Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The New Neighbors

It’s the first of June, 1915, and the state census enumerator, George A. Hofmeyer, is making his way up and down the streets of Queens borough in New York. While almost everyone who comes to the door in response to his summons declares that he or she was born in the United States, each one offers up a decidedly German-sounding surname: Nunsdorf, Boeringer, Hoenig, Ohrlein, Feist.

And then, just as the enumerator is about to fill page thirty two of his report on ward two of the thirty first election district, the litany is broken by a lone Irish surname: McCann. The respondent reports that the head of household is named John. He is joined by his wife, Sophie, and two children. Apparently, Mr. Hofmeyer stumbled over the name this Irish-American chose for his firstborn son—recorded as “Valitine”—but completed his task at this household by adding the youngest child’s name, Anna, and moving down the street to the next German-sounding surname, Schneider.

If you’ve been following along as I struggle to document my father’s family history, you will recognize at least the last three of that string of names to be our Sophie Laskowska’s family. We’ve already found Sophie, her son Valentine and her daughter Anna in her parents’ Brooklyn household for the 1910 census—along with Sophie’s husband. While we’ve struggled with determining the correct version of Sophie’s husband’s name—Thomas or Theodore? Puhalaski or Puhalski?—at least we can verify that we have the right cluster of names.

All except for Sophie’s husband, that is. Formerly someone going by a Polish name, Sophie’s husband is now reported to be John McCann. What happened to Thomas? Or, um, Theodore?

The easy answer—at least, for us children of the sixties onward—would be that Sophie got fed up with him and threw the bum out. She found someone to love her who was much more the type she deserved. Right?

Not necessarily. Back before 1915, there was an entirely different attitude toward divorce. Not that it didn’t happen; it did. Before we rush to that conclusion, however, let’s take a serious look at the data. There may be something else unfolding here—and not just the alternate possibility that Sophie was a widow.

For one thing, checking the marriage index for New York City during the years between the last time we saw Theodore documented (1910) and the time Sophie showed up sporting that brand-new Irish-American surname (1915), there is no record to verify that anyone named Sophie—regardless of surname mangling—had married someone named John McCann.

Let’s take a different approach on this. Could there be any similarities between the entries—1910 in Brooklyn, 1915 in Queens? Better yet, let’s get a running start by turning back to that 1905 state census where we found Sophie’s husband listed as Thomas Puhalaski, and stretch this exercise out to the 1920 census, as well.

In 1905, we find Thomas Puhalaski listed as twenty nine years of age, born in Germany, marked as an alien, in this country since 1887, and employed as a machinist.

Five years later, for the 1910 federal census, we see Sophie’s husband now entered as Theodore Puhalski. He declared that, for six years, he had been married to a woman whose eldest of two children was now five years of age. On the date of this census enumeration—April 15—he gave his age as thirty three, not quite the five years difference between this census and the last, but perhaps his birthday occurred between April 15 and June 1. He stated he was born in Germany—as had each of the members of Sophie’s Laskowski Polish family, Germany being the then-geopolitically-correct designation. He claimed arrival in the United States in 1884, and assured the enumerator that he had been naturalized. For employment, he indicated simply “machines” and that he worked for a printing press.

The 1915 census is when we saw the family move from Brooklyn to Queens. Suddenly, Theodore is gone. In his place is this man named John McCann. He reported his age to be thirty nine—five years later than the thirty four that Theodore would have been. Only John asserted that he was born in the United States—obviously a citizen. For his employment, coincidentally, he mentioned that he was a machinist.

Predictably, this John McCann shows up in the 1920 federal census claiming his age to be forty three—once again, possibly a function of the early date of this enumeration on January 22, 1920. He reported his place of birth to be New York, and indicated that that was the case for his father, as well. However, he did insert the fact that his mother was born in Germany. For his occupation, he stated he was a machinist, working in a machine shop.

In this span of time—from 1905 to 1920—we see Sophie with a spouse whose age advanced routinely by five year increments. We also see a man whose employment was consistently listed as “machinist” or someone who works with machines.

On the other hand, with the shift from the Polish surname to the Irish surname, we see a change from a man who declared himself to be an alien, to someone who claimed he was a naturalized citizen, to someone insisting he was a natural-born American.

Well, of course, there’s that one small matter of the name change, as well.

But if John McCann was Sophie’s second husband, where was his marriage license? And why didn’t he claim Valentine and Anna were his step-children?

While I have no idea who Thomas Puhalaski or Theodore Puhalski might have been, I do know a few things about John T. McCann, thanks to the helpful recollections of family members who knew him and the photographs they have shared with me. Perhaps it is time to take a break from struggling over the sterile documentation of governmental records to take inventory of the personal anecdotes I’ve been collecting over the last two decades.  


  1. One point does bother me: the choice of an Irish name. Wasn't there a lot of bias against the Irish with that "Irish need not apply" attitude? Or was that in a different time? There were lots of Irish in Queens and Brooklyn, mine included, so maybe an Irish name was a good thing, I don't know.

    I have a story of someone changing their name to avoid punishment for some crime, but he made the change before marriage and family, not in midstream.

    1. Sometimes, Wendy, I wonder about that running from crime scenario, myself. Apparently, at that time, the Irish--at least in New York--were finding themselves in better favor than the Polish...but that may not be the entire story. I certainly have much more to find out about this puzzle.

  2. I find the John T. and the possible Theodore/Thomas J? T? to be interesting... Sherlock Holmes would be intrigued. Did Theodore/Thomas J (or is it T) change his name to John Theodore/Thomas? If the name change was "legal" there would be a court record of it (somewhere!) If he just changed his name - perhaps back in the day before SS and the IRS, this wasn't so hard to do?

    There was a very active intense anti-German wave prior to WWI - even if he was "Polish" - perhaps he was attacked for it.

    But Wendy is right too - the Irish weren't much loved either - I know my own grandmother passively "hid" her Irish roots.

    One's name IS one's identity.. much like one's job. Changing it isn't something done lightly... so I find this whole thing curious and baffling.

    1. That's just the thing, Iggy: can you imagine changing your name informally--and then forgetting what name you decided to adopt for yourself? It's not like you can say, "Just a minute, let me look that up," when someone asks you for your name. That's a scene that doesn't play well.

  3. Have you started digging into the City Directories for Brooklyn and Queens using John McCann, the address where they appear in 1905, 1910, 1920? This was quite revealing in my own search on my great-grandfather's years in New Orleans, I would think that might uncover some connections for you on your New York search.

    1. Good point, Patrick. That seems to be the consensus of those who've weighed in on this topic--go to the city directories. I know it's worked out well for you--and I have friends who have said the same.

  4. Confusing for sure...I wonder how easy it was to change your name back then. Hope you find out the why someday:)

    1. I've seen some paperwork (for other family members who were immigrants) that included documented name changes, but in this case, if the change was done legally, I've yet to find the evidence!


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