The year is 1884. On 20th March, the day before the start of spring, my great-great-grandmother, then a young girl of 15 years, put down her name on a marriage certificate. Maria Maddalena Terzano, who preferred to go by the more poetic name of Amalia, thus became the wife of my great-great-grandfather Pietro Amerio. The marriage took place in the medium-sized market town of Nizza Monferrato, in Italy’s Piedmont region. Present were the four parents, all of whom had been born in the nearby village of San Marzano Oliveto; this, and the fact that the bride’s father and the groom’s mother shared the same surname, leads me to believe they may have been distantly related, although genealogical research spanning three further generations has left this question, as yet, unanswered.
Pietro and Amalia made San Marzano Oliveto their home. Then as now, San Marzano is little more than a small village dominated by the local church dedicated to San Marziano and the local medieval castello, now a decaying but still impressive solid ruin. Various hamlets and fields where apple trees are grown dot the surrounding area, which slopes up and down as far as the eye can see. Overall it is a peaceful and picturesque part of the world, if somewhat abandoned by the less romantic advances of the technological age.
Unspoilt in this nook of the Italian landscape, Pietro and Amalia started their own family. Although far from wealthy (Pietro worked a nearby chunk of land; Amalia tended the household), the couple would go on to have no less than twelve children, although some of them predeceased their younger siblings, and therefore the twelve were never alive at the same time. Giacomo, so named after his paternal grandfather, was born little over a year after his parents’ wedding. Then came Luigi about two years later, followed by Luigia (affectionately called Luigina) in 1889 and Giuseppina in 1891. In 1894 twins arrived with the birth of Cesarina (known as Rina) and Cesare, although the boy died that same year. The sad loss was somewhat compensated by the arrival of yet another set of twins, two girls who were baptised Irma Margherita and Giovanna Carolina. The latter happens to be my great-grandmother.
For almost nine years the family seemed to be complete. The parents, their two surviving sons and five daughters would have already felt crammed in a household probably designed to hold no more than a small number of children, but then tragedy struck once more when nine-year old Irma Margherita died of undisclosed causes. It is difficult to imagine what her twin sister, my great-grandmother Giovanna Carolina must have felt.
Strikingly, the death occurred on 16 March 1904; Amalia, heavily pregnant at the time, went into labour the day after, perhaps prematurely due to the sudden death of her young daughter, and gave birth to another girl whom she named Irma Maria, in her memory. A year later Pietro and Amalia were faced with another family tragedy when their second son Luigi died aged just 17. Happily that same December Amalia gave birth to not one but two children, her third set of twins, and had them baptised with the names Armando and Ernestina. Armando would go on to have a long life, but little Ernestina managed to live for only three weeks, having lived long enough to see in the New Year. The family would not be complete until 1907, when baby Jolanda was born in Spring, twenty three years and one month to the day after her parents had married in Nizza Monferrato. Sadly, she too would be destined to a short life, and died that same July.
Child mortality may have been common at the time in countries like Italy, but it does not mean it did not have any effects on the families it touched. The string of early deaths, followed by the few prospects of work and money that San Marzano seemed to offer, may have led the eldest brother, Giacomo, to seek a new life and new opportunities in America. Less than two years after the death of his youngest sister, he set sail for the New World, leaving behind his parents and their other five surviving children. Having left Genoa in April, Giacomo reached Ellis Island in early May, and successfully made it through customs and the health inspection queue. Described as a countryman, he was apparently able to read and write. He wasn’t travelling alone, however, as he was accompanied by the young Imerito family, neighbours from San Marzano Oliveto: Cesare Imerito (29), his wife Maggiorina (née Quaglia; 20), daughter Ada (who being 9 may have been too old to be Maggiorina’s daughter) and Cesare’s cousin Casimiro (15), all of whom came from San Marzano.
The Imeritos apparently had relations in America, and it may have been Giacomo’s intention to accompany then and try out his luck. His friend Casimiro claimed he was going to stay with his parents at an address given as “Lines North Riverfoot 74, Nr 3 Str, New York City”, while Cesare and his own famiy were going to stay with another of Cesare’s cousin Enrico Imerito at the same address (it can therefore be deduced that Casimiro was the son of Enrico Imerito, who in turn was Cesare’s first cousin). As Giacomo Amerio may not have been closely or even directly related to the Imeritos, he went to stay with a friend called Giuseppe Bussi, who also lived at the same address.
Little over a year later, on 27th April 1910, the US Census was taken. Giacomo, now 25 years of age and working as a silverman, and living at 508, 9th Avenue, Manhattan, a boarder in the house of a couple called Marco and Serafina Surano, who had emigrated to the US in 1905 and 1906 respectively. The Amerios and the Suranos were closely related, as I found out through the marriage records in Italy: Marco’s younger brother Stefano had married Giacomo’s younger sister Luigia. Living at the same address was a 26 year-old Italian called Luigi Pesce. Fast-forward a few months: a ship called the SS Duca di Genova reached New York after a two-week crossing from Genoa. Aboard was a young man in his 20’s called Giacomo Ameglio, who came from the small town of Mombarruzo. Travelling alone, this second Giacomo made his way to a friend’s house, the friend being none other than the above-mentioned Luigi Pesce. The address, once again, was 508, 9th Avenue, Manhattan.
It was very probably at this seemingly inconspicuous address that the fate of my family was decided. Giacomo Ameglio probably met Giacomo Amerio there and then, and the two became fast friends.
508, 9th Avenue, Manhattan seems to have been the place to go for this array of Italian friends and cousins making their way to a new life in America. In January 1912 Luigi Pesce’s brother Carlo arrived with his wife (by surname Terzano, like Giacomo Amerio’s mother…), followed a few months later by Giacomo’s younger sister Giovanna (affectionately known as Giovannina). My 17 year-old great-grandmother was travelling with her cousin Fiorenza Quaglia, whose crossed-out names seems to suggest she may have been sent back to Italy after trying unsuccessfully to go through the health inspection queue. At any rate, Giovanna stated in her papers she was going to stay with her cousin Serafina Surano (her sister’s sister-in-law) at 508, 9th Avenue, Manhattan. Her brother Giacomo would have been living there at the time, but as he was probably not a naturalised citizen of the United States, she may have been unable to give him as a reference.
At any rate, it was surely brother Giacomo who introduced his sister to his friend Giacomo Ameglio, known to friends as Jack. The young pair soon bonded and by 1915 Jack travelled across the ocean back to Italy, probably to make the necessary bureaucratic arrangements so he and Giovanna could marry in New York City. Meanwhile, there is proof that brother Giacomo was still alive and living at 508, 9th Avenue, Manhattan, since in January 1914 a 22 year-old labourer from San Marzano OLiveto called Oreste Terzano (another cousin?) went to stay with him at the same address. Around the same time his sister Rina emigrated to America, as she was married to a fellow Italian called Ermano “Herman” Graziano.
The story obviously does not end there, but references to 508, 9th Avenue, Manhattan seem to die down after 1914/1915. Jack and his bride Giovannina were married in 1915 and welcomed their only son, Peter, a year later. Sadly the young mother became ill with consumption and died in 1920, not yet 25 years of age. Rina meanwhile settled in neighbouring New Jersey with Herman Graziano. All trace of her brother Giacomo disappears after 1914, although there is no proof that he went back to Italy. Jack himself would go on to remarry a fellow Mombaruzzian, and set up home at 357 W39 St New York City. The days of Italian cousins arriving from the other side of the Atlantic and merrily meeting at 508, 9th Avenue, Manhattan were forever over.