21 April 2020

How to Identify Relatives in an Old Photo

Can acting like a detective unlock the mysteries of your old photos?

Two photographs in my late aunt's collection have Italian inscriptions on the back. These black and white photos seem to belong together because the handwriting looks the same.

How can I figure out who these mystery relatives are when there's no one alive to ask? Let's see how far I can get with logic.

Are there enough clues to figure out who these relatives may be?
Are there enough clues to figure out who these relatives may be?

First we have an elderly woman and man holding hands. They look very "old country" to me. Behind them is an old-fashioned TV set with 2 dials. The woman is leaning on an appliance that may be a short refrigerator. I can read "LANDIA 123" on its front. I had no luck finding a brand name ending in "landia".

The man has a handkerchief folded neatly in his suit jacket pocket. He's holding a cigarette European style: with the burning tip hidden in his palm.

I'd guess this black and white photo is from the early 1960s. That's based on the TV set, the woman's clothes, and the similarity to my own family photos of that era.

On the back it says, "ricordo di tua sorella e cognato; tua sorella di anni 74, tuo cognato di anni 77." That means "remember your sister and brother-in-law; your 74-year-old sister, your 77-year-old brother-in-law." If it were taken in 1962, the woman would have been born in 1888.

The other photo shows a well-dressed young man. His neck is too thick for a teenager. He may be about 24 years old. Someone who knows clothing styles may be able to date his distinctive shirt collar. He doesn't look like the older couple, but the handwriting on the back seems identical.

On the back it says, "questo e tuo nipote, Mariano." That means "this is your nephew, Mariano." Nipote is a funny word because it can mean nephew or grandchild. But he can't be the grandchild of one of my closest ancestors. So it's logical that he's the son of the sorella (sister) in the first photo. If she is my relative's sister, then her son is my relative's nephew. The math adds up if the young man's photo is from the early 1950s—earlier than the photo with the TV set.

Who were these photos sent to? Knowing the answer to that question would help me identify these people. Let's examine everyone who might have owned the photos that wound up in my aunt's collection:

Subject 1: My aunt Lillian Iamarino had no sister and was far too young. She was closer to Mariano's age.

Subject 2: My grandmother Lucy Iamarino had no sister. She was the eldest of 3 children born in New York between 1908 and 1914.

Subject 3: My grandfather Pietro Iamarino had 3 sisters. But they all died at a much younger age than 74. Two never made it to age 30.

Grandpa Iamarino's parents stayed in Italy, so the photos were not written and sent to them. That leaves Grandma Lucy's parents. Their birth years are close to my assumed birth years for the couple in the photo.

Subject 4: My great grandmother Maria Rosa Caruso had lots of brothers, but no sisters.

That leaves one possibility.

Subject 5: My great grandfather Pasquale Iamarino had 2 sisters who were about the right age. One sister, Libera Maria Iamarino, came to America and married in Albany, New York. She died there, too. Pasquale would have been able to visit her by train anytime. He was a railroad employee who traveled for free. Libera Maria wouldn't have needed to say "remember your sister."

That leaves Maria Giuseppa Iamarino born in 1878. There is no marriage mentioned on her birth record. That was a common thing to do at the time. I can't search for her marriage document because the possible years are not available.

Can I find any of her children's birth records? That would tell me she did live past childhood. But I don't know what her children's last name would be. I have to page through the town's birth records starting in 1896, with my eyes trained on the last name of the mother.

I thought I had her for a while. I found 2 babies born in 1899 and 1901 to Valentino Borromeo and Giuseppa Iamarino. There is no other Giuseppa Iamarino in the records besides my great aunt who's the right age. The name Borromeo is not from my Iamarino town, so I searched for his full name on FamilySearch.org. I discovered the family went to live in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. I learned that Valentino was born in the town of Circello in 1878. So I found his birth record and discovered he was an illegitimate baby. That's why no one in the area had the name Borromeo. Someone made it up.

Valentino's U.S. Passport application said Giovanni Basilone of Colle Sannita adopted him. That explains how he came to live in Colle Sannita.

His birth record gave me the clue I really wanted to find. In the column a clerk wrote that Valentino married in Colle Sannita on 2 March 1899. He married Giuseppina Addolorata Iamarino.

I chased down every possible document until I had the answer. Not her!
I chased down every possible document until I had the answer. Not her!

That's not my great aunt. There is no such woman born in Colle Sannita, according to my collection of vital records. I don't know who she is, but she isn't mine. And if it were her in the photo at age 74, the photo would be from 1952. That's too early. I finally looked at photos of old TV sets, and the style in the photo is more likely to be from the early 1970s.

If that's the right time frame, then the sorella was born around 1900. I don't know a female relative born at that time who lived to age 74!

Well, that was a wild ride. I don't like to write about something that didn't work for me. But this method is sound and worth trying.

The name on his photo piqued my interest. I know that name!
The name on his photo piqued my interest. I know that name!

I found 3 more interesting portraits in my aunt's collection this past weekend. One shows a man in a suit, and it says D____ Basile on the back. (The glue from the photo album tore off some letters.) The other 2 show a woman alone, and the same woman with a little child.

I think the woman is my grandfather's sister Giovannangela Iamarino because she married a man named Donato Basile. I may never be able to prove it, but if I can't disprove it, that's going to remain my theory.

If you ever inherit an unlabelled collection of old family photos, that's great! Don't forget to use documents and all your research skills to unlock as many mysteries as you can.

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