Tuesday, June 26, 2012

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Remember Miss Kotter, the job placement counselor who peppered many of the Manhattan Trade School report cards with very sharp commentary? Back in January I mentioned that volunteer researcher Cate Bloomquist had solved the puzzle of Miss Kotter's identity. I've now put that research to good use while writing the latest full-length Permanent Record article for Slate, which will be about Miss Kotter and one of the students she worked with. It should be published in a day or two.

What you see above is a 1944 obituary for Miss Kotter's second husband, Edwin Borden. It was a key piece of evidence in Cate's sleuthing. Her research on this one was so amazing that I've decided to share the paper trail with you, so you can see just how much work is involved in tracking down someone for the Permanent Record project.

First, to set the stage: Miss Kotter presented a thorny research puzzle. Some letters in the report card files referred to her as "Miss Kotter" and others as "Mrs. Kotter," so I wasn't sure if Kotter was her maiden or married name. She signed letters as "A. Kotter" and referred to herself on the report cards as "AK" or "ADK," so I didn't even know her first name.

But Cate Bloomquist connected a bunch of dots that hadn't even occurred to me. She summarized her research process for me in the following rundown:

1. In Doris Abravaya's file, letters dated 4/27/34 and 9/4/34 are addressed to "Mrs. Kotter." But the 9/4/34 letter has handwritten note at the bottom that begins "AB." It appeared to me the B had been written over a K, but in Mrs. Kotter's same handwriting (which we've seen on many of the report cards). I began to think she must have married sometime in 1934. Or perhaps she had some other reason for a name change, but marriage was the most likely explanation.

2. Sure enough, the next letter in Doris's file, dated 9/13/34, was addressed to a "Mrs. A. Borden." Evidence was mounting for a marriage.

3. Then, in Marie Garaventa's file, last index card includes notes from "AK" and "AB" -- in the same handwriting. It appeared Mrs. Kotter had become Mrs. Borden, but what was her first name?

4. Selma Kaufman's file includes a letter from "Mrs. Althea Borden, Placement Counselor." Also, Maria DeTuro's file included a card signed by "Althea Borden." Again, compare the handwriting among all of these -- they pretty clearly match. I now had a first name for Mrs. Kotter/Borden.

5. Since Althea is a relatively uncommon first name, even for the 1930s, I searched on "Althea Borden" in the New York Times index, thinking I probably wouldn't get an overwhelming number of responses to comb through. I found a 1944 obit for an Edwin Borden [this is the obituary shown at the top of the page — Paul], and it listed his widow Althea and son Matthew. They lived in Stamford, Connecticut, though. Initially I was doubtful that this would be the same Althea as "our" Althea. Therefore, I decided to research the "Kotter" angle a bit more to see if I could find something more conclusive tying our Althea ("ADK") to this Althea Borden of Stamford, Connecticut.

6. I looked up the 1930 census and was able to find an Althea Koetter (not Kotter) living in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband Carl. Ancestry.com also pulled up two ship passenger manifests for Carl and Althea Koetter returning from Germany in 1929 and again in 1932. The passenger lists also provided Althea's date of birth: 12/17/1906.

7. I'm not always a fan of Ancestry.com, but sometimes it's very useful, and this time it provided the gold: a newspaper entry from the Reno Gazette, dated 4/4/1934, which stated that a divorce decree had been granted for Carl E. Koetter from Althea Dreyer Koetter -- ADK!! For our purposes, this was certainly enough evidence to show that ADK became Althea Borden sometime in 1934.

8. But was this the same Althea Borden listed as the widow of Edwin Borden in the 1944 obit? I turned to Ancestry.com again. This time I searched the public family trees for an Edwin Borden who died in 1944. Sure enough, an Edwin Floyd Borden popped up with the correct death date and tie to Connecticut, and his spouse was listed as "Althea Dreyer."

9. According to the Social Security Death Index, Althea Borden died in 1971 in Florida. It becomes more difficult to track down people the closer we get to the present time mainly because of privacy laws, etc., but I'm fairly confident that Matthew Borden (Althea's son) is likely still living because I don't see him in the Social Security Death Index. I could not find him easily/conclusively. However, the person who entered the Borden family tree on Ancestry.com is named Linda Brooks and I believe that she is a niece of Althea's. I think probably the quickest route to Matthew would be to contact Linda, or if Matthew has passed away, I'm betting Linda would have some pretty good info on the appropriate next of kin, given the amount of info she has on the family tree in Ancestry. Here is her contact information, which I found on whitepages.com….

And that's how Cate led me to Althea's niece, Linda Brooks, who in turn put me in touch with Althea's son, Matthew Borden (both of whom were very forthcoming and provided wonderful interviews). It's an impressive bit of detective work, no? Now you can see why I'm so grateful to have people like Cate helping me -- I could never have pieced this together on my own.

A few notes:

• If Althea's first husband's surname was Koetter, what does all her Manhattan Trade School correspondence list her as Kotter (without the first e)? I'm not sure, and neither are her niece or son. Carl, her husband, was German, and it may be that she simply wanted to Anglicize a German name that other people were prone to misspelling.

• Although Cate didn't mention this in her notes, it's odd that the 1930 census listed Althea's occupation as "None." She was definitely working for Manhattan Trade at that time, so I don't understand why that wouldn't have been listed. If it had been, I'm sure Cate would have known much more quickly that she'd found the right Althea Ko(e)tter.

• Althea's handwriting, which was part of the key to this puzzle, has a distinctive, businesslike appearance. Her niece and son both recognized it immediately when I showed them samples from the report cards. (Personally, speaking as someone who's had to read through a great deal of Althea's notes, I'm grateful that her handwriting was so legible.)

• Althea and Carl's Reno divorce was a classic of its era. No-fault divorce laws weren't yet common in the 1930s, which made divorce a lengthy ordeal. But Nevada had much less restrictive laws, and Reno was its biggest city at the time (Las Vegas was still just a small outpost town, not a resort). So Reno became famous for "quickie divorces," which is apparently what Carl and Althea opted for. Note, however, that the Reno Gazette clipping that Cate found didn't even mention the word "divorce" -- it simply said, "Decrees Granted." I wouldn't have realized that this was referring to divorce decrees, but fortunately Kate did.

I'm happy to report that there was a lot more to Althea than the stern disciplinarian whose voice comes through on the report cards. You'll be able to read her full story in the next Slate article, which should be published within the next week.

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An original 1906 article about the Manhattan Trade School for Girls is currently up for sale on eBay. I've read this article before on the web, but it's interesting to see an original copy of it -- more than 100 years old!


  1. If Althea's first husband's surname was Koetter, what does all her Manhattan Trade School correspondence list her as Kotter (without the first e)?

    Putting an E after a vowel is a standard variant in German for signifying that there ought to be an umlaut but the typewriter can't do it. If the name started out as "Kötter" it could very easily have been made "Kotter" in the Manhattan Trade School (and elsewhere, more than likely) if they hadn't (as they almost certainly hadn't) the necessary hardware to produce the O-umlaut.

  2. Agreed -- I have several typewriters from that time period, and none offer the umlaut. You would need to pen it manually, or have a German-language typewriter to perform that command. Typewriters were not common office equipment until the 1880s, and once purchased, could last a lifetime, as evidenced by my collection. A new typewriter would be about $90, roughly $950/$1000 today. So, despite the influx of other languages, buying equipment to accommodate those words was probably out of the question.

  3. The obit jumped out at me, because right at the top I saw my hometown. Like Edwin Borden, I was born in Little Silver, and it's rare that I see it come up anywhere. There's a Borden Place, too, where the family homestead was.