The Slinkey Family
Cast of Characters
My Slinkey ancestors came to California in the 1860s. Over the next sixty years their lives featured literature, opera, lavish banquets, and social climbing. There were also mysterious births, suicides, bankruptcies, murder accusations, train accidents, fires, a great earthquake, and lots of little fibs. In short, a typical Victorian family.
The Short Version
My fourth cousin, Randolph Baxter is to be credited with much of the original research that tells this Slinkey story. His work was a great inspiration for me to delve into genealogy and history in general. Most of the photos were saved by my uncle, Steve Slinkey, who graciously allowed me to copy and share them. My thanks to you both!
The Slinkeys truly started in San Francisco, California, because that's where the family name was created. Johann Emil Schlinke became John Emil Slinkey two years after his arrival from South Australia in 1866. He had embezzled from his employer, run away from his debts, and may have ducked out on a woman that he got pregnant in Adelaide. In San Francisco, another regrettable incident—stealing money from a widow—probably led to the name change. His future wife, Christina Dern, arrived in the city a year or two ahead of Mr. Schlinke. She's listed in an 1865 San Francisco directory as a widow renting rooms. Here was a single woman, apparently working alone in a wild city 6,000 miles from her birthplace in Germany—the hows and whys are currently unknown.
John met Christina and they married in 1868. Their daughter Lilian may have been born a few months earlier, maybe even in 1867. Who can say if she was even Slinkey's progeny? The Slinkey legacy has a lot of "maybes" and "who knows?"
During the 1870s the Slinkeys became more successful with a boarding house on Market Street, then a hotel on Sacramento Street next door to the city's well-known "What Cheer House." The family began looking around the Bay Area for new opportunities. In 1879, they moved across the bay to the town of Martinez in Contra Costa County, where they ran a resort and picnic grounds, hoping to lure day-trippers and large groups to ferry over from San Francisco. The family soon abandoned the plan to take over a large hotel in Sausalito, a town far closer to San Francisco and just opening up for greater development. Here the Slinkeys reached the acme of their financial and social lives. Family members from both sides immigrated to the United States to share in the prosperity. John's brother Daniel left Australia, and from the opposite direction, Christina's relatives, including her father Heinrich Dern, arrived from Germany.
John Slinkey, usually listed as "J.E. Slinkey," acted as an officer in several social and civic groups; took over the operations of the small town's newspaper; and, in the words of author and historian Jack Tracy, "had a hand in almost everything that happened in Sausalito." The family's El Monte Hotel had a number of satellite cottages, and while the establishment catered to upper class visitors from San Francisco, the Slinkeys made sure to have activities and amenities for locals as well. Dan Slinkey helped around the place and Christina's youngest brother, John Dern, acted as an able bartender.
Despite the awkward situation of two Slinkey sons, Francis and Milton, born just a few months apart in 1883 (older sister Lilian was in her teen years and likely the mother of one), the Slinkeys definitely began to emulate a higher class of society. Lilian hosted discussion groups on the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and gave recitals showcasing her vocal training. She studied opera singing in San Francisco and eventually traveled to Italy to further her education.
John Slinkey was the chief instigator of a fraternal organization called the "Society of Old Friends," which hosted Bull's Head breakfasts that actually featured the head of the animal, a Victorian delicacy. His brother Dan had difficulty going along with the high society program and served officially as Sausalito's poundmaster (dog catcher), and unofficially as the town's best-known wag and inebriate. The Sausalito News publicized his comic plans to drill for oil in Sausalito, build a bridge to Angel Island, and more.
The Gilded Age of the 1880s gave way to financial panics and depressions in the 1890s. The Slinkeys suffered in a predictable manner: the hotel was lost, Lilian was recalled from her European adventuring, and Dan had too many "accidents" with boats and trains—resulting in a near-drowning and an amputated arm.
The financial fall wore on Christina, who apparently suffered from bouts of depression her whole life. In January 1899, she committed suicide in a small boarding house the family had retreated to operating in San Francisco. Extending the tragedy, an anonymous letter-writer accused John of poisoning his wife. Christina's body was exhumed, an autopsy done, and John was exonerated.
Just a couple of months after the terrible affair, Dan Slinkey finally succeeded in taking his own life with an overdose of morphine.
Doubtless reeling from the tragedies, John Slinkey soon after struck out on his own for Seattle, Washington. There he tried to establish many of the same businesses he was successful with in the Bay Area, namely real estate and hotels. In Washington he also met and married his last wife, Hattie Neitbahn.
Lilian used her training to teach music in San Francisco. To add some allure to her services, Lilian adopted the name "Madame Durini." Our best guess is "Durini" was intended as an Italianized version of her mother's maiden name of Dern. She lived most of her adult life with her uncle, John Dern, and in at least one San Francisco directory he appears as "John Durini."
John Slinkey returned to San Francisco just before the great earthquake of April 18, 1906. The Slinkey residence on Leavenworth Street burned to the ground and, like thousands of San Franciscans, the family found temporary housing in one of the refugee camps set up in public parks.
This latest disaster actually proved fortuitous for Milton. He met his future wife Ethel Neate in the refugee camp, and found a trade as a carpenter during the rebuilding of San Francisco.
John and Hattie eventually struck out for the booming town of Goldfield, Nevada, trying yet again to strike it rich buying and selling real estate. They returned to San Francisco to see the infant son of Milton and Ethel in 1913. This child, Eugene Dalbert Slinkey, was my grandfather. Born after Ethel had lost a number of previous pregnancies, Eugene always said he had been very spoiled during a terrific childhood.
John Emil Slinkey died on March 4, 1920. For decades he had been known as "the Colonel," and Lilian was sure to include a phony Confederate veteran's pedigree in his obituary. Lilian died in 1937. Milton and his wife lived into the 1950s and were remembered as loving grandparents to Eugene's children, including my mother.