Thursday, November 21, 2013

Developing an Albion Polonia Wedding Photograph Database

Photographs are a peculiar part of family history research, and history research in general. The phrase, "a picture is worth a thousand words," best fits the photograph's role in genealogy. For a family historian such as myself, locating an image of a direct line ancestor is probably the most rewarding find I will ever experience. I will spend years searching for the documents to prove my lineage; documents full of words describing who my ancestors were, where they lived, what they looked like, and the communities they lived in. However, nothing will be able to put that research into context better than a photograph.

Photographs are peculiar in the sense that they stand alone when we think of family heirlooms. Some researchers are blessed with family bibles, locks of hair, the family's sterling silverware, fine china, or Grandma's prized glass pieces. Yet there is one shortfall of these artifacts in the overall scheme of family history research; they can't be shared. You can take photographs of the items and share them, put them on display in your house, but undoubtedly, most relatives will simply tell you they have it, and you may never see it again.

Pictures are different. They have the habit of showing up out of nowhere. They have the ability to be thrown in a drawer or a cigar box, only to be discovered fifty years later by an unsuspecting son, daughter, or grandchild. This alone should be enough of a calling to urge families to label their photographs, but that is another point. Unlike 3-D artifacts, photographs can be scanned, they can be copied, they can be placed in a frame and stuck on a shelf, they can be e-mailed to family, posted to Facebook and shared with friends, they can be shrunk or compressed to fit in a collage, they can be blown up and turned into a wall portrait, and they can be manipulated and enhanced by computer software. The most important part of all this is that the photograph can be shared. Although the original is an important piece, it's intrinsic value is, more often than not, less important than the contents of the image itself. This of course is only true for family history researchers, while collectors of photographs would be more inclined to retain the original of, say, a tin-type, or glass-plate negative.

Over the last thirteen years of my own family history research, and over the last three years of researching the history of Albion's Polonia, the biggest shortage of materials on the subject was in the form of photographs. This is not because they do not exist, but because there is no central collection of materials to share on the matter. Making photographs available in a database format, available online, has the potential to help researchers across the country. With the creation of this website, I have received thanks and praise from researchers as close to home as Albion and as far as Alaska, California, Texas, and Wisconsin. Those researchers did not have contact with distant cousins here in Orleans County as I, and many others, do. Therefore, they would not have been able to access the vast wealth of information found locally within print sources without such a resource as Albion Polonia; a resource that continues to grow but sees its greatest growth through the help of others.

It has been my goal to start a photograph database on subjects relating to Albion's Polonia, and the best way to start that is with a Wedding Photograph collection. The sacrament of marriage was of significant importance to Poles, as the Catholic Church played a large role in their daily lives. So, even for families with limited financial resources, having a memento of this all important day was almost a necessity. I have been working on this collection for some time but response has been slow, so I've turned to the web and social media to seek out those who would be willing to contribute to this collection for the benefit of researchers who are not local, who would like to add a visual piece to their family history.

If you would like to contribute, please e-mail me at mballard@rochester.rr.com. I am in the process of creating a marriage record database, which lists others in the wedding party. This will be a way for researchers to put names to those unknown faces found within your ancestors's wedding portraits.

Franciszek Kaniecki & Weronika Sterczynska - 1907

Franciszek Kaniecki & Rozalia Romanska Danielewska - 1919

Joseph Zwiewka & Bronislawa Ugorek

Antoni Rajs & Rozalia Lukaszyk

Wladyslaw Norkowski & Walerya Rajs


Theodore Ludwiczak & Marianna Danielewski

Louis Rytlewski & Weronika Marcinowski

Monday, November 18, 2013

Discovery of Murdered Italian Man Reveals No Killer


When Orleans County is struck with news of the death of a local resident under suspicious circumstances, it is shocking and absolutely disturbing news. One hundred years ago, it was a far more common occurrence to read newspaper accounts of brutal murders within the county limits. From the jealous lover, to the disgruntled farm hand, violent outbursts resulting in the killing of fellow residents was far more common then we'd see today. The headlines of local papers were graced with well known criminal cases; the murder of wealthy farmer Charles Phelps allegedly by his German farm hand, Charlie Stielow, or the case of George Wilson who was later hanged for the brutal slaying of his wife.

With the arrival of new immigrants from Central Europe, Albion saw a new degree of violence erupt, not by the savage nature of untamed men, but by the old world customs of dealing with disagreements. A look into the year 1919 shows us a brutal and heinous crime committed out of revenge or pure hatred against a travelling, out-of-work, Italian gentleman who went weeks without being identified, and a killer who seemingly got off scot-free.

In April of 1919, the body of an unidentified male was found on the farm of J. H. Rodwell in Eagle Harbor, north of the Buffalo, Lockport & Rochester Railroad. The body was discovered by Joseph Long of Albion who lived at 143 E. State Street in the village of Albion. The body was discovered laying face down and upon examination by the coroner, it appeared that the man had been shot once through the heart from the back, once through the body on the left side through the chest, one bullet through the center of the forehead, and his throat had been cut from ear to ear, so deep that it nearly severed the head from the neck. Such a gruesome discovery in Albion would be a frightening case today, but at a time where scientific methods for tracking killers were still in their infancy, the fear of a killer who committed such a crime never being arrested was horrific.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, on May 3, 1919, printed a verbal description of the man, as a male, approximately 35 years old, five feet 1 inch tall, clean shaven except a one week old moustache, weighing approximately 145 pounds, with long curly hair. Found next to the body was a loaded, but badly rusted, .38 caliber pistol. According to the coroner, the murder had occurred nearly 3-4 days prior to the discovery of the body. The only potential piece of identification was the gold ring found on the man's finger with the initials D.B.

As with many ethnic communities, people shied away from speaking to police on criminal matters which could potentially incriminate their fellow brethren. Local police would find the Italian and Polish communities to be rather tight-lip about activities amongst their own population. When questioning local residents, local police found no Italian residents who could identify the body and no one would had heard gunshots in the vicinity. One interesting fact, they noted, was that the man wore clothing that was considerably better than the average Italian of the working class.

The following week, the Rochester D&C ran an update on the investigation into the murder of the unknown Italian whose body was discovered face down near the tracks of the B. L. & R. Railroad in Eagle Harbor. Although the body had been buried the previous Friday (printed Wednesday, May 7, 1919), a private detective out of Rochester by the name of John Doyle was brought in to examine fingerprints from the crime scene. In speaking with police in Rochester, an area hotel proprietor noted that the gold ring worn by the deceased man was similar to one which was stolen from him nearly two years prior. From information gathered, Albion police believed that the man was murdered by someone he met while in Albion; he was robbed of a watch but the motive for the killing was believed to be much deeper.

Again, the newspaper posted the man's description with a few alterations; a man, believed to be 28 years old, five feet one inch tall, weighing 145 pounds, stocky build, with blue eyes and curly hair. The police again drew attention to the clothing which the man wore, a grey ribbed union suit of underwear, a blue silk shirt, a white soft collar, and a black & white checkered cap.

By May 14th, the newspapers began to report more on who the deceased man actually was. In speaking with a local Albion sewer contractor, Charles Piazza, the police learned that the man was visiting Albion in hopes of finding a job. On Tuesday or Wednesday during the week of the murder, Mr. Piazza said that he spoke with the young gentleman about potential employment on Main Street. The unidentified man told Mr. Piazza that he was from Niagara Falls and that he went to Rochester in hopes of finding a job. He was in Albion to look for work on his way back to Buffalo to visit friends.

During the same week of May the 14th, a man who lived within the vicinity of the murder came forward, claiming that he had heard gun shots coming from the area of the murder around 5 o'clock that Wednesday morning, but he believed that railroad workers were blasting rocks. Another area farmer told police that he recognized the man as one who rode with him between Rochester and Niagara Falls in the weeks prior to the murder.

Police received little additional information on the name of the murdered man and had absolutely no clues as to who committed the murder, until the Orleans County Sheriff received an unmarked letter in October of 1919. Western New York newspapers reported the contents of the letters during the week of October 22, 1919. The letter contained the following; "I let you know that man you fount dead in April, his name was Domenico Zarafa, he was live in No. 153 Dante Place, Buffalo, NY." This letter was postmarked October 19, at 12pm in Buffalo, New York, but contained no information as to who wrote the letter nor who mailed it.

Although local police identified the man (who was likely interred in Mt. Albion's paupers field), the papers never reported any news of who killed Domenico Zarafa.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Poznan Project Receives Major Upgrade

Albion's Polish community has very deep roots in the present day regions of Wielkopolska and Kujawsko-Pomorski, two voivodeships in the north-western region of Poland. Over one hundred years ago, the region existed as the Province of Posen, a portion of the ex-Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth which was annexed into the Kingdom of Prussia in the later quarter of the 18th century. As most amateur family historians uncover their German-Polish roots, they'll find the region most commonly referred to as "West Prussia," "Borussia" (in Latin) or "Prusy Zachodnie" in the Polish church records (Polish for West Prussia). The history of Poland is a very convoluted one, full of confusing land divisions created by the 18th century monarchs of Prussia, Austria, and Russia. As mentioned, we know these regions now as Wielkopolska and Kujawsko-Pomorskie, however both of these voivodeships were created in 1999 as an effort to deconstruct the Polish political divisions of the post-Cold War era, returning them to more "historically related" regions.

A region of considerable size and importance to the history of Poland and old Germanic tribes, the Vistula River cuts through portions of this historic region and was most likely a natural border for early land divisions in the 1770s. These land divisions and the harsh and violent political history of the 19th century uncovers an interesting story which all of our ancestors played a vital role in. From the early uprisings led by Napoleon with the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw to the Congress Kingdom, right up to the Bismarckian wars of the mid-19th century, our ancestors found themselves amidst a vital political struggle, the same struggle which would eventually lead to the World Wars in the early half of the 20th century.

Aside from this history, which would be far too complicated to explain in vague words in a small blog such as this, there is a vital genealogical resource that has been growing over the last decade. In 2000, Lukasz Bielecki sought to resolve a common genealogical problem that most Polish-Americans can admit to having encountered; the vague birthplace of "Posen." Because Posen existed as a historic region and a city, most researchers found themselves wasting money and time chasing ghosts in unrelated places.

Having spent nearly a decade on my own Polish roots before tracing my lineage back to the region of Kujawsko-Pomorskie, the research process was frustrating, full of brick walls and speed bumps. Just as Mr. Bielecki has done, I spend a great deal of time sharing my knowledge with other researchers to prevent them from wasting time the same way I did. Having shared that knowledge, I was able to watch my distant cousin trace his lines into Poland in a matter of several months, a task which took me many years. That revealed that I was doing something right, and therefore I continue to share that knowledge.

Last month I completed a research guide on the use of Bielecki's "Poznan Project" database of Posen Marriages. Since completing that research guide, the website has seen a major upgrade into a database, which I can confirm, is considerably easy to use compared to the older version. So I wanted to highlight some of the basics of using the database to help you, the researcher, start the easy task of locating your Posen ancestors in Poland.


The initial screen provides you with various search boxes for entering information on your Posen ancestors. The "additional search criteria" bar is minimized, but can be expanded by clicking on it, which will reveal the advanced search limiters. 

So, to start, simply enter the surnames (last names) of your ancestors. When you use Catholic Church records, you will often find a listed surname for your female ancestors (especially within Baptismal records), so take advantage of them when you can. Upon entering the surnames, you can select your ancestor's first name from a drop down menu, which will provide you with name variations to account for German, Polish, and Latin forms of the name (e.g. Ludovicus, Ludwik, Ludwig).

After entering that information, you may opt to limit your results by region (I wouldn't suggest), by year, and by record type (e.g. Catholic, Protestant, Civil). Unless you know specifically where your ancestors married, or are sure that they were Catholic or Protestant, it is best to just avoid these limiters. However, the "Year from ____ to ____" option can be valuable, especially with more "common" Polish surnames (i.e. Kwiatkowski, Lewandowski, etc.).

For a test, try this search;
Tomasz Sterczynski
Agnes Kiszka

Both were born in the 1860s, so set the year limiter for abt. 1875 to 1890. Logically, we can assume that at least one of them was 18 at the time of marriage and that since they appear in Albion, NY by 1892 and immigrated prior to 1888 that they were married sometime between those two years.

What results do you get? Do they look something like this?


The search returns one result, which won't always be the case, however we can use other records to verify the date of births based on the ages at the time of marriage. According to this record, we have Thomas Sterczynski, age 24 (born 1862), son of Laurentius and Josepha, who married Agnes Kiszka, age 22 (born 1864), daughter of Adalbertus. This marriage occured in 1886 in the Catholic parish of Pobiedziska (Pudewitz was the German name for the parish). The entry number "5" indicates that the marriage was the 5th marriage for the year 1886. So, we can use this information to either write to Poland for the original record, or we can use this to locate LDS microfilm to research the record ourselves on microfilm.

But, maybe Thomas and Agnes has some siblings who married? How do we find that? Try this search;
Sterczynski for the groom, 1865 to 1890. Do you receive any results that seem to match? Nope, we'd ultimately like to find some results for the surname Sterczynski in the town of Pobiedziska with either a father named Laurentius or a mother named Josepha, but the search returns no likely candidates. Try some other searches; Sterczynska for the bride, 1865 to 1890? Nope, no results either. Perhaps searching Agnes's information could return results? How about Kiszka, for the groom, 1865 to 1890?


Here we see some potential results, one set sticking out for the town of Pobiedziska, for Martinus Kiszka, age 27 years (born 1857), the son of Adalbertus and Marianna, who married Vincentia Karaskiewicz, age 26 (born 1858), the daughter of Michael and Catharina. They were married in 1884 and are entry number 10 for that year. So this provides us with another potential sibling to research while we are looking at information on Thomas and Agnes, and helps to confirm the family's location (as you may already know that Agnes had a brother Martin who lived in Albion with a wife named Vincentia).

We can go one step further and search for information on the parents of Agnes and Martin Kiszka by searching for "Adalbertus Kiszka" and "Marianna." We can assume that they were married prior to 1858/9 based on Martin's age, and can enter 1840 as an early cutoff. What type of results do you get?


We end up with one "exact" match for an Adalbertus Kiszka and Marianna Jankowiak from the parish of Kostrzyn. We can take that name, "Kostrzyn" and plug it into google maps, searching Gmina Kostrzyn, Poland, and by getting directions from that town to Pobiedziska, we see that they are approximately 16km from each other, increasing the likelihood that Adalbertus and Marianna are the parents of Agnes and Martin.

So there is considerable value in utilizing the Poznan Marriage Database in you research. With the ultimate goal of our research being to locate our Polish ancestors in Europe, this database will allow you to focus in on specific town names to continue your search. Once you have located the towns in which your ancestors came from, you can use that information to pinpoint which LDS microfilm will contain the records for your ancestors. That is a process which I will cover in an upcoming post.

For now, try you luck with the database and see which ancestors you can locate in the Poznan Project Database! http://poznan-project.psnc.pl/