A Spanish bigamy Story for J. Carmen

The following is a summary of the recent discoveries I have made, together with a fellow researcher, for a fellow historian, genealogist and researcher, J. Carmen Smith, who follows me on Twitter and who some years ago published an account of her Spanish grandmother’s life in England. What you are about to read relates to J. Carmen’s maternal grandfather’s family.

Up until a week ago, all that J.Carmen knew was that her grandfather, José Viñas Novo, was a seaman who came from the small town of Betanzos, in Spain’s rural region of Galicia. Various sources point to his year of birth as 1865 or there abouts. His profession often took him to Liverpool, where his company’s headquarters were based; however, by the early 20th century José had left Spain for good, having established himself in England, and it was there that in 1907 he married J. Carmen’s grandmother (and fellow Galician) Micaela.

Up to that point there is nothing particularly unusual about José’s story. It wasn’t until J. Carmen was told by Sonia, a fellow genealogist and Twitter follower, that her grandfather may have had a past life, that she began to delve into José’s years in Spain. A census entry taken in Betanzos at the end of the 19th century showed a man with an identical name, living with his wife and two infant children. Now, José’s surnames are not that unusual, but the age given was almost a perfect match. Furthermore, the existence of José’s first marriage in Spain is not in itself unusual bearing in mind he would have been in his 30’s or early 40’s by the time he left his homeland; what is striking, however, is the fact that he stated he was a bachelor on the marriage certificate when he became Micaela’s husband in 1907.

To try to get to the bottom of the mystery, I took the initiative of asking J. Carmen (who as I said is not only a historian and avid researcher but also one of my most loyal Twitter followers) for a few details concerning the children born to José and his (supposed) first wife. Thanks to the said census we are able to guess an approximate year of birth for the two children: José Jr, born around 1889, and Antonia, born around 1892.

I then took the liberty of ordering the children’s birth certificates and see, once and for all, if the José Viñas Novo in J. Carmen’s story and the man listed as their father on the census is one and the same person. This week, at length, I received an envelope from the Betanzos civil registry office. I was at first rather disappointed when I saw a note from the registrar saying that one of the certificates (that of José Jr.) had not turned up. This could be due to a multitude of reasons: the baby’s birth was not recorded, the year was off, he was born elsewhere and therefore registered in another town; or that he was born illegitimate and therefore registered under the mother’s surname. Be it as it may, since Spain (unlike the UK) has no birth, marriage and death index available to the public to enable researchers to track down specific life events, I have temporarily decided to leave the matter of the missing son aside.

My patience and resignation were somewhat rewarded when a second paper fell out of the envelope, revealing a copy of the birth certificate for the daughter, Antonia. Here is, in a nutshell, what the document reveals:

“That on the morning of 22nd of April of 1893 Vicente García Varela, 36 years of age, married, a seaman, a native of San Pantaleón das Viñas [a hamlet of Paderne, near Betanzos] and resident in Santa María do Souto [also very close to Paderne], registered the birth of a girl, born at 3 AM of the previous day, and that the said girl was the legitimate daughter of José Viñas Novo, seaman, a native of Santa María do Souto, currently absent at sea, and of his wife, Rita García Varela, a housewife, a native of San Pantaleón das Viñas and resident of this city [of Betanzos]. That the child is the paternal granddaughter of Carlos Viñas, labourer, a native of Santa Eulalia das Viñas [near Betanzos], a neighbour of Souto, and of Antonia Novo, a native of this said parish, where she has since passed away; and the maternal granddaughter of José García, a native of Santa María de la Regueira, and of his wife, Antonia Varela, a native of San Pantaleón das Viñas, both labourers, deceased; and that the said child shall be named Antonia.”

There were so many clues that can be deduced from this snippet of text that I was sure J. Carmen would be able to answer many bugging questions about her recent family history. Firstly, this confirms that this is indeed the child of her own grandfather, given the matching names, place and profession. In addition, this also seems to indicate that José was indeed married at the time of his daughter’s birth in 1893, as Rita is mentioned as his wife and the daughter is recorded as legitimate. However, this may not necessarily be conclusive evidence that José was a bigamist, as we would need to find proof of his (first) wife’s death in or after 1907 to corroborate this story. There does seem to be ample indications pointing to the fact that José omitted the fact that he had been married before he became Micaela’s husband in Liverpool fourteen years later, when he said he was a bachelor and not a widower. Moreover, the fact that (as we now know) he was absent during Antonia’s birth could imply he spent few precious moments with his family, and thus was able to detach himself from them when it came to it.

One final, and unfortunately sad side of the story is the fact that the birth certificate contains a side note, which mentions the death of the young Antonia on 16 May 1907 when she would have been fourteen – two months after her father was marrying J. Carmen’s grandmother in Liverpool.

So what now? Obviously the next step is to order the young Antonia’s death certificate, to know what status is given to her parents at the time. I would also like to know, once and for all, if there is indeed a marriage certificate for José and Rita, which would at least confirm that he did have a wife back in Spain before emigrating.

I must admit I felt a bit uneasy about not having seen the Spanish census with my own eyes and corroborate the information that Rita and her children were listed in Betanzos at the end of the 19th century, so knowing that FamilySearch contains censuses for a number of areas in Galicia, I decided to try my luck – with spectacular results. I found the 1889 census, which lists Rita and her son (baby Antonia’s name was, oddly enough, added at a later date by a different hand), together with a note that says:

“Rita’s husband called José Novo Viñas [sic] is currently serving at sea as a seaman on a Spanish steamer of the merchant navy.”

Although absent at the time the 1889 census was taken, it is obvious that José Sr. returned home at least once, given that his daughter Antonia was born in April of 1893. The visit must have been a brief one, as he was again absent by the time of her birth, as we have seen above.

The following censuses are even more revealing. The 1897 again includes Rita, who by the way is listed as an illiterate agricultural journeywoman, living at Nr 3, Carretera de Castilla in central Betanzos. Living with her are her two children, José Jr and Antonia, but no trace whatsoever of the father. A rather helpful note at the bottom of the page is, however, quite telling:

“José Viñas, husband of Rita, is currently at sea and has been absent for the past four years.”

By 1900 the situation seems to be very much the same, with José’s permanent absence confirmed by another hand-written note; five years on he is referred to on the 1905 census as “absent in an unknown place”. The 1910 census was, however, the real jackpot, as it confirms Rita was very much alive (living with her son José; Antonia, we must remember, died in 1907). This means that José Sr, who we know was already living in England, married and forming a new family with his (second) wife Micaela, was unquestionably a bigamist, divorce being non-existent in early 20th century Spain.


The Spanish 1910 census showing Rita García Varela and her son José. The note below confirms her husband (by then bigamously married to another woman in the UK) had been absent from the family home for 14 years. (Source: FamilySearch).

We know that Rita was still alive by 1920 (as she is listed on the 1920 and the earlier 1915 census), although it is doubtful she ever knew of her husband’s whereabouts or of his second, bigamous marriage. She had, at least for a time, the consolation of her son’s company, but by 1929 José Jr. appears on a passenger list bound from Cherbourg (France) to New York City. We know this is José Sr.’s son because he gives Rita García as his mother and next-of-kin, thus confirming Rita was also alive as late as 1929. One has to wonder whether she survived her husband, who passed away in Liverpool in 1934!

On the other hand, it seems that the younger José spent a great deal of time in America (perhaps fleeing, as his father once had, the claustrophobic atmosphere of poverty and illiteracy that dominated his home in Betanzos). We find him again on a passenger list (available on Ancestry.co.uk) in 1936 sailing from La Coruña (Spain) to New York; the passenger list mentions him as being single, but rather surprisingly, he is a naturalised citizen of the United States (having become naturalised in New Orleans on 27 July 1934, the same year his father died in England). He once again travelled from Spain to America in 1940 – this time he is listed as a married man, but the trail goes cold thereafter.

I would love to find José Jr.’s naturalisation papers from 1934, as well as his purported marriage between 1936 and 1940, and perhaps even a reference to him on a US Census, but for now I think it is time to take a step back, focus on the earlier records and see if we can piece the missing (but likely) clues together to corroborate the bigamy story. Hopefully Sonia, J. Carmen and I will be able to meet in the upcoming Who Do You Think You Are! Live 2017 show – the culmination of an incredible genealogical adventure.

Phew, what a story!

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