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 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 Californiawas 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 TheTimes 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.
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.
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.
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 …”
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
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:
AFTER THE SS California steamed past the Statue of Liberty, the aging vessel berthed at Ellis Island. As Fazio Paolini and the passengers disembarked, they joined the daily throng of 5,000 or so fellow emigrants who had made the same arduous oceanic voyage and were now on their way through the same hallowed facilities. For first- and second-class passengers, there was little wait time. But even for steerage passengers, the process was efficient. If all went well, 98% of the applicants would be successfully admitted to their new homeland within hours. Contrary to common folklore, there were scant “lost in translation” moments, in which immigration officials arbitrarily spelled the new arrivals’ names in some Anglicized variation (changing “Paolini” to “Pauline,” for instance). Interpreters were available for all major European languages.
The next stop was an exchange station to convert currency. The passengers then purchased tickets for the ferry ride to the mainland, with a box lunch provided (courtesy of their new country) to enjoy on one last boat ride.1
Imagine the sights and sounds of New York City in 1897. The five boroughs (still separate municipalities at the time) were already congested to the tune of 3.3 million people and 200,000 horses. By all appearances of film footage from the era, the “New York minute” was already a thing. The city was rapidly rising in its status as a world financial center, trading capital, shipping hub, and entertainment center.
For the middle and upper class, this was the Gilded Age, a sardonic term coined appropriately by Mark Twain, which referred to the era of excessive wealth. The New York affluent resided in Victorian mansions made of marble and granite, and the burgeoning middle classes occupied the iconic brownstones. There was electricity and steam heat, and trolley cars for transportation. Bicycles were all the rage, ranging in price from $10 to $100.2
Life was comfortable — and even entertaining — for the higher members of society.
One could catch a performance of The Belle of New York on — where else? — Broadway, or perhaps hear Italian baritone Mario Antonio at the Metropolitan Opera House. For those who appreciated more prosaic forms of entertainment, there was Vaudeville, where acts included juggling, trapeze artistry, comedy, bawdy humor, and popular song. One of the more renowned shows in town at Madison Square Garden was none other than William F. Cody and his Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Tickets for this spectacle started at 25 cents.
Little wonder, with all the frivolity the city could offer, the last decade of the 19th Century would earn another nickname: The Gay Nineties.
BUT FOR THE MAJORITY of people in this megalopolis — some 2.3 million souls — the glamour of the upper class was just an elusive dream. Life for the underprivileged was as dismal as the boat ride that brought them to these strange environs. This disenfranchised mass of humanity was housed in one of countless, flimsy tenement houses that contained little to no running water, no bathrooms, and very little heat. And these wooden structures were prone to conflagration.
Not surprisingly, living in such close quarters also meant the rapid spread of communicative diseases, such as yellow fever, cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and others.
The factories in which the lower class labored for 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, were either stifling hot or bone-chilling cold and noisy. Ventilation was inadequate, compounded by dust and other airborne particles. The workers toiled at machines, performing mind-numbing tasks. Factory workers might even be locked in during their work shifts, potentially condemning them to death in the event of a fire, as was the notorious case of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
For immigrants such as Fazio, the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots would have been of little importance. He was ready to start a new life and to do what was necessary to succeed. In his first full day in the new land, Signore Paolini and the other 4,999 or so newcomers just off Ellis Island that day would have squandered no time seeing a show or the sites. They needed first to find shelter and food, and then to earn a living.
Securing a place to sleep on the first night would have been the highest priority, yet it would not have been difficult. For 7 cents, one could find a sleeping bunk in a crowded room with a dozen or so other individuals. This would have been an improvement to the hull of the ship, but probably not by much.
Attaining gainful employment would have been the more difficult task. There were plenty of jobs to be had, but not for everybody. Discrimination was not only rampant, it was unapologetically blatant.
It is most likely that Fazio took whatever job he could find to get established.
If he did not work in the myriad sweatshops at first, there were other options for Italians, almost all of them very dangerous. Among them were digging tunnels, laying railroads, and construction, most notably skyscrapers and bridges, such as the Brooklyn Bridge.
There were three other occupations, however, that were available to Italian immigrants, and for the rest of his life, Fazio would be identified by one or all of them. These included:
It is quite likely that he began by laboring in the brickyards.
The evidence to support this postulation is largely based on two factors:
In order to become a fruit dealer or farmer, an immigrant would have had to have possessed considerable capital to finance the new enterprise. There is no evidence to support the theory that Fazio was a man of such financial means.
The location Fazio chose to settle was in the middle of New York State, along the Hudson River. This makes it very, very likely that he was working in the brickyards there.
Approximately 70 miles north of New York City, on the Hudson River, towns such as Newburgh, Beacon, Haverstraw, and New Windsor were humming with activity. The riverbanks of the renowned waterway on which these towns were situated were being mined for the massive amounts of clay and sand that lined the shores. These materials were then manufactured on-site into the ubiquitous rectangular building blocks used to erect the skyscrapers and other structures of New York City.
The brickyard jobs paid relatively well and even included housing. Italian, Irish, Romanian, and Hungarian immigrants were recruited right off the boat. At the time Fazio landed in the U.S., there were some 135 such manufacturing sites in Ulster and Orange counties, cranking out hundreds of millions of bricks each year. Virtually all the bricks used in The Big Apple from that time period until the early 1930s were supplied from the Hudson River manufacturers.
As welcoming as the jobs in the brickyards might have been, they were not without peril.
Some clay mines descended 200 or more feet into the Hudson River bank. Sand and clay are not the most stable soils. Mine collapses were a very serious risk. The most notorious incident was in the town of Haverstraw in 1906, when mine shafts were bored directly under the town. A good portion of the enclave’s commercial buildings and homes collapsed into the void, causing a landslide and fires. Miners and residents alike died in that tragedy.
Whatever Fazio did to earn a living in 1897, this much is known: he earned enough in the first year to finance travel for his wife, Francesca, daughter Consetta, and brother Sabatino. Almost a year to the day from Fazio’s arrival in America, the three family members departed Naples, Italy on the SS Fulda, arriving on May 5, 1898, just in time for Fazio’s 30th birthday.
No doubt, that voyage was a difficult one, especially for Francesca and little Consetta. As noted in the previous chapter, traveling in steerage was dangerous at best for a woman. But, at least, Francesca had brother-in-law Sabatino to protect her against unwanted advances. And tiny Consetta clearly beat the odds of infant mortality aboard steamers, much to her mother’s gratefulness.3
In 1899, daughter Mary Victoria Paolini was born, and the birthplace is listed as Wappinger Falls. Located on the east side of the Hudson, this town was bustling with factories (20 of them). Wappinger Falls is adjacent to the town of Fishkill, where Brockway Brick Co. had mining and manufacturing operations. Whether Fazio was employed by Brockway at this time, we do not know for sure. But it does seem to be more than a coincidence.
But by 1900, the family was firmly established in Newburgh, New York. The census in that inaugural year of the new century lists Fazio and family at 225 Pine Street, Newburgh.9 And it is here that we see the Fazio listing his occupation as “fruit dealer.” My guess is that Fazio’s entrepreneurial endeavor was a side hustle more than his principal gig since he was an avid (and from accounts, successful) gardener. Sharing the “fruits” of his labor via a vending cart was a profitable hobby that he pursued his entire life.
The Verplanck years
AS WAS VERY TYPICAL of new immigrants, Fazio and his family moved quite a bit. There is no record of homeownership during their lifetimes. But without a doubt, the one place they called home that generated the fondest memories was a large, rather run-down mansion on Plum Point, overlooking the Hudson River in New Windsor, New York.
The structure was built by and once inhabited by one of the very first European families to settle in America: the Verplancks, a family of Dutch lineage that can trace its American ancestry to 1633, when New York was still known as New Amsterdam. (This was a mere 24 years after Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name.)
The Verplanck home was at this time owned by the Brockway Brick Company, which provided the domicile — as well as a few acres of land on which the house was situated — rent-free to Fazio, who was by this time a foreman of that company.
The exact dates during which Fazio Paolini and his family lived in this mansion are not clear. But a little guesswork, based on available records, suggests it was between 1911 and 1929. It was in this home that most of the children of Fazio and Francesca were born. My father, Claude, the youngest of the children, regaled his prodigy with stories of life on the farm. And I’m sure Claude’s siblings relayed similar stories to their children. Among the tales are these little anecdotes:
The home had a unique design, with two identical entries. Each of these doorways was framed by a two-story-high portico, supported by six massive Doric columns. The younger boys — Joseph, Anthony, and Claude — would ride their bikes from one porch to the other, directly through the house, no doubt to the chagrin of their mother.
Uncle Ray, the second oldest of the boys, was ever the prankster and troublemaker, teasing sister Madeline (Molly) to her wit’s end. One such escapade involved tying a string to the “water closet” and tripping the flushing mechanism from another room while Molly was seated.
It was in this home that Raymond fell down the main stairway. His mother was in tears, believing him to have died in the descent. But he lived many years beyond that accident to tell the tale.
Fazio had a massive garden that included prize-winning watermelons and grapes for fermenting his own wine.
At some point, Fazio held the ceremonial title of deputy sheriff for Orange County. He took his role seriously, however, since on more than one occasion petty thieves or drunkards were held in the chicken coop until they could be remanded to official custody.4
Fazio was also active in local society. According to newspaper articles, he helped to organize an annual town picnic at Plum Point. And, apparently, he remained active with his fruit cart, selling not only fresh produce but cigars, cigarettes, and ice cream at these town gatherings.
A plow horse once suffered an intestinal obstruction. A veterinarian had the unenviable task of removing the blockage using nothing more than his hand and some lubricant. For the younger boys in the family, observing this “operation” was more entertaining than sneaking in the side door of the movie theater.
Every farm must have a dog, of course. And the story of the family canine named Pat could have been the inspiration for the Disney tearjerker “Old Yeller.” Pat, apparently, became rabid, and eldest son Paul received the sad task of putting down the infected animal with his father’s gun. Before pulling the trigger, however, Paul bid his farewell to the beloved canine, with the now memorialized phrase: “Goodbye, Pat.” 5
Fazio’s brother, Sabatino, was apparently quite the carpenter. He built, among other things, a beautiful dining table, crafted from cherry wood. He also made his own wooden vice, carving the screw by hand.
There must have been some boisterous family dinners. One involved Fazio getting so angry that he pounded the corner of that cherry table with such force that the edge broke off.
It must have been one busy household. Sabatino (who changed his name to Samuel), was married and had children. If he and his family were not living with Fazio and his family at this time, he apparently was spending a considerable amount of time there.
And Consetta, who changed her name to Catherine (and was known to us as Aunt Kate), was married to Ercole Totonelly, and they had two children by 1915 as well. Records indicate they also lived in this home for some time.
Life during the Verplanck years had its share of grief, as well. Sabatino’s son, Anthony, died in his first year of life in 1914.
Albert Paolini, the twin of my father, Claude, died either in childbirth or as a result of the pandemic sweeping the country in 1918.
Daughter Mary died giving birth to her second child, John, in 1920.
There is no clear record of when the family moved out of the Verplanck residence. But it is highly likely that the Great Depression, which began to sweep across the country in late 1929, was the cause. By 1930, the homestead had been relocated to 245 Grand St. Apparently, Fazio maintained his job as foreman for the Brockway Brick Co. Records also show that daughter Lena was now married to Sebastian Scrivani and that they were living at that address as well.
The Fatal Fall
WHAT BEGAN AS A PROMISING spring day turned into a disaster of unimaginable proportions. And the Paolini family would never be the same from that moment on.
Sunday, March 9, 1930 was unseasonably warm and clear. Fazio, Francesca, and the family walked the 12 or so blocks from their home at 245 Grand St. to attend Mass at the Church of the Sacred Heart, in Newburgh.
It was the first Sunday of the Lent season. What sermon the Rev. Cyrus Falco6 delivered in the relatively new church that day, we do not know. But it is likely that Fazio, a devout Catholic, and an active church member, had not paid much attention to the pastor’s words on that morning. He had other things on his mind, especially regarding what was to transpire after the service.
The church, erected in 1912 to serve the needs of Italian Catholics in Newburgh, was not only close to home but was also located just one block from the Ford Motor Company’s dealership on Mill St. And immediately following Mass, Fazio and Francesca began to make the short walk to the auto showroom, while the children and grandchildren returned home. This was the day that Fazio and Francesca would purchase their first new automobile.7
This was a rather tenuous time to make such a large purchase. A new car, such as the Model A, was selling for somewhere between $500 and $800 (approximately $8,000 to $10,000 in today’s currency). That was a sizeable amount of cash to spend, especially since the stock market crash of the previous October ignited a panic that included runs on banks, in which panicked citizens were demanding to withdraw their savings. Banks could not keep up with the demand, and the institutions started failing.
But none of this would you know reading the front pages of the newspapers at the time. There was news, to be sure: William Howard Taft, the former president, and, at the time, Supreme Court Justice,8 had died that very day. Babe Ruth had just signed a record-breaking deal to renew his contract with the New York Yankees, and world-renowned aviator Charles Lindbergh had been thrown from a horse but survived intact, save the embarrassment.
And, if the advertisements in the newspapers were any indication, the economy was as robust as ever, with a high demand for new gadgets, such as an Atwater Kent Electro Dynamic Radio for $109 (or just $2 per week for one year after making a $5 down payment).
But there were hints of unrest. Unemployment was already on the rise to the extent that citizens took to the streets to protest. In New York City’s Union Square, apparently, 6,000 people showed up and were promptly labeled as Communists. Hence, the news was more about a “Red Scare” than the average citizen’s reaction to the historic economic collapse that was unfolding.
Yet, Fazio must have felt confident enough in his management role at Brockway Brick Company to not only contemplate but follow through with such a large purchase. Perhaps the acquisition of the automobile was to ensure he could continue to work on-site at the company since he would have had to commute the 5 or so miles from the family’s new residence to the Brockway factory. Whatever the incentive was for purchasing the new automobile that day, it all became moot within minutes of leaving the church.
What really happened
For years, we knew the story. Grandpa Frank (Fazio) had died from a fall down a flight of stairs. As kids, we just assumed this fatal descent occurred on the farm and that his death came quickly. Whether our father knew the actual story or not, I’m not sure. He would have just turned 12 at the time. But his older siblings — Paul, Lena, Raymond, Molly at least — certainly knew.
Exactly what happened on that fateful day is not entirely clear. But thanks to newspaper articles and legal documents, we know this much: Fazio and Francesca Paolini left the services at the Church of the Sacred Heart, walked around the corner, and entered the Ford dealership at 60-64 Mill St. with the intent of buying that new car. Once in the showroom, Fazio apparently went into the garage, presumably where the vehicles were serviced; quite likely he was planning to inspect the operation. But, unfortunately, he entered a doorway in the garage that, unbeknownst to him, led to a stairwell. Perhaps there was inadequate lighting. But somehow, Fazio fell down the flight of stairs, fracturing his skull.
From that moment, Fazio was unconscious and rushed to St. Luke’s hospital. He remained in the medical facility for two weeks, at which point he finally succumbed to his injuries. His funeral was held at the very same church that he had left that fateful Sunday morning, and the body was interred in Calvary Cemetery.
After getting over the shock of the accident, the family regrouped and decided to press charges against the Ford Motor Company. Paul, as the eldest male in the family, assumed command of the situation, spearheading the lawsuit. After 18 months, the litigation was settled out of court, and either the Ford dealership, the Ford Motor Company, or both, agreed to pay $700 without admitting guilt.
But even that pittance of remuneration must have been welcomed. By the time the suit was settled, the Great Depression was in full force. Every member of the family had to find a way to contribute. Even young Claude, who by this time was almost 14, dropped out of school to work.
The family persevered through that awful incident and the depression. Francesca would survive her husband for another 29 years. I only remember meeting her once, when she was very ill. She died on my fourth birthday: June 22, 1959. Her memorial service was held at the very same church as Fazio’s, and she rests next to him in the Paolini plot in Calvary Cemetery.
This is about all we know about Fazio and Francesca’s history and life. But, there are many things we can infer. To begin with, all of their children were decent, caring individuals, parents, aunts, and uncles, who made their contributions to family and society through honest and earnest work.10
The last reunion of their progeny — grandchildren and great-grandchildren — occurred in August 2014, at the very site of the Verplanck Mansion, which had been torn down many years prior. Well over 100 relatives from all corners of the United States attended.
Over the course of that weekend, we celebrated our common heritage and the uniqueness of our story. It is, of course, just one story, among the 12 million or so that passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with my family’s history. Fortunately, that enthusiasm has been shared by my siblings and many cousins. My goal in this narrative has been to put together the story for current and future generations.
I’d like to thank a number of people for their guidance, assistance, and support.
My late cousin Linda Paolini Gauthier was a big inspiration. She had visited the relatives in Cepagatti, Italy, and continued to research the family history beyond that trip. It was Linda and her sister, Joanne Paolini Diaz, that organized the reunion in 2014 and put together the framework for our family history that got me thinking about crafting this into a story. Cousin Carl Aiello also helped in this regard.
I was very fortunate to find a number of individuals who, despite having no incentive to help me, did just that. These include Glenn Marshall, the town historian in New Windsor, New York, and Pierangela Badia, who holds a similar title in Cepegatti, Italy.
Contrary to popular belief, the process at Ellis Island was quite efficient. Passengers disembarked their ships with a passport and copy of information related to the ship registry and entered the Immigration building. There, they were interviewed (a list of 29 questions) to ensure they would qualify as upright citizens. The interview was conducted in their native tongue, to ensure accuracy. Interpreters of every major European language were available. The passengers were also required to undergo a physical exam to determine whether they were carrying any infectious diseases. Only 2% of all applicants were either detained for further questions or turned away altogether.
In today’s dollars, those new bicycles would have cost between $337 to $3,378.
As noted in the previous chapter, the passenger-ship mortality rate for children between the ages of 1 and 12 was 7.5%, and for infants, 19%.
For years, I held in my possession a small leather notebook with a pen and pencil set, given to me by my father. On the cover, the words: “Frank Paolini, Sheriff” were embossed. New Windsor Town Historian Glenn Marshall assures me that the title was ceremonial in nature since there is no record of any Paolini being elected as a law enforcer in this time period.
The story of Pat was told by Paul Paolini to his son Frank, who shared the anecdote in an essay memorializing his father.
Reverand Falco is listed as the pastor of record at Newburgh’s Church of the Sacred Heart in 1930.
I found it unusual that the Ford dealership would be open on a Sunday. (Even in the 1960s, when I was a child, very few stores were open on a Sunday.) But legal documents regarding the incident confirm this to be the date. Perhaps this was a grand opening for the dealership or some other special event.
Taft is the only individual to hold the offices of the U.S. President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The structure at 225 Pine Street in which Fazio and family first lived must have been demolished. A new home was built there in 1949, according to city records.
There were tales of Uncle Ray Paolini smuggling booze from Canada during Prohibition. Legend has it that Ray drove a Packard wagon with a roof that had been modified into a flat tank to store and transport the contraband.
The five boroughs of New York — Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens were still separate cities in 1897. On Jan. 1, 1898, they incorporated as New York City. New York’s five boroughs were the home to myriad types of manufacturing at the turn of the 19th Century, including the making of drugs, chemicals, paint, furniture, and housewares such as china and glass. The processing of paper, raw cotton, and tobacco for shipping to other countries were also big industries.
At the time Fazio Paolini landed in New York, there were still 200,000 horses used for the transportation of people and goods. Each of these four-footed friends produced 24 pounds of manure and up to a half-gallon of urine per day. There was no adequate system for removing this animal waste.
Animal waste, garbage, and snow could pile up to six feet high in New York City. This is one of the reasons the famous Brownstones required a flight of stairs up to the first level, to rise above it all.
With the massive influx of 12 million new citizens, there was an abundant supply of labor, which kept wages excessively low. Regulations limiting worker hours and clamping down on the exploitation of child labor were still a few years away.