The “Big Secret” – Revealed

Tue. 26 Oct 2010. 8:10 am

I think we finally have enough background information so we can talk out what this “Big Secret” was all about.

To help illustrate the story, I am adding clips from one of my favorite paintings by Hieronymus Bosch.

Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights

So what I’m going to do is this:

First I’ll give a FACT.

This is information or an event we are pretty sure is accurate.

Next will be the IMPLICATION.

This is additional information about the FACT that explains it’s significance.

Finally I’ll give an OPINION.

This is my explanation as to why Flavia and Octavie did what they did.



Flavia Maria Poelman’s uncle, Emile/Emiel Poelman, had been in America since at least 1910.


One of the conditions of immigrating to America was that each person typically had to have a friend or relative in America in order to enter the country.


We know that after Emile came to America in Boston he moved to Detroit. At that time Detroit and Chicago were the primary destinations for Belgians.



The political mood in Europe was turning ugly and Germany was preparing to go to war with Western Europe. Germany was already at war in Eastern Europe.


As with a number of previous European conflicts, Belgium was the battleground. And I would imagine the Belgians thought it was was probably not going to be any different this time.


With the possibility of war coming, it seems pretty reasonable to me to use whatever you can to get out of the Europe.



In America we saw there was the eugenics movement going on and there was a part of that movement trying to keep out what they considered as undesirable.


Aliens who were considered undesirable were typically not allowed to enter America and sent back to where they came from. These are people who were unhealthy, criminals, mentally ill, or of questionable character or morality.


Regardless of the cause, unwed mothers with illegitimate children are in a very unlucky position and are typically considered to have questionable character and morals. Even orphans seem to fall under these categories.

So it is pretty easy to understand living under this kind of a cloud, while trying to get into America would cause people to do whatever they needed to do get through Ellis Island.



We know that Marie Octavie Poelman and her sister, Marie Florentina Poelman, both had illegitimate children born out of wedlock.


Children born out of wedlock were, and in some cases still are, considered to have flawed characters and somehow lack morals – even though they really did not do anything wrong. Unwed mothers were/are considered to be a problem because people think they will put a strain on the social service programs.

To get a better understanding all you have to do is consider your own opinion of the welfare and food-stamp programs today.

But even today in 2010, we need to remember there are legal issues, particularly inheritances, that can negatively impact illegitimate children and their mothers.


For the purpose of argument I think it is a bit difficult to prove the Poelman sisters were very smart. First Marie Florentina has a daughter born out of wedlock in 1888. Ok so I suppose you could say mistakes happen, albeit unfortunate. Then her twin sister, Marie Octavie, does the same thing five-years later in 1893.

Now it becomes really difficult to come up with a good explanation to justify that the sisters really had much common sense and plays right into the “questionable character” argument.



In 1904 Flavia Maria’s mother married Julius Constantinus Goens in Ghent. Then in 1914 Marie Octavie listed H. Poelman as her husband on the Ellis Island manifest while Flavia Maria said H. Poelman was her father. Remember, in 1914 Flavia was 21 years old and she had been adopted in 1904 when she was about 10 years old. So it seems both Flavia and her mother did not tell the truth in order to come into America.


Not telling the truth to a United States official is a serious matter and is a pretty good reason for either Flavia or her mother to be deported. Giving false information like this does not have a time limit which means they could have been deported right up to the date of their deaths.


I think Flavia and her mother gave false information because they were hiding the fact that Flavia was illegitimate and Octavie was an unwed mother. Not-to-mention Flavia’s aunt did the same thing. From what we saw I’m sure they were afraid they would be considered unacceptable and not be allowed to enter America.

What seems odd to me is Julius Goens was in America. Remember, he came back to America on the same ship as Emile Poelman did in 1913.

Why didn’t Flavia and her mother use Julius as their reference? I wonder if it was because neither Flavia or Octavie had the correct documentation to provide the Ellis Island official to state that Octavia had married Julius Goens and that Flavia was adopted?

Or maybe this is not the same Julius Goens?

Repeated Pain


I believe it was the constant fear of it being uncovered that Flavia and her mother came into America using false information. Flavia could not risk the possibility of anyone – whether neighbor, friend, or even an angry relative – to know. Because being found out meant the real possibility of being deported. And, technically, Flavia could have been deported right up until the day she died.

I think whenever one of Flavia’s children asked any questions about their family they were immediately told it was none of their business or to keep quiet. Over time I believe this action/reaction became something just not discussed; something whose original reason had become lost over time and became the “Big Secret”.

Adam and Eve


To me it is unfortunate this may have had so much negative impact on so many people for so long. But I really hope by laying out the facts and their implications it’s pretty easy for all of us to understand why they did what they did. Given the same conditions I suppose I would have done the same thing…

Wouldn’t you?


2 Responses to “The “Big Secret” – Revealed”

  1. Mary Ann Says:

    I remember seeing this painting in the art books Debbie would have around from when she was taking art classes(?)- I never liked it- creepy/deranged is what I thought(was probably ten years old). It’s interesting, the scenes you chose to go with your explanation.
    About the painting- a little easier to ‘stomach’ in small sections.
    About the information- It makes sense to me and also ALOT of relief for all those involved. Never do I want to have to faced with such a dilema…. thank you Glenn for your work and dedication to this ‘Big Secret’ for indeed it was Big and a Secret that affected many and also a secret that if made known any earlier would/could have caused MUCH grief.
    Cousin, Mary Ann

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