Who really jilted Elizabeth Plankinton, daughter of a prominent Milwaukee businessman in the 1880s? What was life like for a rich, single woman in that era?
Elizabeth Plankinton was raised in Milwaukee as the daughter of one of the richest men in town. Still in her teens, her older sister died. Two years later her mother passed away, and two years after that her father remarried. She traveled extensively to the East Coast and Europe, spending time in Florence, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. When she was 33 years old, her father built a mansion on Grand Avenue (now Wisconsin Avenue) for her as a wedding present. Newspapers stories of the time and since then contradict each other as to the name of the prospective groom. Some stories even say she was married.
The mansion, in which she never lived, was the center of controversy in the mid-1970s. Marquette University wanted to tear it down and historical preservationists wanted to save it. The university won that battle, but, as a result of their efforts on this project, the preservationists organized and succeeded in saving other structures in Milwaukee.
Elizabeth Plankinton was a member of the higher social class and a benefactress in late nineteenth century Milwaukee, donating the first pubic statue, and providing funds for the YWCA and other charitable projects. Later in life she built a home in Dresden and was caught in Germany during World War I. The United States froze her financial assets during this time. After the war, she visited Milwaukee once, then returned to Europe where she died in 1923, too ill to return home. It is interesting that she chose to live in Germany. While most people living in Milwaukee were of German descent, Elizabeth’s family was of English heritage.
Elizabeth Plankinton was a rich and single woman without a home or job to anchor her to any one place, in an era where women were defined by their ‘housekeeping’ role as mother, wife, teacher, or nurse. She earned a place in history because she was jilted and refused to live in the house built for her marriage, and because that house became the center of an epic battle which energized historic preservation efforts in the city of Milwaukee.
I am curious about this woman who appeared to have more freedom than other women of that era. She was in Florence during the same years many famous impressionist painters were painting and studying in that city. I’ve found evidence that she corresponded with Mark Twain. I also found documentation that she was a charter member of Wisconsin’s Archeological Society. I would like to research her life and lives of other women who may have led similar lives. The stories of these women do not seem to be included in history books. I would also like to discover the real truth about the jilted groom, to correct those historical stories that contradict each other.
Story of Elizabeth A. Plankinton, 1933: Famous Milwaukee woman.