The Two Wives

John and Melissa Bennett Beck

I picked up this carte de visite, also known as a cdv, at the Markle Antique Mall in Markle, Indiana.  The words John Beck & wife were penned above the sitters’ heads. Based on the wife’s fashion and hairstyle, I loosely date the cdv to the 1870s.

John Beck had two wives…no, not at the same time.  But, two wives meant that I needed to gather as many pieces of the puzzle as possible in order to know which of John’s wives sat for this photograph.

In an attempt to narrow the 1870s time frame, I researched the photography studio, Shoaff & Berst.

Shoaff & Berst photographers Fort Wayne Indiana

John A. Shoaff opened Shoaff’s Art Gallery about 1864, and it was one of the busiest photography studios in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  In November, 1873, Shoaff, looking to lighten his workload, took on fellow photographer, Conrad Berst, who came from Brand’s Gallery in Chicago.  It seems the partnership was short lived; in the 1874-75 city directory, the studio was listed as Shoaff & Berst, but by the time the 1875-76 directory was released, the gallery had dropped Berst from the name and Conrad was no longer a resident of the area.  With this information, I tightened my dating of the cdv to late 1873 – early 1875.

Getting to know John better, I learned that he was a farmer who first married in 1867 when he was 28 and his bride, Mary (nee Miller) was 21.  Mary died in 1874.  Although I was not able to find a specific death date for her, it’s likely she succumbed to complications from childbirth when her fourth child, Lillian, was born on November 29 of that year.  In 1877, John married Melissa (nee Bennett), who was 16 years his junior.  Melissa was born in Iowa and taught school there, and in Wells County, Indiana, before her marriage to John.

According to my dating hypothesis, if the photo was taken when Shoaff & Berst were in business (1873 – 1875), Mary was the wife in the photo.  Whoops!  Things aren’t always as they seem.  I later discovered a photo of Melissa in the Biographical Memoirs of Wells County, Indiana, and it was clear that she and the wife in my cdv were one and the same.

john and melissa from wells county book

Where does this leave us?  John’s biography from the above mentioned 1903 publication states he married Melissa the year following Mary’s death.  This would fit with my 1873-1875 dating of the cdv.  However, the official marriage record is dated March 6, 1877.  Most likely, the author got the marriage year wrong.  Is it possible that John and Melissa began living together as husband and wife in 1875, but weren’t legally wed until 1877?  If that were the case, they may have given their marriage year to the interviewer as 1875.  But, that’s just me tossing around every conceivable scenario.  Mary’s death left John with a newborn and three very young children, ages six, four and three years.  I surmise he needed someone to help care for the children post haste.  Was that person Melissa?  I wondered if the image was captured in 1875 as an engagement photo, however, in this situation, I find it unlikely the engagement lasted two years. My final consideration, and what I deem most probable, is that the photo was taken in 1877, and although Berst was no longer involved in the business at the time, Shoaff continued to use cdv cardstock with the Shoaff & Berst logo.  What are your thoughts?

John Beck Obituary
One thing I’ve learned is that I can’t trust everything I find in writing.  I’ve encountered various records, including death certificates, census records, and newspaper articles, with incorrect information. John’s obituary is an example.  The misreporting leaves readers with the impression that he was married once, to Mary, and that all of the children were hers.  His second wife, Melissa, who survived him, was the mother of Ira D. Beck and Mrs. I.C. (Nora) Hamilton.

Census records
Find A Grave
Marriage records of Wells county, Indiana
Indiana Death records
Directory of Fort Wayne Photographers
Shoaff & Berst opening – Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, November 27, 1873, Pg 2
1874-75 Fort Wayne, Indiana City Directory
1875-76 Fort Wayne, Indiana City Directory
1876-77 Fort Wayne, Indiana City Directory
John Beck obituary – The Fort Wayne Sentinel,  August 9, 1907, Pg 10
Biographical Memoirs of Wells County, Indiana, published 1903
Melissa Beck obituary – The Weekly Sentinel, November 1, 1916 Pg 1

One thought on “The Two Wives

  1. I thought it odd the obituary didn’t mention his second wife, since she likely gave the paper the information. I am sure you are right. The CDv “paper” was probably left over and was used as to not waste it.

    Liked by 1 person

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