Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah Reveley, a sixth-generation Texan who is scheduled to speak at the Villa Finale Visitor Center in the fall about the Texas Historical Commission’s efforts to save damaged historical markers and historic buildings throughout Bexar County (click here to see Sarah’s website). Being lovers of history, she and I began to talk about family heirlooms – this is when she mentioned letters written by her great-aunt Emmy Kailer relating her visit with the Meusebach [Moys-a-bach] family at their home on King William Street. Of course, this immediately peaked my interest because the Meusebach home is right across the street from Villa Finale and it was one of the first houses purchased and restored by Walter Mathis in the King William neighborhood.
Here’s a little bit of background on the Meusebach family. Baron Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach, who later adopted the name John O. Meusebach, arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1845 as the new commissioner-general for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. In August 1845, John founded the town of Fredericksburg which served as a second stop en route to the Fisher-Miller Land Grant. At roughly 40 years old, John married 17-year-old Countess Agnes of Corenth with whom he had eleven children: only seven of their children would reach adulthood. Two of their sons, Otto and Max, lived at the house at 414 King William Street (then numbered 416) in the 1890s.
Otto Meusebach had purchased the home in 1889 from original owners Smith and Josie Ellis for $2,500 (that’s over $60,000 in today’s values), and he, his wife Martha, sons Kurt, John and daughter Anita all moved in. Max lived with his brother Otto’s family until about 1892. By all accounts, the Meusebach brothers were colorful characters, especially around San Antonio’s bars. If you haven’t had a chance to hear about them, I invite you to listen to the Meusebach house’s audio on our cell phone tour, The King William Homes of Preservationist Walter Mathis.
Now let me get back to Sarah Reveley’s great-aunt, Emmy. (The exact connection between the Kailer family and the Meusebachs is unknown although it is likely Emmy’s father, Eugen Kailer knew the Meusebachs through business connections. Eugen was once editor of New Braunfel’s Zeitung newspaper.) Emmy visited the Meusebachs in San Antonio all the way from her home in New Braunfels in September, 1898. Written entirely in German (thanks to Sarah for sending translations), on September 19 Emmy tells her mother how much she wants it to stop raining so she and Anita Meusebach could go to the theater … one can only imagine how terrible it was to navigate the muddy streets of the city back then! Emmy’s mother wrote back the next day saying:
How happy I am that you’re doing well and arrived safely! I’m only a bit scared that you won’t like it here anymore, when you’re being spoiled in San Antonio. We’ve already shied away from the weather and thought about whether it’s raining where you are. It’s rained a lot here and the paths and walks are so muddy that one doesn’t think about going out.
Emmy wrote back on September 22nd telling her mother how much she is enjoying going to the theater, even attending matinees with Anita Meusebach, how she plans to buy her little sister Hildegarde a fan (Hilde is Sarah Reveley’s grandmother), and about one of the Meusebach’s chickens singing to her every morning at her window. It is easy to see the young Emmy’s excitement at being in the “big city” and spending time with the teenaged Anita Meusebach. It is very sad to think that only two years later in May 1900, 16-year-old Anita would die of peritonitis.
Peritonitis, an inflammation of the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity, is caused by a bacterial infection and was a common cause of death, especially maternal death, in the 19th century. Infections spread into the abdominal cavity and were typically associated with poor hygiene – the practice of washing one’s hands was still in its infancy. Mortality rates fell dramatically after people began practicing good hygiene, especially in the medical field.
Regardless of the reasons for Anita Meusebach’s death, the tragedy was surely devastating for the family. In 1902, Otto sold the home on King William Street – he died the following year. His sons went on to prosper, however. Kurt became a coal merchant and John went on to be the treasurer of the San Antonio Machine and Supply Company. Click this link to see an 1880’s photograph of Baron Meusebach’s sons: [Ernst, Otto, and Max Meusebach, sons of John O. Meusebach] :: ITC – General Collection.
A very special THANK YOU to Sarah Reveley for sharing her great-aunt’s letters with Villa Finale. Emmy Kailer has given us great insight into the Meusebach family and life in late 19th San Antonio.
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