Unlike the mild winter weather of today, Secaucus had plenty of snow and frozen ice beds during the winter of January 1922. It was enough to provide a lively afternoon of sledding for a group of young boys home from school at Clarendon Elementary.
Secaucus had a greater acreage of wetlands back then that included various creeks and streams and water-covered areas on and around the Meadowlands Parkway.
On Tuesday, Jan. 17, 1922 a group of 12-year old boys gathered on Ninth Street and took turns sliding down a hill that ended at the edge of what was referred to as Zitzman’s Creek, a 200-foot-long body of water that emptied into the Hackensack River.
William Stroebele, nicknamed “Sonny,” was among the boys. He had borrowed his friend Thomas Kennelly’s sled to take his turn sledding down the hill. Stroebele lived with his parents Adolph and Helene and his two older sisters Emma and Bertha at 725 Ninth St. The Zitzmans lived next door.
For 15 minutes, Stroebele sledded down the hill. Then he took one final trip before disappearing into the creek forever – or so it seems.
What happened to William?
The question of what happened to William Stroebele 90 years ago remains an open one for relatives, including David Stroebel, a second cousin who is conducting a search for the body. After William disappeared, several stories appeared in the Hudson Dispatch.
William Stroebele’s father was David’s grandfather’s brother, and they co-owned Jefferson Trucking and Rigging Co. Inc., based in Hoboken. David Stroebel’s family was from Jersey City.
A body was recovered from the Hackensack River two months later. Officials said it was William. But David believes the body was not that of his relative but another boy who was “much taller,” based on family accounts.
If that’s true, then who was the other boy, and where is William?
“Someone else is in William’s grave with his parents,” said Stroebel. “I want to change that.”
Stroebel began his research in 2008 and collected news reports about the incident and also located William’s death certificate as well as photos of him as a toddler.
Two months before a body was found
According to news reports from the 1922 Dispatch, William coasted over the creek’s ice, broke through a soft spot, and fell in. His friends screamed and rushed to the lake. His mother heard the shouts and fainted when she found out her son had fallen into the creek.
The Secaucus residents dragged the creek throughout the night in search of the young Stroebele, to no avail. His father Adolph stood watch by the lake, waiting for his son’s body to surface.
James Doyle – brother of then-Police Sgt. Edward Doyle – led the search party. James Doyle was referred to as “one of the most experienced men in the county in recovering dead bodies.” He feared that a strong undertow had taken Stroebele’s body to the Hackensack River. It took days before the search party found the boy’s hat and glove.
A body was found on March 19 about 15 feet from where Stroebele fell through the ice, by a man named Charles Flury who lived on Grace Street, according to news reports. Stroebele’s death certificate indicates that the body was found at the foot of Second Street.
“Someone else is in William’s grave with his parents.” – David Stroebel
Stroebele’s accidental death was significant for a small town like Secaucus. A funeral procession left from his home on Ninth Street and went past Clarendon Elementary School. Then it paused so that his fellow classmates could watch from the classroom windows, and finally ended at Immaculate Conception Church.
According to news reports, his fellow playmates were pallbearers: Sam Maizko, Thomas Kennelly, David Zitzman, John Flury, Leonard Schubert, and Louis Theiman.
‘Our son is not that tall’
David Stroebel said that when his elderly cousin, Caroline Marchuk, told him how William’s parents reacted to the body once it was presented to them, he was convinced it wasn’t William. Marchuk was 10 years old at the time of William’s disappearance.
“Helene Stroebele [William’s mom] said, ‘That is not our son. Our son is not that tall,’” said David Stroebel. Stroebel said that an autoposy was not performed on the body. According to forensics reports, a body that has been submerged in water is often not identifiable visually and requires DNA testing. Back then DNA testing did not exist as it does today.
Stroebel said that the parents were told that William’s head had been stuck in the mud and thus his body had stretched. They reluctantly accepted the explanation.
Stroebele was said to have been buried at Flower Hill Cemetery in North Bergen. Thus far, a conversation with the caretakers did not yield results on locating the Stroebele tombstone. He said he is willing to disinter the existing body at Flower Hill if he can find the family plot.
He believes that William’s body may have flowed far enough to have been recovered and buried as an unidentified body in a Staten Island cemetery. He has ruled out the former Secaucus Potter’s Field, as well as the Snake Hill Cemetery (now Secaucus Junction) that once served the county’s insane asylum and penitentiary, because the unknowns listed in those cemetery databases were not close to William’s age.
Stroebel is looking for any information that could shed light on where William may be buried. He has even gone as far as having his own DNA tested so he can compare it against a DNA test of the body that was buried as William – once he finds it.
“I intend to locate the true body of William and lay him to rest with his parents in Flower Hill Cemetery,” said Stroebel. “To do that, I need to know who was responsible for storing and burying unclaimed bodies of the deceased in 1922. Thus far, no Hudson County or Secaucus official could tell me this.”
Stroebel lives in Central Jersey, has three kids, and works full-time as a technology writer and editor. He said that he hasn’t had enough time to search Flower Hill by foot, but that he hopes someone will help him get closer to finally solving the mystery surrounding the death of William Stroebele. If you have information, e-mail email@example.com.
To comment on this story online visit www.hudsonreporter.com. Adriana Rambay Fernández can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org