Saturday, September 01, 2007

Did He or Didn't He? Inquiring Minds Want to Know...

My grandfather was a stowaway, or so the story goes. By stowaway I mean someone who sneaks on board a ship to avoid paying for their passage. The "stowaway myth" is evidently a common one in the genealogy world. I can't say as I've ever heard it mentioned by any of my genea-buddies, but that doesn't mean they don't have a stowaway story in their family. Some people are scandalized or embarrassed to talk of such things. Not me. I don't mind at all.

There seems to be some difference of opinion as to how common stowaway immigrants were. Sharon DeBartolo Carmack CG makes mention of the stowaway myth in an article she wrote on Family Legends and Myths.
While there are cases of people who actually did sneak aboard ships, this was
not common practice.

In an article by John Philip Colletta, Ph.D., titled, Proving Family Lore on the High Seas, he paints a picture of it being common enough for the United States Congress to investigate the practice.
By 1911, the ever-rising number of stowaways and deserting seamen (discussed
below) prompted a congressional inquiry. Hearings Relative to Alien Seamen and
Stowaways, the committee’s report, numbered "Alien stowaways found onboard
vessels arriving at ports of the United States, fiscal year ended 30 June 1910"
at 474. The report recommended stricter policy regarding the admission of aliens
who arrived as stowaways or deserting seamen. Still, the 1912 Annual Report of
the Commissioner General of Immigration indicated that the number of alien
stowaways had risen to 528. It was not until 1917 that new legislation included
"stowaways," per se, in a long list of excludable classes of aliens.

The raw numbers that Colletta sites are not that large relative to the thousands of immigrants who came to these shores in the years mentioned. But the fact that there was a congressional hearing suggests that the numbers were thought to be significant by members of Congress.

Both Carmack and Colletta agree on one thing. If a stowaway was discovered on board a ship once it was underway their name was added to the manifest, generally at the end, and the individual was treated the same as other passengers in terms of being admitted to the country. Colletta adds, "Stowaways who succeeded in remaining undetected were, of course, never recorded on any list of any kind, passenger or crew." And therein lies the problem with affirming or debunking the myth about my grandfather. If he was a successful stowaway who was never detected, his name won't show up on any ship manifest.

I know that my grandfather made at least two trips to America and he was not listed as a stowaway on either of those. Until I discovered him on a ship manifest in 1911, no one in the family even knew that he'd made two trips to the U.S. The only passage they were aware of was the trip he made from Poland to the U.S. in 1912 which was recorded on his citizenship papers. On both of his ship manifests he indicated that it was his first time entering the country.

There's lot we didn't know about my grandfather. He was one of those who refused to discuss his life in "the old country". His own children didn't know the names of their grandparents or even if they had any aunts or uncles. (My mother only became aware that her father had a sister in 1952 when my grandfather sponsored her trip to America from a DP camp.) My mother said the only reason her father admitted that he'd been a stowaway was because he'd had a bit to drink and was bragging. She only heard him talk about it the one time. Even when she pleaded with him to tell the story again, he never would. The fact that old Gramps was slightly inebriated when he told the story certainly makes me question it's validity. But I wanted to examine the plausibility of his story anyway.

Here's the gist of the story. My grandfather and two "friends" traveled from Poland together. When they got to their port of departure they bought passage for only two people. His two friends boarded the ship together while my grandfather stayed behind. The one of his two friends on board who was similar in age, stature and coloring to my grandfather then passed him back his boarding pass/documentation. My grandfather then boarded the ship using his friend's paperwork, explaining that he'd forgotten something, had to return to shore, and was now re-boarding the ship. They repeated that pattern whenever they needed to present their documents throughout their passage.

I wasn't able to find any detailed information about the boarding procedures on the various steamship lines or the ports my grandfather would likely have departed from. So I don't know if that sort of scam was feasible or not. It's a sure bet they didn't have fingerprint, photo, and microchip passports back then to verify the identity of passengers boarding the ships. I'm going to assume it was possible just for the sake of further examining the possibility that this myth could be true.

The first thing I did was look up all of my grandfather's friends and family members who immigrated to the U.S. to see if any of them traveled in pairs with one of them being a similar stature, coloring, and age as my grandfather. My mother wasn't certain if her father had said "friends" or maybe "cousins" when he told the story. So I looked at both.

My grandfather was listed on his 1911 passage as being 26 years old, 5' 8" tall with brown hair and grey eyes. Then he was listed on his 1912 passage as being 27 years old, 5' 7" tall with brown hair and blue eyes. I don't know if he was wearing different shoes from one year to the next of if he shrank ;-) Let's just call him 5' 7.5". The eye color difference is completely understandable. Everyone in my family has eyes the color of faded denim. They are definitely a grayish blue and could be described using either term. (There's a visual for you... think of me the next time you see someone in faded jeans, for those are the color of Jasia's eyes ;-)

I quickly eliminated my grandfather's two friends. One traveled alone and the other traveled with a female companion. Both were more than 7 years younger, with blond hair and blue eyes.

His three cousins that immigrated to the U.S. each traveled in pairs. Jozef came in 1907 with his cousin Walenty. Jozef was 5' 7.5", with brown hair and grey eyes. He was 4 years older than my grandfather. Walenty was 5' 4" tall with brown eyes, too dissimilar I think.

Wlady came in 1910 with his brother-in-law Jan. Wlady also was 4 years older than my grandfather. He was 5' 9" tall with brown hair and grey eyes. Seems a bit too tall for my grandfather to impersonate but maybe he stood on his tip toes? Jan was the same age as my grandfather, 5' 6" tall with brown hair and blue eyes. So he was more than an inch shorter. I suppose my grandfather could have passed as either of these gentlemen but neither seems like a perfect match.

Stefan came in 1913 with his cousin Boleslaw. Stefan was born the same year as my grandfather. He had brown hair and blue eyes and was 5' 9" tall. Boleslaw was a year older than my grandfather and had brown hair and blue eyes. But he was only 5' 4" tall so I think that eliminates him.

So of these 6 possible candidates, 4 of them, Jozef, Wlady, Jan, and Stefan are the ones I think my grandfather could have posed as. Though none of them is a perfect match.

I checked the Detroit city directories a while back to see when my grandfather was listed. The first time he shows up is in 1913. That doesn't necessarily mean anything though. When Jozef and Walenty came in 1907 their destination was Lorry, PA. They moved to Detroit later. I couldn't find a city directory for Lorry, PA so I don't know if my grandfather showed up there or not. All the others listed Detroit as their destination on their manifests.

I'm not sure what else I could look at to determine if in fact my grandfather was a stowaway. I've examined all the documents that I could think of that might hold some clues and haven't come up with what I consider to be convincing evidence to either prove or disprove the validity of his story. My head says, "Oh you know better than to believe the stuff that comes out of the mouth of a drunk." But my mom knew her father pretty well and was married to a drunk for many years... yet she believed the story. I'm inclined to believe it too, I guess because it seems like a clever rouse and I'd like to think my grandfather was a clever person. Actually, I know he was a clever person but that's the stuff for another article.

Grandpa, I think you did it!