Of all the hobbies I have taken on, the most rewarding has been genealogy, probably because of the way that it combines things I enjoy—history, language, geography, puzzle-solving, among others. For me, the fun of it is not necessarily the discovering who my ancestors were but rather how they lived. I first found my way into genealogy while reading David Starkey’s Elizabeth sometime in the early 2000s. I remember drawing a Tudor family tree based on what I had read before then wondering how extensively I could draw my own tree. A that time, I only knew how to rely on my own family’s oral history. I bought an inexpensive family tree program and filled in as much as I could—grandparents, cousins, great-grandparents. I called my grandparents and a—now deceased—great aunt and asked them everything they knew about their own grandparents and cousins—dates and locations of birth, marriage dates, children, etc. My paternal grandfather was probably the least helpful. He knew knew very little about his father’s family.
Making matters more frustrating, I knew his parents. His father had died while I was a teenager. My father and I drove to South Jersey from Maryland for his funeral. According to my grandfather, his father had siblings (he could only recall an Aunt Lucy and an Uncle Vince, whose real name was Alphonse) and a mother, Ida, and that his father’s parents “had come from Naples,” but settled in Wilmington, Delaware. That was it. Grandpop Fischetti’s family and his Italian immigrant mother, “Ida,” would remain a mystery.
When I decided to get back into genealogy, I purchased an Ancestry subscription and started digging up as much as I could. The first helpful resource was the 1940 United States Census. As expected, the usual suspects were more willing to reveal their secrets. Perhaps this had more to do with the fact that I had more information loaded into my Ancestry tree, which allowed their algorithm to locate more documents for me. A friend and fellow amateur genealogist would argue that those ancestors “were ready to be found.” I laughed then, but the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense. Now, I am not trying to say that there are genealogy angels guiding our searches, but that there are sometimes unexplained reasons why the same—or similar—search yields more fruit with the same data years later.
My initial searches on Ancestry began to confirm the little that my paternal grandfather had provided me, and it even helped me fill in some of the blanks. Like I mentioned earlier, his father, Thomas Henry Fischetti, had Italian immigrant parents “from Naples,” several siblings including a sister named Lucy and a brother Alphonse who went by Vince. The 1940 US Cense confirmed these details:
Here we see a widowed Ida Fischetti from Italy residing at 407 Sixth Av, Wilmington, with her son Alphonso and daughters Lucy and Geraldine. This Geraldine was new to me. I knew that my great grandfather had a daughter named Geraldine (my paternal grandfather’s sister), but not that he had a sister by the same name. The same census would reveal three more Fischetti households in Wilmington—that of my great grandfather, that of Michael Fischetti, and finally one with a Madeline Fischetti residing with a sister named Anna Sellers. Madeleine was single and Anna was married, thus meaning that Anna’s maiden name was Fischetti. No one else with the surname Fischetti showed up in Wilmington on the 1940 US Census. Potentially, my great grandfather had the following siblings: Anna, Michael, Lucy, Madeline, Geraldine, and Alphonse. The census proved to be a fairly valuable tool in this case. However, that would be it for the census. No Fischetti households were found in Wilmington on the 1930, 1920, or 1910 censuses.
Once the clues ran out, I set this family aside for a while I looked at other families in my tree. Eventually, I came back to Ida and her children, and discovered her death certificate, which revealed her dates of birth and death (and thus her age) and that a Mrs. Ann Phibbin had provided this information to the coroner’s office.
Could this Ann be Madeline Fischetti’s sister Anna Sellers from 1940? Were Madeline and Anna her daughters, let alone related to her? Her obituary in the Wilmington News Journal would answer these questions:
And eccoli! There they all were—Anna, Lucy, Madeline, Geraldine, Michael, Alphonse, and Thomas. Seven children and a late husband, Michael. However, now I had a new search on my hands —that of her sister and her step-daughter) and I still did not know her maiden name nor her hometown in Italy. I am still not too sure about her step-daughter other than the fact that I am fairly sure that she was my great great grandfather’s daughter from a previous marriage. The mystery of her sister was quickly solved, once again, thanks to the 1940 Census—Mary J Ciociola, an Italian-born septuagenarian widow residing with three of her children at 1211 Chestnut Street, a fifteen minute walk from Ida at the time.
I still did not knew her maiden name, and the documents I was finding were not helping me. Between 1910 and 1950, I found twelve instances of Ida’s maiden name with eight variations: Lananzella, Lorizenzanda, Larenzel, Lauronziella, Lauringella, Lorenzo, Florence, and Rencelia. The first five occurred between 1910 and 1921, while the other three were provided from 1939 to 1950.
What can we infer from this information? The earlier records were all birth (and one infant death) records of her children. In these instances, either she or her husband provided her maiden name. The later records, on the other hand, were marriage records, which involved her children, who would have provided her maiden name. Thusly, we can assume that Lorenzo, although the most frequent, was not in fact her maiden name. However, it was somewhat similar to the other names. I should not that Lorizenzanda in 1910 was “corrected” in 1950, and Lorenzo was written instead. I then began to do the same for her sister, Mary Ciociola, whose maiden name I was able to find five times from 1909 to 1950: Loorenzello, Lauronziello, Laurenziello, Laurezello, Lorenz.
I now had a set of parameters for finding her last name: (1) It looks like Lorenzo; (2) It has some sort of diminutive; (3) It might have the diphthong /au/ instead of /o/. From there I broke down her maiden name into five parts with possible variants: (1) Lauren- or Laurin-; (2) -g- or -z-; (3) -e- or -ie-; (4) -ll-; (5) -a or -o. This left me with sixteen possible surnames, which I began to enter into surname frequency map for Italy. Only one variant appeared—Laurenziello, which was exactly how her sister’s maiden name appeared in 1916 on a birth certificate.
Unfortunately, her surname was not the only obstacle to uncovering her identity. There was also the issue of her given name, Ida. Two birth certificates—from 1918 and 1921—stood out. On both of these records, the mother of the infant was Gaetana Lauronziella and Gaetana Lauringella, respectively. Ida was clearly her “American” name. Now I had a possible “real” or Italian name for my great great grandmother. She wasn’t Ida Lorenzo; she was Gaetana Laurenziello.
But why the drastic name change? This is where my background in linguistics came in handy, which got me really excited. Gaetana is an Italian name without a common English equivalent. In many Romance languages, names often have masculine and feminine forms—Giuseppe~Giuseppa, Francesco~Francesca, Michele~Michela. Gaetana is the feminine counterpart to the name Gaetano, which is not easily translated into English. Unlike Maria, Giuseppe, and Francesco (Mary, Joseph, and Francis, respectively), the masculine Gaetano is anglicized Cajetan, as in Saint Cajetan. I have yet to find a single Italian immigrant with the name Cajetan, not have I found an anglicization of the feminine Gaetana. The ‘-ae-‘ diphthong of ‘Gaetana’ in Italian sounds similar to the long /ī/ of ‘Ida in English. The name Ida in English was the closest thing to the Italian name Gaetana. During the first half of the 20th century, assimilation was key. Ida Lorenzo sounds a lot less suspect than Gaetana Laurenziello.
At the same that I was trying to solve the mystery of Gaetana’s name, I was also toiling with the issue of her husband, Michael Fischetti, whose identity was still somewhat murky. Michael Fischetti only seemed to exist on marriage certificates as the father the bride or groom. As I mentioned earlier, there were no Fischetti households in Wilmington on the 1930, 1920, or 1910 censuses. Then, somewhat serendipitously, while looking at city directories from Wilmington in the 1910s and 20s as I was collecting information about other ancestors there, I looked to see if there were any Fischetti listings. While looking through Fis-, I found a Michael and Ida Fisher on the 1100 block of Coleman Street. I tried my census search again—this time looking for Ida Fisher instead of Ida Fischetti.
And eccoli di nuovo! There they were again. Michael and Ida Fisher lived at 1021 Coleman Street in 1920 with five of their children: Anthony, Michael, Lucy, Thomas, and Madeline. Anthony was a mystery. I had never seen him before, and I am still not convinced that this name is not an error. Their daughter Anna was roughly the same age as Anthony. Nevertheless, enough details matched for me to conclude that Michael and Ida Fischer were Michael and Gaetana (Laurenziello) Fischetti.
Then the 1930 Census provided more clues. Michael had died since the last census, and two more children came into the family—”Gertrude” and Alfonzo. Provided that this was the same residence as the 1940 Census, I concluded that Gertrude was in fact Geraldine.
I now had enough clues to start looking for more pieces to the puzzle. Instead of just searching for Fischetti, I would also use the surname Fisher. This yielded more results. Eventually, I would discover that Michael Fisher was actually Amato Fischetti, and that the couple had two sons who died in infancy. Having more name options for my searches allowed me to find birth certificates for all their children (except Anna), which helped paint a better picture of the family. The 1920 Census also revealed a possible arrival date for Gaetana—1904. Having now an Italian name, date of birth, year of arrival, and name of a sister with which to work, I started to look at passenger records from Ellis Island. What would then happen was a fast-paced domino effect that would land me into a genealogical treasure trove.
With more clues in hand, I found two arrival records for Maria Gaetana Laurenziello of Pescopagano in 1903. Unfortunately, there are two localities in Italy with that name—one is a frazione in the Province of Caserta, and the other is a comune in Potenza. A surname frequency map lead me to the latter. Once I had a town, name, and possible date of birth to check, I started looking at the Pescopagano Stato Civile records on Family Search. In a matter of minutes, I had found her.
At 8:50 am on 13 April 1882, Pietro Rubini, sindaco and official of the Stato Civile of the Comune di Pescopagano, reports that Antonio Laurenziello, a 40-year-old peasant—or farmer, depending on how you want to translate contadino—residing in Pescopagano, declares that, at 11:50 am the previous day, his wife, Maria Laviano, gave birth to a girl whom they have named Maria Gaetana at Via Colombaia, No. 4. This is the same birthdate listed on her death certificate.
Over the next couple of months, I was able to further link Mrs. Ida Fischetti to this record and to other relatives living the United States. I eventually would be able to go back six generations of Laurenziello ancestors in Pescopagano to my seventh great-grandparents Angiolantonio Laurenziello and Olimpia Aranco, who lived in the 18th century. It still surprises that what was once one of the most uncertain branches of my family tree is now one of the clearest and most expansive—or, as my friend says, “they were ready to be found.”