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Mary Dodge Wardell
by Helen Rippier Wheeler
View the photos of Mary Dodge Wardell

Mary Dodge, my maternal great grandmother, was descended from the Block Island branch .Her father was Alexander Forbes Dodge (1805-1874), a Manhattan coal dealer; her mother, Helen Amerman .Family life in lower Manhattan was built around church and music .Mary had two sisters: Charlotte Dodge Brombacher (1836-1919) and Elizabeth "Lizzie" Forbes Dodge Tracy (1838-1927) .Mary married Charles Wardell.

They had one child that survived: Helen "Nellie" Elizabeth Wardell (1884-1904) .The family moved to Brooklyn, where "Nellie" married Alfred Charles Rippier and had three children who survived: Antoinette Rippier (1888-1953, never married), Marguerite Rippier (1891-1971, married William Ward Wheeler), and Alfred, Junior (1896-1970, married, no children) .I am the only offspring. Charlotte and "Lizzie" both married and were widowed, but I have been unable to locate their lineage.

Mary Dodge's grandfather's brother, Richard Dodge, married Nancy, the sister of Washington Irving .He was Charlotte Dodge Brombacher's great uncle .He had three children, Jane, Helen and Eliza .Jane married William Frothingham, Helen married Pierre Irving, Eliza married Oscar Irving .Mrs .Pierre Irving and Mrs .Oscar Irving (Helen and Eliza Dodge) were Charlotte Dodge Brombacher's father's cousins; their husbands consequently his cousins by marriage, they being also cousins of their wives on the Irving side .

Mary Dodge Wardell was a composer, teacher of music and poet, for forty-four years the organist and musical director of Brooklyn's Greenwood Church and Calvary Baptist Church at Fourteenth Street and Fourth Avenue, and, according to obituaries, guiding spirit of the Mary Wardell Temperance Union, board member of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (todays Academy of Music) and Helen Clark Mission, founder-conductor of the Mozart Vocal Society of Brooklyn, president of her church's Young People's Union, a founder of the Thatford Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Samaritan Hospital director, a ministering angel in hospitals and homes of the sick, member the talented Dodge Family.

The tragic portion of her Mary Dodge's life is described in my book, Making It Out, excerpted below .

She was born in 1839 and grew up cozily with her family and two older sisters, Elizabeth and Charlotte, in lower Manhattan .Their mother taught at Houston Street Industrial School .Their father, Alexander Forbes Dodge, a Manhattan coal dealer, served in the Civil War as a Corporal in the New York Militia, which provided his widow with a pension of $8.00 a month commencing in 1878 .

Mary Dodge was twenty-three in 1862 when she married forty-four year old paunchy Charles Wardell of Newark, New Jersey .Whether he was trying to avoid Union Army service or had just returned from Civil War duty is unclear .They met at church and also had music in common .He courted her with trips to the Philharmonic in Brooklyn .Her diary suggests that he sought her commitment but was not willing to specify marriage .Some time following their marriage, she recorded that Charlie had business and was teaching in Brooklyn .There were miscarriages and early deaths until 1864, when their only child to survive was born .

They named my maternal grandmother Helen Elizabeth Wardell and called her Nellie .Three years later, they all moved to South Brooklyn, where Charlie worked as a piano tuner.

Charlie died first, at age seventy-three of nephritis, and was buried in their Greenwood Cemetery lot. Mary Dodge Wardell had been a widow earning her way giving piano and organ lessons for twenty years when she died in 1911. Home during the final, desolate years had been rooms rented in a row house to be near her motherless grandchildren. Two lived next door with their father, stepmother, and his spinster sister. The third had gone missing.

A widow at the turn of the century, eleven years before her death she wrote what she intended as the final page of her diary. My life, so very busy, has passed very quickly. I live now on memory and the happiness of being with my daughter and her dear children, Antoinette, Marguerite and Alfred, aged 12, 9, 4. May I be ready when God calls me. But tragedy greater than her widowhood was going to strike the entire family.

On the road much of the year, Alfred Rippier was home for the holidays in 1903. After Christmas dinner, the seven family members gathered at the dining room table for a game of Snap. Raisins floating in brandy were set afire, and the players snapped the raisins out of the fire. It may have seemed quite harmless after years of dangerous candles and gaslight. It was brought into the dining room and lit, and the flames attacked Nellie in her long-sleeved and skirted dress. Nothing available to smother the blaze carpeting nailed to the floor heavy draperies attached to the window frames. The horrified children watched Papa's futile attempts to beat out the flames with his hands. The following day they huddled together and caught a frightening glimpse when he returned from the hospital and crept upstairs to their parents second floor front bedroom, his hands and arms swathed in bandages.The house, normally filled with joy and music and people, was silent.

It became clear that Nellie could not survive. She asked for the two older children, who were brought to the hospital, a few blocks away. A good little woman to the very end, she endured the ordeal almost silently, and died after fifteen agonizing days. The coffin was closed. The impression made on each of them, one just a babe and two adolescent females, varied, but the influence of the horrendous experience endured in different ways throughout their lives.

Mary Dodge Wardell scrawled on the flyleaf of her diary Nellie, my daughter dearly beloved, died Jan 8 1904 at Seney Hospital Brooklyn from effect of burns received Christmas Eve Dec 24/03. Thus has passed away all I held so dear. My life is but little now. God be gracious unto me, until the end. Her children are yet in my possession. She had a premonition things could get worse and added, I do not know how long.

In the face of such great tragedy, the presence of Aunt Aggie and Grandma Wardell in the home could have been considered a boon. Aggie doing the housework. Grandma caring for the children, managing the home, and bringing in cash by teaching piano. But the patriarch didnt see it that way. When a neighbor tried to be positive about it all, Marguerite [my mother] overheard and remembered her father's sour "You can't sleep with your mother-in-law."

It seems that out on the road in Pennsylvania there was this stationery store employee. He remarried too soon and brought Anna Congdon into the recuperating home and into the bedroom in which the children had been conceived and born. The children were on their own in their fathers home. Anna began a campaign to oust Grandma Wardell (Mary Dodge).