Monday, February 20, 2012

Learn To Expect The Unexpected

On the second episode of Who Do You Think You Are, Marisa Tomei went in search of the truth about the murder of her great-grandfather, Leopoldo Bianchi. According to family legend, Leopoldo was murdered either because he had an affair with a married women or because he owed someone money.
Maria had to go to Italy to find the truth but we can look at what she found and apply it to our own research here in the United States. In fact, it opened my eyes about the events surrounding my own grandfather's death. 

Marisa began her research at the cemetery. When you are researching cemetery and death records it is usually safe to assume that all information pertaining to the actual death of the deceased is accurate. This is because the record is created at the time of death and all information is current. 

In the case of Leopoldo, his death record said he died of an illness, but we eventually found out that this information on his death record was false. The program doesn't address the issue of why this misinformation was recorded on the death record. I can only assume they hit a brick wall here and I hope sometime in the future Who Do You Think You Are will deal with this and any other brick walls they might have encountered while researching celebrity family trees. After all, it is an important part of genealogical research.

During her research Marisa found the marriage certificate for Maria and Leopoldo which shows that they were married on June 25, 1904. This brings up a point about marriage records that we need to address. You need to understand that a marriage license is not proof that a couple was married. It only proves intent. You need the actual marriage certificate signed by the official who preformed the actual ceremony in order to prove that a couple actually wed. Other than that it only proves "intentions" which were or were not so honorable. 

Eventually Marisa found a newspaper article that described the circumstances surrounding Leopoldo's death. It confirmed the family legend that he was murdered. However, it had nothing to do with an affair or owing someone money. Instead it was a business partnership gone bad. And this is where I learned to "expect the unexpected." 

I was reminded of the death of my own grandfather.  My mother told me that he died on January, 23, 1927, as a result of injuries he sustained when he was hit by an automobile while changing a tire on his own car. I accepted it as fact (which it was) and never gave it another thought. Even years later when I found the death certificate, I never thought there was anything else to the story. Then, while watching Who Do You Think You Are, something clicked and I realized that this was an automobile accident so there must have been at least one other person involved. 

Since I was going downtown to the main library in Toledo, Ohio for a genealogical society meeting, I decided to go early and do some research. The library has local newspapers on microfilm and I was able to search the January 24, 1927 Toledo Blade. The first thing I found was an article about the cold weather.  The temperature hit 19 degrees that weekend and everything was frozen making walking and driving very dangerous. There were scores of accidents in the paper including reports of individuals falling and breaking arms and legs. Finally after about 45 minutes of searching, there it was -- the newspaper account of the accident. And it didn't agree with the death certificate! The date was wrong.

According to the death certificate, my grandfather died on Sunday morning; The Blade article said Monday morning. It stated that he was stooped over fixing a tire on his auto as my mother had told me. Now I had the names of the two patrolmen who took him to the hospital. I also had the name of the person who was driving the other car and the last sentence said he was released on his own recognizance. Was there a possible court trial involved? I took all my newly found information and went to the meeting. At the meeting I received a lot of ideas from other genealogists as to what other records I might find helpful. The total cost of my research trip was the cost of a few gallons of gas and some copies. Everything else from the library to my fellow researchers was free. Of course if I would have gone to Italy like Marisa Tomei, it would have been a little more pricey!

Now I have a lot of questions about my grandfather's death. There is an additional page with the death certificate requesting information from the coroner as to the location of the accident - city or county. Is there a coroner's report and, if so, can I get a copy? Will the funeral home have any additional information? If there was a trial, what was the verdict? I am now going to look into coroner's reports, funeral home records and of course another trip to the library to search for more clues in local newspapers. Also, the word is out now with some of my genealogy friends. They know what I am looking for and I am sure they will have new ideas for me at the next meeting. Living close to a library with an excellent genealogy department or having access to a local genealogical society is a tremendous asset for the family detective. 

Marisa Tomei said at the end of the show that the scene of the crime she pictured as a young girl is now very different. I, too, have experienced the same change of scenery. Now I picture a very cold, dangerous winter night when my grandfather had the misfortune of having a flat tire on his way home from work. Remember to expect the unexpected!

Next: More free stuff!

Don't forget to watch. Who Do You Think You Are on Friday night, February 24, 2012 at 8pm Eastern, 7pm Central Times. Blair Underwood travels to the southern United States and then to Cameroon in Africa in search of his ancestors.

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