The Can of Worms: Part One

In a previous blog post I wrote about Francesca Sancetta’s journey back to Sicily when her mother passed away in Brooklyn.  Since I wrote that post, I’ve managed to dig up some more details about the family, especially the other children, and perhaps some maternal cousins as well.  And as you will see, the can of worms has officially been opened.

Rosa Tarantola, my g-g-grandmother, was born in 1867 to Vincenzo Tarantola and Francesca Calmana.  I believe she was most likely from the area around Salaparuta in Trapani Province on the western end of Sicily.  She immigrated to Brooklyn, NY, sometime around 1893, most likely bringing a child or two with her when she came.  There is some evidence that her husband, Guiseppe Sancetta, may already have been in Brooklyn, but since I have yet to find any immigration or US census records for the family, it’s a bit of a guess either way.

They settled in Brooklyn and had at least 4 more children before Rosa’s untimely death in 1905 from “consumption”, or more likely TB.  Amazingly, I have a copy of her hand-written death certificate, which states that she was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn.  And I also had a copy of a birth record for her daughter Jennie that comes from St. John’s the Evangelist in Brooklyn, so I had a couple of places to start searching.

After my extensive searches online were proving fruitless, I knew that I would need to employ some more old-fashioned techniques to kick start the research on this family.  So I got on the phone and called St. John’s.  I gave them the information I had on the family, including Rosa’s maiden name.  A few days later I received a rather excited  phone message from the woman at the church saying not only had she found four birth records for the children of Giuseppe and Rosa, but she had also found a bunch of Tarantola birth records as well from the same time frame.  Would I like her to send those as well?  Well OF COURSE I would!

I soon had a fat little envelope in my hands with a bunch of hand-copied records.  Included were the Sancetta birth records of:

  1. Francesca in 1892 (check)
  2. Vincenzo in 1894 (check)
  3. Rosalie in 1901 (who?)
  4. Carmelo in 1903 (who now?)

I sat there and sort of stared at these records for a bit.  Then I grabbed my records and started to take look.  The children’s names I know for Sancetta family are:

  1. Giovanni (John)
  2. Maria (Mary)
  3. Francesca (Frances)
  4. Vincenzo (James)
  5. Jennie
  6. Tom

So my suspicions were already that some of the children were not born in America, it seems to be confirmed by the lack of records for John and Mary, the two eldest children.  I had a suspicion already that John was not a US Citizen because I knew that he was made to serve in the Italian Army, while the other two brothers were not, perhaps due to their citizenship status?  A question for the future.  And Mary, who stayed in the US and was potentially married already when her mother died, is still a bit of a mystery but it would make sense that she also was not born here, and was able to stay because of her marriage.  So that’s another question for the future.

So, moving on: right away I suspected that Carmelo must be our Tom as the year of the birth on the certificate matched my record for Tom.  Perhaps Tom was his baptismal name or a name he chose for himself after he came back to America?  When I plugged in Carmelo instead of Tom on his Ancestry entry, up popped that little hint leaf and bam!  I had the 1930 and 1940 census records appear and I knew it had to be him.  Plus, I remembered I had a picture of a young man that was sent to my g-grandmother “with love from your brother” in Sicily.  The name signed on the picture was “Carmelo”.  Bingo.  Carmelo is who we knew as Tom.

But now I’ll get to the can of worms: Who was Rosalie?  Is she my g-grandmother?  Is it possible that the random stories I had heard over the years were all coming together now to point out the truth?  Were Rosalie and Jennie the same person?  My heart skipped a beat with excitement and…dread.

The reason I had a feeling of dread is that if Rosalie and Jennie are the same person, then the date of her birth, 1901, does not compute for me.  Jennie married her husband, Frank Natole, in 1909.  And their first child, Angeline, was born in 1910.  If Rosalie and Jennie are the same person, then the first child would have been born before she 10 years old!  While this is possible, it is (I sure hope) likely NOT the case.  I do know that Jennie was much younger than her husband, but this seems extreme.

I want to stop here and say one thing:  I am not going to sugar coat what I find to be true.  This entire situation warrants more investigation, but I realize that it can be painful to some if we find out that she was as young as the birth certificate says she may be.  I am personally hoping to find strong proof that she was older, but I know that times were different then and, however unsavory for our modern day morals to accept, this kind of thing did happen.

So, here is some of the evidence I have for both sides.  First, and scarily enough, there was a story that when my grandparents called “back East” to tell the Sancetta family of the death of Jennie in 1959, the family did not know her as Jennie, but rather as “Rose”.  It could be that someone has a story confused here, but that is what I have been told.  If, going by the Carmelo/Tom example, the family knew her as Rose perhaps it was because Rose was her middle, or confirmation, name.  Vincenza would be a legit family name and can be Anglicised to “Jennifer” or Jennie.  However, it can go the other way too and perhaps her real name was Rose Vinzenza (Jennie).

Second, Jennie herself never knew when her birthday was.  For some legal reason, she needed to get a birth record for herself from St. John’s, but she never was sent the correct record.  They kept sending her her brother Vincenzo’s certificate with the name changed to “Vincenza”, perhaps because she was telling them her name in Italian was Vincenza.  And I had the same exact trouble when I attempted to find a birth certificate for her as well.  Additionally, my grandmother tells me that my grandfather used to say Jennie’s children teased her for “getting married when she was 10”.  Which does not bode well for Rosalie being a different person.

Third, the wedding photo.  I was told that Frank and Jennie married in 1909 and I have a wedding photo that shows them as a young couple.  Jennie looks young here, there is no doubt.  But to me at least she looks to at least be a young teenager.  She was always a tiny woman, just 4’9″ tall when my grandmother knew her.  Her husband was much taller.  If she was as young as is possible, then they did an excellent job of making her look more like a young adult than a child.  Judge for yourself:

Frank Natole and Jennie Sancetta

Frank Natole and Jennie Sancetta

 

Now there are a couple of possibilities here that I’ve thought of, which of course I will need to research further.  One idea is this photo was taken later than I think, and perhaps they did not marry as early as I have been told.  This does not solve the problem of the first child being born in 1910 though.  Another idea is perhaps Jennie married Frank later and the first two children were from a previous relationship.  Or, perhaps they were married after some of the children had already been born?  Protocol of those days would probably frown heavily on that.  And to be honest I cannot see that being the case.  The trouble is this: I still do not have a marriage record for them, and I do not have clear proof of Jennie’s age at marriage.  And until I do I cannot possibly know what happened more than 100 years ago.

What’s next?  Well, besides the marriage record, I need to see if I can find any record of a confirmation for Jennie.  I actually didn’t mention something that is important: Jennie moved in with her sister Mary Sancetta Iacono when the rest of her family departed for Sicily.  I am unsure if the family moved to Minnesota right away or stayed in Brooklyn for a time.  I do know that the photo above was taken in Minneapolis, so it seems that they had moved here by at least 1909.  So if there was a chance that Jennie was confirmed it would most likely have been in Minnesota.  That’s a big “if” of course.  Also, I still have to find the birth certificates for all of Frank and Jennie’s children to confirm their birth dates and parents.  Feelings aside, what is important to me is that I knew all but one of Jennie’s children, and when asked they all said they loved their mother to no end and she was a loving and wonderful person.  And as I dig through that can of worms, that is what I will keep close to my heart.

Next time: What did I discover in the Tarantola records I received, what did I find at the cemetery and what new can of worms was opened?  To be continued…

Brooklyn to Sicily: A Case of Reverse Immigration

Sometimes you run across a document that not only fills in dates and names, but also is a snapshot into a person’s life at a specific moment.  The Passport Application of my great-great aunt, Francesca Sancetta, is a perfect example of such a document.

Francesca was born in the New York in 1892.  When her mother, Rosa, died in 1905, her father made the decision to travel back to Sicily.  I knew through family stories that his oldest child, John, traveled back with him, and I suspected more of the six children went as well.  Two of them, my g-grandmother, Jennie, and her married sister, Mary, did not return to Sicily (and that’s why I’m here today!).  It was a mystery to me what happened to the other children from the years between about 1905 to the 1930s.  Did they go back to Sicily and then return to the States?  Or did they stay here?  It just wasn’t clear.  Especially because ship logs going from the U.S. back to the “old country” are so scarce!

Because I already knew that three of the remaining four mystery children, Jim, Tom and Francesca, were in MN or NY in the 1930s, I started searching for clues online for the missing years.  For years I searched for the family in Sicily with no luck.  Then one day that little “hint” leaf appeared next to Francesca’s name on Ancestry.com.  While sometimes these hints amount to nothing, when I clicked on the link, I discovered it was Francesca Sancetta’s application for a U.S. Passport…from Salaparuta, Sicily in 1920!  I started jumping up and down and had to chill myself out before I could read the document.  Finally had something to work with!

Francesca Top

Success!

This document is a gold mine of information about what happened to Francesca and her family.  First, she states that her father Joseph Sancetta lived in the U.S. for 16 years, from 1890 to 1906.  She states that she left the U.S. in April of 1906 and lives in Salaparuta “temporarily” with her parents.  She affirms that was born in the U.S. in 1892 and she is a U.S. Citizen.

The reason she gave as to why she resides in Salaparuta, she stated, “My oldest brother was in the Italian Army and due to the fact that he remained in the Army for ten years it was impossible for me to return to the U.S. unaccompanied.  So I remained in Italy waiting for my brother.”  She goes on to state that she maintained ties with a sister and uncle in the U.S.  Then on the “Opinion of Officer Taking Affidavit” section of the application, the officer wrote, “…she was brought to Italy by her parents.  She adds that domestic troubles arose in her family and that the parents have no intention of going to the United States…”

Francesca's Affidavit, 1920

Francesca’s Affidavit, 1920

With this one document I learned so much, and now have so many more questions!

1. Francesca states she is waiting for her “oldest” brother.  An assumption can be made that this would be John.  Jim and Tom were younger, but where were they in 1920?

2. Francesca states that she is living with her “parents”.  We know that Rosa is dead, so is there a new step-mother?

3. If there is a new step-mother, did Joseph marry here in America or Sicily?  Are there half-siblings to discover yet?

4. What were the “domestic troubles” that were causing a rift in her family?

5. The oldest brother (most likely John) had to serve in the Italian Army from 1909 – 1919, the years covering WWI.  Are there records of his service somewhere?

6. We know her older sister and younger sister were already in the U.S.  Who is the “uncle” she mentions?

7. Is Salaparuta the original point of origin for the family in 1890?

8. If Francesca returned, did John come with her and stay in the U.S.?  What happened to John?

9. It seems that Joseph is still alive in 1902.  What happens to him after this?

10. Looking at this from a 21st Century point of view, Francesca would have been about 28 years old when she applied for this passport.  What social norms were in place that a grown woman could not travel unaccompanied in 1920?

These are the next questions I hope to answer.  The road won’t be easy though.  Salaparuta was destroyed in 1968 by the Belice Earthquake and the entire town moved to a nearby location.  (see http://www.protezionecivile.gov.it/jcms/en/terremoto_belice.wp;jsessionid=4AA7C520FCB8B341AA29DE85BE270976)  I haven’t yet tried to get in touch with anyone there, but I’m hoping that some parish records survived, and perhaps city records as well.  The good news is the name Sancetta does not seem to be very common, so hopefully I’ll have some luck doing research.

For those of you who lost track, rest assured Francesca did make it back to the U.S. at some point, where she lived in Minnesota until her death in 1989 (she was 97!).  I doubt Francesca would even guess that someday her g-g-niece would be fascinated by the story she told the consulate officer in Palermo on that September day in 1920.  I’d like to think that by doing this research, I honor her unique experience and thank her for being so honest in her passport application all those years ago.

Francesca Pic

Francesca Sancetta, 1920

One more mystery remains from Francesca’s life, one that someday I’ll tell if I can get some facts straight.  Apparently the sons of Francesca and her husband, Peter DiGiovanni, were caught up in a plot to assassinate Benito Mussolini sometime around the years of WWII.  There is come confusion as to where Francesca was at this time, here or in Italy again. Somehow the boys or the family made it to Morocco where they were evacuated with the help of another Sicilian family here in MN, the Piazzas.  I think Francesca’s life might be worth exploring further!