Jessie Willis Brodhead was born in 1857 in Roslyn, New York, to Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900) and Jessie Cairns (c.1830-1858). She wrote stories and poems for The Musical World and The Musical Times, Catholic-oriented religious publications popular in the late 19th century.
Richard Willis was a noted music composer primarily of hymns and had studied under Felix Mendelssohn. His brother – Jessie's uncle – was the poet Nathaniel Parker Willis. Her aunt was Fanny Fern – born Sara Willis – a newspaper columnist, novelist, and author of children's books.
Jessie's mother died the year after she was born. Her father married Alexandrine Macomb Campau (1829-1910), a widow, in October 1861. She raised Jessie and her two sisters, Anne and Blanche, as her own.
Alexandrine Macomb Campau Willis was widely known for her Catholic charity work and was granted audiences with Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius X. She was also co-founder of the Detroit Museum of Art.
While Jessie was touring Europe with her sisters in 1876, the three sisters were guests aboard the U.S.S. Franklin, which was anchored at Nice. The ship was part of the Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Worden. There, the sisters met U.S. Navy Lt. Aaron Ward, U.S. Navy Lt. William Emory and Marine Lt. John Thornton Brodhead.
Anne Willis married Ward, who eventually became an admiral, and Blanche married Emory, who also was later promoted to admiral. In 1877, Jessie married Brodhead (1851-1904).
Brodhead was born at Grosse Ile, Michigan, to Col. Thornton F. Brodhead (1820-1862) and Archange Macomb (1820-1891), the granddaughter of William Macomb, the original owner of Grosse Ile. Her father was William Macomb Jr. Col. Brodhead, a cavalry officer, was mortally wounded at the Second Bull Run while covering a retreat by federal troops and died on Sept. 2, 1862.
Jessie and John Brodhead married in 1877 in New York City and maintained a home in Washington, D.C, where John was stationed with the Marine Corps.
John Thornton and Jessie had six children. The first child was Jessie Willis (1878-1906), who was born in Washington, D.C. She married Rob Leicester Wagner (1872-1942), an artist and journalist. They had two sons, Leicester and Thornton. She died in Santa Barbara, Calif.
The second child was a son. Thornton (m. Elsie Moran) was a commander in the Michigan Naval Militia and saw action at San Juan during the Spanish-American War. Daughter Archange Macomb was unmarried. A second son, John "Jack" (m. Dorothy Farrish), owned a Ford dealership in St. Louis. Daughter Alexandrine Cairns married Duncan McNabb. The youngest child was Willis, who joined Jack in St. Louis to help run the car dealership.
In 1881, the couple moved to Detroit where John established a real estate business. They lived on Grosse Ile and later at Belle Isle, which Alexandrine Macomb Campau was part-owner. Jessie spent most of her childhood living on Belle Isle. At the time of John Brodhead's death, the family was living at 597 Jefferson Avenue in Detroit.
Jessie was active in philanthropic projects and with the Detroit social scene. She was a regular contributing to Catholic publications and gained popularity for her religious-themed poetry.
Jessie Willis Brodhead died of stomach cancer in 1929 at Shurly Hospital in Detroit.
John Thornton Brodhead
1851–1904 (m. 1877)
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