Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Smoking Gun

One precept of genealogical research I’ve found to be true is: if at first you don’t find what you’re seeking, try looking again.

I cannot tell you how many times, over the years, I’ve tried to locate immigration and naturalization papers on my paternal grandfather. Whether searching for the name I knew him by—John T. McCann—or by the more recently discovered name of Theodore J. Puhalski, year after year, my pursuit of any such records ended in failure.

Thankfully, I looked just one more time.

It was due to the question about lack of draft registration that I was prompted to return to the digitized records on for the New York City area. I had wondered if, perhaps, my grandfather’s disappearance from the expected paper trails might have been owing to a need to hide—from something or from someone. A German immigrant in America just might have had such a need in 1914, if he hadn’t already cooperated with authorities in securing the right documentation.

Indexing dexterity might also have helped me find the missing documentation more quickly, too. If it hadn’t been for the telltale other details about Theodore J. Puhalski, I might still be thinking he had skipped out on all the obligatory reporting duties of his early adult life.

Thankfully, though it was filed under the name Phalski, the “Index to Petitions for Naturalization filed in New York City, 1792-1989” finally revealed the fact that Theodore had indeed followed through. Apparently, on December 29, 1905, Theodore Puhalski had been naturalized as a citizen in the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.

Finding the photocopy of that index card revealed a few interesting tidbits. First, Theodore’s middle name—before this point, only represented, and poorly at that, by indecipherable initials—turned out to be John. This, as you are probably already thinking, could easily be reversed to represent the name, John T. McCann.

But not so fast! Not every Theodore J. can be said to be the same as every John T. We still have more to consider before drawing that conclusion.

The index card gave up a few more promising details, though. For one, this Theodore John Puhalski was a machinist—same, coincidentally, as John T. McCann.

In addition—just in case anyone is suspicious of the possibility that there might be more than one Theodore John Puhalski in New York City—his given address of 107 North Sixth Street happens to match that of the state census taken only a few months earlier. That address, by the way, was the one given for Theodore’s in-laws, Anton and Mary Laskowski, where Theodore, his wife Sophie, and his newborn son Valentine—my father—resided in 1905.

The cherry on top of this whole concoction, in my opinion, was the date Theodore provided for his own birthday. Just as was recorded on the death certificate of John T. McCann many years later by his daughter Anna, the birth date for Theodore J. Puhalski read August 7, 1876.

Coincidence? Well, I suppose in a city of many millions of people, there would be a good chance that two men could share the same birth date. Whether those two men would turn out to claim the same wife and give the same names to their son and daughter might be debatable. But I’ll tentatively concede the possibility that we have a match here.

What was lovely about the discovery of this index card was that it was quickly followed up by locating the digitized record of the District Court’s naturalization file, itself. There, though regrettably not naming the specific steamship that brought him, the document provided the note that “on or about” the middle of May, 1884, Theodore John Puhalski arrived in the Port of New York.

Above: Theodore John Puhalski's signature from the Declaration of Intention portion of his petition for citizenship completed on December 29, 1905, in the District Court of the United States, Eastern District of New York; courtesy


  1. Excellent! It is nice to know that the assumed name is not far afield from the actual name.

    1. least for the given name. I'm still stunned to think what it would have been like to go back through life with a name like Puhalski. Now, that would have been a radical difference!

  2. They must be one and the same. Have you compared the signatures side by side? :)

    1. The handwriting appears identical to me. The "J" and "T" especially align nearly perfectly.

    2. The P is also the same - in Puhalski and in Poland (in the draft registration)

    3. Iggy did a great comparison for me, setting the graphics side by side for a visual comparison. Those telltale letters do look similar. Even so, there was a ten year gap in between those two samples. Sometimes, handwriting changes over the years, so I'm not too concerned with any differences.

      I think the more important information is that all of these details--plus the handwriting similarity--line up so completely. Any one detail, standing alone, might not have been sufficiently convincing, but taken in the aggregate, it all presents a persuasive case.

    4. I looked at the J's and conclude that they are the same hand:)

  3. Congrats! Happy that your persistence paid off. And a good reminder to myself to think outside the box on names :)

    1. How true that is, Marian! I think we should start a collection of unusual changes to surnames. Far Side just emailed me one story she received, in which two immigrant brothers ended up in this country with wildly different surnames than the one they originally arrived with. Hint: the change had nothing to do with those proverbial Ellis Island alterations.

      When it comes to surnames, apparently anything is possible!

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks, Patrick! It was a wild chase...but worth it!


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