Friday, February 7, 2014


It is always fascinating to wander the rows of Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park.  As I have mentioned previously it is filled with the history of the Jewish people in Chicagoland.  Most of those buried at Jewish Waldheim were just plain folks, although there are the graves of some famous (and some infamous) people interspersed among the populous.  As I photograph graves at Waldheim for Find a Grave, I am always on the lookout for interesting tombstones that may mark the graves of people I could write about in this blog. One day I was "mowing the rows" at Gate #3 - Bickur Cholem when I came across this tombstone:


It is a rounded monument so it is a little hard to read, but it says:

In Memory of the Great Inventor of
The Art of Headwalking


June 28, 1880

June 22, 1920

And Uncle

There are many men named Louis buried at Jewish Waldheim, but I believe this is the only person named "Baptiste" buried there.  Let's face it, "Baptiste" is not a Jewish name.  I originally thought perhaps he was not Jewish, but married a Jewish woman and converted - in any case I figured there was an interesting story buried there and I was right.

Several people have done extensive research on the Goldkette family and their origins.  One researcher said that from the Goldkettes' lengthy track record of juggling nationalities, swapping identities and generally fudging personal biographies, he thought they must be Roma (gypsies). Eventually he discovered that they were Ashkenazi Jews from Schleswig-Holstein.  Part of the interest in the Goldkette family is because Baptiste's nephew Jean Goldkette (1899-1962) was a noted bandleader of the Jazz era.   

To better understand Baptiste we need to go back in his family tree. One family document made available to researchers was translated as follows:

While breaking her journey here on the 5th of June 1834, Mine, née Goldstein, wife of the circus horseman Hartwig Goldkette from Hildesheim, gave birth to a boy. Today, 12th June, the circumcision was performed by Rabbi Samuel Basewitz of Frankfurt-on-Oder, and the boy was given the name Louis, in the presence of the merchants Abraham Fürstenheim, Samuel Fürstenheim and Abraham Frank, as well as Mr. Goldkette's mother, Theresa, née Scholom, which is hereby duly certified for the local Jewish community's register of births and circumcisions."

Küstrin, 12 June 1834.

The Louis Goldkette listed above was Baptiste's father. Küstrin (Kostrzyn) is now just inside Poland, 50 miles due east of Berlin.  "Hartwig Goldkette" was actually Hertz Abraham Levi.

From the various old documents, it was clear that the Goldkettes had been working as a circus family in Europe for at least 150 years before they came to the United States.  Baptiste's great-great-grandfather had performed a tightrope act at the coronation of the Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa at Pressburg (modern Bratislava) in 1741.  His great-grandfather, Levy Goldkette, had been a celebrated magician, acclaimed throughout Europe.  His father, Louis - the one born in a trunk near Berlin in 1834 - had been a trick rider, acrobat and circus owner, and died in France sixty years later, still on the road.  The men in the family were 'artistes' - acrobats, bareback riders, clowns and mimes, while the women were 'actresses' - vaudeville singers and dancers.

On the face of it, the family were Jewish Ashkenazim, given the similarity of the name Goldkette to so many other descriptive family names from central Europe: it simply means "gold chain" in German. One researcher was able to uncover that Goldkette was originally a stage name. It was first used in the late 18th century, possibly as the descriptive title of a featured acrobatic number - "The Golden Chain" - but was soon to become the name of the family that performed it. Their name originally was Hasloch and they originated in Schleswig-Holstein, which used to be Danish territory, but later became part of Germany.

Being a historian I am a stickler for the truth.  If I report a fact it is because I have verified it as being true from the source documentation. However, because the Goldkettes were was so fond of juggling nationalities, swapping identities and fudging personal biographies, I am going to report the family information as I have discovered it, while reminding you that most of this information is impossible to verify.

Baptiste Louis Goldkette was born June 28, 1879 in Nyborg, Denmark, the son of Louis Goldkette (1834-1895) and Jeanette, nee Gouldschmidt (1834-????).  Louis and Jeanette married in Whitechapel, London. They had eleven children:  Virginie (????-????), Benois/Banovars (1859-1934), Chon Gaston/Charles (1862-????), Alfred/Emil (1970-1871), Mine/Millas (1870-1951), Rosa (1873-????), Angeline (1875-1961), Franconi Louis (1877-1962), Baptiste Louis (1879-1920), Clara/Klavaija (1880-1940), and Eline (1890-1965).

Records indicate that Baptiste Goldkette first came to the United States in October of 1907 on the ship "La Touraine" out of La Havre.  He listed his occupation as "actor" and arrived with Mina, Eline and Franconi. They reported they were on their way to New York.  Between them they reported they were carrying $16,000.00 (!!!).  They also said they had never been in the U.S. before.  Baptiste was reported as being 5 feet 6 inches tall, with "fair" hair and blue eyes.

In 1908, Baptiste and Franconi took their act on the road to Havana, Cuba where they stayed at the Hotel Isla de Cuba.  They returned to the U.S. in September of 1908.  That time they reported themselves as being of "French" ancestry.

The 1910 U.S. Census (April 28, 1910) shows that at least part of the Goldkette family was attempting to lead a normal life.  Franconi (now called "Frank") Goldkette was a lodger in Chicago with his wife Viola and their one year old son Frank.  He listed his occupation as "Circus Acrobat."

In July of 1910, non-resident alien Baptiste traveled from Cherbourg, France to the U.S. aboard the SS Cleveland (the same ship that would bring Rudolph Valentino to America in 1913).  He was accompanied by his nephew Jean (the soon-to-be bandleader).  Baptiste reported his nationality as "Scandanavian" and Jean reported this his mother was living in Moscow, Russia.

Here is a photo of Baptiste Goldkette with his brother Franconi clowning around with a monkey - perhaps rehearsing their act:

Sometime after their return from Cuba in 1910, the Goldkettes moved their base of operation to a farm outside La Paz, Indiana.  Still relatively close to Chicago (about 100 miles), this gave them room to practice their act and keep their animals at a cheaper cost than in Chicago.  No sign of Baptiste in the 1910 Census. Here is a card with their contact information in Indiana:

Baptiste Louis Goldkette died June 22, 1920 in Columbus Hospital in Chicago:

Photo courtesy: Chuckman's Collection of Chicago Postcards

Here is Baptiste's Death Certificate:

His death certificate erroneously lists his year of birth as 1860, but has his correct age - 40.  It also erroneously lists Baptiste's birthplace, as well as the birthplace of both of his parents as "France".  

There must have been some question as to his cause of death, because an autopsy was done.  Autopsies are rare among observant Jews, although there is little evidence that the Goldkettes were particularly observant.  According to his death certificate, Baptiste had been ill for two years, although in the hospital for just one day.  The Cause of Death was listed as  "Locomotive ataxia.  Acute dilatation of the heart, edema of the lungs".  Locomotive ataxia is "loss of coordination of movement, especially as a result of an infection of the spinal cord".  This would have to be about the worst disease for someone who made their living as an acrobat.

Baptiste Louis Goldkette was buried at Gate #3 - Bickur Cholem, at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery on June 24, 1920:

It is interesting that Baptiste's tombstone mentions that he was the inventor of the art of headwalking.  In all my research on Baptiste and the Goldkette family, I did not come across even one reference to headwalking. Then, just as I was wrapping up my research, I found this photo:

which shows Baptiste Goldkette headwalking on Unter den Linden in Berlin, Germany.  How he did it will remain a mystery.

Baptiste Louis Goldkette - may he rest in peace.

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