Skeletons in the Closet

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Skeletons in the closet, every family has them. Some you know about, others you stumble upon while researching your family tree.

One day, I found as close to a literal skeleton in the closet as one can come (without actually finding a skeleton intermingled with our clothes).

I know I’ve written before about this guy-

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my maternal biological grandfather, John Underwood Rigsbee, Jr. 

What I didn’t write about was just how crazy this dude was (/is???).

Using genealogybank.com, I stumbled across a newspaper article from July 7, 1952 in the Times-Picayune, from New Orleans, LA. 

The article is about Rigsbee, who is 17 at the time, having been arrested for grave robbing. Yes, they actually caught him with two human skulls, some metal coffin handles, and a parchment cross. Naturally he was arrested. But Rigsbee seemed unperturbed. 

“I had to get some human skulls, Rigsbee said matter-of-factly. They’re quite necessary in the study of anatomy. And you’ve got to know anatomy to be a painter. The cross makes a nice wall decoration in my apartment. I’ll use those old coffin handles on a sea chest I’m planning to build. […] I’ll tell you something you probably don’t know, Rigsbee said. Some of the world’s greatest painters- Da Vinci, for example- were grave robbers. Why? Because the study of anatomy was so important to them.”

Yeah, weird. I don’t know what happened after that. I haven’t been able to find any follow-up articles. I did find an article from the same paper in 1974 in which the writer was wondering whatever happened to Rigsbee. I’m in the same boat, buddy!

In 1959, I found him in Honduras, according to an article from the Omaha World Herald. In this article he’s listed as a “24-year-old United States photographer” who “joined the rebels in the Honduran jungles near the border [with Nicaragua] to witness a 32-man attack on the town of Santa Clara.” 

What???? Honduras? Why? My mother would have been around 2 years old at this time. So what is her father doing traipsing off to Honduras??? Weird.

In 1962, I find him in a bunch of newspapers because he is the main subject of a documentary that is appearing on television.  “The Big Revolving Door: Portrait of A Prisoner” features Rigsbee being released from Riker’s Island (where he had served time for auto theft).

“An interesting character study of a short-term prisoner after his release. John Rigsbee is the subject […] and he is quite a guy. Rigsbee talks about his background, what he “learned” in prison, and the cameras follow him to a Greenwich Village night club where some of his inherent difficulties with society become apparent.”

I wish I could get my hands on this film! I’d like to see if he was actually plain-out crazy.

That’s the end of the paper trail of RIgsbee. Having read these three stories, I’m not so sure that the end of documentation is necessarily a bad thing! 

The little information I do have on the man brings up a bigger question- nature vs. nurture. Obviously he was the product of a messed up couple- I have found enough evidence that both his parents were raging alcoholics. Was this enough to mess him up? Is there something genetic (like schizophrenia) that his descendants need to be worried about? 

I don’t know, and I hate that I’ll probably never know.

(I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again- genealogybank.com is well worth the subscription cost. So far, I haven’t found newspaperarchive.com to be worth the money. It costs more and you get the same or fewer results than from genealogybank. Newspaperarchive is much fancier and allows more search terms, but it seems that they have access to fewer papers- this has been my experience as of yet.)

So prepare yourself for the skeletons you might find hanging around your family tree!

I had to laugh to myself when someone responded to one of the message board queries I had set up for Rigsbee on ancestry.com. The man who responded to my question was very polite and tactful when referring me to the grave-robbing article. He didn’t tell me what the article was about- I’m guessing he assumed I hadn’t seen it. I suppose if you were running a search for a stranger you might not be sure of how they would take a story like that!

 

 

 

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When Half of Us Don’t Count

I’m sure everyone who is into genealogy has come across the problem of tracing female lineage. Many federal and state censuses before the 1850’s do not list women or children (unless the woman is a head of household). Unless you can find some other documentation linking a woman to her father- you’re stuck.

My husband’s father is from Jordan and he recently came in for a visit. He said his cousin was forwarding him their family tree. This is what his cousin sent him.

 

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Yeah- his cousin literally sent him the family tree. 

We have quite a few problems here. The first being that neither my husband nor I can read Arabic. (We can’t speak it either, but that’s besides the point.) The second problem was the size. I spent a good chunk of time trying to print it out so that the names were legible (not for us but for my father-in-law who would have to translate). The third problem is that this tree is backwards- that is, it’s not in the order that one would expect. I would expect my family tree to have my name or my parents’ names on the trunk and then ancestors in the leaves. Not so in this case. The progeny make up the leaves so this makes figuring out the tree a bit more difficult.

But the main, and glaring, problem with this tree is that there are no women on it. Not one. Zip, zero. Nada. 

I know that women aren’t treated equally in most parts of the world. So I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. And also angered. Because without women this tree wouldn’t exist. (Obviously it wouldn’t exist without the men either.) I was teasing my husband asking if his dad made him in a workshop somewhere. I could just picture men slapping each other on the back and congratulating each other on a job well done- “Look, I made myself a son from those spare parts down in the basement!” “Fantastic! Do you have any parts leftover- I’m thinking of maybe building myself a son one of these days.”

My father-in-law told me that his sister was upset when she saw the tree because of the lack of women. Well, can you blame her? This tree is the embodiment of a culture that believes women are property.

And yes, I’m a feminist. But is it too radical to think that women should be given credit for raising children and essentially passing on half of their own DNA to their offspring? 

“Good luck with that tree.” I told my husband. At least I can trace the majority of my female ancestors back to at least the mid-1800s. Sometimes I get lucky and find a marriage bond, will, or some other documentation that provides more information about their parents or ancestry. 

It’s one thing to know that 150+years ago, women in the United States basically fell into the same chattel category that women in the Middle East do now. It’s another thing to have it right in your face.

To DNA, or not to DNA

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About a year ago, I did the DNA test from ancestry.com. I figured I knew what my results would basically be.

50% Central or Eastern European (or some combination of the two)

25% British Isles

25% European Jewish

Some things I was close- My estimate of 25% British Isles turned out to be 24%. (close enough!)

My 50% Central or Eastern European turned out to be 46% Eastern European and 8% Central European. (only off by 4%-not too shabby!)

And then things got weird.

The other 22% of my DNA showed markers for:

16% Finnish/Volga-Ural

and

6% Persian/Turkish/Caucasus.

Hmmmm…… I looked over the list and noticed something huge was missing- where’s my 25% Jewish????!!!!

I can see that 6% sneaking in if you count the Jewish Diaspora. Queen Esther was a Jew who married a Persian king, so that makes sense. What I don’t understand is where the Eastern European Jew genes went? 

Unless there’s some hanky-panky that no one will admit to, I should be a quarter ethnically Jewish. To deepen the mystery, about 85% of all my DNA matches on ancestry are European Jewish. Our DNA markers do not indicate a common heritage, yet I’m nearly always matched up with people who are what I thought I was.

I called my grandmother who insisted that something must have gone wrong. She was raised Jewish until her mother died. My 5th great grandfather was a rabbi, for crying out loud! Then I called my mom, “hi mom- if that’s who you REALLY are.” I said. 

Now granted, I’m not 100% sure on exactly how these tests work. Most of the things I’ve read about DNA testing says that only mitochondrial DNA can be accurately tested in females because it’s passed to every child from the mother. Males can be tested for both the maternal and paternal lines. Ancestry claims to have developed a way to test DNA for both lines through either gender’s DNA sample. 

Either way, even if it was only mitochondrial, the 25% Jewish genetic markers should have shown up. 

Now- don’t go saying that you’re not a Jew if you don’t practice. I am so tired of that line already. If there are markers for it, diseases particular to it- it exists as an ethnicity. 

Here’s why this is a mystery to me (besides the obvious). If someone was adopted- it had to be relatively recent, within the past three generations- including my own. Before that and you begin to deal with people rarely marrying outside of their religion. If my grandmother’s parents were both Jewish, as they were, she would be 100% European Jewish. Then she should have passed at least some of that to my mother who would have passed it on to me. Right?

I understand that 50% of your DNA markers come from each parent- and it’s a random 50% at that. 

The whole thing is very confusing. And honestly- I don’t know enough about DNA and genetics to figure it out. Henry Louis Gates, who had hosted Finding Your Roots on PBS, was very critical about any DNA testing- especially when he got different results from different labs.

Besides the whole mystery thing, would I recommend it? I’m not sure.

My husband took one at the same time and his sample (saliva) did not contain enough DNA to test. They never sent me a replacement kit. I ended up calling them and now I have two kits and am unsure what’s going on- which is the one to use- do I have to pay for an extra one now??

I was definitely surprised by my results, and befuddled.

My main complaint is that about 80% (probably more) of my DNA matches through ancestry have their trees private. The closest relationships they’ve found are 4th-6th cousins. But I can’t view any of their trees to see what people or surnames we might have in common. 

I’ve found that some people on ancestry can be quite snippy about sharing their trees. They act like you’ve just asked them for a loan or something. It’s turned into a serious pet peeve of mine. Hellooo- you’re probably not the only child of only children whose parents were also only children. I hate to break it to ya- but there are other people related to your ancestors!

So DNA at your own risk! Hopefully you’ll turn out to be related to people who are more willing to share. Hopefully you’ll be who you think you are.

 

 

Dropped, Added, Misplaced, and Replaced Letters

One branch of my family is the Eremus branch. Since their name begins with a vowel- I have found that the first E often gets dropped in documents, besides all the other ways the name has been butchered.

My 2nd great grandfather, Paul Eremus, came over to the US in the early 1900s. (That’s another thing- why do the old census records never seem to agree on an immigration year? Drives me crazy!) In 1910, I find him living in Lansford, PA, working in the coal mines. But then I couldn’t find the family in the 1920 census. 

I found Paul’s WW I draft card, from 1917-1918- not sure of the exact year. The card lists Paul as being a resident of the Hamburg State Sanatorium, suffering from tuberculosis of the lungs. I’m going to have to assume he died there because I can find no further records. So if he died before 1920, what happened to the family? I know they stayed in the area because his widow is buried there and my great grandfather lived and died there as well as my grandmother.

This was an instance where I had to go through the census page by page. In 1920, there are three wards for Lansford, each containing two or three sections. This was going to take a while! I began with all three sections of Lansford’s East Ward- no luck. Next I moved on to Lansford’s Middle Ward and its two sections- not there either. I was giving up hope for Lansford and contemplated moving on to Mauch Chunk/Nesquehoning town since they eventually moved there anyways. But I persevered and finally, on the 10th page of the Lansford West Ward I found this.

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Mary Remus, living with her mother, Anna Valent. Mary is a widow, as is her mother. So I know her husband and father are both dead by 1920. (Anna Valent was the ancestor with the destination of “Niski Homes”!)

By 1930, Mary had taken her four youngest children and moved to Nesquehoning. I assume that her mother has died before 1930 as I haven’t found her in any census records as of yet. 

This same scenario happened when researching the Bressler branch of my tree.

I had thought that my 2nd great grandparents had remained in Europe. My great grandfather, Sam, had arrived in the US about 1889. No one in the family knew of his parents being here. But then I happened upon the family in the 1900 US Census, under the surname Presser. I’ve also found them under Pressler and Preisler.

P, B, potato, potahto!

Sometimes the error is a transcription error, other times the census taker got it wrong.

So my tip for the day- think about what letters may have been dropped- if a last name begins with a vowel, there’s a good chance it will be recorded somewhere without that vowel. Some letters that sound moderately alike- P and B, or S and Z, for example, might be interchangeable. If your certain that your ancestors were definitely in a specific area during a certain time, get yourself a cup of coffee/tea/brandy and settle in for the long haul. Some census records are small- under 20 pages, but others are much larger and will make your eyes go buggy after a while!

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The Language Barrier

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All of my paternal ancestors, and a few of my maternal ancestors as well, emigrated from this area- what was once the kingdom of Galicia. They didn’t share the same ethnicity, it’s just funny that many of them came from the same region. 

It was no longer Galicia by the time they arrived, but I’ve been able to find some documentation pointing to the region. By the time they emigrated, the region was known as the Austria-Hungarian Empire or this:

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In some census records, some of my relatives are listed as Magyar- which is Hungarian. In others, they are listed as Goral- which is a broad term for the ethnicities of Galicia by geographic region. Other times they are listed as Slovaks, and still others list them as Russian.

Besides this causing a headache as far as attempting to determine ethnicity (do I go by what the area once was or what it is now???); it also creates a language barrier that makes searching through records difficult and usually impossible (even with the help of google translate).

Sometimes I have a tendency to over-think, as was evidenced by this example.

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This is the record of my 3rd great grandmother arriving in America. (I’m sorry it’s so small- I couldn’t get it to be any bigger.)

So the top line is Anna Valent, she’s 27, female, married, her ethnicity is somewhat scrambled- it looks like both Hungarian and Slovakian were written- but I can’t tell which is the right one. The town name looks something like Bihnand or Bihuand or some variation of those letters. She’s arriving at the port of Philadelphia, she bought her own ticket, she has $20. The puzzling part was her final destination. The line reads “Niski Homes, PA”- what the heck is that??? I’ve never heard of that place! Was it a friend or relatives’ home?? Is it some little village somewhere? I had no idea. 

I filed it away in frustration. All the google searches in the world weren’t helping me solve this puzzle! 

A few months later, I attempted to tackle it again. For some reason, I decided to read it out loud (well I was actually probably talking to myself as per usual- though in my defense I do seem to comprehend things much better that way). Niski Homes…Niski Homes…suddenly, it struck me that she was probably speaking with a very thick accent and probably knew little or no English. Is it possible that I’m missing something very obvious? Yes! She meant Nesquehoning!!! DUH!! Say Niski Homes with a thick Eastern European accent and it really is obvious. I would bet that the intake officer was just writing what he heard and did his best to phonetically spell what she was saying. 

Being that Nesquehoning is where that branch ended up, it seems I should have figured that out a lot earlier. For some reason, the obvious had never occurred to me- my ancestors did not speak English when they emigrated! Maybe they knew a few words to get them across, but that’s about it. I don’t know why I never thought about it.

So my tip for the day is to take into consideration that your ancestors may not have spoken English when they arrived and learning a new language does not happen overnight. I think this often explains why some last names are absolutely butchered by census takers.

The Telephone Game

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Remember the telephone game? Someone would start off with a sentence or story, and you’d see how twisted it got by the time it reached the last person- and the more people the better! I have found that genealogy can be like this game so very often.

A good example of this is my father’s side of the family- particularly the Puza branch. My grandfather always went by Stephen Kulis Puza, but my father was a junior and did not have the middle name (or whatever it is) Kulis. My father told me that his grandmother had been previously married to a man named Kulis, and my grandfather suspected that it was this mystery Kulis, not Puza, who was his biological father. Last year, a cousin of my dad’s told me that Michael Puza had adopted the name Kulis in order to get his sons jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps because there was a prominent local politician named Kulis.

Having done a ton of research, neither of these stories work. 

My dad’s story just doesn’t fit. In the 1910 census, there is indeed a Michael Kulis married to a Mary Kulis with a son Mike who age fits the son of Mike and Mary Puza. They live on Coal Street in Nesquehoning. Now granted, Michael and Mary are very common names. I believe it to be the right family, but I’m only about 85% sure of that. I haven’t been able to find them anywhere else, and I’ve looked through hundreds of pages of the US Census to rule out transcription or document errors. By 1920, I find the Kulis family living on Catawissa Street, which is about two parallel streets away. All of their four sons have been born by this point and are all listed, with the correct ages, in the 1920 census. Now there is no Puza mentioned anywhere yet- as far as the census goes anyways. 

I had a much harder time with the 1930 census and had to go through the record page by page. I eventually found the family- this time under the name Kulis-Puza. (The writing is very hard to read on top of the fact that the ink is fading. The transcriber thought it said Kalinook- which would be why I’d never found it previously!) The four sons and ages are all correct. Now the family lives on Mill Street, one street away, parallel with Catawissa. The 1940 census is the same- the family still lives on Mill Street, and the name is Kulis-Puza. 

Taken at face value, I at first thought that my grandfather was right- his mother had been married to a Michael Kulis before she married Michael Puza. But then why would her second husband add her first husband’s surname to his own??? 

Also, I found Michael’s World War I and World War II draft cards. On those documents, his last name is listed strictly as Puza. Puza is also the only name that appears on the ship’s registry on which he came to America. The catch is that on the draft cards, Michael lists his next of kin as his wife Mary and the addresses match up with the Kulis family in the census. So unless Mary was married to two men at once, which I highly doubt, my grandfather’s story just doesn’t add up.

My cousin had told me about the surname Kulis being used to get the sons jobs with the CCC. But the Civilian Conservation Corps wasn’t founded until 1933, so Michael using that last name 20 years earlier makes no sense. My cousin had heard this story from his father, who had legally changed his name, after coming back from WW II, from Kulis to Puza. My grandfather kept the Kulis, almost as a middle name.

There might be an element of truth to each story, but I haven’t been able to figure out if or where that’s the case. Yeah, I’ll be working on this one for awhile yet! Talk about a game of telephone! No one seems to know why the two names seem to be interchangeable. Was it one name at some point? Did Kulis sound more American than Puza? I have no idea!

Michael’s wife’s maiden name was also a controversy. My cousin told me that her maiden name had been Malatyak. But my grandfather’s obituary listed it as Swiegar. I couldn’t figure out any way to straighten that out. She emigrated around 1900 from Austria-Hungary, so even figuring out a definitive origin locale from the empire’s sizable portion of Europe was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

One day I decided to search other members’ trees on ancestry.com and found someone else with a Mary Malatyak married to Michael Kulis Puza. I sent the person a message, but I wasn’t too hopeful for a response because their last log-in had been six months earlier. 

About two weeks ago, I finally got a response. This person referred me to someone else who had actually accessed church records from a small town in what is now Slovakia. I was able to learn that Mary’s father, Fedor Malatyak, had died when she was about 6 years old. Her mother ended up with a man named Swigar and eventually had nine more children.

My guess is that my grandfather had aunts and uncles with the last name Swigar or Swiegar and just assumed that was his mother’s maiden name. Then that information got passed down and the original miscommunication and/or faulty assumption wreaked havoc with my family tree!

The person who had Mary’s information thinks he knows someone who might be able to solve the Kulis-Puza fiasco, so I’m waiting to hear back about that. 

So my tip for the day- don’t assume that every family story is true! The more people that information has gone through equals the more mistakes that could possibly be in the information you now have. Also, don’t be afraid to send messages, emails, or even call people you think might have access to information that you don’t! I haven’t really had a problem with anyone being rude, and what the heck- I’ve got nothing to lose! Either they have something or they don’t, the worst that anyone can tell you is “No.”

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(I’ve always thought this toy is super creepy looking!)

Finding Graves

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My husband’s maternal family is, for the most part, buried in the area in which we live. So last summer, we spent many weekends tramping through cemeteries looking for his ancestors. Some we found, some we didn’t. 

Our greatest adventure involved looking for a cemetery that has been pretty much abandoned. 

We had a general idea of where it was, but no specifics. So we parked the car in another cemetery and set off through the woods. Lucky for us, there were many trails through the woods, used by mountain bikers, atv riders, etc. Unlucky for us, there were many trails though the woods. I usually have a pretty accurate internal compass, but even I began to give up hope that we would find the cemetery- let alone our way back to the car. After a few hours in the very humid, 80+ degree weather we gave up. I wish I had been wearing a pedometer that day, because we got one heck of a walk!

The next day we decided to try again. We were walking along- trying to avoid the paths we had walked the day before. At some point we asked a mountain biker if he was familiar with these trails and had he seen this cemetery. He referred us to the cemetery we had parked at on the previous day. Darn it!! 

We kept checking google maps on my phone, hoping for some clue we were missing. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but we ended up walking back up towards that cemetery when we found St. Dominick’s- the abandoned cemetery! It was right next to the cemetery that we had parked at the previous day! We had started our hike about 100 yards from the place we were looking for- doh!!!

Something about unkempt cemeteries makes me sad- and this was one of the worst I’d seen. There was about a foot of dead leaves on the ground and some of the stones were practically covered by the leaves. On one hand, it was a super peaceful place- it was quiet and shady. On the other hand, it was quite obvious that no one had cared for, or probably even visited, these graves in quite some time.

My husband was able to locate his ancestor, photograph the grave, and remove a sapling growing out from under the stones base- which surely would’ve toppled the stone in the next few years. 

Success!

We’ve walked through other cemeteries, only to later find out that his ancestor was buried in an unmarked grave. Once, a caretaker approached us, asked who we were looking for, and then referred us to a stone that gave information that my husband didn’t even know about. We’ve found big graves that marked only the surname with no individual markers- so is John Hines buried in the Hines plot? Who knows- not the church since there was a fire that destroyed the cemetery records. We’ve come home happy, armed with new photos and/or information. We’ve come home dejected, covered in bug bites.

We hadn’t really gone cemetery hunting with my tree- mostly because that would involve an out-of-state drive to Massachusetts, Albany, Raleigh-Durham, Ohio, NYC, etc. But recently I discovered an old branch that had lived in Northumberland county- about an hour and a half away. So off we went. I wasn’t too hopeful that we would find Henry Lantz and/or his wife Margaret, after all he died in 1802 and she died in 1823. And I was right. The cemetery we looked at was maintained, but there were so many stones that were illegible due to erosion. Of course- as we were leaving, I spotted another cemetery and said we should stop there- maybe there was some confusion as to the cemetery’s name or maybe that other one was an extension of this one. After some debate- my husband thought that the other cemetery was on private land and looking through might be trespassing- we stopped there for a few minutes before going on to the next cemetery. I said- if it is trespassing, someone will come and tell me so- end of story. Well, I had about five minutes to walk through and I believe that Henry and Margaret are probably there somewhere. Unfortunately, this cemetery is in terrible shape, and I noticed that in the back corner of the lot, there was a pile of grave stones. Maybe they had broken or been toppled. But my guess is that there’s a treasure trove of info in that pile- only how can anyone access it unless they have some equipment to shuffle those stones around- and that’s assuming that they’re still legible at this point! 

We drove to the next cemetery, where I had much better luck. I found the graves of Henry Lantz (Jr) and his wife Christiana. What do you say at the graves of your 6th great grandparents???? Yeah, I had nothing. I could only assume that my Mennonite ancestors would have been thinking- what in the heck went wrong with our descendants, as I stood there, with my purple hair and tattoos. 

There’s something peaceful about strolling through cemeteries. I’m hoping to visit the one in Albany soon, as that would be a nice day trip. We were planning on going to the Raleigh-Durham area, but we’ll probably have to change our plans since we have family visiting from overseas during the time we were planning to go.

Do I have any tips on cemeteries? Other than the obvious of looking for a caretaker or church that has records to make your search easier- no. Oh- except bring bug spray- lots of bug spray. Wear pants, regardless of weather if you live in an area with Lyme disease. One thing I would like to do from now on is bring tracing paper and chalk, or crayon- whatever, and get tracings of stones- they might be easier to read. Camera, extra batteries (especially if you believe that ghosts might drain the energy from your batteries- and hey- you never know!), water, sensible walking shoes- common sense stuff. 

Of course- you might get lucky on findagrave.com, but maybe you won’t. And I don’t think that seeing a photo of a tombstone of an ancestor is quite the same as personally being there. Oh- and think of something interesting to say, if you feel you should say something.

What I ended up saying to my 6th great grandparents was the only thing I could think of saying. I don’t know these people or anything about them. So I thanked them for having sex. Yes, maybe a little crass- but when it comes down to it- that’s what got us all here!!!