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11 February 2019

A Dream Saved Her Life: How Finding Aids Can Enrich Your Family Story

 By Georgia Lupinsky

 "Only a dream, but it saved the life of the handsome young Swiss girl, Martina Kurrer. Another minute and she would have fallen a victim of a madman’s deadly bullet.” - San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, July 19, 1903 

Martina Kurrer Elwert
Many CGS members and users of our library may know that the society has a Manuscript Collection, but may not be aware of the rich personal material that can often be found therein.  A prime example is alluded to in the title of this article. One of our larger collections was compiled by John Ellis Hale, a past President of the society. The collection, listed as “Hale” in the Manuscript Database Index available on our website, is described as Mr. Hale’s forty years of research on the Hale and Bemis families and related lines.  Under the surname description of the collection are forty-eight surnames for which some material exists.

With the finding aid recently completed for this collection a researcher may easily zero in on the materials available for a single surname. Among those names is that of Elwert. This surname was not related to Mr. Hale’s line, but to that of his sister-in-law, Barbara Jean (Elwert) Hale, for whom he did some research. In so doing he uncovered an incredible story about her grandmother, Martina Kurrer, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

In 1891 Martina Kurrer, a native of Switzerland, planned to immigrate with a friend and settle in California.  Shortly before the trip, Martina’s friend was unable to go, but Martina, who had already purchased her ticket, decided to travel alone. She arrived in New York, then boarded a train for Tulare, California. She settled herself on the train as comfortably as possible with a big pillow and blanket that she had brought with her. Speaking no English, she had difficulty purchasing food, but shortly after leaving Kansas City, she heard German spoken near her and began conversing with the speaker, a man of about 45 years of age. He offered to assist her and helped her obtain meals. As Martina kept a diary on her trip, she remembered that on February 26, 1891, after having dinner that the “strange, quiet man” brought her, she settled back to sleep with her head on her pillow and had a dream in which she was home again in Switzerland with her sister at a house party. Her sister commented that Martina’s hair was very messy and urged her to go dress it.  Martina woke with a start. The dream seemed so real that she got up from her seat on the train and stepped into the dressing room to comb her hair. 

Martina's story as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1903
While there, she heard several shots, then people screaming. A gentleman in the car said to Martina, “My girl, you have had a wonderful escape from a terrible death,” and pointed to the place where she had sat only a few minutes ago. Just after she got up, a young man across the aisle had left his seat and moved to hers, resting his head on Martina’s pillow. The man who had befriended Martina went berserk and placed a revolver against the young man’s head and killed him. He then began shooting up and down the car, wounding two other passengers as well. The killer escaped the train on foot, but realizing that he was being pursued, cut his throat with a razor he had in his pocket. Martina kept the pillow and blanket as she had no others and the next day reached her destination in Tulare where she was met by friends.

Interviewed in 1903, Martina stated: “The pillow I have yet, and I would not part with it for anything. I keep it just as it was, though the blood stains are darker and fainter now. I know not many people who would like to have such a thing in the house, but I do not mind, and it is a valuable keepsake.”*

Martina married Max Elwert on August 15, 1893 in Los Angeles. They had three children: Theodore, Anita and Lawrence. Sadly, Martina died in childbirth at the age of 38 on December 29, 1905, in Lodi.

Newly available in our Manuscript Collection Database are finding aids for three collections: Covell, Hale, and Sherman. We will continue to transcribe and upload additional finding aids and advise as they become available.

Georgia Lupinsky is co-chair of the CGS Manuscripts Collection.

*"A Dream Saved this Woman from a Madman's Bullet," San Francisco Chronicle, 19 July 1903, p. 7; digital image, ( : accessed 11 February 2019).

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