Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Tale of a Forgotten Zio

When I began to explore my family history, I naturally expected to discover my share of ancestors who were completely new to me but were known to other living members of my family.  I anticipated moments where I would mention a newly found name to a relative, and the response would be "Nah, niorsi, m'ricord ca...."  Putting aside my pathetic attempt to write "Nah, yes, I remember that..." in the Molfettese dialect, I've been blessed with several of these moments of revelation.  Memories have been jogged to reveal additional nuggets of vital information that often lead to further discoveries.  However, for the past several years, one figure has consistently stood out as a major mystery: a paternal great-granduncle named Mauro De Virgilio.

I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment full of granduncles and grandaunts.  My parents also seemed to have no problem naming the siblings of their grandparents even if they only held wisps of memories.  My father can still proudly recall some of his paternal grandfather's brothers whom he remembers as elderly men when he was a small child in Molfetta.  However, neither my father nor any other member of his family had any inkling of Mauro's existence.  Even in terms of documented evidence, he was like a mirage, disappearing and then suddenly reappearing in unexpected places.   Regardless, in the end, his story reminds us of the darker and lonelier aspects of the immigrant experience.  It also forces us to acknowledge that documented evidence can't always tell us the full story of a person's experience, especially the more intimate challenges or demons endured throughout the course of life.

On the very first day that I began to  explore the wealth of records from Molfetta on microfilms at the Family History Center in Emerson, NJ, I came across Mauro's birth record from March 19, 1883.  I thought I had simply found another sibling of my paternal great-grandfather, Francesco De Virgilio.  At first, I just assumed that Mauro had lived out life in Molfetta much like his brother.  However, then I entered Mauro's data into my family tree.  Within seconds, those famed little green leaves started to sprout indicating record matches.  Despite my skepticism, I found the following records which are clearly related to Mauro:
  • An Ellis Island passenger list indicated that he arrived in the US in March of 1907
  • A World War I draft registration card indicating that he was living in Scranton, PA, and working at the Scranton Coal Company as of September 1918
  • A petition for naturalization documenting residence in Scranton as of August 1920
The only inconsistency is that all these records reflect a March 19, 1884 birth date.  However, since I wasn't able to locate any birth records showing that a Mauro De Virgilio was born in Molfetta exactly one year after my Mauro, I can only speculate as to why this error exists.

My first reaction to these finds was "Scranton?!"  I've known my ancestors to be mariners, farmers, and various types of dock workers, but coal miners?  Also immigrants to the US from Molfetta during this period were congregating in Hoboken, NJ.  I never considered Northeastern Pennsylvania as a destination for my ancestors, but I soon learned that Italian immigrants were among the many ethnic groups who labored in the coal mines of the region.

After his petition for naturalization, Mauro disappears from records.  To add to my frustration, he appears in not a single census record up to this point.  However, there is a positive note to this part of the story. As I dug through Scranton records and information online, I discovered a nephew of Mauro, Michele De Virgilio, who settled in Scranton too.  Via this discovery, I was able to connect with Michele's daughter, my 2nd cousin once removed, who was extremely gracious with sharing all the information available to her.  Unfortunately, she knew nothing of Mauro.  Thus began a long drought of new data, even after seeking assistance from various PA-based genealogical experts.  Finally, I decided to put the project aside for a while as one often does when faced with brick walls in family history research.

Then April 2012 rolled around, and little did I know what awaited me in the highly anticipated release of the 1940 US Census.  Well, another little green leaf sprouted, and a "Mauro Devirgilia" appears as a resident of the Hudson County Alms House in Secaucus, NJ.  This was the closest match I had found for Mauro in any census.  His age matched within a few years, and it claims that he was a resident of Jersey City in 1935.  Thus, I faced an unfortunate possibility: Though Mauro's life had brought him closer to the Molfettese immigrant community in Hoboken, it had also sadly resulted in residence in the poorhouse.

Delving through newspapers, city directories, and other records, I once again hit a desert of data.  Then I recalled a controversy that I read about roughly a decade ago.  The Hudson County Burial Grounds was a cemetery used to bury unclaimed bodies from the alms house and the neighboring asylum and penitentiary.  All of these facilities were located in an area of Secaucus known as Snake Hill.  The cemetery had been all but forgotten until excavations associated with a $235-million highway-interchange project exposed that the remains of almost 10,000 individuals were still entombed on the property.  A group, including a fellow descendent of Molfetese immigrants whose grandfather was buried in the cemetery, fought to ensure that the remains were relocated and properly memorialized.  The controversy was covered by publications throughout the nation, including Archeology.  In fact, the story became the subject of an award-winning 2007 documentary, called Snake Hill

Though I followed the story with interest as it unfolded, I never thought that I had a personal connection to it, but now I decided to follow a hunch that Zio Mauro may have been among those buried at Snake Hill.  Upon examining the burial list, I came across a record for a "DeVirgilio Dauro" buried on November 5, 1941.  Since the name was only off by a single letter, I decided to make my inaugural visit to the New Jersey State Archives where I located this death certificate.  It states that a Mauro DeVirgilio died on October 31st, 1941 and was buried in the "almshouse cemetery".  Although some of his personal information is slightly off, such as his father's name (Nick rather than Michele), these inaccuracies can feasibly be attributed to facility administrators who filled out the form based on the "records of the institution" as stated on the certificate.  Furthermore, whomever filled out the form didn't care much for math either since it was believed that someone can live from 1873 to 1941 and be 57 years old.

These flubs aside, the most striking bit of new information on the document was his last known address, 200 Grand St. in Hoboken. Besides being the location of Hoboken's iconic Italian restaurant Leo's Grandevous since 1939, when I looked up the property in the 1940 Census, I was intrigued to find that a family headed by an Ignazio De Robertis lived in the building.  While the surname De Robertis is rather common in Molfetta, Mauro's slightly older sister Vincenza married a man named Ignazio De Robertis.   Though I have found no evidence of a link among the De Robertis families, it's possible that Mauro had been a boarder at some point with members of his sister's extended family.

Again, this is guesswork, and much of Mauro's tale is open to theories until further evidence is uncovered.  In addition to the De Robertis connection, some of the biggest teases come from the other names associated with his records, such as an alleged cousin, Mauro Rana (Mauro's mother's maiden name), whom Mauro was meeting in the US according to his passenger list.  Though I have found no leads linked to such names, perhaps the internet gods will deem me worthy of a chance web search by descendants of these individuals who might be able to shed more light on Mauro's tale.

The largest void in Mauro's story is from 1920 to 1940.  One can't help but wonder what brought a man petitioning for naturalization to end up in the poorhouse 20 years later.  Much was occurring in the world during these decades to place a life in turmoil: the Great Depression and Prohibition just to name a few.  Mauro may have also suffered from illnesses, injuries, or addictions that contributed to his lonesome fate.

Some might question why one would bother to explore the life of a long-dead, distant relative who may have been a vagabond.   Well, as we rightfully celebrate our immigrant ancestors who lifted themselves up from nothing to various forms of success, we can appreciate their efforts all the more when we are reminded of an opposite fate that may have awaited them. Besides, if in truth Mauro was just a good man who was dealt a raw deal, then perhaps some justice is found in knowing that he is no longer forgotten.