Lewis Hine caption: Meyer Rome, 48 Bright Street. 8 years old. Been selling six weeks–sells Sundays only. Makes from 25 cents to 75 cents. Location: Burlington, Vermont, December 17, 1916.
“My father first came to Burlington by himself in 1905 and worked to get enough money to send for his wife and children 2 years later. My mother was always proud of the fact that he sent enough money for them to come first class rather than steerage.” -Anne Rome Cohen, younger sister of Meyer
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in January of 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Bloody Sunday, as it was called, resulted in the massacre of large crowds of peaceful demonstrators.
At the end of the 19th century, industrial workers in Russia had begun to organize as the Assembly of Russian Workingmen. They formed legal labor unions and encouraged workers to concentrate their energies on making economic gains. On January 9, a wave of strikes broke out in St. Petersburg. The leader of the Assembly, hoping to present the workers’ request for reforms directly to Emperor Nicholas II, arranged a mass demonstration. Having told the authorities of his plan, he led the workers toward the Winter Palace. They were peacefully carrying religious icons, pictures of Nicholas, and petitions citing their grievances and desired reforms.
But Nicholas was not in the city. The chief of the security police, Nicholas’s uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir, tried to stop the march and ordered his police to fire upon the demonstrators. More than 100 marchers were killed, and several hundred were wounded. The massacre was followed by a series of strikes in other cities, peasant uprisings in the country and mutinies in the armed forces, which seriously threatened the Tsarist regime and became known as the Revolution of 1905.
The following news items appeared in the Waterloo Daily Courier (Iowa), on January 24, 1905:
“Moscow: The strike is spreading rapidly. The striking workers now number ten thousand. All printing works have been stopped and no newspapers will be issued tomorrow.”
“Kovno, Russia: Work has been stopped at all factories and railroad stops here.”
One of the cities where the strikes occurred was Kovno, now called Kaunas, in Lithuania. One of the residents of that city was Charles Rome, a Jew of Polish ancestry (original name not determined), who soon left for America, leaving Bessie (Siegel), his wife of seven years, and their two children, Louis and Ida. He settled in Burlington, Vermont, in the city’s Old North End (often called “Little Jerusalem”), where a sizeable number of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe had been settling since the 1880s. In 1907, Bessie and the children joined him in Burlington. They became members of Ohavi Zedek, Vermont’s oldest synagogue, which was founded in 1885 by Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. It still exists, serving about 375 families.
In the 1910 census, Charles was listed as a “junk peddler.” By that time, he and Bessie had two additional children, both born in Burlington: Meyer (2) and Anne (infant).
They rented an apartment at 26 First Street. The street is now called Riverside Avenue, and the house does not appear to exist any longer. The family moved to 48 Bright Street several years later. Built in 1899, the house is still there.
Meyer was photographed by Lewis Hine on Sunday, December 17, 1916. About a half-mile east of the icy waters of Lake Champlain, Meyer was peddling the Burlington Daily News, a paper that published from 1894 to 1961. He was standing in front of the entrance to the Charity Department, which was located at City Hall, according to a historian at the public library. The building still stands at the corner of Church and Main Streets. In 1981, starting at that corner, several blocks of Church Street became the center point of the Church Street Marketplace, a hugely popular uncovered pedestrian mall, with many shops and restaurants.
Amply dressed for a typically cold December morning, Meyer might have been thinking about his ninth birthday, which he would celebrate the following Sunday. Or he might have been thinking about his father Charles, who had died four months earlier, having been run over by a lumber wagon.
“Charles Rome of 48 Bright Street, a junk peddler, died Monday morning at Fanny Allen hospital as a result of injuries received in a runaway accident Friday afternoon. On that day, Rome was bringing a load of iron to Essex Junction and when a mile from the village his horses became frightened and ran away. Rome was thrown from his seat and fell in front of the wagon, which passed directly over his chest. The deceased is survived, besides his wife, by four children, Louis, Ida, Myer (Meyer) and Anna; by four sisters, Sarah of this city, two of Boston and one living in Europe, and by two brothers, Barnet and Michael of this city. Funeral services were held Monday morning and burial was made in the new Hebrew cemetery on North Avenue.” –Burlington Weekly, August 24, 1916
Two years later, on October 20, 1918, Meyer passed away of influenza, one of the 1,772 Vermont victims of the “Spanish Flu” of 1918. He was only 10 years old.
And so I began the search to find someone in his family who might remember something about him. In the 1920 census, widow Bessie, and children Louis, Ida and Anne lived in a rented house at 354 N. Winooski Street (now Avenue). The house is still there. Bessie was a cook for a private family, Louis was a drugstore clerk, Ida was a department store cashier, and Anne was still going to school. Four years later, Ida died of cancer at the age of 21. Louis married Lillian Atwood in Burlington in 1924, and a year later, they had their only child, Kenneth Louis Rome.
In 1930, Bessie, unemployed, rented a house at 131 Intervale Avenue. It still stands. Anne, now 20 years old, lived with her mother and worked as a stenographer for the University of Vermont.
Louis and his wife and son had already moved to New York City, where he worked as a hotel porter. Around 1935, they moved to Bangor, Maine, where Louis opened a restaurant and bar called Louis Café, and rented an apartment in the rear of the building. Sadly, he died in a Boston hospital in 1945, at the age of 46, though he was still a resident of Bangor. I could not determine the cause of death. Son Kenneth, now married, subsequently took over the restaurant. He and his wife died in Hudson, Massachusetts in the late 1990s, but I could not determine if he had any descendants.
Bessie Rome died in Burlington in 1933, at the age of 63. A year later, daughter Anne married Myron Cohen. By 1940, they lived in Swanton, a small town about 40 miles north of Burlington. They had one child, 3-year-old daughter Basha. Myron died in Burlington in 1976. Anne died in Burlington in 2004, at the age of 94.
Basha married Leon Kowitz in 1960, according to an announcement in the Boston Jewish Advocate. I located her son, Alan, who lives in the state of Washington. Basha is still living, but is not available for an interview.
Alan and his wife Susan were unaware of the Hine photo; in fact, they had never even heard of Meyer Rome, who would have been Alan’s great-uncle had he survived at least until Alan was born. They also did not know what happened to Louis, until I told them what I had found. But they had one very valuable piece of information for me.
When Lori Freedman, Anne’s granddaughter, was in the sixth grade (1974), she did a school project about her grandmother, which resulted in a detailed letter by Anne about her family history, and about growing up in Burlington. Curiously, she did not mention Meyer by name, nor did she refer to his death at age 10. But this remarkable document sheds light on what Meyer’s life would have been like before he was taken by the flu epidemic at such a young age.
The following are excerpts from that letter, which was addressed directly to granddaughter Lori (reprinted with her permission).
“My name is Anne Rome Cohen. My parents were Charles Rome and Bessie Siegel Rome. They were the first generation of immigrants to come to this country from Kaunas, Vihla Province, Poland, which after World War I became part of Lithuania.
Their first 2 children were also born in Kaunas and they came to this country to escape the pogroms against the Jews and his (Charles) having to serve in the Czarist army. My father first came to Burlington by himself in 1905 and worked to get enough money to send for his wife and children 2 years later. My mother was always proud of the fact that he sent enough money for them to come first class rather than steerage. Of course, they went through Ellis Island. They came from New York to Burlington by train, and since my mother didn’t know a word of English, she was very wary of some passengers who made friends with the children and offered them a banana, which she had never seen before, and told them in Jewish not to eat it. But of course, they did. My parents had 2 more children in this country, myself and an older brother (that would have been Meyer).
I was born in Burlington on January 22, 1910, the last of four children. I lived in Burlington till my marriage in 1934, and before your mother was born, in 1937, we moved to Swanton, Vermont, near the Canadian border, where we owned a store for 7 years, then moved and owned one in White River Junction, Vermont for 7 years, and finally in Claremont, New Hampshire, where we lived for 4 years before returning to Burlington in 1954.
After graduating from high school in 1926, I worked for the University of Vermont for 10 years as a secretary. After marriage I did the bookkeeping for our store and raised three children. Upon returning to Burlington in 1954, I worked for 14 years in the regional office of the United States Immigration Service, first as a secretary and then as an accounting technician. Since retiring I do volunteer work one half day a week at a Red Cross office, do some volunteering at our synagogue, and also do part-time bookkeeping amounting to about one day a week for two small businesses. I am also a volunteer Braillist, and am very busy for a few weeks when there is a call for some Brailling to be done.
I started school at 4 ½ in the first grade. I remember being so embarrassed at being on the boys’ side of the schoolyard on the first day of school with my elder brother by 2 years (that would have been Meyer). Both boys and girls had to stand in line and march into school when the doors were opened. We also played on different sides of the school during recess. I remember our teachers wearing half aprons in class always. I remember the dunce caps and sitting on a stool in the corner, though I am thankful I never did, as I would have been mortified.
All the children in a neighborhood would play on street corners in the evening till curfew at 10 minutes of nine, when the cops would appear to see that we went home. We would play Red Rover, Red Rover, May I, Hide and Seek and other games I no longer recall. We walked to school since there were neighborhood schools, and even came home for lunch – lunches at school were unheard of then, though when we got to high school, we sometimes took sandwiches with us as it was a long way home and back at noon time. Winters here are really cold but no one ever shirked going to school even in the coldest weather, or in downpours of rain.
I have been told by my mother that I inherited many Rome traits from my father but I can’t vouch for that, as my father died when I was 6. I think my father’s death was a turning point in my life as it was a family upheaval, with my older brother and sister (Louis and Ida) having to leave high school and go to work.
My generation often speaks of how when we were young, there was no running water in some homes, no toilets, just outhouses, and certainly no bathtubs, just a washtub set up in the kitchen and filled with kettles of hot water. No electricity, just gas jets or oil lamps. Horse and buggy, no automobiles. Wooden iceboxes and ice men to bring in chunks of ice every day or two, and everything spoiling. No oil furnaces and certainly no airplanes. And no radio or television! If there were telephones, certainly few had them.
The only family treasure I have are 3 heavy candlesticks which I have been told are very valuable. My mother brought them with her and a goose down featherbed and pillows which I believe the Jewish women considered most important to bring with them, along with bed linens and towels, none of which I now have nor remember. Also prayer books were brought by my father, none of which I now have as they became so worn. I am the fifth generation that we know of who uses these 3 candlesticks to light the Sabbath candles, and they are handed down from mother to daughter, and I have told your mother that they will be hers someday.
The lessons my parents taught me were to stick together, be honest, and certainly to be glad we were raised in this country and able to enjoy its advantages without fear, and with religious freedom.
I don’t know what advice to give you so that you may live your life well. Certainly to cherish and appreciate every minute of it, to be kind and considerate of others, to learn all you can, and to take advantage of everything you can.
Much love from Grandma.”
*Story published in 2014.