Saturday, October 3, 2020

Sylvia Plath's Mad Grandmother's Ashes

One of 3500 cans of ashes. Photo by "Kim" at

Sylvia Plath's paternal grandmother Ernestine Kottke Plath died at the Oregon State Hospital (formerly "Insane Asylum") in 1919, and her ashes in a canister sat in the hospital's basement for a hundred years with 3500 other such canisters holding the ashes of state-hospital patients. This forgotten "Library of Dust" was the subject of a 2011 documentary film of that name, and the subject of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspaper editorial published in Oregon in 2005.

When patients' death certificates became available, an Oregon-based contributor to the site volunteered to locate living relatives willing to receive the ashes. One of the certificates was for Ernestine Kottke Plath. The researcher, Phyllis Porter Zegers, learned that Ernestine's granddaughter Sylvia Plath became a poet and killed herself, but Zegers focused on finding Ernestine's living descendants.

A family member claimed Ernestine's ashes, finally, in September 2020. It's like Lady Lazarus risen.

[View Ernestine Plath's hospital photo, taken c. 1916, discovered in 2024.]

Sylvia Plath's father Otto Plath was Ernestine's eldest child. While his mother lived, Otto made himself scarce, leaving home for the U.S. at age 15 and then, when his parents and siblings came to the U.S., attending schools far away from them. Aurelia Plath later wrote that Otto stayed bitter about Ernestine's bad mothering. Ernestine's husband Theodor Plath committed Ernestine to the asylum in Salem, Oregon, in 1916. Zeger wrote that according to hospital records Ernestine was admitted suffering from overwork and a leg ulcer, had two "attacks" of something, and dementia. After three years in the crowded mental hospital, Ernestine died there of tuberculosis.

Sylvia Plath knew little or nothing about Ernestine. Aurelia kept secret from Sylvia her Aunt Frieda's information about Ernestine's mental illness. But we carry our ancestors' imprint always, in ways we might not know. 

Friday, September 18, 2020

Theodor Plath's Last Will and Testament

Theodor Plath, Sylvia Plath's paternal grandfather, died on Nov. 5, 1918. He had filed his will (No. 2876) in Clark County, Washington State, on May 26, 1918. It's worth reading, and there's a surprise inside:

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN! I, Theodor Plath, being of sound and disposing mind and memory, and not acting under the fraud, duress or influence of any person or persons, make this will.

I request that all my just debts against my estate including my funeral expenses and the expenses of my last sickness be promptly paid.

I give to my beloved wife Earnestine $100.00.

I give to my son Otto $1.00.

I give to my son Paul $1.00.

I give to my son Max $1.00.

I give to my son Hugo $1.00.

I give to my daughter Martha $1.00.

All the rest and residue of my property which I may own, die possessed of, or have a right to dispose of at my death I give and devise to my daughter Frieda.

I hereby appoint my son Max executor of this last will and request that no bonds be required of him, as such, by any Court or Judge.

Theodor Plath (SEAL)

Signed and sealed by Theodor Plath, testator, and by him declared to be his last will in our presence, who have hereunto subscribed our names as witnesses in his presence and in the presence of each other at his request, at Oregon City, Oregon, this 26th day of May 1918.

Witnesses: Maud Davis (of Oregon City), Annie Stribley (of Portland, OR). [1]

Five days before filing this will, on May 21, 1918, Theodor Plath had filed at the Vancouver [WA] Land Office a Homestead Act claim (aka "patent") to 120 acres in Clark County, Washington, near Salmon Creek, a bit north of Portland, Oregon. [2] As Homestead Act land it was free, although the owner was given a certain number of years to improve it. U.S. homesteading, mostly on formerly Indian lands, was available from 1862 to 1976. Below, in the orange square within the square, is Theodor Plath's 1918 property:

and, from the Bureau of Land Management, Theodor's title or "patent" on that land, dated 5/21/1918. Of course the land has been bought and sold since then:

Bequeathing children $1.00 was not always a "disinheritance" or insult. Were that the case, Theodor probably wouldn't have named his son Max as his will's executor. Theodor might have distributed his assets already, and the will was a formality. Or the $1.00 acknowledged that the offspring were self-supporting adults, or proved that the testator was sound enough of mind to list all family members and give them a token. Frieda Plath, the youngest, in 1918 was 21 or 22 years old and in a Chicago nursing school. Sylvia met her Aunt Frieda in 1959 and liked her. Ernestine Plath, Sylvia's paternal grandmother, in 1918 was in an Oregon mental hospital and survived Theodor by less than one year.

According to a March 1980 letter from Aurelia Plath to Mary Ann Montgomery, Otto Plath owned property in San Francisco that he sold or otherwise tended to while the Plaths were on their honeymoon. Any record has yet to be found.

[1] Washington State Archives (Olympia, Washington); Probate Place: Clark, Washington, pp. 112-113.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Otto Plath and Lydia Bartz Plath, Voter Registration Rolls, 1914

Let's retire the fiction that Otto Plath and first wife Lydia Clara Bartz Plath, married in Washington State in August 1912, were together for three weeks only, because records continue to show it was closer to three years. In 1914 Otto was teaching in Berkeley, California, living with Lydia, and both were registered to vote -- as Progressives. Here's their voter-registration page. [Click the image to enlarge.]

Wait, but it's 1914, so women in the U.S. can't vote!?! In California they could and did.

Otto and Lydia are still at that address in 1915 as she enrolled in UC-Berkeley's summer school.

Source: California State Library; Sacramento, California; Great Register of Voters, 1900-1968.

Aurelia in Drag

"When students of the Boston College of Practical Arts and Letters gave a play recently, Miss Aurelia Schober was the leading man," says the caption.

Discovered in the obscure Eustis [FL, near Orlando] Daily Lake Region newspaper, March 4, 1926, page 8: a unique photo of college girl Aurelia Schober in faraway Boston, Massachusetts, outfitted as a man for her role in her college's German Club play. At the all-female Boston University College of Practical Arts and Letters (CPAL) German-Club theatricals, Aurelia was often (always?) cast as a man, being tall and talented. [See an earlier, related post noting her acting.]

The image must have been quite striking for an editor in Eustis, population then 2800, to clip from its original background and print.

Boston University's College of Arts and Letters' well-staffed and industrious Press Club regularly sent press releases with college news to numerous papers. Occasionally the Club's copy or photos were published in the Boston Herald, Boston Traveler, Boston Globe, Boston Evening Transcript. Photos were expensive to print and send, so how did this get to Florida? We do know that CPAL enrolled at least one student from Florida.

Aurelia's stage career extended beyond her college graduation in 1928 to a role (as a female) at Brookline High School in 1930, a performance Aurelia remembered impressed a theatrical agent in the audience.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Two Aurelias in San Remo, Italy

Aurelia Frances Schober was born in Boston on April 26, 1906 to Aurelia and Francis Schober, both natives of Austria. On February 8, 1909 in Boston, Francis Schober completed his U.S. Petition for Naturalization form: citizenship papers found copied in the Plath archives. Francis filled in its blanks:

My wife’s name is Aurelia. She was born in Vienna, Austria, and now resides at San Remo, Italy. I have one child, and the name, date and place of birth, and place of residence of said children is as follows: Aurelia F., April 26, 1906  Boston Mass.  San Remo, Italy


What? [Click the image to enlarge.] In February 1909 Aurelia F. Schober is not yet three years old, but away “residing” with her mother on the Italian Riviera? This is never mentioned again in any archives.


Located between Genoa and Monte Carlo, San Remo was and still is a residence and retreat for Europe’s wealthy and cultured. Empress Maria Alexandrovna after a visit in 1874 donated the now famous San Remo seaside promenade. Alfred Nobel’s former home there is a museum now. 


Francis Schober wrote “San Remo” on this form twice and clearly, so it is unlikely to be an error. 

A ship’s manifest for the Kaiser Wilhelm II, sailing from Bremen on May 18, 1909 and docking at Ellis Island May 26, 1909 yielded, on Lines 13 and 14, two Aurelia Schobers, the younger represented by ditto marks and the designation “ch.” For the adult Aurelia, the clerk scrawled: “U.S.A. Citizen” and “husb U.S.C [citizen].” [1] (By default, wives then took their husband’s nationality.) Aurelia Senior had left the U.S. an alien but returned a citizen, or a soon-to-be one. Francis's full citizenship was granted by the court on July 10, 1909. A handwritten note on Francis's Oath of Allegiance says as of July 6 his new address is 2049 Columbus Avenue, Boston.


So mother and daughter Schober were in May 1909 returning from at least four months overseas. If too young to recall that trip, did Aurelia Plath never hear her parents reminisce? Because Francis had a San Remo link too.


According to the ship's manifest, when Francis (as “Francois”) Schober left Europe for the U.S. in 1902, boarding the ship Vancouver in Naples [his Petition for Naturalization, dated 1909, says "Genoa"] he listed his last job as “butler” in San Remo. [2] Why in 1909 were his wife, age 21, and small daughter “residing” there? If vacationing, wouldn't their residence be Boston? Was Aurelia Senior “wintering” with relatives she had last seen in Vienna in 1904, bringing her toddler namesake? Did she find a job there? (San Remo's posh Casino Municipale opened in 1905.) Had Francis proudly sent his wife and daughter on a fine vacation? Perhaps they were not in San Remo but somewhere else. A mystery half-solved. 


[1] Year: 1909; Arrival: New York, New York, USA; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Line: 14; Page Number: 28. New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957 (database on-line). Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010.

[2] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Series Title: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, 1891-1943; NAI Number: 4319742; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: 85; Series Number: T843; NARA Roll Number: 052. [Francois Schober is on line 9.]

Monday, February 17, 2020

Sylvia Plath's Only Gregg Shorthand, Transcribed

Sylvia Plath wrote some Gregg shorthand after all! Her July 5, 1945 letter to Aurelia Plath, written from Camp Helen Storrow, includes three shorthand characters indicated but not transcribed in the Letters vol.1. Curious, I had a look at the original letter in the Lilly Library's Plath mss. II.

Twelve-year-old Sylvia had written to her mother, “Can you tell me what-these signs in shorthand mean?” and drew three shorthand characters. The first two are linked by “and,” and the final character is in parentheses, followed by a period. Why these shorthand characters and not others? Sylvia was asking what they said, so did not know. But she copied them from a grid of 154 Gregg shorthand characters pre-printed on the back cover of the steno notebook she was using as her 1945 summer camp diary.

Sylvia, using her thick black ink, made four checkmarks on this grid. They mark two pairs of symbols that look near-identical. Sylvia chose one of each pair to copy into her letter. The third symbol Sylvia asked about, the one in parentheses, is the same as the second. The first character means both “far” and “favor.” Which of those two would depend on their context. Sylvia's second shorthand character says “got.” The third says “got” in parentheses. So go fill in the blanks in your copy of Letters vol. 1, page 24.

Ergo: “Can you tell me what these signs in shorthand mean? Far/favor and got (got)."
The other two checkmarked characters in the grid that look so similar:

In Aurelia’s lighter ink and elegant hand, on this notebook’s back cover, up top, two Gregg shorthand characters say “medical texts.” Aurelia had been hired in 1942 to teach a Medical Secretarial Procedures course at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters (Letters Home, 28-29).

These characters are from the Anniversary Edition of Gregg, taught from 1930 to 1949. I await permission to show on this blog a photo of the notebook's back cover.

Bless us, now we know three more words Sylvia wrote.

Images of the shorthand are from The diary’s official location at the Lilly: Plath mss. II, Series: Diaries and Calendars 1944-1957, Box 7, Folder 2, “Daily Journal at Camp Helen Storrow, July 1-14, 1945."

Photos from Aurelia's College Yearbook

A reader kindly sent me photos of Aurelia Schober from Aurelia's college yearbook, the one Aurelia edited, the 1928 volume of Sivad. That's "Davis" spelled backwards; T. Lawrence Davis  founded the school as Boston University's College of Secretarial Science in 1919, and was to be its only dean. The year Aurelia enrolled, 1924, the College's name had been changed to the College of Practical Arts and Letters (CPAL). Aurelia graduated with the degree Bachelor of Secretarial Sciences (B.S.S.), which CPAL was the first to grant.

Davis ensured that CPAL's students, all females, were educated not only in secretarial skills but in the arts and letters. There were even dancing lessons for students deemed in need of them. Aurelia's secretarial science degree was a liability for a woman who wanted a job teaching languages and literature. A year after graduation Aurelia set about to "rectify" (her word) [1] her B.S.S. degree by starting Boston University graduate school, earning in 1930 a master's degree in English and German.

Aurelia was editor-in-chief of her senior yearbook. In the above staff photograph she sits front and center. She is markedly taller and longer-limbed than her schoolmates. One of Sylvia's boyfriends later called Aurelia "statuesque."

Here is Aurelia's college graduation photo, taken in profile, as was Sylvia Plath's.

Active in the CPAL German Club, Aurelia on two documented occasions acted as the male lead in the club's German-language plays. She resigned the German Club presidency when appointed to head Sivad. The "class note" alongside Aurelia's graduation photo reads:

"The German Club nearly lost its sensational 'young man' when Sivad won an efficient Editor-in-Chief, but Aurelia played both roles admirably. The staff will never forget those board meetings, those would-be 'scoldings' and those cherished words of approval and praise."

History of Boston University's College of Practical Arts and Letters: (accessed 16 February 2020)

Dates of CPAL founding, renaming, absorption in 1955 into the College of Business Administration:

Many thanks to Sarah Manthe. The 1928 Sivad had been elusive while the volumes from adjacent years were not.

[1] XI. Aurelia Plath, Box 30, folder 67, Smith.