Theodore Duff

One of the most mysterious and colorful characters on my tree is Theodore Duff, born around 1853 in Brooklyn, New York and died around 1904 in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

The first record of Theodore is when he is just 2  years old in the 1855 New York state census, living with his parents – James and Frances – and his siblings – Edwin and Alice, who were 5 and 4 at the time.  James was starchmaker, and both parents were only 24, meaning they started their family around the age of 19.   They had a 17-year old servant from Ireland living with them – Ann McCormick.

By the age of 7, he was found living in Peoria, Illinois (Peoria Ward 2) with his family on the 1860 census.  James was still a starchmaker, and had a personal estate worth 150.  One of his neighbors down the street – a William Doty – had kids that likely played with the Duffs and William was an engineer – maybe this was part of shaping Theodore’s future profession as an engineer for the railroads. Two doors down from the Duffs was a married couple (no kids), that was also an engineer.


Moving to Illinois was probably pivotal in shaping Theodore’s future career with the railroads

** Side note – Theodore had a brother, Walter, born in 1858 and died in 1861;  Walter is buried with his parents, and that is the only evidence I have of his existence.  But, why was he not on the 1860 census?  ****

Now – things get interesting.  I cannot find Theodore on the 1870 census anywhere.  However, I think he ran off and joined the war efforts:

*  an 11-year old Theodore Duff from New York is listed as a drummer with the 5th Infantry,  Civil War Union soldiers, enlisted in 1863.  11. Years. Old.   And, if this is him, he was likely 10 and not being entirely truthful about his age.


Drummer boys in the Civil War

  • Another record of a 12-year old Theodore Duff enlisted in 1865 in the Sixth Infantry
    • He deserted Aug 29 1863 from Camp Sherman, Mass – the notes say that “he is sprightly & talkative”.
  • A 14-year old James Theodore from Brooklyn enlisted in Feb 1866 as a Drummer.  It was noted here that he had grey eyes, light brown hair, light complexion and was 4’6.  Also noted – he had a small india ink anchor on his left forearm

Whew – all this before he’s even 15.

Next found in the 1880 census – he is now an engineer living in South Pueblo, Colorado.  He’s a boarder, listed as TJ Duff, from New York.

In 1885, he is living in Chicago -found in the Chicago directory and listing his occupation as “Engineer”, he lived at 3343 State.  There were other Duffs in the directory, but none that lived with him.

He married Margaret Ann Reid Steward on Nov 5 1889 in Keokuk, Iowa.  Here, we learn that he had been married before – this is his second marriage, and that he is now living in Keokuk.   It was also her second marriage – she was 41 and he was 38.   I can’t find any other record of their life together, or what happened to Margaret.  In 1890, he is listed as a registered voter living at 299 W. Jackson St in Chicago.  She may or may not have been living with him there…. but, in 1891 he is listed in the Chicago city directory as a boarder at 80 Aberdeen, with the occupation listed as a machinist.

So, who was Wife #1?  Well, a DNA match that popped up on Ancestry answered this question for me.  This person has a Theodore Duff married with a child in St. Louis around 1883.  The wife is Elizabeth Bardsley, who appears to have died in 1889, when the daughter was about 6 (note – he got married in November of this year to Wife #2).  The daughter, Gertrude Duff, is living with relatives of her mother in the 1900 census.  I have since been in correspondence with this tree owner, and he is descended from Gertrude – she was his Grandmother and lived with them when he was little.  Turns out, Gertrude was raised by relatives, and her daddy took off, never to be heard from again.   It is possible he was working in Colorado 1880 or so, then sent back to St. Louis for work around the time he met Elizabeth and fathered a child.

Theodore Duff

(Theodore.  Photo provided by an ancestor of Gertrude Duff, that I matched with on Ancestry)


In 1892, he finally gets to the business of creating my family line – he marries Stella Belle Lynchard.  He was listed as a mechanical engineer and machinist, living in Maywood, Cook County, Illinois and she was from Mt Pleasant, Iowa.  His age is listed as 35, which shaves about 4 years off his true age.  She was only 20!

They must have moved together to Illinois, because their first was born there – Eveline.  However, then they headed west in 1896 or thereabout:  the next three children – Walter, May, and Russell – were born in National City, California.   On the California voter registration in 1896, he is listed as age 43 (his age seems to be a bit fluid….), 5’6 1/2, fair skin, blue eyes, dark brown hair, with the index finger of each hand off at the first joint! (look at the picture, above – is he missing the top of his index finger in this?  Or, is it just folded in?).   He was a railroad engineer from New York.

By 1900, their fifth child was born in Jackson City, Iowa, so something sent them back – this is where Stella was from (or around there), and he died four years later – was he ailing?  He is also listed on the 1900 census with his wife and kids, renting a house at 904 Broadway in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa – he is listed as having been unemployed for the last 12 months, but his occupation is a mechanical engineer.

Theodore died in January 1904 in Chicago.  He was listed as a machinist and living at 222 N. Sawyer Ave in Mt Pleasant when he died.  He is buried in Mt. Pleasant.

Side note – Theodore’s little sister, Clara, seemed to have got lucky in the marriage department – she married Frank Frazier and they looked prosperous – buying the cemetery plots for a large part of her family in Green-Wood Cemetery.  They had one son, Frank Duff Frazier, and he had a daughter – Brenda Diana Duff Frazier.  Brenda Frazier become a famous debutante – probably the first “Paris Hilton” ever – she was a celebrity due to her money, glamorous life, and looks.  Her bio can be found here.

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation


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