Monday, April 27, 2015

Comparing Notes

Sometimes, when we aren’t certain of our recollection of an event, we can check out our memories with others who were there by comparing notes.

When it comes to figuring out my paternal grandfather’s story, I don’t have that liberty; I wasn’t around yet—not even at the point at which he died.

Of course, I’ve done my due diligence in plying my older relatives with wearying questions—questions which, thankfully, my brother and my cousin have been patient enough to do their best in answering.

But I still want more. So I’ve agonized over every spot and blot jotted down in census records of the era in which Anton and Mary Laskowski lived—and, in particular, those years in which they took in their married daughter Sophie’s own household.

There was just a brief window in which to capture this household, actually: in the 1905 New York State census, and five years later in the 1910 federal census. After that, not only were Sophie and her family moved out of her parents’ Brooklyn apartment, but gone also was any trace of that married name—whether Puhalski, or Puchalski, or any of the other poorly-rendered versions of that Polish surname.

To compare notes in a case like this, then, all I've got to muddle this one out is the documentation left behind by impartial third parties. It all comes down to the detail-capturing prowess of state enumerator, John F. Lupien, and federal enumerator, Charles H. McMahon. Or, more likely, to their handwriting perseverance in the grueling course of their duties on June 1, 1905, or April 15, 1910.

That, however, introduces some problems of its own. While I can be certain of Anton and Mary’s daughter Sophie in the 1905 state census, it isn’t exactly clear what Sophie’s husband’s given name actually was. Whatever it was, it was evidently marked out and, in a different handwriting, the name Thomas was inserted.

Why the change? It’s not that the Polish version of our English Thomas was that challenging; according to one handy Polish-to-English name chart, the Polish version of Thomas would have been rendered as Tomasz—not much different than other European versions of the name.

What makes this difficult for me is what we find when we compare these 1905 notes with those of our 1910 enumerator. In that subsequent document, gone was the Thomas. In its place was inserted the given name, Theodore—the English equivalent of what, in Polish, would have been Teodor.

How could Thomas be mistaken for Theodore? Even rendered with a thick foreign accent, Tomasz would not be easily confused for Teodor.

It’s what followed that given name, however, that causes me the most concern. I guess I should have presumed that the ears which heard “Thomas” in one case and “Theodore” in the other, would never have gotten it right when it comes to Polish surnames. For, in the case of the 1905 record, the verdict was delivered as Puhalaski, while the 1910 decision was rendered as Puhalski—or, maybe, given the strategic placement of one frustrating ink blot, Pukalski.

Granted, the ears of English-speaking enumerators never did seem to mix well with foreign accents. And it’s not, necessarily, the issue over whether that surname was Puhalaski or Puhalski. What I really need to know is: was Sophie’s husband Thomas Puhalaski one and the same with Theodore Puhalski? More to the point, which one should I be pursuing, when he—or they—are mysteriously replaced by one John T. McCann? For that, my friend, becomes the next quest, once Sophie and family move out of Brooklyn and into their new digs in Queens in time for the 1915 state census.

Above: Excerpts from the 1905 and 1910 United States Census records showing the Brooklyn, New York, household of Anton and Mary Laskowski. Images courtesy

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Difficulty With Non-Paternal Events

It’s almost DNA Conference time again. Come June, I’ll be down at the DNA Day at Southern California Genealogical Society’s Jamboree. And on that day, I’ll brace myself for the inevitable cracks about “non-paternal events.”

It’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge time again at the genetic genealogy roundtable. Why is it that everyone seems to get so much entertainment over blithely brushing away Y-DNA research difficulties with such glib responses? It is simply not so that we can load every paternity mystery into a box, label it “infidelity” and dismiss it onto a shelf in the research hinterland.

You and I and everyone else who have spent any serious time puzzling over our ancestors have run across those brick wall candidates who turn out, in retrospect, to have unexpected left turns on the path from the present to paternity-past. Sometimes, it’s outright adoption—including those heartwarming cases where the second husband chooses to adopt his bride’s children from a previous deceased or absent spouse. Sometimes, it’s the case of abandoned children taken in, literally, from the streets of the city, as in the case of the Orphan Train movement.

There are probably as many reasons why a person’s father isn’t who we think he is as there are people out there, making choices—or, worse, succumbing to the stark realities of life. It’s just hard, in retrospect, to retrace the steps that lead away from such events. We can make assumptions—but later, need to be prepared to discover that our assumptions were inaccurate.

No matter what we do, however, we can’t just sit there and join the frivolity and laugh away at the possibility of a “non-paternal event.”

I’m particularly sensitized to that possibility, right now, because I feel absolutely stymied by the identity of my paternal grandfather. As I mentioned yesterday, he very likely was a person who, for whatever reason, felt compelled to disguise his identity.

Whether it was he who showed up in the 1905 New York State census as Thomas Puhalaski, and in the 1910 federal census as Theodore Puhalski, I can’t say for certain. But his surname shows up on the birth certificates for both my father and my aunt.

Who was this man? He was someone for whom I have very little information. Including all I’ve been able to glean from those relatives who knew him personally, there is precious little to give me any leads.

One disturbing clue was his assertion that he was adopted. But was he? He claimed to have a sister—the family knew her as “Aunt Rose”—but was she a blood relative? Or sister by adoption? It doesn’t help that her various marriages help obfuscate the detail that her mother’s married name doesn’t seem to match Rose’s maiden name.

The fact that we can now do DNA testing gives us power to leap over such genealogical brick walls. That does not necessarily mean we’ve been given the keys to the kingdom of genealogical mysteries. In this case—that of my paternal grandfather, whoever he turns out to be—I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with a male descendant of this man to obtain results of his Y-DNA test. The only male descendant, as it turns out.

And yet, as much as I hoped to find some answers through that opportunity, I’ve not really found anything. There are no exact matches. There are no recognizable surnames among the more distant results. Even putting our quandary to the test through the autosomal DNA approach, there hasn’t been any light shed on this puzzle.

So, back to the paper trail I go. You are welcome to join me as I twist in the wind—or at least joust at windmills. My hope is that, with every subsequent year in this digital age, we have access to more and more documentation. Perhaps something will send a clue our way to help determine the true identity of my paternal grandfather.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

When the Fallout of Email
Rocks Your Research World

Every so often—at least, if you’ve been at this genealogical paper chase long enough—you’ll get one of those email letters that starts out tentatively enough, but by the time you finish reading it, it has changed everything.

That was the way it was when a certain stranger—I’ll just call him Louis—contacted me, years ago, about the identity of my paternal grandfather. If you could read between the lines at the beginning of Louis’ letter, it would have started out,

Also not on the page—but flashing through my mind as I read his note—were all sorts of incredulous thoughts. Since it’s the beginning of baseball season, I’ll borrow some phrases:
            Out of left field…
            Threw me a curve…

What he did, this stranger called Louis—who, incidentally, ended up being an outlaw to one of my father’s cousins—was to suggest that my father’s surname wasn’t actually his real name.

For those of you who, like Far Side, are astute readers, you may have already picked up on that. You see, when I was struggling over whether Sophie’s brother Michael was really the same Michael Lasko from Brooklyn who married Mary Hecker, I used a census record to identify the Laskowskis’ address in 1910. While Michael had already moved out of the Laskowski apartment, his sister Sophie’s husband had moved in.

The only problem is: Sophie was married to a guy whose surname wasn’t the surname I grew up with. So…was this my paternal grandfather? Or not?

Thanks to what looks like an ink blot on the 1910 census, the surname appears to be Pukalski. I know, from other documents I’ve been able to obtain for both my father’s and my aunt’s birth, that the name should actually read Puhalski—or, if you want to be particularly Germanic about it, Puchalski.

When Louis first crashed my world, it was well over twenty years ago—back before easy access to digitized records. That was the time when documents only came to us via snail mail.

I’ve tried my best to discover the narrative to explain away this oddity, but anywhere I tried to get any feedback on this quandary—especially on those old genealogy forums—the consensus was: Sophie remarried.

Somehow, deep inside, I can’t convince myself that that is what happened. For one thing, the accuracy of census enumerators—especially when coming face to face with Polish immigrants—leaves much to be desired. While the 1910 census is a case in point—writing Pukalski when the name should have read Puhalski—even the 1905 New York State census came up with a different result. For that one, the surname was written Puhalaski.

But even there, we can spot other discrepancies. Notice, for one thing, that Sophie’s husband shows as Thomas in the 1905 record, while in the 1910 report, he was Theodore J. Applying the kind of logic offered by my forum respondents—different name means different man—would that mean Sophie married a brother of the man she was married to in 1905? I don’t think so; it was likely an enumerator error.

Notice, also, the children listed in the 1910 census. We’ve spoken about my aunt, Anna—and there she is in the 1910 census, listed as granddaughter to the head of household, Anton Laskowski. Along with her is her brother, my father, Valentine. How often do you run across a name like that?

While Anna was too young to have been in the 1905 state census, my dad was there. Because he was born that year, his age was given as a fraction, 4/12. Since the census was taken in June, 1905, that would mean he was born in February—which he was.

So, if we know we are talking about the right children, and since we know we have the right Sophie—she was, after all, living in her parents’ home—then what about this guy, Theodore a.k.a. Thomas?

I’ve been trying to answer that question for well over twenty years. Of course, with the research advantages we have now, this time, I may find a way around this brick wall. Considering how secretive the family seemed to be—at least, those of that generation—perhaps I may never figure it out.

At any rate, it’s a new season of research, and I’m game.

Friday, April 24, 2015

To “A” From “Z”

When I start thinking that researching this extended Laskowski family is like wandering around in the dark with a paper sack over my head, I need only remember I have yet to do Sophie’s in-laws. That will make this effort seem like child’s play.

Before we leave off poking at every possible hint for Sophie’s roots, there is one more detail I need to re-visit. I had mentioned, in examining her brother John’s in-laws, that his wife’s mother had had the maiden name Zielinska. If you remember, John’s wife Blanche was herself an Aktabowska, but her mother’s maiden name, Zielinska—or at least a spelling variant—had popped up for another part of this extended family: Sophie’s own mother, Marianna.

That may not be entirely true. Not that it’s false. It’s just that I’m not sure. I have one document asserting that Marianna was from the Zelinski family. That was what was listed on Sophie’s own death certificate in 1952.

If, however, you reach back to the previous generation and examine Marianna’s own certificate in 1939, there is no mention of the Zelinski surname. That document identifies her father’s name as Frank Jankowsky.

And there I’m left: with no explanation for where the Zelinski entry came from—nor why it disappeared.

This is where you have to take a long look at the fine print. In Marianna’s case, the informant was her daughter, Sophie. In the case of Sophie’s own death certificate, the informant was her husband. Perhaps he was not as familiar with the intricacies of his in-laws’ lives, back in the Old Country.

It wasn’t until the other day when I got the brilliant idea to crosscheck this with Sophie’s brother’s own death certificate. After all, unlike when I first obtained those snail-mailed records for Sophie and her mother, we now have instant research gratification. With the click of a mouse, we can do this.

No sooner said than done—and bringing up the information on John’s death record reveals his mother’s maiden name was listed there as Jankowska.

Good old John, traditionalist at heart to the end. For him—and for his Polish-American family—a woman’s surname would always end in “a,” just as it had in his native Poland. Jankowska, of course, would be his mother’s counterpart to her father’s Jankowski.

But what of the Zelinski entry? Where did that name come in? Perhaps Sophie’s husband, knowing that his brother in law, John, was married to someone who was doubly related to Sophie, chose the wrong surname. Remember, John’s wife Blanche was daughter of Aniela Zielinska.

Aniela, however, was married to an Aktabowski, and that surname ends up being the one Sophie’s husband should have remembered. For, as it turns out, Sophie’s mom, Marianna, had one other detail on her own death certificate: her mother’s maiden name. Listed right below Frank Jankowsky—Marianna’s father—was the entry for Marianna’s mother.

I’m sure you are already guessing what that name might be. While it was listed on the document as “Aktaboska,” I have never found Americans of that generation, struggling with Polish pronunciation, to be particularly careful to render their spelling correctly. That, plainly, was the equivalent of Blanche’s own maiden name: Aktabowski.

Just like that, we’re taken from Z to A—from Zelinski to Aktabowski—yet still left with the tantalizing possibility that, somewhere beyond the grandparents of Sophie and Blanche, there was a link that made them distant cousins as well as in-laws.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

In Case of Outlaws

With every microscopic discovery on the trail to piece together my father’s family again, I gain an understanding of who he was. It may not seem like much to someone not accustomed to the discipline of genealogy to, say, uncover the maiden name of a cousin’s spouse, but it somehow improves my chances of isolating the right cousin from among so many others with the same name in a place the size of New York City.

What I didn’t remember, yesterday, when mentioning my discovery of Albert Lasko’s bride’s identity was how much I have been aided, along the way, with research tips by those who aren’t my own relatives, but who are related to the other side. A cross between crowdsourcing and cousin bait, such details have the potential, once posted online, to draw the attention of other genealogical researchers who just might have a piece of the rest of the story I’m seeking.

Realizing this, I feel remiss in not including the obituary I had linked to in yesterday’s post. The article I had discovered in the November 27, 1946, Brooklyn Eagle provided the maiden name of Mildred, Albert Lasko’s wife. I decided it would be appropriate to retrace my steps and bring this subject up again, so I could post the death notice here today, which I've added below.

Yes, while it is Albert who was my father’s cousin, there is no relationship between me and Mildred’s family. But perhaps someone will come searching for information on her father, Louis Henry Hoyer, and end up finding this entry here. Who knows what that person might be able to share about what became of Albert and Mildred?

That realization brings to mind one other detail. Scenarios like this—more specifically, the in-laws of one’s in-laws—have been euphemistically dubbed “outlaws” by some in my humor-loving family. I’ve written about this before—in fact, starting with a post shortly after I started this blog, nearly four years ago.

What I’m reminded of, as I revisit our family's habit of using this label of “outlaws,” is exactly who it was who first introduced me to both the label and the outlaws: the very cousin whom reader Intense Guy recently found mentioned in a newspaper report, while discussing the marriage of my aunt just before the marriage of her cousin Frances.

All this goes to remind us: when it comes to genealogical research, it isn’t about keeping it all in the family. Those outlaws can come in handy, too.
HOYER—LOUIS H., November 26, 1946, aged 60 years, beloved husband of Meta; dear father of Mildred A. Lasko and Walter A.; brother of Frank Hoyer. Service Friday, 8:15 p.m., at George Werst Funeral Home, 7141 Cooper Avenue. Funeral Saturday, 2 p.m. Interment Maple Grove Memorial Park. Member of Yew Tree Lodge, No. 461, F. & A. M.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bit by Bit

It was a good thing I had those newspaper archives to rely on, when trying to piece together the story of those ten Laskowski grandchildren and their wedding days. Since most of the ceremonies fell within the decade of 1930 to 1940—with one even occurring afterwards—it was hard to track such details as maiden name of those brides marrying into the family.

One marriage I had been alerted to, thanks to the 1940 census, had shown me the first name of grandchild Albert Lasko’s wife—Mildred—but, of course, did not reveal her maiden name. For whatever reason, I had not been able to locate the record on The Italian Genealogical Group’s website—remember, this site is not just for Italians!—but with some perseverance, the day was won with a simple search on historic newspapers.

While there are several subscription sites that may entitle the persistent to search to their heart’s content through the archives of major newspapers—and even some small town titles—I try my best to seek out those free sites first. When searching in the greater New York metropolitan area, that means relying on the portal at the Brooklyn Public Library, and the donation-based site, Old Fulton New York Post Cards.

Yes, a “post card” site can deliver newspapers to your digital front door.

So, off to hunt for any sign of Albert A. Lasko’s wife Mildred, I was successful in a roundabout way. While I never found any wedding announcement in any of the available New York City or Long Island newspapers, I did find an entry for a Mildred A. Lasko in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

In the November 27, 1946, edition, amidst the death notices buried on page nine, there was an entry for a Louis H. Hoyer, who had died the day before. This, it turns out, was the erstwhile Heinrich Hoyer who had entered life in Brooklyn sixty years prior. Now, husband of Meta (also showing as Mary and Mamie in census records) and father of Mildred and her brother Walter, he had just made his final exit.

Since the 1940 census had shown the young couple, Albert and Mildred, without any children, I wondered if there were any arriving after that point. I headed over to to do a blank search with nothing entered but the fields for father’s and mother’s last names: Lasko and Hoyer. Sometimes, that tactic will help flush out data for me, but in this case, it did not work. Perhaps the lack of any mention of grandchildren in Mildred’s father’s obituary was not just an editorial oversight.

While I’m still unable to find anything more on this unknown cousin of my father—other than a Social Security Death Index record showing last residence for each of them being in Columbia, Maryland—finding this one additional piece of information will suffice for now. Genealogy is definitely a process of adding a little bit here and a little bit there. This research is not a sprint—even though momentarily, we can seem to be overpowered with an avalanche of discoveries. It is more often a slow and steady meander through the wild woods that camouflage our family tree.   

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Where’s That Wedding?

With the wedding of Frances Laskowski’s cousin set to eclipse her own special day in August, 1929, it got me wondering just where that earlier wedding was held. After all, since the July bride was a resident of New Hampshire, not New York, perhaps the event in question was not even close to home. Though six weeks before Frances was set to marry Philip Hanlon, the McCann-Hennessy wedding may have entailed some extensive travel, thus making aging grandparents too exhausted—or even unavailable—for Frances’ subsequent big day.

With that in mind, I did some further searching in newspaper archives. Fortunately, there was a record of the July wedding published in the Brooklyn Standard Union. The Wednesday, July 10, 1929, article wasn’t very helpful, though. Besides lacking that tell-all guest list that cousin Frances’ wedding had included, an enigmatic entry noted the bride’s parents resided in Manchester, then listed the church as “the Blessed Sacrament Church, Euclid Avenue.”

Okay: Euclid Avenue in Manchester? Or somewhere in New York? I had to find this out!

Pursuing genealogical research in this Internet age certainly can spoil a soul. Googling “Blessed Sacrament Church” and “Euclid Avenue” led me to a self-styled Catholic Church history blog, and a page featuring the establishment of a church by that same name and address. Of course, I gave no thought at the time as to the possibilities that there might be scores of churches by that name on all the Euclid Avenues of the world. Fortunately for me, one of the first search results pointed me to Brooklyn, and I snatched it up.

So, as it turns out, there was no long journey for the Laskowski grandparents to New Hampshire to witness the marriage of their oldest grandson in his bride’s home town. If  they were in attendance at all, it involved a trip to a ceremony not far from their own New York City home in Brooklyn. Perhaps, after all, their absence from the guest list for granddaughter Frances’ wedding was simply a matter of the weariness of old age, not any snarky retort to imagined family rifts.
Miss Viola Patrice Hennessy, daughter of Mr. And Mrs. George N. Hennessy, of 78 Norwood avenue, Manchester, N. H., was married recently to Valentine J. McCann at the Blessed Sacrament Church, Euclid Avenue. The ceremony, which was performed by the Rev. John Keely [sic], was followed by a reception. Miss Mary Conway was maid of honor for Miss Hennessy and George Hennessy, brother of the bride, was Mr. McCann's best man. Mr. and Mrs. McCann will make their home in Manchester.
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