Friday, September 10, 2021

Civil War veteran William Johnson & his two wives

The grave of Civil War veteran William M. Johnson went unmarked in the Chariton Cemetery for more than a century following his death during 1901. Then, during 2011, members of the Lucas County Genealogical Society worked with a descendant to arrange placement of this government-issue stone. Stones like this remain available for veterans whose graves are otherwise unmarked --- providing documents to establish service can be located.

William was enumerated in the 1900 census as a day laborer, so his widow, Alice (Boylan) Johnson, probably had limited funds. Although he was survived by 10 children, they scattered and in the end none remained in Lucas County --- factors that help to explain an unmarked grave.

Here's Mr. Johnson's obituary as published in The Chariton Herald of Aug. 8, 1901:


William Johnson was born March 15, 1834, in Henry county, Ohio. When about ten years of age he came with his parents on Indiana, living there till grown to years of manhood, thence to Missouri, where he lived until the breaking out of the war of the rebellion, when he enlisted in 1861, serving until the close. In 1866 he was married to Miss Alice Boylan, on September 23. To them were born 13 children, five daughters and eight sons; and of these, ten are living. Mr. Johnson had been a sufferer from cancer of the stomach for five months and death ccame as a relief on Sunday morning at 10:15.

Funeral services were held at the home on Monday, conducted by Rev. Vollmar, after which the remains were interred in the Chariton cemetery.


A month later, The Herald reported the following in its edition of Sept. 12 under the headline, "Chariton man had two wives."

William Johnson, of this city, who died on August 6, left a wife and thirteen (actually 10) children to mourn his loss. From recent development it seems that he also left another wife about forty-one years ago, and never went back to her.

He was married to her on July 5, 1860, and the next year joined the 13th Missouri Cavalry and went to war. She never heard from him after that, and after the war she mourned him as dead. Some time ago she applied to the pension department for a widow's  pension, and received the startling information that her husband was alive and living in Chariton, Iowa. This was something over a year ago.

She came here and found him alive and well. He did not deny that he was himself, and just what excuse he offered for not returning to her after the war will probably never be divulged. He was then living with the wife and children that still live here and mourn him as husband and father.

Wife No. 1 is trying to secure possession of the property of  Mr. Johnson, whom she claims was never legally married to any other woman. Wife No. 2, it is said, has the real estate property in her name, so it is likely that Wife No. 1 will have to heal her indignation and  wounded feelings with something else besides property and personal belongings. The developments of the case will be watched with interest.

Mr. Johnson, before his death, was a member of Iseminger Post, of this city, and was drawing a pension as an honorably discharged soldier. He was buried with military honors by the local post. 


There were no further reports about the case, so I can't say how it was resolved.

The U.S. Civil War Pension Index, available online, shows that William applied for an invalid's pension during 1887, when the family was living in Kansas; and that Alice applied for a widow's pension on July 3, 1905, while living in Chariton. 

But another entry on the index card lists Emily J. Hertsell as a claimant, too, identifying her as "con. widow" --- perhaps "contested" widow. That claim was filed Aug. 30, 1875, however, according to the index.

So did Emily resurface 25 years later after her straying spouse actually died? It would be interesting to know, but time consuming to investigate further. The image here, by the way, is from Find a Grave.

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