Postcard
40 Miscellaneous/1910-12-22 Postcard
41 Letters to & from Others/1907-06-11 to F J Rohde from Frieda E
42 Miscellaneous/1911-06-22 Olive Wedding Announcement
44 Mail Clerk Gwinn Died at His Post
45 Just told sea took husband
46 Mrs Gwinn is not at point of death
47 Treasury Letter
48 Photos/TR Photos 2006
49 Gwinn Family Leaves Suddenly
50 Letters from Others/1912-11-21 Peachy
51 Miscellaneous/1916-11-07 Postcard
52 Letters to & from Others/1933-12-31 to Thurston from Uncle Charles
53 Letters from Others/1934-08-29 Mardy
54 Photos/TR Photos 2006/Florence Grave
55 Photos/TR Photos 2006/Florence & Alan Graves
56 Photos/TR Photos 2006/Alan Brown Plaque
57 St. James Plaza Nursing Facility, 273 Moriches Rd., St. James NY (631) 862-8990
58 Miscellaneous/Engraved Calling Card Plate
59 Miscellaneous/Flederbach Christmas Card
60 Photos/1907-08-01 Couple-maybe Will & Florence
61 Photos/Boy-maybe Thurston
62 Photos/Florence & Will, maybe
63 Photos/Kids on Sled 1-maybe Thurston & Marjorie abt 1918
64 Photos/Kids on Sled 2-maybe Thurston & Marjorie abt 1918
65 Photos/Kids-Maybe Thurston & Marjorie et al
66 Photos/Marjorie, maybe
67 Photos/Snow Scene
68 Photos/Tintype-maybe Florence
69 Photos/Woman and girl- maybe Florence & Marjorie
70 Photos/Women at Coney Island
71 Photos/Young Woman- maybe Florence
73 www.bellportbrookhavenhistorical society.org/