PART 1 of 3
ON AN UNSEASONABLY chilly spring day, the passengers of the S/S California1 stood on the deck while the captain and crew navigated the busy waters of New York Harbor. The misty salt air must have been a welcome reprieve for the majority of the souls on board. Most of the 773 travelers had been traveling in “steerage,” 2 where they had endured at least two and possibly three weeks of existence in the crowded, stuffy, odoriferous, infested bowels of the ship.
The day was Thursday, May 20, 1897. The passengers possessed surnames such as Guiseppe, Pasquale, Luigi, Monaco, Durante, Gallo, Amelio, de Mitro. They had boarded the craft in Napoli (Naples) sometime earlier in the month. They had listed their occupations as shoemakers, carpenters, barbers, spinners, musicians, stone cutters, bootmakers, photographers, housewives, and laborers.
Among those laborers was one with a surname that stands out for me. It was 28-year-old Fazio Paolini.
As the ship’s horn announced its imminent arrival at Ellis Island, Fazio, sporting a neatly trimmed handlebar mustache and sharply dressed in his best Victorian-era style suit, no doubt joined his fratelli in a bit of anxious sight-seeing, as they peered over the railing to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, now coming into full view on nearby Liberty Island.
The iconic colossus was not even a teenager, erected just 11 years before. And she had yet to earn the nickname as the Green Lady. Her flowing tunic — made of copper — would have still reflected its amber hues. It would be many more years before the moist salt air would oxidize the sheathing into its now-familiar patina.
Fazio was just six days shy of his 29th birthday, but at that moment, it is unlikely he had any sort of celebration of this anniversary on his mind. Everything he knew and everyone he loved had been left behind in Italy: his young wife, Francesca Giansanti Paolini, an infant daughter, Consetta, his mother, Vittoria, and brother, Sabatino.
And now, thousands of miles from home in a strange land, unable to speak the language, with little money, no job, no place to live, he would have to quickly find his way and get established. Then, if all went well, he could earn and save enough to finance passage for his wife, his daughter, and his brother.
As with all families, there are stories about ancestry, and one I recall my father relaying about his father — Fazio Paolini — was the arduous passage to the New World. It went something like this:
Fazio and his father traveled for 30 days on a creaky sailing ship. Upon arrival, Fazio’s father was turned away because he did not have the proper paperwork. So he had to return on that ancient vessel to his homeland.
Claude Albert Paolini
As to the description of the ship’s antiquated condition, that is accurate. The S/S California was built in 1872 in Glasgow, Scotland. As the fuzzy image demonstrates, it did have sailing masts, three by all available data that I could find. It also housed a steam engine. By 1897, this vessel, operated by the Anchor Line, also of Scotland, would have been far beyond its prime. The ship was tiny, and the engine was puny by standards of the turn of the century. (The S/S in the name actually stood for “single screw,” meaning the ship had only one propeller.)
It was a slow, outdated steamer at the very end of its lifespan. In fact, Fazio and his fellow passengers that day would have been on one of the boat’s last excursions. It would be decommissioned and then scrapped for its metal and other materials just a few years later.
But other information in my father’s story about Fazio’s sojourn doesn’t add up. For instance, Carmine Paolini, Fazio’s father, could not have been on that journey with his son since Carmine died in 1890, seven years before this event. Now, the S/S California ship manifest does list another Paolini, one Domenico Paolini, age 28. There are several Domenico Paolinis in the family tree, and they can be traced back as far as the early 1700s. None of them were alive at this time, however.
So who was Domenico? And, did he have to return to Italy for lack of paperwork?3 This remains a mystery that warrants further investigation.4
Imagine a bucolic village nestled in rolling, verdant hills, sculpted by thousands of years of farming. Orchards and vineyards, stone walls, copses of deciduous trees frame the landscape. This pastoral setting is nestled between the majestic, glaciated Apennine Mountains and the balmy, turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea. That fits the description of Cepagatti, located in the province of Pescara, Italy. And by all appearances, it is an idyllic place.
Farmland in the hills of Cepagatti, Italy, with the Apennine Mountain range in the background. Cepagatti is located in the province of Pescara, in the Abruzzo region on the Adriatic Sea.
It was there that Fazio Paolini was born on May 26, 1868. Both his parents, Carmine Paolini and Vittoria Mirabilio, were Cepagatti natives as well. And Carmine’s family goes back yet another generation, all the way to 1757. So this was indeed the homeland for my ancestors on the Paolini side.
The pristine beauty of the place belies the turmoil — both natural and political — that enveloped not only Italy but most of Europe in the period of 1870-1920 when 11 million citizens — 4 million from Italy alone — emigrated to America.5
Fazio and his fellow passengers on the S/S California were undoubtedly motivated to find a new life, away from disease, poverty, political upheaval, and uncertainty. But making that decision could not have been trivial. Imagine what it must have been like for Fazio’s mother, Vittoria Mirabilio Paolini, when she heard the news. She had already lost her husband and a daughter.6 And now her son was leaving her, with the prospect that in a year, he would take Vittoria’s only other son and her only grandchild.
In the coming chapter of this saga, I’ll provide a glimpse of what life must have been like as a passenger in “steerage.”
1 Based on all available data that I could find, the S/S California operated by the Anchor Line is the right vessel. Between 1870 and 1930, numerous ships were christened with some variation of “California.” Perhaps the most famous — or infamous — ship to carry the California name was built in 1903 and was operating in the waters near the Titanic on its fateful day. By all accounts, the captain of that California had the ability to rescue most, if not all, of the passengers but declined to help.
2 Contrary to popular belief, the term “steerage” was not initially a reference to packing people in like cattle. Steerage is the section of the vessel containing the pulleys, ropes, and levers that comprise the mechanics necessary to navigate or “steer” the ship. It was the cheapest place to house those passengers who could not afford first class (sometimes referred to as “saloon”) or second class. Either way, of course, the term is appropriate.
3 Contrary to popular belief, the derisive term “WOP” was not an acronym for “without papers” or “without a passport.” It was actually derived from the term “guappo,” which sounds to the English-speaking ear as “WHOPPO” and roughly translates into “a guy who swaggers.” Italian laborers referred to each other with this term, perhaps much like the term “dude” is used today. English speakers heard the word as “WOP.”)
4 I did find two other Domenico Paolini individuals who roughly fit the time frame, one who lived in Illinois and the other in Massachusetts. Neither, however, seems to fit within the family tree. And so, the Domenico onboard the S/S California in 1897 remains a mystery. There are no other individuals with the Paolini surname in the registry. And, unfortunately, the registration record of Domenico and Fazio at Ellis Island went up in flames only a month after their arrival. So all we have to go on is that document from the S/S California.
5 I could not find reliable data on the actual number of immigrants between 1870 and 1920, which run wildly between 11 million and 25 million, so I’m using the conservative number. But the Library of Congress does estimate at least 4 million Italian immigrants between 1870 and 1920.
6 As noted previously, Vittoria’s husband and Fazio’s father, Carmine Paolini, died in 1890. In addition, Vittoria and Carmine’s daughter, Annunziata, died in 1868, just shy of her 14th birthday and just days before the birth of Fazio.