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Young love story ended tragically with death of young wife, mother

Thomas B. Williams, right, and his wife Hattie pose in front of their home at 123 Summit St., (the southwest corner of Grace and Summit) Hannibal, circa 1920. Between them is their grandson, Henry Johann, at about 5 years old. To the left is their daughter Leta. The Williams family operated a grocery store out of the basement of this home. The family lived on the second floor. Henry Williams Johann told his family stories about working alongside his grandparents in the neighborhood grocery store. Photo contributed by Karen Pinkham of Galesburg, Ill.


When 18-year-old Ethel Williams accepted Henry Andrew Johann’s marriage proposal in 1914, neither could have possibly have imagined the turn of events that were lurking in their future.

Ethel, who completed her education just prior to her engagement and subsequent marriage, was the eldest daughter of Thomas B. Williams and his wife, Hattie. Her father, a coal miner working near Macon, had moved his family to Hannibal, where he went to work as a watchman for the newly constructed cement plant south of town. It was a great work opportunity, and Hannibal offered the promise of a secure middle-class existence.

A beauty by any day’s standards, Ethel caught the eye of Henry A. Johann, 10 years her senior, the son of Peter – a prominent Hannibal teamster - and Margaret Johann, who lived at 908 Mark Twain Avenue.

Teamsters, as it was in the early 1900s, drove a team of horses and delivered goods. Teamsters worked for local businesses, hauling lumber, coal, ice or even furniture and machine parts.

Henry had followed his father into the business, working as a teamster for the Cruikshank Lumber and Coal Company, as well as for other merchants. He was a short man - standing just 5 foot tall – and had red hair and a rowdy complexion.

Both the families – Williams and Johann – must have been excited when they learned of the child that would be born to the young couple. It was a true union of two Hannibal families.


Today – as was true 100 years ago – pregnancies begin with optimism that a healthy child will be born, and the parents will be able to provide a nurturing home in which to raise that child.

But that wasn’t the case for Henry and Ethel. Their son was born June 23, 1915. A day later, Ethel died at the home of her parents – 410 N. Fifth. Cause of death was puerperal eclampsia, defined by Wikipedia as convulsions and coma that are associated with hypertension, edema or proteinuria, occurring in a woman immediately following childbirth. Ethel was 18 years, and 10 months old when she died, and her husband’s namesake – Henry Williams Johann – was an infant without a mother.

The bereaved father left his motherless son for a few years in the loving care of the Williams family.

Thomas, a watchman for the cement plant, had steady work and a regular income by this stage of his life; a status that was not universal for the working class during the era. His first-born daughter, Ethel, (born circa 1897) was the second-oldest of their four children; others included Clarence, born circa 1896; Claude, circa 1901; and Leta, 1903.

The Williams family moved from rental property to rental property for the next few years, before settling in at 123 Summit, which remained their home until Thomas’ and Hattie’s respective deaths in 1930 and 1922.

It was there, on the southwest corner of Summit and Grace, where the Williams family supplemented their income by operating a grocery store in the basement, while living upstairs. During his lifetime (1915-1974) Henry Williams Johann shared the memories with his family of working alongside his grandparents in their working-class neighborhood grocery store.

Henry’s father

When Henry remarried, he chose for a wife another woman 10 years his junior: Lottie M. Epley. Together, they would have eight children, including Pete Johann, whose farmhouse and acreage on Pleasant Street were featured in this column on April 14, 2018. Henry died on May 21, 1954, and is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Henry W. Johann

Henry moved to Galesburg, Ill., where he went to work for the CB&Q Railroad. Henry retired from the Galesburg fire department in 1965, and died in 1974 at the age of 59.

Henry’s wife, Anna Marie Johann, died in 1986.

Pete Johann Jr., younger brother of Henry W. Johann, is holding the reins of a two-horse wagon, delivering goods to the short-lived Wilhelm and Strode grocery store located at 1300 Market St., Hannibal. The year is estimated to be 1914, year Henry A. Johann married Ethel Williams. The wagon is identified as belonging to the Goddard Grocery Company, a wholesale business located at the foot of Church Street. Painted on the side of the wagon is “Phone 3.” Photo contributed by Karen Pinkham of Galesburg, Ill.

Ethel Williams, photo presumably taken prior to her wedding in 1914. Photo contributed by Karen Pinkham of Galesburg, Ill.

Thomas and Hattie Williams helped raise their motherless grandson, Henry W. Johann. Mr. and Mrs. Williams lived at 123 Summit St., Hannibal, and operated a grocery store in the basement. Photo contributed by Karen Pinkham of Galesburg, Ill.

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