17 May 2022

Genealogists Can Find Shocking Family Stories

Today I want to share a shocking story of discovery about my cousin's grandmother. This blog is about sharing genealogy best practices. I hope the steps I went through to flesh out this story will be helpful to you.

It all started when my mother's 1st cousin asked me if I could research her husband's mother. I've known and loved her husband my entire life. Back in 2007 I found out he didn't know his mother's maiden name. I couldn't imagine such a thing! So I began researching her for myself.

I found his mother's maiden name on her mother Filomena's naturalization papers. Now I knew the name of Filomena's hometown in Italy, and I found her birth record.

I don't remember how far I took my research in 2007, but now it was time to push further. My cousin's key question was, "Did my mother have any siblings?" He and his siblings had a vague memory of 2 uncles who "looked like twins." My cousin even thought he may have met them.

Unknown aunts and uncles told a tragic tale once I found them.
Unknown aunts and uncles told a tragic tale once I found them.

I started by having another look at Filomena's 1874 birth record. In the column of her birth record were 2 annotations for 2 marriages. In 1910 she married my cousin's grandfather, but earlier in 1898 she married another man.

I began looking into the first husband, Tommaso. Filomena and Tommaso married in her hometown and he left for America. She followed him in 1902. At the age of 33, Tommaso died of heart failure in the Bronx in November 1906.

What happened next to Filomena? Her birth record said she married the second time in her hometown. I returned to the vital records for Baiano in Avellino, Italy. Could Filomena have been pregnant with twin boys when her husband died? I checked the birth records in Baiano for each year after Tommaso's death.

In the 1907 birth records, I found more than I expected. Indeed, Filomena was pregnant when her husband died. She gave birth to a daughter, Tommasina, in January 1907. But there was a lot more to see in the 1907 records.

Filomena formally declared the births of her 2 American sons, Bartolomeo and Carmine. As I read the statements, I realized the boys were born a year and a half apart in the Bronx. I jumped over to the New York City Municipal Archives website. They recently made vital records available online. I found the boys' birth records.

The documents told me a very pregnant, widowed Filomena brought her 2 sons home to her family in Italy.

I already knew Filomena would marry in 1910 and come back to America with her new husband. But the boys and Tommasina are not with their mother in the 1915 New York census. Where were they?

When I searched for their names on Ancestry, I found 2 men with the right names living in New Jersey. I had no way to be sure these were my cousin's half uncles. After searching for a while, I wondered, did the 3 kids all die in Italy?

I went back to the Baiano vital records, focusing on death records. I knew all 3 kids were alive in January 1907, so I began in 1907 and searched the death records year-by-year.

The baby girl, Tommasina, named for the father who died before she was born, died in Baiano in early 1908. It was a gamble, but I had to keep looking for any sign of the boys, Bartolomeo and Carmine.

What I found horrified me. In April and May 1914, the boys died in Baiano. This was 4 years after their mother remarried and returned to America. It was 3 years after their half-sister (my cousin's mother) was born in the Bronx. It was the same year that another half-sister was born in the Bronx.

Bartolomeo was 10 years old and Carmine had just turned 9 years old. Italian death records rarely include a cause of death, so I don't know what happened to the boys. I can only imagine that their mother left them with her family members and sailed away with her new husband.

I didn't know these siblings existed until I found them in an unexpected place.
I didn't know these siblings existed until I found them in an unexpected place.

Why hadn't she sent for the boys when she re-settled in the Bronx? Filomena's 5th baby, Carmela, is one year old in the 1915 New York census. She's missing from future censuses, and I can't find a U.S. death record. And someone else is missing after 1915. Filomena's 2nd husband, Domenico. (He's my cousin's grandfather.)

I returned to Filomena's naturalization papers from the 1930s. She declares that her husband died in March 1920 in Naples, Italy. Is this true? Was he returning to Italy to see his family? Filomena and one of her daughters are in the Bronx for the 1925 New York census. But they're all missing from the 1920 census.

We can imagine that the family of 4 took a trip to Italy to see their relatives. Maybe that's when her husband and younger daughter died. But I can't prove that idea with a ship manifest showing Filomena's return to America. And I did not find death records for the husband and daughter in Filomena's hometown or her husband's hometown.

Filomena's story turned out to be a lot more tragic than I could have expected. Her life started out with so much promise and took some very dark turns:

  • She marries and moves to New York.
  • She has 2 sons and is pregnant with her 3rd child.
  • Suddenly, her husband dies.
  • She takes her sons back to her hometown in Italy and gives birth to a baby girl.
  • One year later, the baby girl dies.
  • Two years after that, she marries a man from Napoli and returns to New York, leaving her sons behind.
  • In 1911 she has a baby girl with her 2nd husband in the Bronx.
  • In 1914 she has another baby girl, but her 2 sons die in Italy, one month apart.
  • By 1920, her 2nd husband and youngest daughter are gone.

Filomena was alive, at the age of 76, for the 1950 census. My cousin is in that census. He remembers his grandmother being sick in bed for a long time, and his mother taking care of her.

My cousin's family never knew this story. They'd heard that their grandmother married twice. They knew there were 2 boys who looked like twins. But when I pulled the whole story together, it was completely shocking to us all.

Always keep your mind open to what might have happened.

  • If I hadn't thought, "what if Filomena went back to Italy?" I wouldn't have learned about Bartolomeo, Carmine, and Tommasina.
  • If I hadn't wondered, "did the boys stay in Italy?" I wouldn't have discovered their shocking deaths.

As you can see, it's well worth checking someone's hometown when they're missing from their new town. If you have a hunch, follow it!


  1. Fascinating case study. We assume so much about behaviour, especially of those in the past, and that's never good.

    Certainly a mother leaving her children behind after remarrying isn't unusual, sadly. Often the husband doesn't want anything to do with them. My grandmother was left with relatives when her mother remarried after her father died when she was only about 2 years old. She never lived with her mother again, though did grow close to her half-sister (born to her mother and second husband), in later years.

    What also amazes me reading this is how many times people travelled back and forth to Europe - it's not like those ships were comfortable unless you were very well off.

    1. Leaving her sons behind is such a terrible thought. I have an uncle who was left behind with his sister, but they were sent for!

  2. An excellent research story and a horrific and sad family story. Was there sickness or natural disaster in Baiano in 1914? Real life continues to be stranger, and more complicated, than fiction, at least for a few families.

    1. I'll have to revisit the 1914 death records to see if there seemed to be a spike in deaths. However, the brother's death records were 4 records and one month apart, so probably not a spike. I can just imagine the portrait of those little boys hanging on the wall, unexplained.

    2. Don't forget WWI was in 1914 as well.

  3. This is such a very sad story. I can't imagine deserting my children for any man, no matter how much I loved him. I'm not judging her, there's no way to know at this point what this poor woman was up against. And to bury two husbands and all of her children but one, that is absolutely heartbreaking. I am very glad that your cousin's mother survived and was able to look after her mother.

    You did an excellent job with sleuthing this out! Way to go!

  4. Don’t forget the Spanish Flu epidemic caused many deaths between 1917 and 1921