Frank Brovet, Genealogical Nemesis

The watchmaker, the seamstress, and a mystery.

Last I left off, I was researching Richard Schober at the Newberry Library. He was not my only find that day. Nor the biggest find.

Back then, the Newberry was a rare place offering free access to the Chicago Tribune’s digital archives. I was full of confidence after my first stab at detective work, so I decided to keep going. I knew had relatives in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Maybe I could find a marriage announcement or something. Without too much thought, I typed my surname into the search box.

I hope you’re hearing the alarm blaring in your head. I did not hear it in mine.

Chicago Tribune, Feb. 2, 1914

Frank Brovet and Christina Lilavec were found dead in a gasfilled hotel room at 1600 Wells Street yesterday.

I am pretty sure my jaw dropped cartoon-style. That was MY surname, but in a story I had never ever heard—and I knew some family stories. Gas and a dead lady? In a hotel? What WAS this?

No one in my family had ever heard of this story, either. Believe me, I called them as soon as I got home. They were just as dumbfounded.

After many years, this is what I have pieced together.1

1600 Wells St. wasn’t exactly a hotel. Going by Sanborn insurance Maps and various want-ads, it was a saloon with rooms for rent upstairs. They could be configured as either apartments or hotel rooms.2 By 1919, the owner was in danger of being arrested for violating the dry laws, and by 1922 the building was for rent as an ice cream parlor. Ah, prohibition.

But before that, some people died there. The year after Frank and Christina, two more guests met their end: John Sloan by poison… and George Messner by a gas leak.

According to Deborah Blum’s excellent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, death by gas leak was a common occurrence at this time. Gas-lit lamps were in homes everywhere. A damaged valve, a crack in the pipe weld — or a deliberate act — paired with a closed room, created many unwitting victims.

(Note: Two weeks after I wrote this, researching something completely unrelated, I found a whole other similar story: two people/hotel/gas/1910s, in New York. It was a thing.)

1600 N Wells, highlighted
1600 N Wells, highlighted. Now it’s a Starbucks that I have visited without even realizing the connection. The space across the street is still a drugstore.

Frank and Christina had been seeing each other for about a month, and quite often. She had not been in the US long. Her surname was actually Milavec, and she was a seamstress.3 This article from the Inter-Ocean indicates the police were leaning toward calling it an accident, but that Frank’s housemate might have a story to tell.

Perhaps he is why the inquest decided it was probably a murder-suicide, but they couldn’t determine who was murdered, and who was the suicide. Contemporary reports indicate they were leaning toward blaming Christina, possibly because he refused to marry her. However… if they were in a dire situation, that would also give Frank motive to make a fatal decision.4, 5

Or, perhaps like Messner a year later, it was a mere accident. Frank told his neighbors he would come home, which supports the accident theory. We can never know.

That part about the stuff in his pockets always gets to me. I still wish I knew what show they had gone to see. Maybe that would tell me something. But that, too, is unknowable. So much is. So much is guesswork and pasting together of scraps.

Frank Brovet Death Certificate
Frank Brovet’s Death Certificate. “E Brovet” is my great-great uncle. Houston was the street where they lived.

Thirteen years later, I also still don’t know exactly how Frank was connected to my family. Was he a cousin? A nephew?

What I do know: 1) By 1914 my great-grandfather Zvonimir was already living in Chicago. 2) That “E Brovet” in the contact line is Zvonimir’s brother, Emanuel, who he lived with. However Frank was related, the family knew. They just made sure to never talk about it.

Frank is buried in a pauper’s grave — ironically for my purposes, with no headstone at all — at Bohemian National Cemetery. This is 30 miles north of where the rest of the Brovets were living in Hegewisch IL. The nice lady at the cemetery office said his type of grave was meant to be temporary, which makes complete sense. If you’re an immigrant family scraping together every penny, where do you put the relative who dies suddenly in scandal?

Maybe they meant to move him later. Or maybe they wanted to be done with him.

From this distance, I imagine their struggle. He might have been a murderer. He was costing them money. It was in the newspapers. They were newly arrived immigrants — the threat of deportation was not a hypothetical. They opted to do what they could, move on, and never, ever tell the children. I get it. I don’t judge.

I still wish they had told someone, though. Because here is the real kicker: In attempting to dig up this Frank Brovet, I have found information leading to other Frank Brovets.

There were at least three Frank Brovets living in Illinois between 1900 and 1930. THREE!

They are my greatest genealogical headache. I call them, collectively, “the Franks.” I usually frown when I say it.


More on them here, in part 2. ☗


Top photo of Chicago crowd on State Street, 1912.

[1] Chicago Tribune; Feb. 2, 1914; page 9.

[2] Chicago Tribune; Feb. 16, 1920; p. 26.

[3] “Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1994.” In the record, her last name is misspelled “Milave,” but everything else on the certificate aligns with this incident.

[3] The Day Book; Feb. 3, 1914; page 3.

[4] The Inter Ocean; Feb. 2, 1914; page 5.

Author: Ms. Snoop

ABOUT I was lucky to be born into a family of genealogists, and to be gifted a family tree already bristling with names. Along the way, other names have somehow found me. My job is to listen to their stories.

5 thoughts on “Frank Brovet, Genealogical Nemesis”

    1. I can’t tell. The police dept didn’t have a transcript. I found a brief record in the archives at NEIU, but that and the newspaper articles are all I have to go on.


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