Fearless Females: The tragic stories of Julia Kunkel and Janet Melvin

Lisa Alzo of The Accidental Genealogist blog presents Fearless Females: 31 Blogging Prompts to Celebrate Women’s History Month. March 11 — Did you have any female ancestors who died young or from tragic or unexpected circumstances? Describe and how this affected the family?

There are two tragic deaths of young women in my family tree. One was my maternal great-grandfather’s first wife, Janet Melvin nee Peterkin and the other my paternal great-grandmother, Julia Celia Kunkel nee Gavin.

Janet Melvin nee Peterkin

Janet Melvin’s story is a truly tragic one. Last Friday, 2nd March 2012, was the 135th anniversary of her death. Janet set sail for Australia from London on the Woodlark in October 1876. With her were her husband Stephen and infant son Lawrence, aged 4 months.

The family were all when the ship arrived in Moreton Bay in January 1877, but not long after Janet fell ill. She died on 2 March 1877 at Peel Island, in quarantine. I feel so sad when I think of her courage in making this voyage then knowing she would leave her infant son motherless. I was consoled that her husband and son were still with her on Peel Island when she died, and she wasn’t entirely alone. Janet had just turned 22.

Janet’s son Lawrence survived this early tragedy but I’m told his father tended to favour him above his other children – hardly surprising under the circumstances. My family descends from Stephen’s second wife Emily nee Partridge.

Julia Kunkel nee Gavin

Julia Kunkel saw more of life perhaps than young Janet but she also died young, at only 42, in what I feel was a particularly gruesome way. This was her obituary:

OBITUARY: Darling Downs Gazette 21 November 1901

We sincerely regret to have to record the death of Mrs George Kunkel, wife of the respected railway ganger of Geham, and daughter of Mr Denis Gavan (sic), of this town. The deceased was born in Dalby and was 42 years of age, and leaves a husband and 10 children to mourn the loss of a good wife and mother. Deceased, who had been ailing for some time, came in about a week ago to consult Dr McDonnell, who found her to be suffering from a serious internal disorder and at once pronounced the case to be hopeless. On account of the weak state of her heart, the doctors could not administer chloroform and had to perform an operation without its aid. Although the operation was a success, the patient’s constitution was too weak to make the recovery and she gradually sank and expired at 3.45 on Wednesday morning. The husband is at present also in a poor state of health.  Deceased throughout her life has been a particularly devout adherent of the Roman Catholic Church.  The deepest sympathy is felt for the bereaved husband and children in their terrible loss. The funeral leaves Mr D Gavin’s residence off Seaton St at 2 o’clock this afternoon.

Each time I read this I am horrified anew at the prospect of her being operated on without anaesthetic because she had a weak heart. Her husband died only five weeks later on Christmas Day 1901 leaving their children orphaned.

The impact on the family was significant because while some were old enough to be self-sufficient, they took on some responsibility for the younger ones. Over the years the siblings became alienated for different reasons and the younger ones in particular seemed to suffer the loss of their parents the most. I often wonder if my grandfather’s marriage at a rather late age wasn’t influenced by seeing what happened to his mother.

Julia Kunkel was laid to rest with her mother in the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery on 21 November 1901. The full story of Julia and George Michael Kunkel is told in Grassroots Queenslanders: the Kunkel family.

Tomorrow I’ll be visiting her grave site, so the timing of this post is particularly apt. One of my family history “bucket list” items is to put a grave stone on her grave which she shares with her mother and a friend.