Episode 360 - Author Russell Shorto On His Mobster Grandfather / Sunny Morton On Mapping Out Your Research Year/ Dr. Gates On Finding Your Roots

podcast episode Jan 31, 2021

Host Scott Fisher opens the show with David Allen Lambert, Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. David shares his remarkable find in reverse genealogy, pulling forward from his War of 1812 ancestor to family ties to the “X-Men” franchise! Then, hear about the shoes people are finding behind walls in Canada and why they’re there. David also talks about the dead cats behind walls in Scotland he learned about years ago. What was that all about?! He’ll tell you. Then, it’s another major archaeological find in Egypt. The guys wrap up the segment, in the wake of the recent inauguration, talking presidents, particularly David’s connection to one of the greats.

Fisher then visits with well known researcher, speaker, and blogger Sunny Morton. Sunny has written a great article for Family Tree Magazine on how to plan out your research year, based largely on weather, holidays, and traditions. There’s no doubt an idea or two waiting for you.

Next, Russell Shorto, a renowned author talks about his new book coming out on February 2nd that discusses the history of the Mafia in small town America. His grandfather was part of the illegal activities that proliferated from coast to coast.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates returns to fill us in on the next episode of Finding Your Roots on PBS. Season Seven is underway with some fascinating celebrity guests and discoveries.

David then returns to wrap up the show with Ask Us Anything. He answers a question about sources for railroad workers.

That’s all this week on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show!

Transcript of Episode 360

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Segment 1 Episode 360

Fisher: And welcome to America’s Family History Show Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. It is Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth on the program where we shake your family tree and watch the nuts fall out. It is great to have you along, a loaded show with some great guests today. We’re going to be talking to Sunny Morton coming up in about ten minutes or so. Sunny has written a great article for Family Tree Magazine talking about how to map out your research year, month by month. Because whether it’s certain times of the year lends itself to certain types of things, so we’ll go through all of that. Plus, Russell Shorto is here on the show a little later on. Russell is a well known historical writer and you’ve got to hear about the discovery he made about his own family and the book he’s written about his grandfather and the mob. Yeah. Dr. Henry Louis Gates is back this week talking about the latest episode of Finding Your Roots on PBS. And of course, right now it’s time to head out Boston, Massachusetts and talk to my good friend David Allen Lambert, the Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. Hello David.

David: Hello sir. How are you doing today?  

Fisher: I am doing fine. In fact, making lots of discoveries this past week. How about your?

David: Oh, I did the same. And I can tell you, I got a new connection. Remember that War of 1812 veteran I stumbled upon at Thanksgiving?

Fisher: Yeah, Henry Poor, I think it was, right?

David: Yeah. Well, I no longer have just “Poor relations.”

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: I started to do some research because I’m trying to be the proprietor of his cemetery plot, and they want me to find all the living descendants of his son-in-law. Albert Griswold died in 1895. So, I figured I’d track down his kids and grandkids, etc. etc. I stumbled upon one in the obituary that says he was a brigadier general under Jimmy Doolittle in the Pacific, and of course, many of you may have heard of Doolittle’s Raiders.  

Fisher: Sure.

David: It would be Pearl Harbor. You see that raid on Tokyo. So, he was tied in with Doolittle, not that he was on the raid. But the best part of it is, is who this guy’s daughter is. Her name was Claire Griswold. It might not mean anything until I tell you that she was Sydney Pollack’s wife.

Fisher: Oh! [Laughs]

David: And so yeah, Sydney Pollack and she had three children, two daughters that are still alive and a son that passed. One of the daughters is married to Hutch Parker. Hutch Parker is the director of the X-Men series. So, I can connect the War of 1812 to X-Men! [Laughs]

Fisher: [Laughs] That is really, really strange. And I found this past week, from a friend of mine, that there’s more information coming in on my pirate ancestor.

David: Ooh.

Fisher: Yes. And we’ll share more of that in the weeks to come, but really fun stuff. I love making new discoveries. Well, let’s get on with our Family Histoire News today Dave. Where do you want to start?

David: Well, I thought we would start with talking about cats, and shoes, and houses.

Fisher: What?

David: Now, everybody probably has a shoe in their house, right?

Fisher: Yeah, of course.

David: Usually it’s on your floor. Well, in Nova Scotia, they’re finding that people would put them in for luck in walls. Yes. They would take old shoes and put them in the walls. This is what they’re finding in Arcadian homes up in Nova Scotia. And strange things embedded into the walls of your house, it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this. When I was over in Scotland, they talk about variety of houses where they find the skeletal remains of house cats placed into the walls.

Fisher: Well, wait a minute, they put the living cat behind the walls and then the cat dies back there?

David: Right. Apparently, they would take the cats and put them into the walls during construction to fair of any bad spirit. It’s what was told to me when I went on a house tour out in Edinburgh.

Fisher: That’s crazy. That is insane. You know, my grandfather and his sons were all builders in Oregon, And so, grandpa would often buy up land not too far from his home in Albany, Oregon. The boys would go over with him and they’d build these houses and turn them and sell them. And recently, someone who lives in one of those homes was doing a remodel and found a piece of framing that my uncle had written his name on and put a date on. I think it was 1935. They actually removed that segment and presented it to my cousin who still lives on the property of my grandfather. Isn’t that crazy?

David: Oh, that’s amazing. Well, New England homes, occasionally over the threshold of the doorway you would find a silver dollar or a cold coin there. So, anytime anyone was demolishing houses, they would always want to knock away that part to see what was up there. And I’ve known a couple of contractors who have found silver dollars and in fact one case, a bowl of coins. 

Fisher: Crazy. Wow.  

David: Yeah. You just never know what’s in the walls. Maybe it’s just not the baseball cards that you lost when you were a kid that went down the crack so you bought it.

Fisher: [Laughs] Right.

David: You know, history is always fascinating, but I think the ancient history really fascinates me the most, you know, our ancestors. And going back to ancient Egypt they’re uncovering many remains in Hoya, basically, a cemetery. They recently found 50 coffins including a scroll of the Book of the Dead that was 13-feet long on papyrus. The Book of the Dead was basically spells directing the dead to navigate the underworld in ancient Egypt, fascinating stuff.    

Fisher: Wow!

David: Well, this is our first show since the inauguration. And when I was watching it, I saw Dan Quayle, who of course is the elder statesman. Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn weren’t there. But you’ve met a few presidents in your day, haven’t you?

Fisher: Yeah. I actually met Quayle once. But I’ve met four presidents. I’ve met presidents from both parties. And then I figured out I’m related to 10, and that’s kind of the fun part of genealogy is where you figure out these ties. And I know because you’re from the New England area also, you have an amazing connection to a president.

David: Yeah, good old Honest Abe. Yeah, Abraham Lincoln’s ancestor Edward Gilman is also mine. So, I can say that when I visited him in Springfield, Illinois, his tomb, I was visiting family. 

Fisher: Isn’t that amazing. And the relationship is what?

David: Probably like his 5th great grandfather, and my 10th great grandfather.

Fisher: Something like that. Yeah.

David: Yeah. I’d have to put it down on paper. Right off the top of my head I don’t recall. But it is a sure ancestor from New England, Massachusetts where the Lincolns came from.

Fisher: That’s amazing. That is a great tie in. What fun.

David: Well, that’s all I have from American Ancestors for you this week. Signing off from Beantown but remember, if you haven’t done genealogy with American Ancestors, you can save $20 and go to American Ancestors with our coupon code EXTREME and become a member.

Fisher: All right David. Thank you so much. We’ll talk to you again at the back-end of the show with another round of Ask Us Anything. And coming up next, Sunny Morton is going to talk about her recent article in Family Tree Magazine, showing you how you can plan your research throughout the entire year based largely on the weather. Plus, later in the show, Dr. Henry Louis Gates and another incredible guest talking about his grandpa and what he did for the mob, yeah, a lot still to come on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com.

Segment 2 Episode 360

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Sunny Morton

Fisher: All right, back at it on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. It is a new year, and I remember just last year looking at Family Tree Magazine online and seeing an article by my good friend Sunny Morton. And Sunny is on the line with me right now. Hey Sunny, how you doing?

Sunny: Great Scott. It’s great to be here.

Fisher: You did a great article last year about kind of how to map out your year for family history things. Because really, there are rhythms to the year for things to do at certain times of year largely based on weather, and normally we might have repeated all the things you said last year, but with Covid everything is just a little bit different. 

Sunny: It is. And of course, all of our own quirky schedules, and where we live, and all that kind of thing is a little bit different too.

Fisher: Sure.

Sunny: So, this is the kind of thing that’s so adaptable.

Fisher: You’ve got some great suggestions. Let’s just start right at the top. January, what do you think is a good thing to do at this time of the year?

Sunny: You know, a lot of people in January just find their desk. [Laughs]

Fisher: [Laughs]

Sunny: Really, just whatever is piled up during the holidays or the end of the year, whatever it was, a lot of people get organized. And whether that’s your digital workspace, kind of cleaning up your folders, or your physical workspace, putting things in binders, whether it’s your DNA matches, whatever it is that you just have to wrap your head around before you can make any progress. Like, do a bit of cleanup work.

Fisher: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. I cannot function in a terribly disorganized area. But it’s always a matter of okay, I’ll work till I get to that point and then I’ll clean it up and continue on and do it all over again.

Sunny: Yeah. [Laughs] The point is we need to get to the bare desk first.

Fisher: Yeah.

Sunny: Once you get to that point again, then we’ll just start over.

Fisher: Absolutely. All right, February.

Sunny: Okay, so, February I think is a quiet time of the year. There’s not often a lot going on. If you live in a cold weather climate then you’re generally indoors. We’re constructing a family. I just finished teaching workshop on using collateral research methods, the idea that you research your whole family group. Not just your direct ancestor, but all their siblings and the whole group so that you can get a sense for the whole family and so you learn more about the ancestor that you care the most about. So, use February to reconstruct a whole family.  

Fisher: Well, and the benefits of that too is that as you investigate some of the siblings within the family, you often talk to cousins who have stories about your own directs as well in the process.

Sunny: That’s absolutely true. And sometimes your more elusive ancestors, especially the women or the ones who just never committed themselves to a lot of paper documents, those records, if you can figure out who their siblings are, maybe there was a sibling who wrote a lot of letters or who bought a lot of property and left a big will with everybody’s names in it, a lot of times you can use those siblings’ records as surrogate for your own ancestor.

Fisher: All right, March.

Sunny: March is all about the women, women’s history month. So, sometimes you have to go a little bit of the extra mile to find out more about the women. Not just their last names so you can keep going on the family line, but the women themselves. Try to learn a little bit more about what their experiences might have been, or who they were, what they did throughout their lives, even take an MT-DNA test if that’s a good match for your family history goals, but paying attention to the women on the tree.

Fisher: Okay. Let’s go to April.

Sunny: I mentioned MT-DNA but April 25th is National DNA Day.

Fisher: Yes.

Sunny: So, everyone runs sales. I spend April looking ahead saying okay, is there somebody I need to test, or is there a particular strategy that I need a Y-DNA test for, or something like that. So, I’m watching the sales and figuring out who I want to shop a test for and what my question is. So, April’s a great time to do more with DNA.

Fisher: Yeah, absolutely. And if you can kind of store up those tests. I really learned long ago that I never can have too many DNA tests on hand, test kits to give to people, or to have people buy back from me as they need them because folks inevitably come out of the woodwork at one point or another and share a goal that requires DNA at some point.

Sunny: Yeah absolutely. And if you can have that test on hand and commit them right there, then that’s a great thing to have those on hand.

Fisher: Absolutely. All right, we’re getting through spring time, May.

Sunny: So, May, I suggest you doing a house history.

Fisher: Ooh.

Sunny: And this is something you could do for your ancestral home or your own house, which can also be really interesting.

Fisher: Yes.

Sunny: Now Covid could put the kibosh on this a little bit, so depending on what offices or archives may be open and that kind of thing. But there’s a lot that you can do online looking at old maps of a neighborhood, looking at old census records to get those exact address that might be written down the left-hand column, written up vertically, some deed research may be able to at least be started online, so there’s a lot that you could still do to look for whatever you can find about the place, the neighborhood, the home itself, the property that a family lived in.   

Fisher: I have seriously been considering this for my childhood home because I grew up on the same street the whole time.

Sunny: Wow.

Fisher: And I’d like to know who lived there back in the day because my dad, mom, built the house that I grew up in but it was out in the woods. Who owned that property, what was going on there 200, 300 years ago?

Sunny: Well, and what did it mean to you that you lived in a home that your parents built? There has to be some sort of connection there that I think would be really meaningful as a relative to read about.

Fisher: Sure, absolutely. All right, let’s get into the summer months, June.

Sunny: Go outside, at least where I live. June is the perfect time of year to get outside and maybe go through those old ancestral properties, or take a walk an old family neighborhood, visit graveyards, take a trip to a library, like your ancestral hometown library where they might have a lot of local materials, and take Google Earth and let it show you around the streets and the neighborhoods if you can’t go there yourself.

Fisher: All right, July.

Sunny: So July, in my family we do a lot of reconnecting. That’s the time that everyone gets together. And who knows what that will look like for this year, right?

Fisher: Right.

Sunny: We just don’t know what that’s going to look like, and we don’t want to pre-empt that before we’re sure.

Fisher: I’m optimistic. I’m going to get poked. I’m sure a lot of people are at some point. Maybe we’ll be able to do some of that this summer.

Sunny: Go ahead. Take the lead. If you have to be the one to make the plan in order for it to happen, take the plunge. Schedule some time, go ahead and ask a little bit about family history, plan to share some thing, get family time together. Reconnecting is a great thing to do in the middle of the summer.

Fisher: All right, the hot month of August.

Sunny: Yeah, August gets a little bit too hot for me sometimes.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Sunny: But I’m all about the road trip. I love to go to living history destinations. Anywhere that I can put myself into the past, physically, and I can surround myself with the sights and the smells and by the aromas. Perhaps there’ll be the good aromas not the bad aromas of the past. But the sounds of the past, the crafts, watch the black smith at work, or somebody doing pottery, or making a candle, anything that really gives you an appreciation of what it was like to be your ancestor. So, I love anything that I can do to travel into the past. 

Fisher: Love it, into the fall now, September.

Sunny: September to me has always been about go buy that new box of pencils and sharpen them all, put your name on your notebooks and back to school. That was me. I was always the first geeking out over new school supplies. But I love September as a creative re-launch for learning. For me, after the dull days of summer where I’ve just sort of checked out and just enjoyed the outdoors, I’m ready to get fired up again mentally, so I like to take classes in September and looking around for something to learn. You can do that at a library, a society, online, listen to podcasts, finding a new show, all those kinds of things, anything that you can do to learn. 

Fisher: Absolutely. Like, binge listen to Extreme Genes. Okay. [Laughs]

Sunny: I’m looking forward to that.

Fisher: October.

Sunny: So, I like to think of October as a month for getting back. But that’s traditionally our family history month here in the United States.

Fisher: Yep.

Sunny: And I think it’s a great opportunity to you know, head out. The weather is still good in many places. It’s sort of a transitional season to head outside and go to a local cemetery and upload tombstone photos to Find A Grave, or Billion Graves, or respond to other people that have asked for those, or do some indexing, those kinds of things, anything that can help volunteer. 

Fisher: I think volunteering is a really important part of your balance as a family historian because when you give, then you get back. It just seems to work that way. All right, November.

Sunny: November, now we’re moving into the season that we just came out of. I think November is a wonderful season for sharpening your story telling skills. It’s national novel writing month, and we’re not going to write a novel about our ancestors’ lives. First of all, they were true, right?

Fisher: [Laughs] Yeah.

Sunny: And we’re not going to fictionalize them, but it’s a great time to get your creative juices going. There’s lots of libraries and groups that have prompts and writing prompts and ideas to get your juices flowing because it is still a creative process even whether you’re writing the truth. So, try to find an ancestor whose story you’re exited to write about, and then just create a little timeline, or draft something. Maybe if you thought about it as a book jacket, what would it say, just that 500 words, or that 50 words and then write the story, and even if it’s not something that you out in print, although I would hope you world, you’ve got the story there in your brain and you can share it. Well, next time in November you’re looking ahead to Thanksgiving, another holiday gathering and you’re going to be primed and ready to tell that story.   

Fisher: Yeah. And perhaps even print it up like you talk about and share it at Christmas time.

Sunny: Right. And I’ve done that before. And in fact, one time when I did something oral history interviews and I transcribed them and put them into a booklet, one of the two members of that couple has now passed away and that little book is now the story of his life in his own voice.

Fisher: Yeah.

Sunny: With pictures and things like that. So, December is a great time as you just sort of pull to the end of the year, you’re gathering your relatives, and it’s a great time to celebrate traditions, a great time to remember loved ones. I think it’s a great time of year to show displays that honor your relatives whether they’re there, whether they’ve passed, or whether there’s somebody that you’re missing. A lot of people do have harder times at the holidays. They’re grieving, or they’re lonely, and this is a way to sort of bring that sense of belonging back to life.

Fisher: And of course wherever you live, your weather is going to affect things. It’s warmer in the south but you might have ancestors in the north, and it might be vice versa. Nonetheless, you can adapt these anyway you see fit, or do none of it at all, do half of it, or whatever it might be. And if you want to see Sunny’s article from Family Tree Magazine online, we’ve linked to it at ExtremeGenes.com. Sunny, thanks so much. This is great stuff, a great reminder. You’ve given me a lot to think about and we look forward to talking with you again soon.

Sunny: Definitely. Thanks Scott.

Segment 3 Episode 360

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Russell Shorto

Fisher: And welcome back to Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. You know, it’s not often that I get an offer to talk to somebody who’s written a historical novel and written about his family in the mafia. And yet, we have that guest today. And that’s Russell Shorto, he’s a bestselling author. Russell it’s great to have you on the show.

Russell: Thank you Scott, great to be with you.

Fisher: Now, fill me in on this. You’ve been a writer your whole life. I see you actually got a knighthood from the Dutch government for some work you’ve done and you’ve written for the New York Times Magazine. What got you into historical storytelling?

Russell: Well, I’m glad you put it that way, historical storytelling. And you mention novel, I just want to clarify, I don’t write fiction. So, this latest book is non-fiction. It’s different for me because it’s memoire.

Fisher: Okay.

Russell: It’s family history but this is my seventh book and what I write is narrative history. So, to me that’s storytelling.

Fisher: Yes.

Russell: But it’s storytelling based on... I mean everything is foot-noted so what I’m most known is for a book I wrote called “The Island at the Center of the World” about the Dutch founding of New York. I’ve written a book about the American Revolution. So, most of what I’ve written about is long ago and several years ago, an elderly relative came back to my homes town when I was home over Christmas and said, “When are you going to write about your grandfather and the mob?”

Fisher: [Laughs] That’s not a question you hear everyday Russell.

Russell: Exactly. But, I’ve always known that my grandfather was involved with the mob but there was a little bit of a like, I guess you would say a veil of silence my family had over it.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Russell: And I was an obedient son. I didn’t put it in my mind that it was a possible thing to write about.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Russell: But, he popped the bubble and it happened at a time when those people are gone. So really this is history.

Fisher: Yeah. No harm anymore.

Russell: Yeah. And it’s American history and yet there are these old people around who were the young guys then who had stories. So, I suddenly felt like, I have to do this now because it’s going to be gone.

Fisher: Sure. You were going to lose your sources.

Russell: Right and as a historian I was very concerned to ground everything. So, I’m talking to old guys and very aware that maybe they’re just spinning a yarn here. So, I’d get a second source. I did FBI freedom of information act.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Russell: You know, just everything I could to collaborate. And I tell you, it’s just such a different world because it’s doing history.

Fisher: Sure.

Russell: Just like when I’m writing the history of the Dutch founding of New York 400 years ago. But, it’s family and it’s within living memory. So, it’s personal and I got so wrapped up in it that I was asked to be writer in residence at a college in New York and I made my workshop writing family history.

Fisher: Wow!

Russell: It got so much interest among the students and I was so energized by it that I’m now kind of a devotee of the very topic of your show which is how meaningful it is to explore your family history. So, I now have an online course which is, “Tellourfamilystory.com.” And there are certain things that I find over and over which is people have a story. They think they know the story but once you get into it, wait a second, it wasn’t like that.

Fisher: [Laughs] No.

Russell: So, there are so many ways explore it and to I guess, be enriched by it that I just find it endlessly fascinating.

Fisher: Well, I can imagine. When did you first find out about your grandfather and the mafia, and what was his role with it?

Russell: He and his brother in law ran the kind of mob franchise in my hometown, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Fisher: Okay.

Russell: I’ve always known that, but as I say, I tried not to think about it, put it out of my mind.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Russell: But once I started to explore it, partly what I’m telling in the book is the story of this small town mob in America, which was everywhere, from Schenectady to Fresno.

Fisher: Sure.

Russell: It was just everywhere. And in most places they were providing a public service. It was gambling.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Russell: In the days before TV everybody did it. And you know they had to pay off the cops and pay off the mayor.

Fisher: Right, right.

Russell: But most people saw it as this innocuous service they were providing.

Fisher: So, the book is called, “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob.” Tell me some story that you found for this book that just never leaves your head Russell.

Russell: Well, there was a convenient for my purposes, a murder right in the middle of the story. [Laughs]

Fisher: Oh, wow.

Russell: Of a bookie who was murdered with an ice pick or some other object that was sharp and pointy.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Russell: His name was Pippy Difalco, so great name, right out of Central Casting.

Fisher: Yes.

Russell:  And he had been working for my grandfather but was known to kind of go outside and work on his own, or possibly work for other outfits. And so, he is missing and then he turns up a couple of months later in the river and that has never been solved. So that becomes the center of my story.

Fisher: Sure.

Russell: So, it’s a story of how these guys built this, really a franchise in what was then a very bustling steel town. But at the very center of it is this murder and that changes everything, and the murder happened in 1960. At the time that Kennedy comes into the White House and Bobby Kennedy is going to crack down on the mob and certainly the attorney general of the Unites States Bobby Kennedy is talking with the mayor of my little town. So it connects to larger events. So, I think that was kind of the waking up of a small town.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Russell: And that happened in places all across the country because that America kind of wising up to what was going on.

Fisher: So, it wasn’t just the gambling but it was starting to get violent as well.

Russell: Exactly. And at the same time there had been the Kefauver Commission hearings of Congress in the ‘50s.

Fisher: Right.

Russell: Which were forcing the government to acknowledge that there was this nationwide organized crime thing happening. So, all of that is the backdrop to what is to me a very personal family story because this is really the story of my grandparents, of their marriage, of how my grandfather ran this operation but also I think it was mentally too much for him.

Fisher: What was the front? What did he do as his legitimate work?

Russell: It was called City Cigar. It was a cigar store and behind the cigar store was a pool-room.

Fisher: Okay

Russell: And that was the base out of which they ran upstairs where all the bookies brought the take upstairs. People told there were about 100 people in town who worked just for the numbers game.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Russell: And then they also did card games and dice games around town. They had big shot card games with ten thousand dollar pots and that kind of thing.

Fisher: Wow.

Russell: And pinball machines.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Russell: People gambled on pinball. You played a pinball machine in a bar, but what you did is, you’d rack up so many free games and then you’d go to the bartender and he’d pay you for your free games and reset the machine. And that’s how all over the place they turned pinball into a gambling device.

Fisher: Now, of course the stereo type was always Sicilian, Italian, is that what your grandfather was?

Russell: Yes. And another way I have of looking at this story is, this is the American immigrants’ story which is partly a story of discrimination. So, a group comes over, in this case, Southern Italians.

Fisher: Right.

Russell: They are brought in to do jobs other people don’t want to do and in this case it was in the coal mines. And then they’re discriminated against. And people I talked to, talked about how their parents’ memories were of not being allowed to work in the steel-mill which was the big main employer in town. At that time, Southern Italians and blacks couldn’t work in the steel-mill unless there was a strike. They couldn’t open a bank account. So, they were blocked out of most of society. So what they do then as we know, the mob comes out of prohibition. Sure enough, my great grandmother ran a still.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Russell: And my grandfather peddled coke bottles filled with alcohol on the streets and they did this for a local kind of proto mafia figure, an old Italian guy in the neighborhood. And then, as prohibition ends, my grandfather is running card games out of a trunk of a car. And then, that turns into this kind of formalized operation where they sent money on a monthly basis to Pittsburgh and from Pittsburgh it went to New York.

Fisher: Ah.

Russell: So, it’s fascinating to me how much they looked up to American capitalism and tried to copy features of it, including opening franchises.

Fisher: Sure. Right and that’s what it sounds like this was.

Russell: It was indeed a franchise.

Fisher: So, did you know your grandfather?

Russell: I was around him a few times in my childhood. By the time I was aware, he had become progressively worse and worse drinker and he was quite a womanizer. And my family had at that point kind of ostracized him. And in fact the mob had too. He had quit the mob by then. So to me, he was a kind of sad and kind of dark figure by the time I was aware.

Fisher: Sure. He is Russell Shorto. He is the author of “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob.” The book is out February 2nd. Where can they get it Russell?

Russell: I hope everywhere.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Russell: On Amazon, at your local bookstore if it’s open in this time of Covid.

Fisher: Awesome. Well, I’m looking forward to reading it myself and thanks for coming on and sharing the stories. It’s fascinating.

Russell: Thank you so much Scott.

Fisher: And coming up next, Dr. Henry Louis Gates joins us again to talk about his newest episode upcoming on Finding Your Roots on PBS, when we return in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 4 Episode 360

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Dr. Henry Louis Gates

Fisher: All right, Dr. Henry Louis Gates is back on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com to talk about his upcoming episode on Finding Your Roots on PBS. Dr. Gates, good to have you again.

Dr. Gates: Thank you, Scott for having me on your show. We have launched season seven of Finding Your Roots. I can't believe it!

Fisher: I know. Amazing.

Dr. Gates: It’s amazing. And this is the second episode. In episode 2, it’s called Against All Odds, and it features Andy Cohen and Nina Totenberg. As you know, Andy Cohen is a media personality and Nina is the famous NPR radio journalist and they meet ancestors who struggled mightily as we're going to hear to survive. Let's start with Andy Cohen. Andy grew up in St Louis where his family owned a food distribution company known as Lasco and both of his parents worked there and as a youth of course, so did Andy. The company's origins lay with Andy's great grandfather, man named Louis Allan. Louis came to America from Russia in the 1890s when he was about 23 years old. He had nothing of course. He started out as a peddler, hauling his wares from farmhouse to farmhouse on foot before he was even able to afford a horse and a cart. And he went on, he saved his pennies and founded a dry goods store that would eventually grow into Louis Allen Sons and Company and its acronym is LASCO. Now, a rival record show that Louis came to America from a small town outside of the city of Białystok in modern day Poland. It was at that that time, part of the Russian empire located at what was known as The Pale of Settlement. Though records from the pale are scarce, we were able to show Andy, incredibly, the Synagogue where his family most likely worshipped and to trace his Allen line, their name was Yellen back in Russia. We traced the Allen line back to his forth great grandfathers who were likely born in 1750, a quarter of a century before the American Revolution.

Fisher: Wow!

Dr. Gates: And he was 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, but he had a beautiful, brilliant DNA cousin who's Scarlett Johansson.

Fisher: Oh wow! [Laughs]

Dr. Gates: And though she's Scandinavian, her mother is Jewish and that's the connection. And now, let me tell you about Nina Totenberg. Nina's father, Roman Totenberg was a world famous violinist who led a truly epic life. Roman was born in 1911 to a middle class Jewish family in what is now Poland, then part of the Russian empire. He was a child prodigy and his talents helped him survive and feed his family during the Russian Revolution and the massive famine that followed that. And by the early 1930s, he had a fabulous career touring Europe and the Americas. And his stature as an artist enabled him to immigrate to the United States as World War II loomed, but that didn't mean his family back in Europe was safe. After Roman came to America, his mother Stanisława found herself trapped in Paris, unable to leave due to American immigration quotas. And Roman, oh Scott, it’s so sad, desperately tried to get his mother out. We found all these letters he wrote to all these government officials. And unlike the vast majority of European Jews, Nina's grandmother got out quickly because of that. The day after France surrendered to the Nazis, Stanisława crossed into Portugal the day after France surrendered.

Fisher: Wow!

Dr. Gates: And was able to board one of the last ships carrying Jewish refugees to America. But though his mother had been saved, the family's ordeal wasn't over. His older sister, Nina's aunt, Janina was stranded in Warsaw with her husband and child when the Nazis invaded. And in the fall of 1940, the Germans established a ghetto for Warsaw’s Jewish population. Janina’s husband died in that ghetto, though Janina managed to obtain false papers and escaped with her young daughter miraculously, at least 10 of Roman's many aunts, uncles and cousins perished in the Warsaw ghetto. And she had a famous DNA cousin, and that was Carly Simon!

Fisher: Really?

Dr. Gates: [Laughs] Yeah.

Fisher: And of course I can't wait to see the show. It’s on Wednesday nights on PBS. Check your local listings for the time. And Dr. Gates, we'll talk to you again next week.

Dr. Gates: Okay, take care. Thank you.

Fisher: And coming up next, David Allen Lambert with another question on Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 5 Episode 360

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, we're back for Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth, that's David Allen Lambert back from the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. And David, our question today comes from Jim in Boise, Idaho. And he says, "Guys, the 1920 census shows my ancestor was an engineer. Other records showed me he was specifically a railroad engineer. What kind of records might be out there on my old great grandfather?" Good question, Jim. David, what say you?

David: Well, there's all sorts of records that you can find and luckily he's a 20th century railroad engineer. My own great grandfather was an engineer with the Canadian National Railroad and I can even find his railroad brotherhood records, Association of Brotherhood, Railroad workers up in Canada, I found Canadian National Railway employment records, including the time that he drove the engine backwards to the wrong station.

Fisher: Oh! [Laughs]

David: So, you might find some good stuff like that. Yeah, Tom Clark's a story for another day, but he was known as Wildcat Tom Clark and that's the whole episode. So, your ancestor, obviously you want to start locally. You want to obviously try to get an obituary for him that might say the years and what railroad company he was working for. Like here in New England, we have Amtrak and we have the old Boston and Maine Railroad, and we have the Boston and Providence Railroad. So, different corporations kept different records, and you might find that a local university or archive might actually have the former employment records or ledgers which might be very useful. But what's really useful is that you can find somebody in the early 20th century and something's a little different. Now, in genealogy, Fish, we're always looking at the social security records for maybe a relative or a distant cousin. But for the railroad, it’s a little different. So the railroad retirement pension index, which is on Ancestry.com is currently available from 1934 to 1987 and has thousands upon thousands of former railroad engineers and signalmen and conductors and every aspect. So you may be able to find the history of his employment just simply by going to Ancestry.com and looking at that index. The other thing that might be useful, once you find out where he was living, try the local historical society, maybe there's a picture of him with his engine, which is something I've always dreamed of finding with mine or maybe you might find that there are people that were working back in the '40s and may have actually even knew him, checking for interviews in the newspaper, that sort of thing. For me, I actually have his railroad engineer's watch. I don't have a photo of him, but I have the watch. And for me, that's the closest thing I can find.

Fisher: That's pretty special! Wow!

David: Of my great grandfather, Rayden. So, maybe you have some family ephemera that maybe you don't have, but maybe one of your cousins does, you know. So, keep your eyes peeled. But, local resources are just as important as federal ones, like you can find on Ancestry.com. And of course, we're always talking about the valuable asset, newspapers and Newspapers.com or Genealogy Bank, whatever you might use. You may find a story about his life in the railroad. Maybe there was a railroad accident that he was connected with unfortunately, maybe he was there when they wrote an article about him retiring from the railroad back in the 1930s or 1940s whenever he retired. So, there's all sorts of things out there, it’s just kind of looking at the local sources for it.

Fisher: Oh yeah.

David: Then going to the employment records and then looking at federal records and seeing what you can find, which you've already kind of done with the census.

Fisher: I don't have a lot of railroad connections other than the fact that I was in a train wreck in 1973 at Mount Vernon, New York when our train plowed into the back of the other train that was stopped at the train station there. Our engineer missed a signal and that was it.

David: Oh, gosh!

Fisher: An amazingly awful night for an awful lot of people. Anyway, David, great stuff. Thank you so much Jim, thanks for the question. And if you have a question for Ask Us Anything, you can always email us at [email protected]. Well, that's our show for this week. Thanks so much for joining us. Thanks to Sunny Morton and Russell Shorto and Dr. Henry Louis Gates. If you missed any of the show this week, of course catch the podcast on iTunes, iHeart Radio, TuneIn Radio, Spotify, we're all over the place. Talk to you next week. And remember, as far as everyone knows, we're a nice, normal family!




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