A New World, A New Life


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. 

The S/S California was built in 1872 in Glasgow, Scotland. She weighed 3,410 tons and measured 361 feet in length. The hybrid ship had three sailing masts and one smokestack for the steam engine. She could reach 13 knots (15 mph), which would have been capable of traveling from Naples to New York in 15 days at best. More than likely, the trip took closer to 3 weeks.

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 "Frank" Paolini

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.

Family folklore


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

Leaving home

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.

Fazio’s name is recorded in the birth registry in Cepagatti. The date is May 26, 1868.

Why leave?

The home in which Fazio was born. (Photo by Carl Aiello)

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

The ship’s manifest listing Fazio Paolini. Although it might look like the surname is “Pastine,” all available evidence and process of elimination lead me to a near certainty that this is our guy. The age is right, the date is right. The surname “Pastine” does not exist in Italy. Note that the mysterious Domenico Paolini is listed as well.

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.




The journey


PART 2 of 3

In a previous installment, paternal grandfather Fazio Paolini had announced to his mother and family his plans to travel to America. In this chapter, I will attempt to recreate that journey in as much detail as possible, beginning in Cepagatti, Italy, and arriving in New York.

EARLY MAY 1897. Fazio and Domenico Paolini have said goodbye to their respective families. Perhaps there had been some family dinner or tearful farewell party the night before.

Railroads in Italy in 1897 would have provided Fazio Paolini a fairly easy trip from Cepagatti to Napoli, where he could board a steamship for America.

Fazio and Domenico needed to travel from their tiny village on the eastern side of Italy, along the Adriatic Coast. They had to traverse the Apennines mountain range to arrive in Napoli on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was there they would board the S/S California for the voyage across the Atlantic.

The overland journey today by car is a mere 3-hour drive (169 miles or 282 kilometers). But in the 1890s, automobiles and paved roads were at best a novelty. So, it is more than likely that Fazio and Domenico took a rather circuitous route by train.

Maps of the railway infrastructure at the time show a robust network. But there was no direct path over the mountains. Chances are good that they took the route outlined here. This was likely a one-day trip. But then there would have been traveling to and from the train stations — either on foot or by carriage — to reach the port of Naples (Napoli). My guess is that it took them two and possibly three days before they were able to board the ship.

Napoli must have been exciting enough for the two “country” boys. At the turn of the 20th Century, the metropolitan region ranked as the third-largest in the new Kingdom of Italy.

Naples (Napoli) Italy was one of the largest metropolitan areas in Italy at the turn of the 19th Century.

Once at the port, the passengers had to plunk down $30 for passage. This would be the equivalent of just under $1,000 today. They also needed to provide a passport, the name of a friend or relative in the new country, and proof they possessed an additional $25 to financially support themselves upon arrival in their new homeland. But they were not done yet. They had to answer 31 questions. Ex-convicts and those interested in arson or polygamy need not apply. Then they were examined by a ship doctor. Vaccines for cholera, typhoid, tetanus and bubonic plague were new then but may have been administered.

If they met the requirements, the passengers were allowed to board, climbing the gangplank to the main deck and then descending a set of stairs, past the labyrinth of engines, boilers, and machinery to find a spot in steerage.

Life in steerage was communal living with very little privacy in the late 1800s. Travelers were provided a sleeping berth, three meals (of questionable nutritional value) a day and they had the use of public restrooms. But in most cases water for washing was saltwater. Drinking water was rationed. Newer ships had electric lighting. The S/S California, on which Fazio Paolini traveled, did not.
Harper’s Weekly Supplement, 22 November 1890

By now, the engines1 of the S/S California would have been rumbling, as workers with titles such as coal trimmers, firemen, stokers, and water tenders endured the back-breaking labor required to power the vessel, all performed in a soot-choked environment.

In the ship’s manifest, Fazio and Domenico are listed as being housed in “No. 1 MDSF.” There is also a “No. 2 MDSA.” I could find no definition for the acronyms. My best guess is mid-ship fore and mid-ship aft.

Although the S/S California could accommodate 150 first (or saloon) class, 80 second, and 700 third class,2 the ship’s manifest for this trip lists only 730 passengers without distinguishing their type of service. My guess, since virtually all the surnames listed are of Italian descent, is that the vast majority of these were steerage class.3

The S/S California ship manifest for May 20, 1897, including Fazio Paolini (No. 7) and Domenico Paolini (No. 9).

Once settled into their new home for the next few weeks, the passengers would no doubt have been excited and perhaps marveled at the thrill of traveling on a steamship. The boat likely made a stop at Palermo, Sicily, and possibly Gilbraltar, Spain. Relying on the ship’s manifest, I see only Italian surnames but none of Iberian origin.4

From there it was through the Strait of Gibraltar and out into the wide and often turbulent Atlantic Ocean.

It appears, based on weather reports from various newspapers on both sides of “The Pond,” that the weather was fortuitously uneventful in May 1897. There might have been some high winds when the S/S California departed Naples. Otherwise, it appears the barometric pressure was high5 for the Atlantic crossing, according to The Times of London, The New York Times, and The Boston Globe, indicating no storms. There were reports of an “anti-cyclone in Ireland” (a fancy term for a high-pressure system) and a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Temperatures were unseasonably chilly, with frost in parts of France and England. But that was about it.

A cutaway of the S/S Frisia, displays the fore and aft steerage compartments. The ship was launched the same year (1872) as the S/S California on which Fazio Paolini traveled. Both are very similar in design, as hybrid sailing/steam-powered vessels. And both had iron hulls. By the 1890s, steel was the prevalent material.

Still, for those unaccustomed to traveling by sea, the ride must have been quite bumpy and nauseating. Waves of 2 meters (6 feet) would not be uncommon in the open ocean, and swells much higher would certainly have been encountered. This would have given a boat the size of the S/S California quite a bouncing about.

By 1897, the Golden Age of steamship travel was well underway. But, as routine as traversing the seas was by this time, the voyage was not without its perils. There were icebergs, of course, which could be seen as far south as Bermuda. The fog was always a challenge. And, although the Atlantic is a big place (41 million square miles), it was becoming quite crowded with vessels.6 This was the era before radar and other modern collision-avoidance systems. Even wireless telegraph was not yet available.

As dangerous as the open sea might be, it was the shores and harbors that were of most concern. Sand barges, rocks, shoals, or other ships in relatively close proximity all created challenges. The Utopia, for instance, collided with another ship in 1891 near the port of Gibraltar, costing 591 Italians their lives.

And when the steamers weren’t colliding with one another or other natural obstacles, there were boiler explosions, fires, and leaks to contend with. There were, by my count, 228 maritime accidents in the year 1897 alone.

Unimaginable living conditions

Those were not the only dangers lurking about. Inside the ship, in the congested, the infested, the dark, and nearly airless world of steerage, other hazards lurked.

Although, as previously noted, there were vaccines available and likely administered for cholera, typhoid, tetanus, and bubonic plague, there were many other contagions all too prevalent and easily transmissible in this type of environment. They included: tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza, pertussis, yellow fever, polio, measles, and mumps, to name a few.

Life in Steerage During Heavy Weather. The Century Magazine, February 1898.

Death was a common enough event that the ship’s manifest included a column to register any passengers who might have died on board.

Children and babies were especially vulnerable. The passenger-ship mortality rate for children between the ages of 1 and 12 was 7.5%, and for infants, 19%. This was after the enactment of several U.S. laws, starting in 1872. Before this, the overall mortality rate for all passengers was even higher.

Ship doctors were, by most accounts, unqualified and unable to address the infirmed with any measure of success.

‘This has been a sad day, we have had 5 deaths, all children, the people seem to think it is a doomed Ship & have lost all heart …”

Passenger aboard the Steamship Contarf

Conditions in steerage remained vile at best well into the 20th Century. Inadequate ventilation, substandard (and often unusable) bathrooms, lack of lighting, virtually no privacy, and inedible food are among the myriad violations cited during ship inspections. Rats, cockroaches, ticks, and lice ran rampant. Many passengers were seasick for most of the trip. The odors of rotting food, body odors, and engine fumes made it nearly impossible to breathe. And by most accounts, the companies running these vessels looked the other way.

In 1912, the British steamer Orteric was fined $7,960 for its abusive treatment of steerage passengers. The report detailed the following:

Among her 1,242 passengers, there were in the eight weeks of her voyage 58 deaths, 57 being children; the births numbered 14; the sexes were not properly segregated during the larger part of the time, the ventilation of the ship was inadequate and greatly increased the mortality rate; the hospital facilities were ill-ventilated and without proper equipment; while the sanitary conditions of the vessel were almost beyond belief.

U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor report
Immigrant women in their sleeping bunk. They are using life preservers for pillows. Leslie’s Monthly Magazine, May 1904.

On top of all this, women and girls faced not only routine harassment but sexual assaults. A report to the U.S. Senate in 1909 notes just how appalling conditions were, leaving little to the imagination.

And in those incredibly inhumane conditions, there was the overwhelming boredom. Passengers might try to pass the time by playing cards, talking about their plans in the new land, or even singing and dancing. There were at least 2 musicians on board the S/S California for this voyage; perhaps they helped provide some entertainment.

And so, after two or three (or more) weeks of these unbearable conditions, it is not hard to imagine the overwhelming feeling of relief that must have been felt upon first sighting land again.

And you can imagine the thrill when they spotted the Statue of Liberty welcoming them to their new home.



1 The ship, built in 1872, had its engines overhauled in 1881.

2 The ship was later modified to accommodate up to 1,200 steerage class passengers, but as noted, the total number of passengers on this trip was 730 in all classes.

3 [North Atlantic Seaway by N.R.P.Bonsor, vol.1, p.457]

4 My father, Claude Albert Paolini, claimed that Italian surnames ending in “i” were from Northern Italy, and those with “o” from the south, especially Sicily. I have only recently uncovered corroboration of his theory.

5 Barometric pressure readings in Rome (just north of Napoli), London, Paris, and New York during this timeframe were between 29.9 and 30.1. These are normal “high pressure” readings and indicate little chance for a storm.

6 Among the ship companies transporting emigrants were:

Allan Line, American Line, Anchor Line, Beaver Line, Canadian Pacific Line, Cunard Line, Dominion Line, Guion Line, Hamburg America Line, Holland America Line,  Inman Line, Kroneline, Monarch Line, Norwegian America Line, National Line, Norddeutscher Lloyd, Red Star Line, Ruger’s American Line, Scandia Line, Scandinavian America Line, State Line – Swedish America Line, Temperley Line, Norwegian American S.S. Co., Thingvalla Line, White Star Line, Wilson Line.

In addition, there would have been military ships, cargo ships, cruise lines, and fishing vessels of various types, all plying the waters.