Marie Herrmann was born in a white castle overlooking the sea.
Isn’t that usually how a princess story begins? But Marie Herrmann, my 2nd great grandmother, was not a princess. Truly, she was pretty far from it.
Marie Herrmann was born within the 18 inch thick walls of Castle Thun in Thun, Canton of Bern, Switzerland on July 6, 1864. She was the youngest of Johann Herrmann and Magdalena Hofstetter’s 16 (!) kids. I have not been able to trace back her parents’ lineage much further, but it appears that they were all born in Switzerland, too, though their surname suggests German origins. Herrmann is a an ancient German surname, having belonged, in Prussian medieval times, to a notable family of the region. It translates to “army man,” hinting at warrior prowess. Several of the ancient Herrmanns were raised to nobility. There is no way to know (at this point in my research, at least) if my Herrmanns were related to these Herrmanns. What I do know is that Marie carried mail to make money as a teenager. So how did a girl with a seemingly unglamorous life end up growing up in a castle? The answer lies with her father and the fate of a few royal families.
Castle Thun was built between 1180 and 1190 by Duke Berthold V of Zahringen as a fortress. It was never intended to serve as a home, but as a symbol of status and power with its thick walls and impressive tower. It overlooked the Sea of Thun and was situated along trade routes.
After the Duke’s death in 1218, his land was split up and Castle Thun landed in the hands of the noble House of Kyburg. The city of Bern was now a free imperial city. The Kyburgs continued Duke Berthold’s work and built more of the Castle. In 1384, the city of Bern bought the city of Thun and acquired the Castle. Since that time, it has functioned as basically a massive, imposing administrative building. It served as the seat of the local court and many of its rooms were turned into administrative offices.
Sometime in the 17th century, the castle began doubling as a prison. This is where my 3x great grandfather, Johann Herrmann, comes in. He was born in Switzerland in 1817 and, at some point in his adult life, became the Peace Officer of the Canton (the equivalent of a County Sheriff) at Castle Thun. At this point, the Castle also had living quarters and it was there that Marie was born. Baby of the family Marie remembered being placed in a cell with the women prisoners who would watch her while her mother worked. Mama Magdalena was either terribly trusting or had her hands fuller than full. With 16 kids I guess the latter is not too hard to imagine.
Not all of the names are known of her 16 siblings, but it is said that of them, 9 were boys who had an orchestra and would practice their instruments in the dungeon. One can imagine the acoustics.
Marie may have been a restless sort…or maybe she was just tired of carrying mail. In her late teens, she moved to the South of France and worked in the hotel owned by her sister Elisa and Elisa’s husband, Henri Meili. At some point, Marie also lived and worked in Italy. By the time she left for America sometime between 1885-1887 (the records on her immigration date vary), she was a well traveled, multi-lingual (able to speak Swiss, French, and Italian) twenty-something. Her sister Mattie and Mattie’s husband John Segesman were already living in the United States and Marie settled with them in Wayne, Ohio. Other Herrmann siblings would follow suit. Marie’s brother Johannes came over around the same time she did and also settled in Ohio.
On February 5, 1889, a few years after her arrival, Marie (now known here and there as Mary) married widower John J. Begert, who was almost 20 years her senior. According to Marie, there was not much romance to their courtship. Begert had 6 kids and Marie saw that they needed a mother so that settled it. They would have 6 more kids together (my great-grandfather included), but that is a story for a different day…
Some of the Herrmann clan in America. Marie is #45. Image courtesy of user: rtfamtree on www.ancestry.com
The image of Castle Thun at the top of the post was taken by a family member and included in the Begert family genealogy book, an eggshell blue folder of family history with a small envelope pasted to the inside cover. This photo was inside the envelope. When I inherited the genealogy book as a child, I remember constantly taking the photo out and looking at it, marveling at the beauty of the castle, which still stands today and now serves as a museum. Hopefully, one day I will get to go see it for myself…
2). “Willkommen im Schlossmuseum Thun” [Welcome to the Castle Museum Thun] (in German). Castle Museum Thun. Retrieved 2013-03-12.
3). Mann Boehler, Midge. The Family History of John J. Begert. 1992.