This brick wall article was updated with its solution in February 2020, as described at the bottom of this page.
This brick wall centres on my great-grandmother’s brother.
Giacomo Amerio was the eldest of my great-great-grandparent’s twelve children. He was born in the Italian village of San Marzano Oliveto (Asti) on 27 March 1886 to 26-year-old Pietro Amerio and his young wife, 17-year-old Maria Maddalena (aka Amalia) Terzano. Over the next two decades, his mother would give birth to eleven more children – including a staggering three sets of twins. Sadly, several of those children would die at a very young age.
Giacomo was baptised shortly after birth, being christened after his paternal grandfather, who died when the boy was only a year old. Despite the family’s growing size, the Amerios were not rich, which is why Giacomo, like so many other millions of Italians at the time, decided to emigrate to the United States when he was still quite a young man.
We first find evidence of Giacomo leaving Italy when he was 23. On 28 April 1909, a mere two weeks after Easter, my distant uncle boarded a ship called Duca degli Abruzzi in the port city of Genoa. The Navigazione Generale Italiana Line ship, which weighed almost 8,000 tonnes and was 145 metres long, had only been launched two years earlier, so would still have appeared fairly new to my 23-year-old great-great-uncle. Giacomo did not travel alone on his first ever crossing to the New World. With him were his father’s second cousin, Cesare Imerito, who like him was an agricultural labourer; Cesare’s wife, Maggiorina Quaglia; and their infant daughter, nine-month-old Rita (wrongly recorded as Ada on the passenger list). Also travelling in the same group was 15-year-old Casimiro Imerito – very likely a close relative of Cesare’s and therefore probably a distant cousin of Giacomo’s too. All five were travelling to stay with friends and relatives who originally also came from the same village in Italy. Theirs was undoubtedly a close-knit community.
In 1910, the United States Federal Census was taken, and as one may expect, it includes Giacomo Amerio for the first time. His address, 508, 9th Avenue, Manhattan was a hub of immigrant families from France, Italy, Germany, Russia and other countries. Living under the same roof were Marco Surano and his wife Serafina (wrongly recorded as Alessandrina). This couple could actually claim a family link to Giacomo: Marco’s younger brother Stefano was married to Giacomo’s sister Luigia, both of whom still lived in Italy. Giacomo’s profession is no longer listed as a countryman, as was the case on the passenger list the previous year, but as a silverman in a hotel – Giacomo had evidently improved his way of life since arriving in America. It is quite possible that while working in the same hotel, he first met his future brother-in-law, my great-grandfather Giacomo “Jack” Ameglio, who I know worked as a cook in restaurants in Manhattan.
In June 1910 Giacomo’s younger sister Maria Cesarina (known as Rina) also arrived in New York, accompanied by yet another cousin called Anna Amerio. While Anna was going to stay with her brother Lorenzo, Rina gave her brother Giacomo as her next-of-kin in America. The intricate web of cousins and friends spanning both sides of the Atlantic kept on growing with each passing year.
Giacomo’s movements in subsequent years are not easy to trace, and he does not appear to be listed in the census in 1920, nor does he appear to be listed in American military records from the First World War. In 1912 another of Giacomo’s younger sisters, my great-grandmother Giovanna, emigrated to New York. She went to stay with the Surano family at 508, 9th Avenue. Although the passenger list does not specify as much, we know Giacomo must have still been living at the same address at the time, because two years later he was again living there when he was listed as the next-of-kin of his cousin Oreste Terzano, who emigrated to America in January 1914.
Although the First World War began in Europe in July 1914, not all future belligerents took up arms immediately. In fact, Italy would not join the Allied cause until May 1915, and the United States followed suit two years later. This means that, in theory at least, life would have carried on as usual for Giacomo and his growing network of Italian relatives and friends on that side of the Atlantic.
In September 1915 Giacomo’s sister Giovanna married Jack Ameglio, who as I said before is likely to have been a friend of Giacomo’s as well. The marriage was witnessed by Giacomo’s brother-in-law Ermano “Herman” Graziano, who was by then married to Giacomo’s sister Rina, and by Maria Candida “Candita” Bussi, née Terzano, who was also a distant cousin of the Amerios. If Giacomo was still living in New York at the time, he would have certainly been at his sister’s wedding, but alas, as he did not officially witness the ceremony, some doubt must be raised as to whether he was still in America at the time, or whether he had returned to Italy in the meantime to join the war effort (his cousin Oreste’s brother Cesare joined the army and was killed in action in July that same year).
Giacomo’s movements after 1914 therefore remain a mystery. So far, I have been unable to find his marriage or death certificate in America (even using possible variations of his name, such as Jack or James…). I strongly suspect that he, like so many other men in his family, volunteered and went to war – he therefore probably returned to Italy sometime around 1914-1916, but what became of him thereafter also remains a mystery. Unfortunately passenger lists for ships going from America to Europe are not preserved.
Some years ago my heart skipped a beat when I noticed the name Giacomo Amerio engraved on the War Memorial in San Marzano Oliveto. Further research has proven that there were actually two sanmarzanese soldiers called Giacomo Amerio who died in the First World War, but, unfortunately for my research purposes, neither of them appear to be my great-great-uncle Giacomo.
I have gone through all records available to me both on FamilySearch, Ancestry and Antenati, in the hope that some reference may point me in the right direction as to Giacomo’s fate. Sadly his birth certificate, which is available on FamilySearch, does not include a marginal note suggesting where or when he may have married or died, and he is certainly not buried in his parents’ family plot. He does not appear to be among the casualties of the First World War according to CadutiGrandeGuerra, Italy’s database for WWI soldiers who were killed in action. The San Marzano Oliveto war memorial does not appear to refer to him either, although I have observed discrepancies and missing names on the memorial list (see my article mentioned above) – could he be among the missing?
Contemplating the possibility that he may have returned to Italy at some point after 1914, I checked the National Archives from the United States, which include a collection of papers documenting ‘Alien Applications for Permission to Depart from the United States’. These records were apparently required for non-US citizens to leave the country. However, most appear to date from around 1918/1919, so there is a chance Giacomo may have slipped through the net, if indeed he left in 1914/1915.
Many questions therefore remain as to Giacomo’s whereabouts and his eventual fate:
- Did Giacomo Amerio remain in America after 1914? If so, why is he not on the 1920 US Federal Census?
- Did he move back to Italy? If so, did he fight in the First World War? Are there any records in Italy that mention his military service?
- Did Giacomo ever return to America, and did he ever apply for American citizenship? If so, why are there no records that suggest he did either.
- Did he ever marry and have children?
- Where and when did he pass away?
A MYSTERY FINALLY SOLVED!!!
After publishing the above, I shared the link to this article on my social media channels. Fortunately, one of my contacts who read the article was Myko Clelland (aka Dapper Historian), who suggested I should check with the state archives in Italy, which are held at provincial level, where my family came from. Myko very helpfully pointed out that there may well be military records relating to Giacomo’s service during WWI, if – as I believed all along – he saw military action. I therefore contacted the Archivio di Stato di Asti by e-mail, providing Giacomo’s date of birth and parentage, asking whether they had any information about him.
In a matter of days I received a reply saying they had located Giacomo listed on a lista di leva (list of conscripts). The record matched Giacomo’s information to the last detail: the date of birth, where he was from and his parents’ names. The record referred to Giacomo’s inspection for obligatory military service in 1906, when he would have been 20, but he was refused on health grounds. Sadly, his entry was cancelled later in 1916, with “death” given as the cause for the closure of his file. This was potentially a huge breakthrough!
Fortunately the record stated that the death had been registered in San Marzano Oliveto, Giacomo’s hometown, and it was there that I made my way to. I provided the information I had, specifying his military file had been closed in 1916 because he had passed away. Naturally I still suspected that Giacomo had died as a direct consequence of the war, though the fact he had been turned away from military service in 1906 made me seriously doubt this hypothesis – would he have been accepted in the army when Italy went to war in 1915? Could he have died about a year later after being posted at the front?
My hopes for a quick answer were quickly dashed when I got a message from the civil registry office in San Marzano Oliveto stating that the only entry for the death of a Giacomo Amerio in 1916 corresponded to a different man with my great-great-uncle’s name. Neither the date of birth nor the parents’ names matched my relative’s. It was definitely not the same person.
Undeterred, I decided to send the registry office the scanned image of the lista di leva I’d received form the state archives in Asti, hoping they would be able to interpret it and search the death register again, or perhaps broaden the search area further. And would you believe it – within 24 hours I got the e-mail I had long been waiting for, enclosing a scanned copy of Giacomo Amerio’s death certificate!
Giacomo Amerio’s death certificate was registered in a separate section of the ledger for deaths that took place abroad. The record states that he died on 18 April 1914 – just three weeks after his 28th birthday – on the ship Europa, of the Italian shipping company La Veloce Navigazione Italiana A Vapore, while en route from New York to Genoa. The ship’s captain and doctor both testified that poor Giacomo had died on pulmonary tuberculosis.
Many thoughts went through my mind upon reading the death certificate. My joy at finally finding out what became of my great-grandmother’s eldest brother was quickly compounded by a feeling of sadness and sympathy for Giacomo’s parents, Pietro and Amalia, and for my great-grandmother, his sister Giovanna, who would have waved goodbye to him in New York before his departure to Italy.
A sequence of events began to form in my mind now I was able to see the full picture: Giacomo’s health would have been aggravated during his stay in New York City, and shortly after welcoming his cousin Oreste to America in January 1914, he must have made up his mind to return to Italy to either convalesce, or for good. The First World War had not yet been declared, so I can safely state that Giacomo’s death had nothing to do with the Great War. Whether he was buried at sea, or in Genoa after the ship docked, the death certificate does not say. What makes me sad is the knowledge that he was travelling home to be with his family, and that he almost made it.
A sad, somewhat unexpected, though not very surprising end to a genealogical brick wall that, I’m relieved to say, is no more.