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Solving a 111 Year Old Mystery Part 2: Shaking the Family Tree

A couple nights after discovering I was the direct descendant of Australian convicts, I woke up at 3:30 am with a thought in my head. Search for my Great-Grandmother and the last name Cohen in Australia. The scientific side of me thinks that my subconscious must have been working on the mystery in my sleep and thats probably what happened. The spiritual side of me thinks that maybe something else happened. Maybe something a little supernatural?

Whatever the cause, I got out of bed and did a search on Ancestry.com for Ethel Margaret Cross + Spouse = Cohen + Location = Australia. What came up? A marriage record from the Australia Marriage Index for Ethel Margt Cross and Hyman Dvoretsky Cohen in Victoria, Australia in 1900! I had discovered the first link between my Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather. After adding this record to my family tree and adding my Grandfathers first and middle names to his record, a leaf appeared in the tree. That leaf was a burial record from the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry for Hyman Cohen in the Brooke Street Cemetery in Durban South Africa on December 28, 1901. I added this record to our tree then went online to the National Archives of South Africa and found what I believe to be a death record, though I still dont have confirmation of that. I then contacted the University of Cape Town to see if they had any records of my GreatGrandfather. This morning Janine Blumberg from the University of Cape Towns Kaplan Centre sent me a photo of Hyman Cohens tombstone! Parts of the tombstone are illegible but this is what we can read so far (thanks to Shmuly Tennenhaus for the Hebrew translation!):

(In Hebrew)
Buried here...
Year 5662, on the 18th day of the month of Tevet
Chaim, the son of Raphael Cohen

(In English)
Dearly Beloved Husband of Ethel Cohen
Who Met His Death In The Umgeni Railway Explosion
Died on The 28th of Dec 1901
Aged 28 Years

Deeply Mourned by his Sorrowful Wife & Child
God Rest His Soul in Peace

Ive got to admit that I might have cried some tears of joy when I got this photo. Finally after all these years I had the connection I was looking for. The tombstone mentioned my Great-Grandmother and my Grandfather! I now have a marriage certificate, a burial record and a tombstone that connect my Great-Grandparents to each other and to their son, my Grandfather.

So what I have learned from all of this. I learned that I am the direct descendant of Australian Convicts and I come from a large Australian family that has over 30,000 members. I learned that I am the direct descendant of a possibly Eastern European Jew (based on his middle name of Dvorlesky), who married my Great-Grandmother in Australia, moved to South Africa with her, had a child and then died when my Grandfather was only 9 months old. I learned that my family is so much more diverse (and large!) than I ever could have imagined.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions. How did a Gentile girl from a rural town in New South Wales and a Jewish boy meet and marry in early 20th century Australia. (My guess is that interfaith marriages at the time were rare, which makes the story even more incredible.) Did my Great-Grandmother convert to Judaism before they got married. Why did my Great Aunt Edith and the rest of the family try to hide all of this? Was it the fact that we were descended from Australian convicts? Was it because we were of Jewish descent? (Again my guess is that there werent a lot of either group living in early 20th century Truro, Nova Scotia, so they probably thought they had to keep it a secret.)

I know Ill never know the reason for the lie. Everyone who participated in it is now dead. So where do I go from here? Well Ive got yet another line of my family to research (the Cohens). Ive got a Cross/Flood Family Reunion to attend in Windsor NSW Australia in 2015! But the most important thing I want to do now is fly to Durban South Africa and place a stone on my Great-Grandfathers grave. Im not really a religious person, I tend to favor science over religion, but I feel that I have to do this to let him know that he has been found by his family. That he hasnt been forgotten. This journey has reminded me just how connected all of humanity is to each other. Over the last 250 years tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of people have lived who are related to me. If that doesnt make you realize how connected we all are to each other, nothing will.

Prologue: In the Summer of 1967 I met my Great-Grandmother for the first and last time. Since I was only 2 I obviously dont remember too much about the event. I do have a vague recollection of being knocked down the back stairs of her house by her dog, which my Dad always claimed really happened. The other piece of family folklore that came out of this event was that my Great-Grandma looked at me and noticed that I had a ring of light brown/dark blond hair on top of my head in the shape of a halo. She said that the halo meant I would always have good luck in my life. Now I dont know how true thats been, but part of me believes that maybe she saw that one day I would be lucky enough to bring our family back together, 111 years after it was broken apart.

P.S. I wanted to list all of the surnames of my direct family line (that I know of) from my 2nd Great-Grandparents to my parents. Their surnames are:

Cross, Douglass, Wile (Weil), Ernst, Hirtle, Conrad, Cohen, Panizza, Neggia, Peci, Martini

Im actively researching all of these lines. If you think you might be related to me you can contact me at fxmartini at gmail.com and Ill give you access to my Ancestry.com family tree.

P.S. The original version of this post, Solving a 111 Year Old Mystery Part 2: Shaking the Family Tree can be viewed on my blog - Martini with a Twist. It includes several photos of my Grandfather and his family from late 19th century Australia & early 20th century South Africa.

16 comment(s), latest 4 years, 1 month ago

Solving a 111 Year Old Mystery Part 1: Who are we?

This week I solved a 111 year old mystery. The mystery of the identity of my Grandfathers parents, where they were from and what happened to them. My Grandfather Harold Kent was born in Durban, South Africa on March 19, 1901. For many years all we knew about his birth was that his Mother (Ethel Margaret Cross) had been born in Liverpool, England and was the daughter of a British Army Officer (Alexander Cross) & his wife (Victoria J. Douglass), and his Father was Herbert H. Kent, the son of a Canadian timber baron from Truro, Nova Scotia. They moved from South Africa to Truro in 1906 where they had two more children (Myrtle and Edith). Herbert abandoned the family sometime around 1911 or 1912 and was never heard from again. In time we came to realize that only parts of this story were true.

Ive been working on my Family Tree for over 20 years now. My Mom was the original genealogist in the family and for whatever reason I caught the bug too. In early November 1998 I decided to research my Grandfathers maternal line to see if I could trace it back to Liverpool, England. I immediately ran into a dead-end. I couldnt find any record of an Ethel Margaret Cross, Alexander Cross or Victoria J. Douglass in Liverpool during the late 19th century. I contacted a distant relative of mine in Nova Scotia (Jane Wile) and asked her if she could check with the Colchester County Archives in Truro for information on my Great-Grandmother. What she found in the Kent file at the archives was a note from my Great Aunt Beryl (Herbert Howards half-sister) that was probably written in the 1970s. It said:

Herbert H. Kent of 670 Prince Street, Truro, was a half-brother of Mrs. Beryl (Kent) Fraser. This would make him a son of William Joyce Kent and Willena Mary Ross. He adopted a boy, Harold and gave him the Kent name.
She also found a wedding announcement for my Great-Grandmother in the newspaper archives:

KENT-COHEN Saturday, December 16, at the residence of Mrs. Beck Wills Lane, by the Rev. A.S. MacPhee M.A., B.D., Herbert H. Kent, eldest son of W.J. Kent, Truro, Nova Scotia, to Ethel M. Cohen. Truro Daily News, Thursday, January, 25, 1906

These two pieces of paper blew up the lie that we had been told for years. We discovered that Herbert Howard Kent was not my Grandfathers Father, but his stepfather. We discovered that my Great-Grandmother had married him in late 1905 nearly 5 years after my Grandfather had been born. Even more confusing the wedding announcement listed her last name as Cohen, not Cross. My Mom asked my Grandfather about this, but he claimed not to know anything about it. What I should have done at this point was call my Grandfather and talked to him myself, but three days after getting this information, my daughter Alex was diagnosed with Leukemia. By the time I returned to researching the story in 2004, my Grandfather had passed away (on February 21, 1999 at the age of 98) and so I turned to his sole surviving sister, my Great Aunt Edith, to see if she could shed some light on any of this. She refused to tell me (or anyone else in the family) any information beyond a few simple facts:

1) My Grandfather was still a Kent (even if he really wasnt one by blood).
2) My Grandmothers maiden name was definitely Cross.
3) My Grandfathers Father was a soldier during the Boer War in South Africa who had been killed.

That was it. When we pressed her for additional information, she wrote a letter to my Mother saying she was done talking about it. For the next 7 years I searched for any clue that would help me figure out the truth, but again ran into nothing but dead-ends. Then last Friday I received an email from Ancestry.com announcing that the 1940 U.S. Census had been completely indexed and was now searchable. On a whim I decided to do a search for my Mom and Dads families. My Dads (Leo A. Martini) family I found easily, but I couldnt find anything on my Moms. I did a few more searches and then at some point I decided I might as well try a free trial with Ancestry.com to see if I could find some more information about my family. Now Ive had a free account on Ancestry.com for over 10 years and Ive never really thought about getting a paid account, as I didnt think it would be worth it. For some reason I decided at that moment that I should try it out. I signed up, uploaded my GEDCOM file for my family tree and some leaves (hints) immediately came up. Some of it was stuff I already knew, but a lot of it was new information. Still no new information came up for my Great-Grandmother (Ethel Margaret Cross) or her line of the family.

After a couple of hours of checking out the leaves, I was looking at Alexander Cross record (My 2nd Great-Grandfather). Again on a whim I decided to do a search based on his name and his wifes name. The first search result to come up was a Marriage Certificate for Alexander Cross & Victoria Jane Douglass. I had found my 2nd Great-Grandparents marriage certificate, which was great, but even more amazingly it turned out they werent married in England, they had been married in Windsor, New South Wales, Australia in 1878! All of sudden I knew why I could never find them in Liverpool England. They werent English, they were Australian!

Once I attached the marriage certificate to my Great-Grandparents and added the info to their records, a flood of new leaves appeared. I found the birth records for my Great-Grandmother and her two sisters (Victoria Florence & Edith Clarabel), as well as a bunch of other family records. I discovered that my Great-Grandmother wasnt the daughter of a British Army Officer, but a direct descendant, through both of her parents, of two survivors of the Second Fleet of convicts that arrived in Australia in 1790 (Charles Cross & Rose Hannah Flood)!

Over the next couple days I filled my family tree back from Ethel Margaret Cross to Charles Cross & Rose Hannah Flood. I got in contact with my a few of my new found relatives in Australia and discovered that:

1) The Cross/Flood family was a pioneering family in the Antelope Valley area of New South Wales.
Theyve printed a registry of Cross/Flood descendants which lists over 30,000 descendants! (i.e. My family tree has just gotten a hell of a lot bigger!)

2) The ship (The Neptune) that Charles Cross & Rose Hannah Flood came to Australia on took six months to sail from England to Australia, and the conditions on board were horrendous (over 30% of the convicts on board the 2nd Fleet died in transit).

3) Charles Cross had been sentenced to 7 years in prison for stealing a silver buckle in Ilchester, England and Rose Hannah Flood had been sentenced to 7 years in prison for stealing a tablecloth and an apron in London.
They have a family reunion every 5 years in Windsor New South Wales (next one is 2015 & yes I will be there if I can).

All of this just blew me away. The first part of the family mystery had been solved! We were not British, but Australian (by way of England of course). We were not descendants of a British Army Officer, but descendants of convicts, who had been forcibly relocated to Australia under horrendous conditions after being convicted of crimes that today would probably be of little consequence (i.e. they would be misdemeanors). Was this the great family secret that my Aunt Edith refused to divulge to us? Something told me this was only part of the story.

Click here for Part 2: Shaking the Family Tree.

P.S. The original version of this post, Solving a 111 Year Old Mystery Part 1: Who are we? can be viewed on my blog - Martini with a Twist. It includes several photos of my Grandfather and his family from late 19th century Australia & early 20th century South Africa.

3 comment(s), latest 4 years, 1 month ago