My Family Story: The Mysterious Life of Sarah Ann Campbell (1871-1907)

I’ve blogged about three of my 2x great grandmothers, all on my paternal side of the family.  Most people have eight 2x great grandmothers, four on the paternal side and four on the maternal. The final paternal 2x great grandma is perhaps the most mysterious of my recent ancestors – her name, I now know, was Sarah Ann Campbell Rice.

To give context, I’m going to work my way backwards to the discovery of this woman and then share some of her chronological life events.

I knew that my great-grandmother, Jane Marie Rice Remley (1893-1971 ) had lost her mother relatively young, that she had at least 3 siblings named Margaret, John, and Arthur. Family legend held that her father remarried his wife’s sister or cousin. I was told some vague information that Jane had lived in the Hill District at some point in her life. I also knew she had some cousins.

That’s all we knew. There was no paper trail for Jane, Margaret, John, or Arthur until the 1920 US Census when they all popped up in various states of marriage. For a very long time, I presumed that they had immigrated to the US and simply remained off the radar until adulthood.

It was clear, however, that there was some sort of secret, something that was tinged with shame or worse. Jane was a bit of a social climber and determined to remain firmly in the middle class, so I assumed it was tied to childhood poverty. My suspicion is that this secret was tied to patterns of intergenerational trauma in the family simply because Jane exerted such a strong level of control over her family, as if she was driven by something she couldn’t articulate to make things a certain way.

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She didn’t handle it well, but she was right about some things – she knew a no-good rogue when she met one.

I was shocked when I learned that Jane whom attended Mass regularly was not registered with the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I also learned that her daughter (my grandmother) and her grandson (my father) had not been baptised, much to their shook. My grandmother went to her grave insisting she had a Confirmation name. I have Jane’s rosary and keep it in my nightstand because it represents something to me, I’m just no longer sure what exactly that is.

This matters not because I doubt her faith, but because there had to be a reason someone doesn’t actually join the church after attending for decades. It was another red flag in the story.

For years, my second cousin and I discussed possibilities. We searched tons of databases between us and simply made no headway. Then on December 20, 2016, I found the key. I ran a search in using my great-grandmother’s married name and up popped a new item – her father’s obituary. I had his name and date of death. That was the key. Note that this is how genealogy works – I’d run that search a dozen times, but suddenly it turned up a new clue.

The next day, I began to unravel a tragic event – my 2x great-grandmother Sarah Ann Campbell Rice (1871-1907) had died from suicide at the age of 36, leaving behind her children and husband and other family. My great-grandmother was 14.

So let me step back into my usual format of telling Sarah’s story in chronological order as best as I’ve been able to piece it together thus far. Sarah’s tragic death was certainly enough of a shock to explain the things I mentioned above, but it also points to a larger picture of a chaotic, hardscrabble life that ripped a family apart many times over.

Sarah was born the youngest of (at least) 9 children, born to Anna Shevlin (1841-1908) and Patrick Campbell (1830-1891.) Both Anna and Patrick had emigrated as children from Ireland with their families and settled in the Hill District. They lived along Basin Alley by 1860, a region of the Hill known as ‘Little Syria’ in tenement housing with no amenities and not even a paved street. Patrick appears to have been in and out of trouble, in and out of the workhouse many times. Granted, it is a bit hard to confirm Patrick Campbell of Pittsburgh circa 1800-anything, but that’s my best guess right now.

Sarah was born in 1871. I found her in the 1880 Census, living with three older siblings and her mother on Basin Alley. She was in school. Her brother was working in the glass blowing industry. Her other older siblings were already married and out of the house with children of their own.  Sarah’s eldest brother, Daniel J Campbell, was a firefighter who died in a terrible blaze in 1900. Here’s a 1899 newspaper story about Basin Alley.  And a photo circa 1907.

Basin Alley Pittsburgh
Image via Ohio State University

In 1888, Sarah married John A. Rice and they lived on Poplar Alley, still in the Lower Hill. John Rice’s parents had also emigrated from Ireland. His father served in the Civil War and worked as a laborer for the remainder of his life. His mother was a Carson – famous relative alert! Yes, she’s related to Rachel Carson. Rachel, I believe, was the second cousin of my great-grandmother, the aforementioned Jane Rice Remley.

The Carsons arrived in Pittsburgh circa 1845, settling in the West End and then moving to the Hill District. Anna Carson married Charles Rice and their son John married my 2x great-grandmother.

That’s where the trail runs cold. They married in 1888 per the marriage documents. Then there’s barely a trace of them until that terrible 1907 newspaper article. What happened in that 19 year period?

Poplar Alley in the Hill District circa 1907 via Historic Pittsburgh

I’ve pieced together that Margaret was born in 1888, Jane was born in 1893, John in 1894 and Arthur in 1897. I think there may have been another child named Jennie born around 1890, but that’s unconfirmed.

The records show that young Arthur was living with his maternal aunt, Jennie Wilson, and her family in Tarentum in 1920. It made sense that family took in the young children when their mother died. However, I found young John in 1900 living with his mother’s cousin, Annie, in Wilkinsburg. That’s 7 years before her death, but perhaps a clue that all was not well in the family.

Circa 1900, Margaret might have gone to stay with her maternal uncle, James Campbell, and married either legally or informally, his stepson, Frank Riley, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post. They seem to have had a son together, Frank Jr.  The Campbell household was on the Northside and Frank mentored a young man in the neighborhood, helping him get a job as a newsboy runner with the Post. That young man was my great-grandfather, Gil Remley.

And that connection would explain how my great-grandmother Jane Marie met my great-grandfather – through her mother’s family who lived near his family. But where was Jane all those years? I’ve combed the census documents looking for her with aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. There’s no trace of her in 1900 or 1910. Nothing appears until a 1914 City Directory listing her and her husband.

Young John ended up back with his father and his second wife. They moved around the Hill District with John pursuing all sorts of jobs until he ended up working for the County. He seems to have retired to Cleveland with his wife and died there.

It is a sad, tragic story. Obviously, losing your mother at a tender age to such a terrible death would be devastating. There’s reason to suspect something else was amiss given that the baby went to live with a cousin in 1900, seven years before Sarah’s death. One could surmise that Margaret and Jane were sent out to domestic work like some of my other relatives of that generation – but there’s no listing anywhere.

The newspaper report could be inaccurate or simply focused on creating a narrative of a poor misguided woman otherwise happily married. But what’s true and what is not?

I have so many questions. Why did Sarah mention her mother calling to her when she took that fatal dose of poison? Her mother was still alive and living in Oakland with a granddaughter. How did they fall off the radar so completely? Was there a fifth child or was Jane and Jennie the same person?

The story grows even more interesting as I continued to dig. Let me summarize

Margaret, the eldest child, allegedly divorced Frank Riley and left their child to marry another man, Harold Kirsch, and have twins daughters with him. She was also a life long alcoholic who was in and out of poor houses, never seeming to live with her husband and children. She died in 1964 from alcohol related causes. Her daughter Dorothy Kirsch Caruso died in 1963 at age 43. She left behind a daughter, Margaret Caruso whom I’ve never been able to track down. Dorothy’s twin sister, Louise Kirsh, never married and lived until 2008 in Washington County. And I do not know what happened to her eldest child with Frank Riley. Frank himself left the newspaper industry and seems to have fallen in with a rough crowd in Altoona.

John Rice, the oldest boy, lived with his father and stepmother for years. Then he just disappears. It is hard to trace a man named John Rice, to be honest. There are dozens of possibilities. It is possible he married Mary and named his daughter Margaret. It is possible he married Bertha. It is possible he was a bachelor.

Arthur, the baby, was adopted by his maternal aunt and her husband. Her grew up in the Allegheny Valley. He married and had two children, working in the local mills. His son, Arthur Jr, died in terrible industrial accident in 1955 at the age of 32, leaving behind two young children and his wife. Arthur Sr lived until 1965.

The mystery child referenced in newspaper accounts of Sarah’s death may have been a Jennie. I conclude this because I found two ‘Letters to Santa’ published in the Pittsburgh Post in 1896 and 1897 from the family address. The letters mention a little brother John. There’s no mention of older sister, Margaret, but she may have been too old for Santa by then. And it is possible this is actually the woman I know as Jane who for some reason told us she was born in 1894 instead of 1890.

And then there’s Jane Marie, my great-grandmother. She has no official record until the 1920 Census, but I did find that and her husband lived on the Northside in 1917. I know my grandma was born in 1916 and her brother in 1914 so it is reasonable guess that they married around 1913. But there’s no record. After 1920, there’s plenty of references to her. Her family unit lived on the Northside until 1920 when they relocated to the Knoxville/Arlington area as my great- grandfather moved up in his career as a newspaperman. She had three children. They all graduated from high school. She and her husband and adult children relocated to Brentwood. She raised two grandchildren (my father and uncle.) She died in a terrible fire in 1971 about six months after I was born.

But let’s get back to Sarah. After she died, she disappears from history. There’s no obituary, no known gravesite. There’s no mention of her. None of my living relatives knew that she  had existed or her name. She was rendered a trope – very poor, second generation Irish American girl who grew up in a tenement, married a louse, and died by suicide leaving behind her children. That’s her story.  She’s almost anonymous. I have some hope that over time,  algorithyms will shake out other details. I’ve discovered hundreds of distant living cousins through the Campbells. I also secretly hope one of them has a tidbit for me.

However anonymous her life, Sarah’s impact on our family is quite visible. As I mentioned, there are enough red flags to suggest that her death by suicide was not out-of-the-blue as the media reports suggested. If she experienced psychosis, that’s not just a random one-off thing. This massive traumatic event probably had preceding events that never made it to the newspapers.  It had consequences for her children, siblings, mother, and other family members. But it wasn’t just a sad moment.

“Transgenerational trauma is trauma that is transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms.”

You might see that my great-grandmother pulling herself into the middle class was a sign of recovery, but it is evident from all her secret-keeping and controlling choices that sort of alienated less fortunate relatives that she was not a healthy person. She lied about a lot of big things. That’s not someone who healed. I’m not saying she was a horrible person, simply that this helps me better understand why she made choices that are difficult to understand.

Epigenetics suggests that these traumas impacted the DNA of my great-grandmother and my grandmother. And my father. And me.

The child speaks what their parent could not. He or she recognizes how their own experience has been authored, how one has been authorized, if unconsciously, to carry their parents’ injury into the future. In rising above the remnants of one’s ancestors’ trauma, one helps to heal future generations.

If I hadn’t gone looking for her, Sarah would remain anonymous. Her death by suicide would not be acknowledged. I am three generations removed from her, but I can speak her story and claim a future built on healing truths versus secrets, lies, and distortions – however well intended they were.

Adults don’t have to start a family tree to challenge the unspoken truths and lies that control of our lives. We start by speaking them – to ourselves, our loved ones, a therapist, even to a journal or diary.

Sarah’s story isn’t solely about mental health or family dynamics. She was grindingly poor. Newspaper accounts of her family and neighbors describe a violent, harsh community where fistfights turned deadly and sex, drugs & alcohol were daily themes. They lived without running water, electricity or plumbing of any sort. Fires broke out too often. Her family – my family – were “those people” who lived a life that was almost entertainment for the rest of the world.

Sarah’s story is far from complete. I have confidence that more information will emerge, but I also know that it is time for me to set this aside and move on to other branches. I held back on sharing her story, hoping I’d figure something else out. But this is what I know and it is 10x what I knew at this time last year.

Sarah. Now we claim your name and your story.

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  • I am intrigued by this story. On Ancestry, Pennsylvania Death Certificates I found her. Age 36 with birthdate unknown and death on 2 July 1907. father Patrick and husband John Rice. Death due to suicide by carbolic acid, while temporarily insane. Buried in Calvary Cemetery on 5 July 1907.
    Now you know where she is buried. You can access Ancestry at the Pennsylvania Room in the Carnegie Library in Oakland.


  • Wow – this is very well written!! What a great story that you have pieced together! I’ve been thinking quite a bit about epigenetics lately. I think it’s a fascinating subject!

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