Seeking All Possible Records

by Jane Papa

 

    "Seek out all possible records that your ancestors might have created or had created about them." This was the primary message that I, a budding family historian, took away from each genealogy how-to lecture or seminar that I attended, from each book or article that I read on the subject. With respect for the acquired wisdom of experienced researchers I have set about applying this principle to my work, although initially I had only the vaguest understanding of how such diligence and persistence could make a real difference. Often it appeared to me that many of these apparently similar records would prove repetitive of each other, and that one of them would suffice for any given purpose. Here I offer an account of three different instances where seeking the apparently redundant record provided completely new information, thereby proving the value of the All Possible Records principle.

    The first example occurred near the very beginning of my genealogical research. I was investigating the death of Filomena Marzano, my great grandmother who had died at age 42 in 1906, leaving a young family. I recalled asking my grandmother Elvira how her mother had died. "Oh, she had a little shock," my grandmother replied in her usual understated way. I was probably a young teen at the time and had to ask my mother about the term "shock". In this way I had come to believe that Filomena had died of a stroke. Now many years later in interviewing my aunt (Elviraís daughter) for the oral history portion of my research I mentioned this story. "Hmph!" she exclaimed, "thatís not true. She died in childbirth, but Grandma wouldnít tell you that!" I was quite amazed to hear this alternative story but upon reflection not completely surprised. My grandmother had been known to "sanitize" stories for retelling to me (for example, her version of the Santa Lucia story did not attribute lustful motives to the would-be suitor, just admiration for the young virgin). So when I finally procured Filomenaís death certificate from Boston City Hall I rather expected to see some child-bearing condition listed as the cause of death. Instead I found "cerebral apoplexy" typed in that space. Now I felt a bit guilty for having doubted my grandmotherís truthfulness, but I was still puzzled. How could my auntís version have differed so markedly from the information on the death certificate? Where could she have gotten her idea?

    Without realizing that I was about to apply the All Possible Records principle for the first time, I had an urge, engendered by the approach of Memorial Day that year, to visit the grave of Filomena and her husband Luigi Maradei. Using the death certificate notation "burial at Mt. Benedict" as a guide, my husband and I drove out to the cemetery office to acquire the specifics of the grave location within the cemetery. The staff person was extremely accommodating and when I expressed an interest in learning whether anyone else was buried in that grave she handed me the pertinent card from her file. And there I read "Filomena Maradei (and child)".

    A friend who is a nurse has suggested to me that Filomena may have died from a stroke resulting from hypertension which could have been induced by pregnancy. Modern medical terms for the condition might be pre-eclampsia or toxemia. But without reading both documents Ė the death certificate and the burial record Ė I would have had an incomplete story and lingering doubts.

    A second instance of applying the principle also occurred fairly early in my research but this time I was doing it consciously. I had read in a book that it would be possible to send to Italy for records of oneís ancestorsí military service. I decided that "possible" really meant "necessary" in my context so I set about composing a letter to the Archivio di Stato di Cosenza, the province of all of my ancestors in Italy. My skill at writing in Italian is quite limited so I sought the assistance of a native-born Italian friend. After much effort we produced a letter requesting the record of my great grandfather Luigi Pisciotti, born in 1853 and died in 1886, a few months before his son (also Luigi), my grandfather, was born. I didnít really foresee the record containing any important information that I didnít already have from his birth, marriage, and death records, but again I deferred to the wisdom of my betters and mailed the letter. Several months later the response appeared in my mailbox with the expected names-and-dates data, but with so much more: a brief word about his having served up north in Genova, and a physical description of him. He had been 1.56 meters in stature, had a medium complexion, healthy teeth, no unusual marks, chestnut hair, and blue eyes. What a wonderful picture appeared before me for an instant! A man who had probably not even been thought of in many decades was alive again if only briefly and if only to me.

     But the real significance of the physical description was the part about the blue eyes. My grandfather had had hazel eyes, my grandmother and her brothers dark brown. Their children had all had either hazel or dark brown eyes. But among the seven descendants in my generation there are four with blue eyes. I have long understood the biological principle of dominant and recessive genes to mean that people must inherit a given gene from both parents in order for a recessive trait (such as blue eyes) to manifest itself. My blue-eyed brother and cousins could easily trace one gene to their equally blue-eyed (Irish) mothers, but where was there lurking a gene for blue eyes on their (Italian) fathersí side? That minor mystery was now delightfully resolved with the description of the blue-eyed great grandfather from so long ago. I wonder if my grandfather ever knew that his father had blue eyes.

    By the time I became familiar with the techniques of genealogical research I was enjoying the process so much that I eagerly sought any and all records that I could possibly locate. So when I found out about the Boston Archdiocesan Archives (Catholic Church records) I couldnít wait to make an appointment for a visit. I intended to look at baptisms and marriage records for my grandparents and their siblings, baptisms for these peoplesí children, and anything else that came my way. I had such a good time engaged with the old leather-bound ledgers that I made a second appointment. Even though I already had the dates from the civil counterpart documents I was reaping useful information by way of names of godparents and marriage witnesses that certainly had not appeared in the civil records. I thought at the time that I was making good use of the All Possible Records principle. There was one other type of information that was unique to these religious documents but I more or less ignored it initially because it seemed truly redundant in this instance. Because these sacraments had been administered in ethnic churches (St. Leonardís and Sacred Heart in the North End and Our Lady of Pompeii in the South End of Boston), when the priests filled in the lines that indicated where the spouses or the baptismal candidatesí parents were from, they listed the town and province in Italy rather than the local street address. This seemed of no special significance to me as I already knew with certainty where in Italy all of my ancestors were from.

    Many months after my Archdiocesan Archives adventures I decided to disseminate some of the information I had been gathering to people who might find it interesting. I asked my aunt for the names and addresses of some of her cousins and second cousins and put together small packets of documents pertaining to our common ancestors to send to them. One of these cousins was the grandson of my great grandfatherís sister Rosina Maradei and her second husband. Rosina had been married the first time in Italy but her husband died shortly after arriving in Boston, leaving Rosina with two small sons. Her brother Luigi, my great grandfather, arranged a second marriage for her (as was customary at the time). The groom was Michele Lavalle, a friend of one of his business associates (they owned a barbershop together briefly), and the marriage took place on April 15, 1894, at Sacred Heart Church. Of course the church record of the marriage included the facts that the bride was from Morano Calabro, Cosenza, and the groom was from San Giorgio Albanese, Cosenza.

    In the "cover letter" I sent with the packets of documents to the cousins I identified myself in terms of our common ancestors and included my telephone number and email address. Within days I received an email reply from Rosina Maradei Lavalleís grandson which read in part, "we had long since despaired of ever finding out where in Italy our grandfather came from and have always regretted not asking our grandparents and parents when they were alive. And now you come along out of the blue with all of that information!" The heritage of my second cousinís paternal grandfather now lies open to him and his sisters because I applied the All Possible Records principle, although unknowingly on his behalf.

    I believe the three examples I have described here illustrate clearly the importance of being thorough. Extra effort can result in clarification of the details of oneís family history, can enrich its texture, and in some instances may even break through barriers that once made further research impossible. Seek all possible records!

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