I’ve lived all my life with the memory of twin boys I never knew.
Tom and John Kelly lived with my great-grandparents for about 10 years, starting when they were six years old. My grandmother told me their story when I was a child and it has stuck with me all these years.
My great-grandparents, John Peter and Amelia Minnich Lantz, were married in 1869 and had their first child, Isaac Lafayette, on March 8, 1871. Working a farm in the 19th Century on the Illinois prairie was hard work for both men and women, but my great-grandparents kept striving.
In October of the year their first child was born, the Great Chicago Fire broke out, incinerating a sizeable chunk of the city and killing hundreds. Many children were orphaned, according to the newspapers of the day.
Listening to those stories, Amelia decided maybe one of those orphan girls could be obtained to come out to the Wheatland Township prairie to live and grow up, helping with Uncle Isaac and the rest of the work a farm wife of the era did. That included cooking and caring for the family as well as the hired men, keeping the house clean, doing the laundry (in the era when water had to be pumped by hand in the farmyard, carried inside and heated on a wood-burning stove), planting and tilling the garden, harvesting and preserving the garden and orchard produce, and raising chickens for their eggs (which could be traded for staples at the grocery store) and meat.
So off to Chicago my great-grandfather John Peter went with orders to bring home an orphan girl. Always a soft touch for someone else’s problems, instead of the anticipated sturdy orphan girl to help with Amelia’s work, John Peter came home with six year-old orphan boys, John and Tom Kelly.
I have no idea whether they were orphaned by the Chicago Fire, nor do I know a whole lot about them, either, other than they were born in 1866 and my great-grandparents took them in and raised them. In addition, they appear to have had a brother. In an old family photo album, there is a tintype of John and Tom flanking a young man with a clear familial resemblance. The names are written underneath in pencil in my grandmother’s handwriting: “Tom Kelly…Brother…John Kelly.”
The twins lived with my great-grandparents and helped on the farm until about 1883. On Sept. 21 of that year, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Dr. Putt has gone to Nebraska; also John and Tom Kelly.”
A further note in the Aug. 28, 1907 Record reported that: “Tom and John Kelly of Hastings, Nebr., who were boys of this vicinity years ago, are visiting here for a while. They were very prosperous and now have rented their farm to enjoy some traveling.”
John Kelly died on Jan. 13, 1918 and was buried in the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church Cemetery, located in Wheatland Township, Will County. Tom lived on for 11 more years, although by the time his brother died he’d been committed to the Elgin State Hospital for the Insane. He died Feb. 25, 1929 and was buried by the side of his brother in the Scotch Church Cemetery.
There they lay today, enigmatic brothers who drifted into and out of my family’s life 140 years ago.
I often wonder what they made of the whole situation. My great-grandparents must have cared for them. Not only are there tintypes taken of them as children in my family’s albums, but also some individual portraits of them as young men. And when they reached the age of 20 in 1886, my great-grandfather gave each of them $1,200 (a tidy sum then, equal to roughly $38,000, adjusted for inflation) and a “new suit of clothes.” This was three years after they’d apparently moved to Nebraska.
So questions arise. Why did my great-grandparents pick that year to give them their money? Who was their brother and what happened to him? Who, for that matter, were their parents? What were their lives like out in Nebraska? Was there a history of mental illness in their family? And after leaving Illinois, how did they happen to come back to die and be buried here?
I will keep looking because as long as I do, I figure those two orphan boys from Chicago will continue to live a little longer, even only as memories.
Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel. While you’re at it, why not subscribe? Give Trena a call at 630-554-8573 and she’ll be happy to set you up.