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Rosina Russo

Rosina Russo Lippi 1882-1955

Rosina Russo Lippi 1882-1955

I was born just about six months after my grandmother‘s death, and thus my name. My curiosity about her starts with that fact. When I was old enough to ask questions, I realized quite quickly that something was — not wrong, but off. Primarily because every aunt, uncle and older cousin had a different idea of who Rosina Russo had been. They couldn’t even agree on her name.

Family Lore

The family story went like this: when she was very young her parents, Italian immigrants employed in Paterson, New Jersey, died, leaving her, a younger brother and two younger sisters. One of the sisters was Aunt May. The other was an infant and was adopted immediately. The brother was sent on the infamous orphan trains west, and ended up in Kansas. I’ll write about the orphan trains in a future post. For now I’m concentrating on Rosina and May.

Orphaned

The two girls were taken into a Catholic orphanage (in some accounts, the Cabrini home) where they stayed. Then, when my grandmother was about 17, my grandfather (who had immigrated from Italy a few years earlier and was living in Newburgh in the Hudson Valley) came to the convent looking for a good Italian girl to marry. The (almost certainly mythologized) story is very dramatic. The nun asked him what exactly he wanted in a wife, and he said, I want your best cook. And so they sent for my grandmother, who was, predictably, in the kitchen.

The marriage is documented, and from that point on it is possible to follow her life (some odd aspects of which I’ll address elsewhere). She had ten kids and died in 1955 of ovarian cancer.

Research

My early efforts to find out more about Rosina’s parents and their deaths were dismal failures, in no small part because her father’s name was listed incorrectly in the few places it was noted.  I couldn’t even find documentation of my grandmother’s birth in Paterson. Searches carried out: vital records for births, deaths, immigrations, etc., from both New York and New Jersey. I wrote to every orphanage that would have been active in the years after the girls were orphaned,  including the Cabrini home. The much loved family story about my grandfather standing in the kitchen at the Cabrini Orphanage cannot actually be true, as the timing is off, but I wrote to them anyway. No stone unturned, and all that.

In 2004 I finally hired a genealogist in the Newburgh area and some real progress was made. He managed to find the name of the church where my grandmother was baptized (St. John Cathedral) in Paterson. So I wrote to the church and in a couple months I got this photocopied notation from the parish register written in a sloppy hand, seen here. Whoever took down the information spelled it phonetically.

Church Registrar Baptismal Entry

Parish Register Baptism entry

Rosina Russo was baptized on July 2, about two weeks after her birth. Her parents are given as Carmine Russo and Antonia di Giglio and the godparents as Dominic Marino and Sophia Machione. From that day of her baptism until her marriage at 17, there is no record of Rosina Russo anywhere.

Census 1910

This all played out over a number of years, and then one day in a regularly scheduled search of census records, I came across something that took my breath away. This is  from the 1910 Federal Census for one part of Mott Street in Manhattan. Every name on the page is Italian. Now consider this:

1910 Census

Mott Street, ca 1900

Mott Street, ca 1900 (click for full size)

The address itself is very evocative. 153 Mott Street was between Grand and Hester Streets, at the center of what was, at that time, a very vibrant Italian community surrounded by Jewish and Chinese communities.  The Chinese community extended northward, eventually taking over what was once Little Italy.  From PlaceMatters:

A gentleman who calls himself “Uncle Nick” remembers growing up in the Italian enclave, where residents of every block identified with the region, or even village, from which they had emigrated. Each block had its own stickball team, and Uncle Nick recalls the high-stakes tournaments that were held in the bend of this road in front of the palatial Renaissance Revival Mietz and Weiss Oil Engine Building, designed by the architecture firm De Lemos and Cordes in 1892, and made famous as the Genco Olive Oil offices in the film, The Godfather. Uncle Nick claims that the championship stickball games captured plenty of attentions and purses. As of 2011, the Mietz Building, whose slightly concave stone and terra cotta façade curves in response to the street line, houses medical practices ranging from OBGYN to acupuncture.

Of  course, the name overlap could be a coincidence, but it would be a fairly substantial coincidence if that is the case. So I compared ages. Rosina Russo was born in June 1882. The de Russo family:

Name Age in 1910 Census Estimated Year of Birth Age in 1882 Note
Carmine de Russo 55 1855 27 Immigrated: 1900; grocery store owner
Antonia (wife) 48 1862 20 Immigrated: 1900; Number of children born: 15; number living: 8
Carmine (son) 22 1888 Immigrated: 1905; blacksmith
Paulo 20 1890 Immigrated: 1905; tailor

The remaining children alive in 1910: Maria (18, a ladies tailor); Antonetta (15, attendant), Giuseppe (11), Lucia (5, born in New York, 1905).  Some things to note:

1. Antonia’s first surviving child (as listed here) was born in Italy in 1888, when she was 26. Between 1888 and 1891 she had Carmine, Paulo, Maria, Antonetta, and Giuseppe, in Italy.

2. .When the eldest son was twelve, his parents left him and his younger siblings to go to the States.

3. Carmine and Antonia arrived in the States in 1900.

4. The children born in Italy immigrated in 1905, the year Lucia was born.

5. At 48 in 1910, Antonia had had fifteen children, only seven of whom were alive at the time of the census.

6. Here there are only 6 children listed: Carmine, Paulo, Maria, Antonetta, Giuseppe, Lucia.

I can imagine that these are my grandmother’s parents, but there are more questions than answers here.

People went back to Italy when things weren’t going well in the States, and sometimes returned (more about this later in a post about Catherina Gionti) for other reasons. So it’s possible that Carmine and Antonia came to the States prior to Rosina’s birth in 1882 and then went back to Italy before 1888. Thus far I haven’t been able to find their names on any passenger list.

Why the children might have been left behind or how the family got separated is the question, of course.   It’s likely that I’ll never get any closer to the truth on a whole list of questions:

–who were Rosina’s (and her siblings’) parents?

–if Carmine and Antonia were their parents, how did they get separated?

–would they have looked for the children they left behind, or are  Rosina, May and the two additional siblings counted among the seven non-surviving children?

Work to be done

There are some things that could be done (given time and resources), for example: a search of the parish records at St. John in Paterson for the baptismal dates of Rosina’s younger sisters and brother. Which would mean actually going there, which I will do at some point. In addition, the New York Historical Society has all the records of the original Foundling Asylum, which are very detailed. The kids had to be somewhere after their parents disappeared (however that happened), and the Foundling hospital would be a good place to start.

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