My Three Soldiers: Eliza Heilbrun’s Quest for a Pension

May 20, 2020
Add to History Board Share Print
Portrait of Simon Adamsky

Civil War pension files are integral to the Shapell Roster. In them, we often find stories of the dazzling bravery, of the unspeakable suffering, and of the fraternal camaraderie one would expect from veterans of America’s bloodiest conflict. But, these files can also read like your favorite soap opera; Days of Our Lives could learn a few things from pension records. One such drama was that of Eliza Heilbrun, who married not one, but three, Civil War veterans, but only managed to receive a widow’s pension for less than two years. On the surface, Eliza looks like one of those serial pensioner daters, or worse, a black widow; who would try to marry elderly veterans, close to death, to receive the death and widow benefits from their hopefully timely demise. The Bureau of Pensions was convinced such women existed in the early 20th century, and interrogated widows who married their veteran husbands late in the gentlemen’s lives accordingly. Eliza’s story, however, is even more convoluted and scandalous than that!

Eliza and Simon’s love story was, in every iteration, melodramatic. After Simon’s death, at the behest of Eliza, Simon’s brother, Michael, gave a detailed account of their relationship’s inception and consecration. According to Michael, Eliza was “the hired girl at the home of [his] parents” in Omaha, NE, when Simon was living at home with them, and Simon began living with her as husband and wife sometime after their father’s death in 1883, the implication being that Simon couldn’t run off with the servant girl until the patriarch had passed. Michael had presumed them to be married, until the pair came to visit him in Chicago in the 1890s, and Simon informed Michael he wished to obtain a marriage license, because “Eliza wanted to be married by a Justice [of the Peace,] because she was a Christian Scien[tist], and he wanted to be married by a Rabbi. And for that reason they had never been married by a ceremony.” 

Michael served as a witness at the couple’s wedding, making him the perfect witness to prove the two were married to the Bureau of Pensions.

Or was he? The Bureau of Pensions also specifically asked Michael whether Simon or Eliza were previously married, and Michael stated “No, Simon had never been married before he married Eliza, and so far as [he knew] she had not been married before.”  But, the Bureau of Pensions determined that was a lie.  In fact, other than Michael’s description of their civil ceremony in Chicago, everything he told the pension examiner was patently false.  Simon and Eliza met each other in New York City, not Omaha, when BOTH were married to other people. Simon, working as a beat cop, met Eliza–then Mrs. Moses Nussbaum–at her husband’s saloon. He had a wife, Lena, of eight years, and Eliza had been married to Mr. Nussbaum for close to eleven years, but Simon began “paying daily visits to [Eliza] while her husband was away.”  When the affair was discovered in June, 1881, Eliza emptied her bank account, and they eloped to Omaha, NE, their scandal making the national news. Here follows a  particularly salacious example of the descriptions printed:

“Patrolman Simon Adamsky cast his eyes upon the substantial form of Mrs. Nussbaum, and was smitten to the left auricle of his heart. The stroke of Cupid so strong that, without doubt, the barb was clinched in the back of the lover’s coat, and, according to the gossips of the neighborhood, the wound proved fatal to his peace of mind. To bring the climax promptly, the twain eloped, and so ended the first act in the drama.”

Eliza’s cuckolded husband obtained a divorce two months later, but Simon’s spurned wife remarried without one, believing “the soldier’s desertion of her and his continued absence for five years were equivalent [sic] to a divorce.” The passion that spurred the pair to upend their lives appears to have held through the years. This can be observed in an affectionate letter from Simon which Eliza included in her later pension claim, signed “I Remain as Ever Your Ever Loving Husband” and “Kiss me Good Night Dearest Your Simon.”

After living for what they felt to be a suitable amount of time out west, Eliza and Simon returned to New York City and resumed their lives and social circles, staying committed to one another until Simon’s death in 1907.

Just a year later, Eliza was married again, to Simon’s brother, Isaac Adamsky.  After a forty-year marriage to his first wife, Rebecca Schoen, Isaac was also recently widowed, and perhaps out of brotherly duty, or the pull of Eliza’s “substantial form,” he took Eliza over the river to New Jersey, to be married by a Justice of the Peace.