• Nicole Belle DeRise

Hard Histories: What Happens When We Confront the Skeletons in the Closet

The number one question clients ask is how do we approach “hard histories”? What happens if we find something not so nice about our client’s ancestors? Skeletons in the closet, so to speak. In order to answer that I like to provide a personal anecdote about my great uncle Luigi.

When I began piecing my family’s story together I came across family lore about Luigi. Born in Cimitile, Italy in 1898, he sailed with my great-grandparents and his brother, Pasquale, aboard the Duca Di Genova in 1911. The family settled in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Long Island City, Queens. Life was not easy for the family. Luigi, (who went by the Americanized Louis once in the US), went to work right away and on the 1915 New York State Census he is listed as a factory laborer.

Luigi DeRise ca. 1930s (Nicole Belle DeRise Family Collection)

My first clue that something was awry was a news article from 1918. I found a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article that reported Louis was arrested and charged with possession of a revolver; apparently he had “quarrelled [sic]” with a trolley driver and had threatened to shoot him. He was sent to the New York Penitentiary.

This article highlighted the beginning of along whispered family story, “Louis went to SingSing but turned his life around.” Louis actually didn’t go to SingSing but he did go to Clinton Prison in upstate New York, and was sentenced to hard labor “...for no less than seven years and no more than fifteen years…”

Court documents for Louis DeRise ca. 1925 (Nicole Belle DeRise Family Collection)

I longed to know more about this story. What happened to Louis? How could this man go from a law-abiding man to a criminal? Thus began my search for my family’s hard history. What was surprising wasn’t that Louis was some sort of wise guy criminal. In fact, a far more complex story emerged of a man that was desperately trying to find and experience the American Dream. Through court records, Census data, newspaper archives, and vital records, I uncovered a nuanced life story, full of ups and downs and the hardships facing many immigrants. The documentation I found of his life defused the long whispered family mythology by making him into an actual person and his story emerged. A story of a man who was unable to find steady work and turned to crime to support his family; a story of a man who was repentant; and, finally, a story of a man who tried to find his version of the American dream.

Being able to add a new understanding to my family-lore has been a welcome gift and one that has helped my relatives appreciate a previously shameful and painful family story.

Do you have a Hard History in your family? Do you want more explanation and context? Contact us at History Bridge Group to see if we can help you!