When You Bang Your Head Against the Wall Hard Enough, an Insane Lady Appears with the Answers (Part Two)

Part Two of Two.  (Read Part One here.)

Clues decide to peek out from their hiding places when they please.  All you can do is to try to put yourself in the likeliest position to glimpse them.  In early May the Bankoff brick wall finally began to give way, and it wasn’t from throwing various spellings of Bankoff at every database I could find, or desperately tracing the few Bankoff relatives I had found.

While searching an index of NY newspapers for my Wesoky line, I found this probate announcement, listing sisters Annie Wesoky and Sarah Bloom, whom I knew, followed by tons of other people, Bankoffs included!!!!!, whom I had never heard of. I went to Brooklyn Surrogate Court the next day, and the probate file confirmed that the deceased was another of Annie’s sisters mentioned on the back of that photograph. In fact, the hundreds of pages laid out five generations of Bankoffs, more than fifty people in total, with all their relationships to each other (see below).  I learned that my great-grandmother and her five sisters were among the nine children, including two or three sons (surprise!), who came over to the US around 1880-1890. I had all of their addresses for the early 1940s. I even learned that their mother, Mary, also immigrated, and was buried in Brooklyn not ten yards from a Wesoky great-great-grandfather I had visited a year prior!

Ida Goldberg probate file  Heirs of Ida Goldberg

With all these new names, I located cousins via the JewishGen Family Finder, who shared with me the sad history of their (grand)mother, who grew up in an orphanage because her mother, Annie’s sister Jennie, was mentally ill.  Fascinating as these stories were, they didn’t advance my research interests — or so I thought.  But our conversations encouraged one of these cousins to write away to the National Archives for Jennie’s immigration records.   I didn’t expect anything — women in that time period didn’t naturalize, and even if there were records, in that early period they were unlikely to give a place of origin any more specific than Russia or a date that correlated to an actual ship landing in NYC.

I was right that there was no paperwork in the file related to her first arrival.  But there was a second arrival in 1922, when she returned to the US to live with Annie after spending years in Canada with her second husband.  Jennie wasn’t just an unfit mother, it turns out.  She was so unstable that within months the Bureau of Immigration “recommended that the alien be deported to Canada on the grounds that she was likely to become a public charge.”  Her file contains assessments of her poor mental state from administrators at the various asylums and charities on both sides of the border which had attempted to take care of her.  Most revealing of all was Jennie’s testimony before the immigration officials.  She told her whole life story, starting at the very beginning… the town where she was born… the town whose name I had been working for years to discover:  Lachovitch!  Yes, Lachovitch, aka Lyakhovichi, aka Lachowicze, home of the Sanel Bankov I had given up on!

I took another look at the evidence and saw that the pieces fit.  Sanel may have been in his fifties when Annie was born, but Mary was in her mid-forties, and the other siblings’ birth years showed that Annie was one of the youngest by at least two decades.  The age of Nevakh, Sanel’s son, matched up to Annie’s brother Noah, called Noach on his ship manifest.  Now that I could reasonably claim Sanel as my own, his father and grandfather named on the Lyakhovichi records took me back to my great x 4 grandfather Mendel born in the late 1700s, the earliest ancestor in my entire tree!   Where I had once known the least, now I knew the most!


So, in the end, I prevailed:  I filled in the entire Bankoff tree, got the actual name of the town they were from, and even found records in that town tracing them further back!  I tell this story not only to brag about my success, but also because the way the mystery got solved connects almost every genealogical research technique:

  • Familiarity with basic records:  Annie Wesoky’s marriage license and Ida Goldberg’s probate file were both crucial links in the chain.  And also:
  • Specialized sources:  Various corners of JewishGen held the Lyakhovichi records which got me back two generations beyond Sanel.  Likewise the JewishGen Family Family, which got me to:
  • Finding living relatives:  I would have never in a million years written away for Jennie’s immigration file.  If I hadn’t connected to her great-granddaughter, the mystery would remain unsolved.  Furthermore,
  • Overcoming assumptions:  I was so sure what I would find in Jennie’s file that even if the idea had been recommended to me, I would have ignored it.
  • Cultural knowledge:  To reconcile the Netanel/Sanel mystery, I needed knowledge of Yiddish vs. modern Hebrew pronunciation.
  • Tracing other ancestors:  I found nothing through Annie herself, but everything through her sisters Sarah, Ida, and Jennie, whom I wouldn’t have known about without:
  • Clues in handed-down artifacts:  The inscription on the photograph led me to Sarah’s name, which got me to Minsk, which led me to the Lyakovichi records.
  • Being prepared for serendipity.  When I went looking for Wesokys, I found my missing Bankoffs, and when I went to fetch the Bankoff probate file, I found more on the mystery of my ill-fated Davis great-great-grandfather‘s death, which I wrote about last week!

When You Bang Your Head Against the Wall Hard Enough, an Insane Lady Appears with the Answers (Part One)

(Part One of Two.)

Sam Wesoky's birth on his sister's family historyWhen I began researching my tree, of my eight great-grandparents, there was one whose family name I didn’t even know — my father’s mother’s mother.  That grandmother died when I was quite young, and my father remembered nothing useful, so I ignored this branch until one day my mother found a list of family information in that grandmother’s hand, including this entry for her brother (inset).

With the NYC Municipal Archives only 30 minutes from home, Sam’s birth certificate (below) soon revealed the mystery last name…

Sam Wesoky's birth certificate

Marriage of Annie Bankoff

…and his parents’ marriage certificate (at right) filled in the first names of these great-great-grandparents.  “S” as the name of Annie’s father troubled me, since his name was literally carved in the stone of her tombstone as Netanel, but along with “singel” and “Marry,” I chalked it up as the work of a dumb clerk.

I naively thought I was hours away from filling in the rest of this family’s tree and immigration story, as I had been able to do so easily for the other branches I was researching at that time, but my usual research sites repeatedly failed to turn up anything on these three new-found ancestors.  Little did I know then how many years and how many twists this family’s research odyssey would cover.


It was not until years later, when I was browsing this grandmother’s photographs, that my next lead appeared in the form of one of the few labeled pictures:

Bankoff sisters   Back of Bankoff sister's photograph

Sarah Bloom obituary With five more Bankoffs to search, the only lead was this obituary from The Pittsburgh Press.  But Sarah’s last name finally got me census records, including one which remarkably listed Sarah and Sarah’s parents’ birthplace as not just Russia, but Minsk!!!!!  Breakthrough!

At the time Minsk was both a guberniya (province) as well as the capital city of that guberniya, so I still had a long ways to go.  I turned to Belarus SIG, JewishGen‘s research hub for the modern country containing Minsk, where I came across a listing for a Sanel Yoselev Bankov on an 1884 tax list for Lachowicze, a town in Minsk guberniya.  I began to think…  Netanel… S…  Sanel… and it occurred to me I had been tripped up by my modern pronunciation of Netanel.  Back then he would have been Nesanel, hence the nickname ‘Sanel, hence his appearance on the marriage certificate as “S. Bankoff!”  I so wanted to believe I’d found my guy, but there was no way to make the connection, and anyway, this Sanel would have been in his 50s when Annie was born.

Still, I couldn’t let it go.  Months later I found my way to a JewishGen site focusing on the shtetl of Lyakhovichi (the modern name of Lachowicze), whose site administrator shared a number of entries from the 1874 List of Jewish Males of Lyakhovichi which filled out this Sanel’s tree:

  • Mendel Bankov
    • Iosel Bankov, son of Mendel, born c. 1804
      • Sanel Bankov, son of Iosel, born c. 1828
        • Nevakh Bankov, son of Sanel, born c. 1852

However, my grandmother had listed her mother’s siblings as five sisters, no brothers.  It now seemed even less likely that this too-old Sanel with one son was my Netanel.  Of the infinitesimal number of records indexed online out of the small number of records recovered from the hundreds of destroyed shtetls in Minsk, there was no reason to believe that the one and only Bankov I could find was mine.  It seemed I had gotten carried away.

I had started with one woman and recovered her maiden name, parents’ names, five siblings, and even general birth area.  Maybe that was all I would ever find.  But the thing about a brick wall is that there’s nothing else you can do but patiently and repeatedly bang your head against it to increase the odds that a crack might one day appear.  Might.

Continue onto Part Two, wherein the insane lady makes her appearance!

What Was a 66 Year-Old Man Doing on the Roof of a Building, Anyway?

When I found the 1886 NYC birth certificate for my great-grandfather, Harry Davis, it was the first time I learned the names of his parents, Isaac and Sarah Davis. They were hiding in plain sight in numerous other birth certificates, censuses, Trow’s NYC Directory listings, and, of course, death certificates.  Their graves even turned out to be just a subway ride away!  All of this new information had me quite surprised — and somewhat disappointed — to discover I had ancestors who had done the typical immigrate-to-the-Lower-East-Side thing.  Previously I had thought all my family had gone straight to Pennsylvania.

All these distracting revelations prevented me from reading Isaac’s death certificate carefully the first few times through.  But eventually I beheld this doozy of a cause of death:

Isaac Davis' death certificate

“The chief and determining cause of his death was: Fractured skull and multiple fractures (illegible). Fell from 6 floor of building. That the contributory causes were: Dec. 19/’16 – 2 PM 97 Ave D.”

Of course I had to know what happened!  Estelle Guzik’s Genealogical Resources in New York led me to believe the police records wouldn’t have survived, and my calls to the hospital in which he died went unreturned.  The mystery lingered for years after that.

In May I found myself in Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court for a different branch (full story on that here), and while there, I looked up Isaac on a whim.  There he was!  His estate record held this tantalizing clue:

Isaac Davis' estate file

“A cause of action in negligence resulting in death against Esther S. Kaufman of 1?32 Ludlow Street NY.”

Suddenly the trail was hot again — a cause of action does not mean that there was a lawsuit, but it sure suggests there might have been!

I went back to the NYC Municipal Archives where I had pulled the death certificate so many years before and inquired about what court records might survive.  The archivist pointed me to a finding aid for the facility.  But before I even got made it to “court records,” alphabetical order hit me first with “coroner’s records.”  Tantalizing!

Indeed, on 12/19/16, Isaac Davis was listed in the coroner’s log as having died at 4:44 PM in Bellevue Hospital of a fractured skull.  A jury heard the facts of his and seven other men’s deaths on 2/13/16.  The findings of the inquest were published on 3/1/17:

Isaac Davis inquest findings

“Fract skull — multiple fractures of lower extremities caused on the day aforesaid while attempting to cross roof between buildings 97 Ave D. and 283 7th St. by accidentally falling between same.”

So:  the plot thickens.  Was the fall really an accident?  What did Esther S. Kaufman have to do with it?  What was he doing so far from his home in Brownsville, Brooklyn?  And what was an elderly peddler doing on the roof of a building, anyway?

I ran out of time perusing the coroner’s records, and I haven’t yet renewed my attempts to find the court records, if they even exist.  Hopefully I’ll find enough to write Part Two of this mystery!

Contextualizing Family History through Old Maps

PhillyGeoHistory Maps Viewer is an amazing tool that allows the user to overlay seventeen different historical maps of Philadelphia from 1808-1962 over a present-day Google Map to see how the city evolved over the past two centuries.  For example, when I visited the old neighborhood, this lone standing home is all my cousin and I found at the corner of 8th and Emily, where my great-great-grandparents and their unmarried children lived in the 1910s and ‘20s.

8th St. today

All the empty lots on this side of S. 8th made it impossible to guess where #2007 had been.  But the 1942 land use map produced by the Works Progress Administration (inset into the photograph) shows that #2007 stood on the empty lot at the right of the photograph.

By the 1930 census, these great-great-grandparents were living at 1146 S. 5th St.  Where I had expected to see this home, instead I found most of the block taken up by a public school whose cornerstone was dated 1935.  This section of the 1910 Bromley Philadelphia Atlas shows where their house once stood – opposite an iron foundry!  What must it have been like to have lived there?

S. 5th St. in 1910

This fascinating detail was just one of many examples where the rich annotations of these historical maps showed me what blocks had been like when my family resided there.  It’s wonderful to find addresses in records, and it’s memorable actually to visit those addresses — but for me the most satisfaction came from knowing exactly what my ancestors saw when they looked out their windows and walked around their neighborhoods.  These small details help me to understand better what their lives had actually been like.

This site is a great example of how to uncover the kind of historical context that adds so much meaning to our work as genealogists. Not all cities have tools as easy as this one (go Philadelphia! for once!), but historic maps exist for so many places inside and outside of the US. We just need to take the time to review them! The context will enrich our understanding of our family immeasurably.

(Adapted from an article previously published in The Chronicles.)