On October 17, 1874, Nathalie Gumpertz woke early to see her husband off to work. Nearly ten years had passed since she and Julius, Jewish immigrants from Prussia, met and married. But things were different now: instability had found a place in the comfortable working class life they built together. An economic panic sent the booming post war economy into a nosedive. Like many other New Yorkers, Julius struggled to find work.
He was eventually able to cobble together some odd jobs, including one cutting boot heels in a shoe factory. That fateful day in 1874, Julius headed downtown to his heel cutting job while Nathalie stayed at home with their children in 97 Orchard Street.
When the day drew to a close, Nathalie waited for her husband to return home. Julius was late that night and Nathalie began to worry: Did he have an accident? Maybe Julius was in some sort of a fight? Was it possible that he skipped town? There was a section in one of the German-language newspapers devoted to the descriptions of missing husbands…
Julius never returned home, sending Nathalie into a frantic search. She enlisted the aid of neighbors and even wrote to Julius' father in Prussia. It was to no avail; Nathalie was unable to find even a trace of her husband. With Julius gone, Nathalie was forced to find a job. Her choices were limited; there were but a handful of professions open to women in the 1870s.
She settled on dressmaking, relatively high-paying work which she could do at home while caring for her four young children. With a sewing machine by the window and an advertisement in the city directory, Nathalie's dressmaking shop was in business. Most of her customers were neighbors on the German Lower East Side (Kleindeutschland).
Nathalie successfully supported her family for the next decade. Then, one day in 1883, she learned that Julius had inherited $600 in "goods, chattels, and credits" from his father. It was a tremendous sum of money, worth over three years of Nathalie's rent. In the eyes of the law, though, Julius was neither dead nor disappeared; Nathalie was barred from collecting the inheritance. So on June 14, 1883, Nathalie filed a petition with the Surrogates Court to have her husband declared legally dead.
In the petition, Rosa Gumpertz, just six years old in 1874, described how she learned from neighbors that her father had "mysteriously disappeared and was considered dead." John Schneider, who ran a saloon in the basement of 97 Orchard Street, testified to Nathalie's "diligent and unsuccessful" search for her husband. Even the landlord of 97 Orchard Street aided Nathalie, assuring the court of his tenant's independence: "Mrs. Gumpertz is her sole support."
Duly convinced of Julius' death, the court ruled in Nathalie's favor. She used the inheritance to close her shop and move to a new tenement in Yorkville, a burgeoning German community on what would one day become Manhattan's Upper East Side. Nathalie Gumpertz lived in Yorkville until she passed away at the age of 58 in 1894.