Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Letha E. House

Letha's story is a true rags-to-riches tale.

Later in her life, Letha inherited money from her family. Before her death she donated money for the Medina County Parks system. At her death, she left a trust that has distributed money to worthy causes since the 1970's.

Letha was born June 12, 1880 in Ontario, Canada; her parents were John Brewster and Margaret Corrigan Brewster. Probably. We say "Probably" because we cannot find a birth record for Letha. The Canadian records are available on and on Ancestry, but there is no listing for Letha. Was it just an oversight, which happened a lot during this time period? Or was it deliberate?

 The information on her birth comes from later records. Her marriage record lists John Brewster as her father and her mother as "unknown to informant." The informant was her husband-to-be, William House. Her obituary in the July 4, 1968 Medina Gazette lists her birth date and place, but not her parents. The information for her obituary most likely would have been provided by her  cousins, who would have relied on what Letha herself had told them.

So why so much mystery?

Joann G. King wrote a very compelling and easy to read biography of Letha, Letha E. House: From Foundling to Philanthropist, that attempts to solve some of the mystery. Piecing together clues from many diverse sources, she discloses that John Brewster and Margaret Corrigan married in Cleveland, on February 14, 1880.

Marriage record of John Brewster and Margaret
Corrigan found on Ancestry Library Edition
 So already we can see a possible issue with Letha's birth. Margaret was already 5 months pregnant when the couple married in Cleveland.

And why did Margaret give birth in Canada, if she was married in Cleveland? Margaret was born in Ontario, Canada, and her parents were still living there. She had followed her brothers to Cleveland. But by 1880, her brothers were in Austria working to develop petroleum refining there. They didn't return to Cleveland until 1883.  But why wasn't she living with her husband?

After the marriage, John Brewster disappears from the scene. The issue is complicated by the fact that there were several John Brewster's living in Cleveland around this time.

In the 1870 Census there is a John Brewster in Cleveland. He was 45 years old, married and was a carpenter. In the 1880 census, the only John Brewster listed was a 10  year living with his parents.

In the Cleveland City Directories (from Ancestry Library Edition) from 1867 to 1880, there are John Brewsters who are variously listed as a: blacksmith (1867); mason (1869, 1871, 1872, 1873, 1874); and a laborer (1878, 1880). 

A possible solution to his disappearance is below:

Death Record for John Brewster (second line)dated February 29, 1880,
only 2 weeks after Margaret Corrigan's marriage.
In this record, his age is given as 84, which may be a mistake
Interment Record for John Brewster. In this record his age is given as 34.
 In both records, cause of death is pericarditis, confirming that is the same man.

IF the John Brewster who married Margaret Corrigan was the mason/laborer, he could have died within two weeks of the marriage, causing Margaret to return to Canada. And IF he was her husband, did Margaret marry an already ailing man to give her daughter a name? These are unanswered questions.

But how did Letha come to live in Medina?

According to Joann's book, Margaret gave Letha up. Somehow, she was whisked away to the George Morse family in Lafayette. They  raised the baby Letha. But they did not adopt Letha and in the 1900 Census, she is listed as "Foster Daughter".

1900 Census for Lafayette Township, Medina County, Ohio
George Morse is listed on the previous page.
From Ancestry Library Edition.

Letha must have known she was a foster child or her father's name would not have appeared on her marriage record. But shortly after her marriage, her life would take a bizarre twist.

Remember Margaret Corrigan's brothers that she followed to Cleveland? They had become incredibly wealthy and also suffered incredible tragedies.

James Corrigan Sr., Margaret's brother and Letha's uncle, started humbly in life. But through his own hard work and business accumen he amassed a fortune in oil refining and lake shipping. But in July of 1900, just weeks before Letha married William House, James Corrigan's wife and daughter were killed in a boating accident on the lake.

Medina County Gazette
July 4, 1901

In 1901, Letha learned of her connection to the wealthy Cleveland family.

But it was 48 years later, when the wife of James Corrigan Jr., Laura Mae, died that the incredible happened. (James Corrigan Jr. had died in 1928) Letha was named as an heir to  part of the Corrigan fortune.

This excerpt from a January 24, 1948 first page article in the Plain Dealer detailing the heirs of the estate is very revealing:

Cleveland Plain Dealer 24 January 1948, p. 1
ONE SIXTEENTH EACH -  Charles F. Ripley, 15132 Euclid Avenue, East Cleveland: James R. Corrigan, 2144 Reveley Avenue, Lakewood: Mrs. Letha House of Medina: the late Johnson Corrigan of Pasadena, Cal. and Grace Parker Bassett, address not known. .... All of those to get one sixteenth each are first cousins of Corrigan, with the exception of Mrs. Bassett.

This is the most direct evidence that Letha was a Corrigan, as the relationship is not mentioned in the will.

From all accounts, Letha was a very unassuming woman. Her name doesn't appear in the local newspapers as a young woman except to mention that she was visiting friends. Even after she married, her name only appears in articles on various women's and charity groups.

Letha died in 1968 and that was when the county learned how wealthy and how generous she was. The trust she set up has benefited the citizens of Medina County ever since. The list of beneficiaries is five pages long in her biography and includes such organizations as area school districts and historical societies, and the Medina Community Design Committee.

To learn more of Letha's rags-to-riches story, order Joann King's book from the library HERE.


Anonymous said...

Love to read these! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy-
Once again you have posted a fascinating story. I will put this bio on my reading list. Thank you-

Lisa said...

Loved this! This was very interesting and I loved the research involved!