Seek & Ye Shall Find
I had friends who found interesting things, relatives who invented things or did some sort of community service. Relatives who were firemen or heroes. I hoped I would find something of that nature. I have three branches of my family: Italian, German, and Irish so I thought the information would be varied.
Well... I started with the Italians. I knew the names, so looked up the Census and found the ship's passenger lists from Italy to America. Then I noticed "832 Christian Street" as the given US address. Hmm... there were more passengers at that address... other relatives? It gave me leads. After hunting for awhile, I realized that address was "Banco D'Italia" and there was a bank employee allowing immigrants to use the bank address in exchange for money. hmmmm.. Those Italians did not want to be found, just like Michael Corleone from The Godfather. So my search ended in 1910.
Then I jumped to the Irish side. I knew a few more names than I did with the Italians. I traced them back to Ireland in 1820. There were dozens of children who did not survive to adulthood which is sad. A WWI veteran is buried in the national veteran cemetery in Philadelphia--that I could be proud of. And of course the stereotypical Irish drunk. Yep, in a newspaper article I found a relative of mine was given a citation for drunk driving of a horse carriage in 1882. (He would have definitely lost the competition against my German grandmother! See post: My Guzzling Granny for that explanation).
The Irish side inspired me to write Tower of Tears: The McClusky Series. Although the murder and blackmail are works of fiction, the idea of a woman named Jane in 1820 coming to the US from Ireland alone intrigued me. The fear and loneliness, the discrimination she must have faced. Great premise for a story. Hence, a family saga with murder, betrayal, blackmail and mystery was born!
So the Italians might have been criminals who didn't want to be found. The Irish were drunks who were easily found... what about the Germans?
I typed in my very unusual German surname and out popped an FBI file! What???? Now this is getting interesting! What did he do?
Turns out that during WWI, my great uncle who immigrated and became a US citizen had an extremely passionate argument in a bar which lead to a fight. The two men argued over politics (guess i know where I get my fiery personality from) and my uncle said, "This country is going to hell in a hand basket. The way things are going, Germany is going to win this war cause the only reason people become citizens is to get work."
That statement launched a decades long investigation into the family for... wait for it..."Violation of the Espionage Act". No lie. It turned out that this statement made in 1918 caused government agents to follow my family around in 1942 during WWII. Cause, you know, there was a war on and they had nothing better to do. Considering I had two separate run ins with US Secret Service in my lifetime, I wasn't surprised. It must run in the genes.
Germans are incredible record keepers. I was able to trace my family lines all the way back to 1660. The worst part? Not that they were accused of being spies.. but that the German side were full of postal workers dating back to 1822. My extended living family is full of postal workers: Grandfather, mother, brother, 2 uncles and me. When I told my brother of my findings, his reply was "Damn! 200 years and we haven't progressed at all! We're still freaking mailmen!"
The German side did inspire me to write Newborn Nazi, which was based on my grandfather's siblings. The youngest brother, Edmund, was forced into the Hitler Youth and his sister, Hedwig, was so appalled that she joined the underground to save lives. In real life, Edmund discovered his sister's activities and was faced with the conflict of protecting her or turning her in--essentially killing her. I took the idea of the "espionage" and ran with it to produce a suspense thriller whose last chapter is almost completely true.
So before you go searching for your family... ask yourself.. can you handle what you find?
I found criminals, drunks, and Nazis...... but also a hero who sacrificed all to save others and many other who gave up their lives to find a better life in America. A life they gave to me.