Last updated on November 16, 2023
It was an early May morning of 1933 in San Francisco and Mr. Hagashi was crossing over Russian Hill on his way to his job as a janitor. As he made is way down Leavenworth Street, he saw something on the sidewalk in front of number 1841. Upon closer view, he realized the crumpled object was a man, clad in pajamas, his graying brown hair tussled, his striking gray eyes staring skyward, a red splotch on his chest. He tried to help him but found the man unresponsive. Mr. Hagashi went for help.
The first official on the scene was Officer Joseph Adair, who quickly realized that the pajama-clad man was dead. Not only dead, but broken, and dead. This led to further investigation, high up on the three-story building that was 1841 Leavenworth street, where fingerprints were discovered on the roof coping, finger prints that could only be left by crossing over a railing. It became clear that this man crossed the railing and fell to the sidewalk below, probably on his own volition.
In Jacob’s Well: A Case for Rethinking Family History, Joseph Amato writes:
“The family historian must master the art of storytelling. What, after all, is truth without anecdote, history without events, explanation without narration — or yet life itself without a story?”
It’s an apt explanation of what makes doing family genealogy so compelling. The evidence of stories of love, life, and loss propel genealogy seekers to write stories about the ancestors they find. Most tantalizing of the clues are the heirloom photographs, especially when there are multiple photographs inherited of the same person. Such is the case with Cora Bell Sheridan, great-grandaunt of my wife, Sheryl, and wife of the man who threw himself off of the roof of 1841 Leavenworth Street.
His name was Stillman Joseph Winkelman, retired office manager of San Francisco’s illustrious Livingston Brothers Department Store. When multiple obituaries for Stillman appeared in several Northern California newspapers, some attributed his suicide to high blood pressure, or a nervous condition, or vaguely as “illness.” But, almost all of them mentioned he was despondent over the death of his wife, Cora Belle. When I discovered her husband’s dramatic death in the newspapers with this reference to her, I became driven to uncover their story.
“Aunt Cora,” as she was known in Sheryl’s family, is not a new figure to me. Over the years, Sheryl has spoken about Cora whenever she wore a bracelet with an amethyst mounted on it. The amethyst was Cora’s, originally mounted to a ring. “She had several husbands,” Sheryl would tell me, based on what she was told as a child. I looked into Sheryl’s collection of heirloom photos and found no less than five photos of her. Cora Belle was a striking woman with piercing eyes. Even in her childhood photograph, when Cora looks at you through the camera lens, it feels like she’s looking into your soul.
Cora Belle Sheridan was born in California’s San Joaquin County in 1874 to Irish immigrant, Francis Sheridan and his wife, Isabella Agnes Epperly, who arrived in California in 1852 at age four in a covered wagon. Cora spent most of her childhood and teenage years living in Lockeford, California. Lockeford was a young pioneer town, having been laid out and platted only 16 years earlier in June, 1862. As she grew into a young woman, she witnessed, first hand, the tremendous growth of San Joaquin County from fledgling pioneer communities into an agricultural powerhouse. At the time of the Sheridan family’s arrival, the town included a hotel, schoolhouse, Congregational Church, Church of Christ, a Catholic Church, and multiple lodges and stores2. By the 1880 census, Lockeford only had a population of 372 people3.
In the later decades of the 19th Century, Cora and her two older sisters were attending social gatherings and birthday parties with their peers. In those days, one could hardly attend a party, go on a trip, or visit relatives without local newspapers, hungry for news, reporting it to the entire town.
“Birthday Party – A party was given to miss Hattie Welch in her father’s residence near Lockeford Monday evening last in honor of her 16th birthday. A supper was given at 11 O’clock and the young folks departed at 2 O’clock feeling they had spent a very enjoyable evening. Among those present were… [long list of 16-year-olds] Miss Cora Sheridan.”
Wow! Sixteen-year-olds partying like it’s 1999 on a November Monday night in 1890 – reported in the newspaper!
“Good Templars – The San Joaquin District Lodge of Good Templars met at Elliot to transact quarterly routine business. In the evening, there was entertainment at which the following program was rendered: [among hosts, presenters, reciters…] vocal solo, Miss Cora Sheridan of Lockeford.”
Cora had a singing voice, could sing solo, and the whole town knew it!
“A Party at Lockeford – A surprise party was given Miss Gertrude Kessler at the home of her friend, Miss Jones, near Lockeford, last Friday evening. Supper was served at midnight, and dancing was indulged to a late hour in the morning.”
My-my! The goings on in Lockeford!
Among the names listed in this particular clipping, in addition to Cora’s name, was “S. Winkelman.” Stillman was there on that supposedly all-night marathon dance party. They were both 21 years old and it is possible that this was where Cora and Stillman first met – maybe even danced together.
In 1898, Cora had her photograph taken by photographer J.D. Palmer of Sacramento to have produced in an edition of Cabinet Card photos. Cabinet Card photos were the dominant form of photography in the last two decades of the 19th Century. People had multiple copies made to share with friends and family as a means of creating personal photo albums. Of the five heirloom photos we have of Cora, this photograph of her presented me with the most mystery regarding her days as a young woman. She is posed in a typical 1890s day dress, leaning on a lace covered small table, while holding her left hand in front of her, clearly displaying a simple banded ring on her ring finger. She is looking directly at the camera and sporting a big smile. Could this be the first of “the many husbands” family legend held Cora had? It seemed likely.
I began scouring the records for any signs of marriage and found none until coming across multiple notices of the marriage of Cora and Stillman in 1907. Up to then, Cora continued to be present in the society columns, visiting relatives, going to Santa Cruz with her younger sister, and arriving at a hotel in Stockton. But the columns always reported her as Miss Cora Sheridan. In those days, it would have been unusual for a married woman to be referenced by her first name, let alone her maiden name – and certainly not as a “Miss.” The genealogical record disputes the family legend of Cora and her many husbands. But what about the 1898 photograph of Cora with a wedding band? A member of our family looked at the photo of Cora, her overt displaying of the wedding band, and the somewhat contrived large smile on her face. “She’s not serious,” she said to me, “She’s acting!” This possibility had not occurred to me. After all, we tend to associate old photographs with the stone seriousness of a portrait painting.
But, as it turns out, cabinet card photographs were not always taken in seriousness. In 2020, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art presented an exhibition titled, Acting Out: Cabinet Cards and the Making of Modern Photography. The exhibition displayed examples of cabinet card photos which people had taken for fun as a way of “acting out” in costumes, staged improbable scenes, and oddly performed behaviors. Could Cora have staged the “married” scene to send a message to suitors? Perhaps to Stillman? It’s possible and it would explain the overt pose and the contrived smile. I was bemused by the possibility that the photo Cora may have had taken as a lark served to mislead her great-grandniece’s husband more than 100 years later as he tried to make sense of her life.
In early 1904, the Stockton newspaper reported:
“Miss Cora Sheridan is in San Francisco selecting her spring stock of millinery.”
I found out later that Stillman had recently begun employment at the Livingston Brothers Department Store of San Francisco, which had already established itself among the great department stores of the city, like I. Magnum, the Emporium, and City of Paris. I couldn’t help but wonder if seeing Stillman was also part of her reason to shop in the city.
By 1906, Cora was working at The Wonder, a small department store in Stockton, likely, as the store’s milliner. 1906 was also the year that Cora and Stillman had to have been courting. Because by early August of 1907, several papers announced their marriage. Cora Belle Sheridan and Stillman Winkelman married on August 6th at the original Saint Mary’s Cathedral on the corner of Van Ness & O’Farrell streets in San Francisco. They held a private reception at the Jackson Apartments on the corner of Jackson and Leavenworth streets. It’s the first instance of Leavenworth Street to appear in their genealogical record.
Cora had moved to San Francisco to begin a life with Stillman one year after the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. Much of the city was destroyed, including almost all of Russian Hill. But in 1907, the city was rebuilding and Stillman, having done well at Livingston Brothers, decided to invest in rebuilding on Leavenworth Street, just below the summit of Russian Hill. In 1908, Stillman contracted with builders Brutcher and Serna and architect Theo W. Lenzen to erect a 3-story frame house with five flats, one of which he would move into with Cora.
It was around this time that Cora had a stunning cabinet card photo taken of her, this time in all seriousness. The photograph, produced by Pioneer Gallery of Stockton, shows Cora in a vignetted, three-quarter bust view, dressed in a formal evening gown with a ruffled lace décolleté and a bejeweled headpiece. Cora was at the pinnacle of her alluring beauty, with her large piercing eyes gazing to the distance and dark curls swirling around her face like a soft storm.
I had a clear view of what Cora looked like. But, there were no photos to be found of Stillman anywhere – not on Ancestry, not on Family Search, not even from the one descendant of Stillman’s brother I contacted. But, the records kept showing up. It was clear Stillman Winkelman was a man on the rise at Livingston Brothers, working his way up to become office manager of the entire store. The couple began living a comfortable life at 1841 Leavenworth Street, so much so that Cora listed herself in voting records as “housewife.” Given the time period, Stillman likely wanted her to stop working. But I believe it’s more likely that she wanted to start a family, as all of her sisters had already done. She had married Stillman at age 33. If she wanted children, she had no time to lose.
At the advent of the Ragtime era, Cora and Stillman had become a fully-fledged San Francisco metropolitan couple. But they never forgot their families in the central valley. The local papers continued to print notices of their visits to her family in Lockeford and his in Auburn, not the simple two-hour “drive” it is today. Cora’s mother, by now recognized as a great pioneer woman of San Joaquin County, began to keep a simple diary. Her entries recorded multiple instances when Cora and Stillman were present in their lives, spending time with family, buying her dry goods, and gifting financial support. As I continued to search records, I came across Stillman’s World War I registration card. It was the first time I got any sense of Stillman’s appearance:
Description of Registrant:
Age: 44; Height: Medium; Build: Medium; Color of Eyes: Gray; Color of Hair: Brown
No physical characteristics that would disqualify him.
Stillman was never called for the Great War. But, Cora’s nephew Clyde was. One month before the day of the Armistice, Clyde was killed on a battlefield in France. His mother, Cora’s sister Annie, was so devastated by the loss of her son, she requested to be buried with him in the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio upon her death. Her wish was fulfilled.
The last of the five photos we have of Cora now fell into place. It was inscribed on the back with:
Nov. 12, 1918
on top of their house
During flu epidemic
The photo is a snapshot of Cora, standing on the deck of their roof, wearing a face mask, dressed in what looks very much like a nurse’s white uniform. Although there is no record of Cora in the American Red Cross as a nurse, it’s possible that she may have volunteered to help with nursing. The timing of coming across this photo was eerie. We were in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and wearing a mask had become part of our everyday life.
By this point in my research, I had become determined to find a photo of Stillman and began scouring every source I could find. I zeroed in on Livingston Brothers. Surely, as office manager of the great department store, he would be present somewhere on some source on the Web. I did many searches and I found surprisingly little.
Then one of the searches revealed that the California Historical Society had been given several boxes worth of photographs and ephemera from Livingston Brothers after they closed their doors in 1987. When the infection rates came down in 2022, I donned my mask and took BART to the city for an appointment with the Director of Library & Collections. When I arrived, she gave me the boxes of Livingston Brothers archives and I systematically went through them, seeking any photograph that might reveal Stillman. I digitally captured as many of the photos and ephemera that I could in the few hours I had. One in particular caught my attention. In 1920, Livingston Brothers held a grand Gala for their staff. At one point during the Gala, everyone gathered on the main floor of the department store and a commemorative photo of the event was taken. As office manager of the store, Stillman would have been near the front of the gathering with Cora at his side. I took close up after close up of any woman who might resemble Cora and a capture of the entire scene, then eagerly returned home to analyze the results.
By this time in 2022, artificial narrow intelligence was being used to enhance otherwise blurry faces in photographs with amazing success. Some applications had a feature that leveraged functional AI to compare two photos with a face and determine the probability of them being the same person. I decided to use both to find Cora in a close-up of the Gala photo and compare it to a photo I knew to be of her. After doing enhancements, one woman in the photo looked strikingly like Cora. And the man just behind her on her right was positioned with her in a manner that strongly suggested them as a couple.
Meanwhile, the story of Cora and Stillman continued to emerge. I found them on the passenger manifest of the S.S. Sierra, arriving in San Francisco on May 5th of 1926 from Sydney, Australia. They had been in Australia that year, clear across the Pacific Ocean. They had returned to the United States and, undoubtedly, were looking forward to more years together. They could not have known the tragedy that was about to overtake them.
In a year, Stillman’s sister Ida was dead at only 63. Two years later in 1929, Isabella, celebrated pioneer woman, matriarch of the Sheridan clan, and mother of Cora, died. Five months later, the Crash of 1929 brought the country to its knees. Then, Cora herself contracted colon cancer that spread to her spine. On the 28th of October, 1930, one year to the day of the Crash, Cora died leaving Stillman bereft. She was only 55 years old.
What happened to Stillman in the subsequent three years is not clear. One obituary states that he retired from Livingston Brothers “three years ago,” suggesting that he retired just after Cora’s death. He likely spent those years alone in his home on Leavenworth Street. Then on the morning of May 4th, 1933, in the face of likely overwhelming bereavement and loss, Stillman climbed to the roof of 1841, stepped over the railing, and dropped to the sidewalk below. He was only 59. Despite having committed suicide, Stillman was given a service at Saint Brigid’s Church and entombed alongside his beloved wife. It turns out that the Catholic Church makes special dispensations for suicide in cases of overwhelming circumstances. Perhaps that’s why his obituaries pointed to intractable illness. Although, his family would have said it was from a broken heart.
Cora and Stillman never had children. Like Stillman’s brother Victor and sister Ida, they were to have no descendants. There would be no one left in their lineage to remember them – no children to remember them as parents, no grandchildren to remember them as grandparents, only an obscure spouse of her great-grandniece who was trying to piece their lives together through Ancestry.
I thought back to Pixar’s movie Coco. The movie focuses on the Mexican tradition of Día de Muertos, the honoring of the dead and specifically, the importance of remembering of one’s ancestors. In the movie, while Miguel is in the land of the dead, he witnesses a friend of his second great-grandfather disintegrate into nothing – nothing, even there in the land of the dead. His great grandfather tells him:
“He’s been forgotten. When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”
Cora and Stillman had both died by 1933. After their siblings, nieces and nephews passed, there was no one left to remember them – only sterile records, engraved cover stones, and a handful of photos languishing in boxes. My research into their lives gave me the opportunity to keep them from falling to “the final death” – to tell their story and by doing so keep their memory alive, if to no one else, at least to Cora’s great-grandniece and her husband. I knew that Cora and Stillman were entombed in the great mausoleum of Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. And now I wanted to give them a proper tribute of remembrance – a vase with flowers and their photos to be placed on the ledge in between their cover stones. I made a leap of faith in my research and created two photos, one of Cora from an heirloom photo, and one from the enhanced photo I believed to be the two of them at the Gala. I placed each in a bi-fold picture frame and attached the frame to a wooden vase with artificial flowers. In March of 2022, we traveled to Colma and I placed the tribute between the cover stones of their crypts. I wanted to return them from the oblivion of being forgotten. I wanted to bring them back to just beyond the veil – to reconnect them to their family through remembrance.
I was comfortable with making the leap of faith. But the lack of better verification continued to trouble me. I continued to search, moving across Stillman’s tree to his siblings in hopes of finding a photo of his brothers Victor and Paul and his sister Ida. Nothing turned up, even though Paul had married May Darling Eaton, sister of famous Canadian writer, Winifred Lily Eaton. The Winifred Eaton Archive website has an impressive history of Winifred and her family with many photos. But a photo of her brother-in-law, Paul Winkelman, is not presented. I did find a photo of Paul and May’s son, Paul Jr. But, the influence of May’s heritage is too strong to make looking at Paul Jr. reliable. Confirmation of the Gala photo continued to elude me and I put aside writing my story about Cora and Stillman.
Then, just before writing this piece, I looked back through the many photos I had taken of the Livingston Brothers ephemera and came across a photo I had taken of the program from a dinner to commemorate twenty years of service of a Livingston Brothers employee. The name of S. J. Winkelman appeared on the cover with a small image of Mr. Winkelman himself. I had a photo of him all along and somehow missed going back to check it. I compared the program photo to the Gala photo. The characteristics were a match. Sheryl agreed, as well. Along with the probable match I had to Cora, I had my confirmation. My leap of faith was on target and the photos of Cora and Stillman, now standing between their cover stones, indeed is of them. Anyone who ventures down Section D in the great mausoleum, footsteps echoing in the marble hall, will notice that this couple is still remembered! ❖
Footsteps in the hall…
Come Back to the Veil
An elegy for Cora Belle Sheridan and Stillman Winkelman
Your lives were full, true love you knew,
So sad your loss and gone too soon.
You left no child, no grandchild too,
To bridge the veil with memory’s tune.
Your tale now told in hand and breath,
And faces seen again with eyes.
We pull you back from final death,
Through our desire to eulogize.
If story incants our life’s span,
Infusing memory with a spell.
Then death cannot erase Stillman,
Nor his beloved Cora Belle.
— Jim Griesemer, 2023
How I found Stillman
The steps I went through to find a photograph of Stillman
1File:Russian Hill, San Francisco, CA.JPG – Wikimedia Commons. (2014, January 7). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_Hill,_San_Francisco,_CA.JPG, Changes were made to color intensity and sharpness and the image was cropped.
2 An Illustrated History of San Joaquin County, California: Containing a History of San Joaquin County from the Earliest Period of Its Occupancy to the Present Time, Together with Glimpses of Its Future Prospects (Classic Reprint). United States, Fb&c Limited, 2017.
3 Seaton, Charles William, and Walker, Francis Amasa. Tenth Census of the United States, 1880: Population. United States, Norman Ross Publishing Incorporated, 1991.
4 Exterior photograph, Photographs of Livingston Bros. retail stores, San Francisco, Calif., 122288072. California Historical Society.
5 Martin, V. C. (n.d.). Department Stores – Stockton: Exterior of The Wonder, 340-344 E. Main St. Scholarly Commons. https://scholarlycommons.pacific.edu/hsp/6900/
6 OpenSFHistory / wnp27.7812
7 Exterior photographs, Photographs of Livingston Bros. retail stores, San Francisco, Calif., 122288072. California Historical Society.
8 Interior photographs, Photographs of Livingston Bros. retail stores, San Francisco, Calif., 122288072. California Historical Society.
9 Wikipedia contributors. (1912). File:SS Sierra.jpg – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SS_Sierra.jpg
10 The San Francisco Examiner. (May 5, 1933). News story on suicide of Stillman Winkelman. Newspapers.com. Retrieved October 14, 2023, from https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-san-francisco-examiner-news-story-on/80843192/
11 20th Anniversary Dinner program in honor of S. J. Winkelman, Ephemera of Livingston Bros. retail stores, San Francisco, Calif., 122288072. California Historical Society.