SENIOR POWER: Once upon a time…

Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday March 20, 2015 - 02:51:00 PM

A moral conveys a lesson or message to be learned from an event or story. The moral may be left to the hearer, reader or viewer to determine or it may be explicitly encapsulated in a maxim. Is there a moral to this story? Once upon a time in 19th century New York City, as Manhattan Island was known, there lived three sisters: Charlotte, Elizabeth, and Mary Dodge. Their once-upon-a-time lives had more than their share of sickness, poverty and loneliness as they aged. 

As young women, they lived cozily with their parents, Helen Amerman Dodge and Alexander Forbes Dodge. Music was important in their lives. Their mother volunteered at nearby Houston Street Industrial School. Alexander was a coal dealer. His Civil War service as a Corporal in the New York Militia would provide his widow with a pension of $8.00 a month. There was also a servant in their home: fifteen year old Margaret Mary Langley, born in Ireland. 

The family resided at 36 Orchard Street in the Tenth Ward of East Side Manhattan-- ChinaTown. Surveyor maps show 36 Orchard as a brick or stone dwelling of the first class, meaning it had a slate or metal roof that sloped. 

The oldest sister was Charlotte (1836-1919), a poet and music teacher. She married Charles Brombacher in 1855. Some records spell it Brombacker. The 1860 Census recorded that he was “employed in manufacture of machines.” Their servants were 21-year old Maggie Laughery from Ireland and 29-year old Otto Fisher from Saxony. Charlotte and Charles both suffered from malaria at the time the Census was taken. Fifty years later, the 1910 Kings County 22nd Ward Census records 73 year-old Charlotte Brombacher living in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, a widow and teacher of music. Sister Lizzie is at the same address, no occupation. 

Cemetery records identify nephritis as Charlotte’s cause of her death. She was buried in the GreenWood Cemetery lot owned by a Mrs. Frances Helena Walker of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Walker had written the Cemetery authorizing interment in her lot “when occasion may require, of the remains of Charlotte Brombacker and Elizabeth Tracy, nieces of my deceased father Richard Amerman.” 

In 2007 an eBay vendor listed “an interesting piece of ephemera, a birthday booklet, Thy Birthday by Charlotte Dodge Brombacher, printed in Munich, 5 pages inside, each with two stanzas of poetry and illustrations. The title page provided the following information: “Thy Birthday By Charlotte Dodge Brombacher: Wirths Brothers New-York London Munich Printed in Munich.” The seller said that she had obtained it as part of a New Jersey doctor’s library. 

The World Catalog lists five sentimental ditty titles by Charlotte Dodge Brombacher, all published in the 1880’s: “It may be only a rosebud,” “Sing me a song to-night: fireside stanzas to my friend,” “Forget me not,” “Home Sweet Home,” and “Think of me.” They are in the library collections of such institutions as Princeton and Brown Universities. “Forget me not” is in the collection of the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, said to be the only museum devoted solely to the role of play in learning and human development and the ways in which play illuminates American cultural history. 

Middle sister Elizabeth “Lizzie” Forbes Dodge (1838-1927) married Milton C. Tracy. Some records spell it Tracey. Their children were Edna and son Elias, who, age 15, worked “at weighing.” Widows Lizzie and Charlotte lived together until Charlotte’s death. Lizzie spent her final years at the Baptist Home at 665 Greene Avenue, established in 1869 with 60 beds, where she died “alone,” so to speak. Her cause of death was listed as Myocarditis. She too was buried in Frances Helena Walker’s GreenWood Cemetery lot. 

Mary Dodge (1839-1911), the youngest of the three sisters, died first. She was an organist and composer, teacher of music and poet, for forty-four years the organist and musical director of Greenwood Church and Calvary Baptist Churches. She was a board member of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (today’s Academy of Music), founder-conductor of the Mozart Vocal Society of Brooklyn, a founder of the Thatford Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, and a Samaritan Hospital director. 

Mary described for her grandchildren an incident when, as a young woman, she had been caught without her bustle. The arrival of an unexpected caller stranded her at the piano until he departed. She was twenty-three in 1862 when she married “an older man,” forty-four year old paunchy Charles Wardell of Newark, New Jersey. He courted her with trips out of town to the Philharmonic in Brooklyn. The wedding was held at the Collegiate Reformed Church, then on 29th Street in Manhattan. Whether he was trying to avoid Union Army service or had just returned from Civil War duty is unclear. They met at church and also had music in common. 

Following their marriage, she noted that Charlie had business and was teaching in Brooklyn. There were miscarriages and early deaths leading to their purchasing a family lot in GreenWood Cemetery. They named their only child to survive Helen Elizabeth Wardell (1864-1904) and called her Nellie. At the time, a married woman – “a widow woman” -- could not own property, sue, or keep money she earned, although she had to pay taxes. Colleges, the right to vote, and professions were in the future. 

There were tragedies in her life— several babies’ early deaths as well as daughter Nellie’s death by fire, followed by Mary’s eviction from their home. A Rev. Tupper was so popular that he was able to swindle some members of the congregation, like Mary, of their life savings. A room named after him had to be changed from The Tupper Room to the Upper Room! 

Newspaper obituaries described Mary as a member of “the talented Dodge Family,” pointing out that her grandfather’s brother, Richard Dodge, married the sister of Washington Irving. When she died, of nephritis, she was renting rooms at 427 5 Street. Sisters Charlotte and Lizzie had spent much of their lives together as widows renting in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. 

Writing women back into history is March 2015 Women’s History Month’s theme. Not always a fun story, however. 


The March 2015 AARP Bulletin (vol 56, # 2) devotes considerable space to elder abuse and the caregiver/health aide/ whatever. “10 questions to ask before hiring a health aide” is particularly good. Go to