Originally published in The Rock River Times.

A picture of the Rock River on a overcast day.

William Sussmilch first became concerned when he stopped by his parents’ house around noon on July 20, 1889. His parents were both over 70 years old and had been suffering with health issues. Williams stopped by daily to check on the elderly couple. His concern grew as he stepped inside the deserted home.

He found two letters waiting for him on the table. William sunk into a chair as he read the words his parents had written to him and his siblings. He knew these words would change all their lives forever.

His parents, Johann G. and Christina Sussmilch had only lived in Rockford for a few years by 1889. They had been married for forty-two or so years and had three children. Their older son, Eugene lived in Kansas while their daughter lived in Iowa. William was a well-know artist in Rockford who was so successful he would one day live on National Avenue.

Christina had been an invalid for a while, but Johann was able to care for her with help from his son William. But Johann’s health started to decline and soon he was under the care of one of the more prominent doctors in town, Dr. Kimball.

Johann didn’t seem to be getting any better and struggled with depression about his failing health. The family decided to gather to lift their father’s spirits. By all accounts, the visit was a joyous one. But the time came for the families to travel back to their homes. The parting was heart wrenching for everyone. The parents stated that it would be the last time the siblings would ever see them in this life. The family assured their parents that there would be many more visits between them.

But Johann and Christina knew better. They had been discussing their fears for months and Johann’s recent illness only made it clear that they needed to act soon. So, they put their affairs in order and wrote their letters to their children. Then they left those letters for their son William to find.

The letters were later printed in full in the Rockford Daily Gazette.
“My Dear Children-
We are going to leave home this evening. If we are not here when you come tomorrow, we shall not be among the living. It has required a strong determination on our part to leave the world in this manner, and to seek the rest we so much long for. But our poor bodies are too nearly worn out to endure this suffering longer. Therefore, do not mourn for us, for we will be better off. As we have lived so long together, we wish to die together, and rest in one grave. So, then, farewell, and believe we shall have the rest we long have wished. Even in death, your loving parents.”

Christina too, wrote her goodbye for her children:
“My Dear Children-
Your father has expressed my feelings. God will forgive us for ending the life which has been so full of suffering. Also forgive us the pain we will causes the dear ones we leave.
Yours to the last breath, your loving Mother.”

William also found two checks next to the letters. He grew instantly concerned and notified the police. The police began searching for the elderly couple. They made inquiries of the neighbors and others in the city.

Through these inquires authorities eventually found a streetcar driver, William Spencer who had seen Johann and Christina. He told police that he had seen an elderly couple on the streetcar the night before. Spencer said the elderly couple rode to the end of the South Main line. The gentleman was calm and didn’t seem troubled at all. But the woman’s actions caught his attention. She seemed “restless and nervous” according to Spencer. He mentioned that the woman had trouble walking and was very pale.

The police decided to drag the river since that is the direction that the couple was last seen walking. The papers all reported this mysterious disappearance and people began to join in on the search. The word spread quickly about the missing couple.

A few hours later, police received word that two men fishing about four miles down from town along the Rock River had seen something in the water. The men, John Milner and George Ennett testified at the inquest later that day to what they have found.

One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the policemen as they traveled through a scenic wooded area to the farm outside of town. As they neared the bank on the east side, they saw an eerie sight. Sticking out of the murky was of the Rock River was a woman’s pale hand.

They borrowed a boat and made their way to the place in the river where the body was submerged. As they neared the location, they could see that there were two bodies in the river: one male and one female. When they retrieved the bodies, they found a rope tied from the woman’s right hand to the man’s left hand.

The men worked in silence as they cut the bindings and removed the bodies. The couple was laid side by side in the grass. There were no signs of a struggle, in fact, Christina had a hat tied onto her head and here shoes were sill on her feet. The men who recovered the bodies later described the contentment on Johann and Christina’s faces stating they appeared to be sleeping like children weary from play. The scene was described as extremely sad.

The bodies were put in a single pine coffin and taken to the undertaker’s office. Coroner Aagensen held a Coroner’s Inquest. He called many witnesses to establish what had happened to the elderly couple. The jury declared the deaths to be suicides. They stated that the couple suffering from their infirmities had decided to die rather than live one without the other.

Johann’s and Christina’s devastated family followed their parents’ wishes and buried them together in Greenwood Cemetery.

The newspaper eloquently stated:
“And so calmly and deliberately they resolved upon self-destruction. Soon they stand on the river’s brink. With premeditation their arms are tied together and as they lived, so they resolved to die, clinging together in mute despair. Trusting their souls to God they wade into the stream and are soon engulfed in the merciless current. So far as they are concerned the past is washed out and to the future alone, they look for hope. Hand in hand they stood together in the battle of life, hand in hand they died. The marriage vow taken in early life was sacredly kept, and who knows but that their last words were: “Till death do us part.”


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