Tuesday, May 5, 2015

From Woodhaven to Woodlawn

As unexpected as the discovery was—finding the news that Anna Kraus had committed suicide—the distance between this unknown (possible) relative’s demise and my research discovery dampened the shock. While Anna may well have been my paternal grandfather’s mother—that, I’m not yet certain of—she was otherwise a woman I never knew personally.

Of course, discovering this news as part of a genealogical quest meant that I already had a next step in mind: find the death certificate. Equipped with the many ways to locate such records as we now have online, I knew it wouldn’t be difficult to uncover records of her own parentage. That, of course, was exactly what I had in mind.

The idea was sound, and I’ve certainly had plenty of practice retrieving such documents from New York City. But I hadn’t bargained for the difficulties I encountered, once I set out to meet this new goal.

For one thing, Anna’s was a surname which had been rendered at least five different ways in past documents I had encountered. I’ve seen Krauss and Kraus. Krause and Krouse. Even Krausse. Without the option to search with wildcard symbols—like the asterisk—the process was a tedious one. Couple that with the possibility of variations on her given name—Ann or Anne instead of Anna—the search permutations started multiplying.

Still, I didn’t expect to find what I found: absolutely no death record, whatsoever. None—not even when I searched in other boroughs in New York City, despite knowing the exact address in the Woodhaven neighborhood in Queens where she spent her last, tragic moments.

I thought: could it be possible that the New York City police considered a suicide a requisite case for an inquest? If so, would some other document be issued in place of a death certificate? Why was there no record available in the index where I was searching?

After all, not only did I know the address where Anna Kraus died, I knew the date—well, at least if the newspaper article published in The Brooklyn Standard Union on Thursday, September 29, 1921, had provided the correct information when it stated, “last night.”

No matter what the reason, there was no evidence of a death certificate for our Anna in the index for the New York City Municipal Deaths during that year.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done so when stumped on a genealogical problem, but it occurred to me that I used to take my research quandaries to online forums like GenForum or Rootsweb. So that’s what I did. I headed straight to the Queens borough forum and asked about any local reasons why a regular death certificate might not be issued—my inquest theory—or whether I should just resign myself to the fate of hand-cranking my way through a microfilmed record of the files, personally.

Thankfully, genealogy forums are not as Early-Nineties as people portray them to be. Online forums are still alive and well. I got several responses to my query, including one late addition (after all who attempted the search came up empty-handed, just as I had) with an unexpected proposition: what about searching, not for name, but for date?

Could there be any other Annas who died on September 28, 1921, in Queens, New York?

As it turns out, there was one. And only one, which was helpful.

Her surname started with a K, but that was one of only a few similarities. Whoever this person was, she was widowed and an immigrant from Germany. Three days after her death, she was to be buried in a cemetery in the Bronx—a beautiful, serene and historic place known as The Woodlawn Cemetery. A place, incidentally, where Rose Kober’s husband George would later be buried. She—this Anna K—was a woman aged seventy one, the same as the newspaper had reported on September 29.

Her name, however, was not Anna Kraus—nor any of the spelling permutations I’ve come to expect.

Her name was Anna Kusharvska.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Unexpected Upheavals of Life

The photograph of Aunt Rose, in her fanciful pose with my father’s family, may have represented a particularly pleasing episode in her life. If my guess of the picture’s date as 1915 is accurate, it was about the time she married George Kober, a New York City postal employee.

George was evidently successful at his post, for future census records documented his promotion at work. His was a modest but pleasant home in one of the more suburban-looking neighborhoods of Queens Borough in New York City, valued, according to the 1930 census, at $8,000.

The Woodhaven, New York, Kober address was also home to George’s mother-in-law, listed in the 1920 census as Anna Krouse. This was not the only year I had found Anna and Rose listed together in a census record. Though the Kobers were married in 1915, the New York State census was evidently taken before the date of their marriage. At that point, however, Rose was still living with her mother—though I had to search in Brooklyn, to the south of Queens borough, to find them.

Finding Rose in the 1915 census helped clear up one question about the Kober marriage record, which had designated George’s bride to be one Rose Miller. Sure enough, in the 1915 census, there was Anna—this time, with her surname spelled Krausse—living with a person designated as her “duaghter,” having the name, Rose Miller. Check.

Pondering whether Rose’s surname of Miller was a name from a previous marriage or whether Anna had been the one to marry again, I found one detail in the 1915 census which might confirm the former. In that record, both women were listed as born in Germany. One—Anna—was entered as being an alien. The other—Rose—was listed as a citizen. Both declared they had been in this country for thirty years. Rose’s citizenship likely was owing to marriage to an American—though, of course, I’ll need documentation to be certain.

This possibility meant that Rose, aged thirty nine by the time of this census, was either already divorced—an unlikely scenario in that era—or widowed.

That, however, was the snapshot of her life on the date the census was taken, June first, 1915. By November, life became quite different. By then, Rose and George had married, and Rose and her mother moved into the Kober home on 96th Street in Woodhaven.

One hardly had time to breathe a sigh of relief for the two widow women, though. For the longest time, I had not been able to find Anna in the 1930 census—not to mention, I couldn’t find any of the three in the 1925 state census. Yet, though Anna would have been eighty two by the time of the 1930 census, I could not find any documented reason why she was not at her place in the household at that later enumeration.

That is where going back to retrace those research steps at a later date can help. This time, rather than search for the assumed death record, I perused the local newspapers for any mention of the family. That is how I found this tiny, but tragic, entry in The Brooklyn Standard Union from Thursday, September 29, 1921.

Woman Ends Her Life With Illuminating Gas

Evidently despondent, due to prolonged illness, Mrs. Anna Krauss, 71 years old, who lived with her daughter, Mrs. Rose Kober, at 729 Ninetieth street, Woodhaven, ended her life last night by inhaling illuminating gas.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Snapshot in Time

Piecing together the story of a person’s life—especially when that person lived over one hundred years ago—can be challenging. But not impossible. At our fingertips, we now have multiplied digitized records and access to online archives which once would have taken eons to mine. Search capabilities have both streamlined and sped up the process of genealogical research.

Not that there aren’t any more brick walls. I assure you: those bemoaned impediments to research progress are still very much a part of the family historian’s obstacle course.

In my case, for the past few years, I’ve been stymied by lack of any credible information on the identity and parentage of my paternal grandfather. When I stumbled upon the possibility that this man had a sister—an identifiable sister, complete with name and address—I sprung for the chance to learn everything I could about her. The hope, of course, was that those things I could learn about her, I would also learn about her brother, my grandfather.

That information was not immediately forthcoming, though. When I first received the name, Rose Kober, I was able to find a few items of interest—a couple census records, a marriage record, a smattering of newspaper mentions. Nothing earthshaking.

But when I picked up the trail again, this past month, the results illustrated for me the moving target that online genealogical research actually is: for now, more than ever before, we have access to so many more documents. The way Rose Kober was presented—a snapshot in time, captured during my searches in the 1990s, for instance—is not how I find her, searching once again, today.

It is much the same as if I were looking at an actual photograph of her from her own lifetime. Captured on the one picture I have of the woman, I see a face both fun and fashionable—wanting to be admired for status or position, but also wishing to be loved as someone whose presence is enjoyable.

But just as I see her in this photograph—which, guessing by my father’s appearance in the group composition, would place it within a date range of 1912 to 1915—I know she would not always appear quite as playful. Life has its ups and downs—and Rose’s, apparently, did not escape that dynamic.

Returning, years later, to see what else could be discovered about the woman and her life’s story demonstrated to me the value of returning to our past research trails to uncover additional records we may have missed on the first pass. In Rose’s case, the fanciful pose struck in the early 1900s—and the life that may have gone with it—was not the position I’d find her in as I followed her through the next few decades.

Above: Photograph of "Aunt Rose" (top left), Sophie Laskowska McCann (top right) and Sophie's children (left to right), Anna Mae and Valentine. The photograph was likely taken before Rose married George Kober; at that time, her name was possibly Rose Miller.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Value of Rose

Sometimes, you find yourself doing everyone else’s genealogy before you can figure out which one is your own. Rose Kober—the supposed sister of my paternal grandfather—was the one key to possibly help me establish just who this man really was. And yet, she had a story of her own, which made tracing her heritage almost as difficult as working on John T. McCann’s.

Thanks to a late-life revelation by my now-deceased aunt, I discovered the name of the one known sibling of my grandfather—well, at least her married name. Amend that: one of her married names.

My task was to trace her life, both forwards to the point of her obituary and backwards to any pre-marriage documentation of her life in her parents’ home. This, hopefully, would provide records of both Rose and her brother John, along with their supposed parents, John and Anna. It might also lead to any immigration records—which, as I could tell from the 1920 census, was a declared part of Rose’s history, though not claimed by John.

Because John T. McCann was proving to be such an enigma—one could never be too sure he was who he said he was, considering the discoveries of earlier census records providing a very different name for my father’s father—Rose became the hope for stabilizing the research ups and downs. If I followed her (I reasoned), it would lead me to the answers about her brother.

So, I worked my way into the future from the point at which I had found Rose in the 1920 census. There, she had been living with her husband of five years, George W. Kober, in Woodhaven, a neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. While I couldn’t locate either one in the 1925 New York State census, George and Rose Kober were still at the same address in the 1930 census as they were in 1920.

Things seemed to be going well—at least financially—in the Kober household by 1930, for George was now the Assistant Superintendent for the Post Office. That, however, didn’t last long, for an April 11, 1932, entry in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle told the brief tale:

KOBER—On Sunday, April 10, 1932, GEORGE WASHINGTON, beloved husband of Rose, son of the late George W. and Pauline D. Kober and brother of Mrs. Pauline K. Thomas. Funeral services at his home, 8929 96th St., Woodhaven, L. I., Tuesday, April 12, at 8 p.m. Interment Wednesday morning, Woodlawn Cemetery.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Aunt Rose

It’s hard enough, trying to muddle through one’s genealogy when the surname sought is as common as McCann and the search is on in a city the size of New York. Fortunately, what I did have going for me was the fact that John T. McCann had to have left a death certificate behind, when he passed away in 1952.

According to that document—which I sent away for the old fashioned way, submitting money order and duly completed application form, along with stamped, self-addressed envelope—John’s parents were listed as John McCann and Anna Krause.

As I’ve already mentioned, the younger John was born in Brooklyn on August 7, 1876—although I’ve never found any other record to verify that—and he eventually grew up to be a machinist at a respected printing press.

What I didn’t mention yet was the one unfortunate detail about my paternal grandfather: according to my oldest cousin, who once grabbed the opportunity to ask him, John T. McCann had told him he was adopted.

So, out the window go most of the meager facts I’ve scratched and clawed to assemble. Was the senior John McCann his birth father? Or his adopted father? That revelation just paralyzed me—I had no idea where to proceed from that point.

Until, of course, that serendipitous discovery about a sister. That sister, thankfully, had a name: Rose. And, added bonus, she was married, thus providing me with a married name to trace her life’s arc to the end.

Or would it go to the end? When my own aunt reminisced about the family for my brother late in her life, she struggled with some memory issues. One of those glitches hit just as she was recounting Aunt Rose’s married names.

She did, thankfully, remember the one name: Kober. But was it the first married name? Or the second? What if there were more than two marriages? This could get difficult to trace.

But at least it was a toe-hold. And I was ready to hang on.

Although complicated, it was not impossible to find Rose recorded in the household of one George W. Kober. According to the 1920 census, George lived on 96th Street in a part of Queens borough known as Woodhaven. He was employed as a supervisor for the post office. The couple, at that point aged forty seven and forty four, had no children listed in the household, but they were cohabitant with George’s seventy two year old widowed mother-in-law, listed as Anna Krouse.

It was in this census record that I, once again, became the unintended beneficiary of an enumerator error: for Rose’s place of birth, in the original entry, lined out, was Schwartzwald, Germany.

United States census showing birth place entry lined out in error for Rose Kober in Queens New York

If you know anything about German, you may have realized the “t” in that name is superfluous, thus leaving us with “Schwarzwald”—which, translated, is “Black Forest.”

Thanks to that census record, we also learn that Rose came to this country—well, if her report can be believed any more than her brother’s—in 1883. Same date, incidentally, as her mother, who was listed in the census record as an alien. Rose, on the other hand, was listed as naturalized in 1915.

Immigration laws being what they were at the time, it is no surprise to learn that 1915 turns out to be the year Rose married George Kober—on November 17, to be exact. The only problem with this fact, though, is that, according to the New York City marriage index, George’s bride’s name was not Krouse. It wasn’t even any of the several spelling permutations that can be considered rough equivalents of Krouse.

It was Miller.

Above: Excerpt from the 1920 United States census record showing the Woodhaven, New York, household of George and Rose Kober. Image courtesy Ancestry.com.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

What They Told Me

When I was a kid—you know, those early years when I knew I was “born wanting to do genealogy”—I asked my dad where he came from. Like, where his parents were born. And their parents.

His answer—as I’ve often mentioned—was “Aaah, you don’t wanna know that.”

My mother, always ready to fill in the blanks, recited the party line for me, possibly in hopes of placating me and making this genealogy stuff all go away: my dad’s father was Irish and his mother was German.

End of story.

Of course, I didn’t stop trying. But I wised up to other ways to find these things. I learned about research. Paper trails. Census records. Newspapers.

Alas, all these things were only accessible to those willing to travel to the appropriate source, and in many cases, considering my age and stage in life, this was not possible.

And so, the story languished. Until.

Until changes happened in the family. For one thing, I left home and moved across the continent to attend college. People grew up. Attitudes changed. Possibilities opened up.

And people died.

One of my cousins—actually, a cousin once removed—was tasked with the inevitable “Family Tree” homework assignment at school. About that time, I had headed south to L.A. on some business and ended up visited my brother. We got to talking about that mysterious family tree—he being quite a bit older than I, and me thinking perhaps he would remember stuff from the relatives he knew from his childhood.

He mentioned the upshot of our cousin’s homework assignment. “We might be Polish,” he said with marked incredulity. Being Irish was a big thing for my brother.

It was in that conversation that I first heard the surname Laskowski. Before that, I had had no idea. My brother floated a few more possibilities—some that yielded results, some that turned out to be bum leads.

A bit later—perhaps, mindful of our conversation about family roots—my brother flew back east to attend a gala event thrown in honor of my aunt’s seventieth birthday. He managed to bring a tape recorder with him, and sweet-talked my aunt into letting him interview her as the guest of honor. She obliged.

During the interview, he deftly led her back down memory lane—mostly about special times in her own life. But then, he slipped in some prompts about remembering other family members. My aunt talked about her favorite cousin—the same Francis Laskowski whose wedding was eclipsed by my aunt’s own—and some of the times they shared together. When her memory seemed to falter, my brother would gently prompt her for descriptions and names. Nicknames. Married names. Details about relatives, drawn out oh so gently.

Tenderly, he walked her back down that memory lane until she was talking about the previous generation. And then, unexpectedly, my aunt mentioned that her father had a sister.

The tendency to grab at details of this kind can be overwhelming when you know absolutely nothing about a family’s background. But an over-eager reaction can breach the mood—and in an instant, the interview can be aborted.

My brother tried to coax more information from his reminiscing subject. She was able to remember that this woman was married more than once. Thankfully, she remembered one of the married names, but the other one slipped her mind. It was simply not there to recall.

It was such a gift to receive a copy of that taped interview—not only because of all the treasures of family history it contained, but because within the decade, my aunt, herself, passed away, taking all those memories with her. Even though I was subsequently able to return back east to visit with her once, before her passing, I could tell her memory was fading. In conversation, she would confuse people’s identity. By then, it would have been unlikely that her recollections would be reliable.

Shortly after this time was when most of our family entered the computer age. Instead of letters, phone calls, or those infrequent transcontinental visits, we could connect by email or chat. I started to compare notes with some of those cousins-once-removed (the virtue of being the child of someone so removed in age from me is that my contemporaries in family circles were all the children of my cousins—handily equipping me to have no difficulties whatsoever grasping those once-removed labels that cause so many such confusion).

Two of these cousins were daughters of a woman who had died early, as a result of cancer. They had been going through their mother’s—my cousin’s—papers after her passing. They noticed some unusual documents, which brought an odd episode to mind. Once, her daughter had caught her with some music of the Polish national anthem or other patriotic music from Poland. It had been hidden away in the piano bench—never taken out when others were present. When questioned, the woman wanted to change the subject and even began shaking. Why? What was there to cover up?

My cousins now think that this was one way their mother was attempting to connect with her roots. Somehow forbidden to do so as a child, she couldn’t deny the pull of that basic question: who am I and where did I come from?

Other stories came out—about my father and his sister being strictly told never to reveal their roots. This would result in awkward scenarios for this younger generation. My aunt could never, for instance, invite her high school friends home with her, after school, for fear they would realize her mother had to speak to her grandmother in a foreign language.

The story that got told to family was that the switch of names was to allow their father to get a job. There was much prejudice against the Poles at the time, but favor was turning toward the Irish—so the story went. How a Polish immigrant was able to pass himself off as an Irish-American, I’ll never know. I would think the accent would get in the way of such a ruse.

At that time, I had not yet discovered the paternal surname, Puhalski. But even when I did learn of that possibility, it did not permit me to gain any traction in furthering my research.

Oh, you can be sure I tried—I poked, I prodded, I massaged the data gleaned from governmental documents, but without any success at discovering the identity of this paternal grandfather.

But…he had a sister? Perhaps this was my key to bypass this genealogical enigma. I could start a new research trail: finding out about Aunt Rose.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Two Men—Or One?

Trying to determine which of two names represents the man who was my paternal grandfather has been challenging. Not only do I know nothing, personally, of Theodore Puhalski, but no one else in my family knew anything of the man, either. In fact, that name was a total surprise when it was first presented to our family.

As for John T. McCann, however, I have older relatives who knew him personally. Of course, these were the memories of young children and teenagers who, before his 1952 passing, once called him Grandpa.

I never met the man, of course, as he was gone before I was born. But every time I stare into my bathroom mirror, his face is looking back at me. How do I know? His photographs tell me.

As for the similarity between this man and my own father, it is unmistakable. The two are assuredly related.

How could that be, though, if the 1905 census shows the father of my father to be a man named not John T. McCann, but someone with a surname like Puhalski? Wouldn’t that be the actual blood relation?

All I know about John T. McCann is what I’ve found in government documentation—plus the few stories family members have told me. I know—at least according to a copy of his death certificate—that he was born in Brooklyn on August 7, 1876. And that he died, seventy five years later, in Queens, on April 12, 1952.

Though I can see from census records that he was a machinist by trade—the 1925 New York State census showed he advanced to the level of foreman—I know, thanks to family stories, how talented he was at crafting custom-designed adaptive devices to allow his elderly wife, by then a diabetic amputee, to continue attending to such activities of daily living as washing the dishes or cleaning the house.

I also know he worked at a printing concern. Judging from the impressed tone of my older sister when she’d recount the fact that he worked for “Mergenthaler,” I’d gather that it was a big deal kind of place to work.

But that was just it—that big deal kind of job. As it turned out, when we cousins and siblings put our heads together to figure out just what it was about this big, mysterious story about our heritage and why it was hidden, it all seemed to center around this chance for a job.

At least, that was the best we could figure…

Above, top left: Photograph of John T. McCann, from the McCann family personal collection; below: Logo from the 1896 stock certificate of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, courtesy Wikipedia, in the public domain. 
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