Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Ghost of an Apartment’s Former Inhabitant

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What you see above is a New York City landlord's ledger entry for a tenant named Vivian Grant, who lived in a Manhattan apartment building in 1960. The ledger was found by a woman named Joanne O’Connor, who now lives in that same building. A few years ago she became curious about the building's history, so she poked around in the basement and discovered the ledger, which indicated that Vivian Grant had once lived in Apartment 2F. That happens to be the same apartment where Ms. O'Connor now lives, so she decided to learn as much about Vivian Grant as she could.

As it turns out, there was a lot to learn. Vivian Grant had died in as the result of a botched illegal abortion, which was a major news story at the time. Here's how the Daily News covered it (click to enlarge):

The more Ms. O'Connor learned about her apartment's former occupant, the more obsessed with the story she became. She spent long hours poring over microfilm, examining court records, tracking down relatives, visiting Vivian's grave. She even named her cat Vivian Grant.

All of this, and a lot more, is described in this excellent article, which I can't recommend highly enough. Engagingly told and endearingly written, it's a great story. PermaRec's highest rating — don't miss.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Old Rifle Found in National Park

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It's hard to see because it's so well camouflaged into the background, but it's there: an 1882 Winchester rifle. An archaeologist named Eva Jensen recently found it leaning against a juniper tree in Great Basin National Park in Nevada. It's not clear how it got there, how long it was there, or who it belonged to, although those questions are currently the subject of lots of speculation among historians and gun enthusiasts.

It's fun to think that the rifle could have been left there, propped against the tree, for over 100 years. But one article I read had a reader comment that said (I'm paraphrasing here), "If it had really been there that long, it wouldn't look like the tree; it would be part of the tree." Hmmmmm. In any case, the rifle is now being studied, although the odds of finding out how it got there seem pretty remote. Here's a short audio report on it from All Things Considered:

Thursday, January 22, 2015

An Old Letter With Life-Changing News

What if you had a son but didn't know it? And what if someone had tried to tell you about that son more than 50 years ago by mailing you a letter? And what if someone had intercepted that letter and kept it from you, and now you just found it?

That's the situation for a Michigan man named Tony Trapani. Trapani, who's now 81 years old, impregnated a woman in 1953. The woman didn't initially tell him about the child but eventually broke the news to him in a letter that she mailed in 1959, by which time Trapani was married to another woman. That woman, Trapani's wife, apparently saw the letter before he did, opened it, and then hid it in a file cabinet.

The wife died several years ago. Trapani recently found the letter while going through the file cabinet and was stunned to learn he had a son. And just for added poignancy, Trapani and his wife had always wanted children but had been unable to conceive.

Meanwhile, the person identified in the letter as Trapani's son, Samual Childress, who's now 61, grew up thinking that his father wanted nothing to do with him. His mother had told him about the letter she'd mailed and they both mistakenly assumed that Trapani had simply ignored it. Childress and Trapani have now met (they have literally two lifetimes' worth of stories to catch up on), and they're planning a DNA test just to make sure they truly are related.

We've done several stories here at Permanent Record regarding old letters or letters that were really slow in being delivered. This story is sort of a hybrid of those two categories. You can learn more here, and here's a video report from a Michigan TV station:

The big question here, at least for me, is why the wife saved the letter instead of just discarding it. My hunch: She initially thought to herself, "At some point later we'll deal with this, but I'm not ready for it yet." As weeks turned to months, months to years, she found herself painted into a corner — the longer she waited, the harder it became to reveal the truth to her husband. At some point she acknowledged to herself that she was never going to tell him, but she also couldn't bring herself to destroy the letter, which was a symbol of her sin and deceit, much like Poe's tell-tale beating heart. And she hoped her husband would stumble upon the letter after she was gone (as he eventually did), so that he could learn the truth without her having to tell him.

Or at least that's my take.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Student of the Week: Teresa Fantazzo

For all documents, click to enlarge

Today we're going to turn our attention to Teresa Fantazzo, a Manhattan Trade School dressmaking student who grew up in Astoria, Queens. Her main card, shown above has two noteworthy items. First, an entry near the bottom notes that she was overweight by 32 pounds. More intriguingly, her father's occupation is listed as "coal heaver," a term I wasn't familiar with, although it seems rather self-explanatory. Some quick Googling produced photos, historical accounts, and more.

Teresa's grade and teach comments were generally good (as always, E = Excellent; G = Good; F = Fair; P = Poor):


The comments at top right from Elsa Pohl are particularly strong: "Conscientious, absolutely dependable, and trustworthy, dignified. Former G.O. president." I believe this last comment refers to the school's General Organization, or student body.

Here's Teresa's employment record, showing an assortment of jobs she had over the course of two and a half years:


Note that her first three jobs were as a dress finisher ("fin."), which is in keeping with her chosen trade of dressmarking. But her remaining jobs were spent operating a Singer sewing machine ("Singer op"). Sewing machine skills were a separate course of study at the school, so it's surprising to me that Teresa moved from one trade to another.

The other noteworthy thing here involves Teresa's third job, for a woman named Amy Campbell. A comment in the far-right column reads, "Miss Campbell did not pay my last week's salary."

Further information on Teresa's missing wages can be found on this card:


The key entries read like so:

Oct. 14, 1931 [comment from job placement secretary, Althea Dreyer Kotter]: Talked with Miss Campbell about your salary check and she said it had been mailed. Evidently lost but she will mail duplicate. Let hear from you about this. — ADK

Nov. 11, 1931 [comment from Teresa]: Have not received any money from Miss Campbell.

Nov. 19, 1931 [comment from Mrs. Kotter]: Call Miss Campbell on the telephone and tell her you will take legal septs to get your money. Prefer to have you handle this yourself. Write me. — ADK

Oct. 25, 1931 [this date is almost certainly wrong and was probably supposed to be Nov. 25}: Miss Campbell paid the $16.

I feel conflicted about the school telling Teresa to handle the situation herself. On the one hand, it's good that they encouraged her to stick up for herself. On the other, this was a job that the school had arranged for Teresa, and she was only 17 years old when this all took place -- pretty young to be threatening employers with legal action. Couldn't the school have interceded on her behalf? In any event, it's good to see that the matter was resolved.

That's all I have for Teresa. If anyone knows more about her, please let me know. Thanks.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Student of the Week: Marian Fantacone

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This week we're examining the record of Marian Fantacone, an Italian-American dressmaking student who lived in the Bronx and attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls in the early 1930s. She was born in March of 1916, which means she's closing in on her 99th birthday if she's still alive. The spelling of her first name keeps switching back and forth between "Marian" and "Marion" in her file, but I'm going to go with Marian, because that's how it's listed on her primary card, which is shown above.

A note next to Marian's photo says, "Temporary aid because of unemployment in home." We'll learn more details about this shortly.

Marian's grades were generally solid, and her teachers' comments were, on the whole, positive (remember, E = Excellent; G = Good; F = Fair; P = Poor):


Next we have Marian's financial aid records, beginning with an assessment of her household, which shows that she was the second-oldest of two children and that her father and older brother -- a bricklayer's helper and a painter, respectively -- were both out of work (not surprising, given that this was in the midst of the Great Depression):


It was standard procedure for the school to make a visit to the home of any student for whom financial aid had been proposed. Here is a school employee's account of the visit to Marian's home:


The report, by a woman named Katherine E. Martin (a name that is not familiar to me from other students' files), reads as follows:

On Wednesday, November 12th, 1930, I visited the home of Marian Fantacone at 2414 Beaumont Ave., Bronx. Mr. Fantacone and his son, who is 19 years old, are out of work. The father has been idle for 2-1/2 months. The son has been doing some painting for the landlord but receives no money for the ob, because two months' rend is owing and the painting is for part payment on the rent, which is $38 per month.

No money is coming into the house. Food is scarce. The grandmother gives what food she can spare.

There are six children, ages 19, 15, 12, 8, 4, 2 years.

The mother is living. Family all in good health.

Their home is very poor and cheerless. They are not receiving any aid from any association.

Marian is in the 5th contract [this refers to the sequence of courses at Manhattan Trade — PL]. Her work is fair, deportment good, has never been absent or tardy.

Her teeth need attention, some to be extracted and cleaned.

Marian was ultimately approved to receive aid for "Carfare and lunches," although the amount of the financial assistance was not specified (that's unusual -- the school was usually meticulous about documenting this type of thing):


Here are some additional notes from Marian's student aid file. These are typed, so I won't bother transcribing them (you can click on the card to see a larger version of it):


The entry from Jan. 6, 1931, referring to a donation from a "Mr. Palmer," is interesting. I'm not sure who this was or what type of donation he made.

Like all the other Manhattan Trade students, Marian was referred for employment by the school's job placement office. Here's her work record, which shows that the school found jobs for her, primarily as a dress finisher ("fin."), for several years after her 1932 graduation:


If you look at the job that Marian held from Nov. 19-22, 1935, you can see that her weekly wages were originally listed as $18 and then changed to $15. That was apparently a point of contention, as we can see on this next card:


The key entries read like so:

Nov. 19, 1935 [comment from Marian]: Told I should get $18. What shall I do?

Nov. 20, 1935 [response from job placement secretary]: Better stay for the $15. It is too late in the season to count on getting more.

This exchange is characteristic of how such issues were typically handled. Whenever a student balked regarding pay levels or other work-related issues, the school almost always encouraged her to stick with the job, or to at least be patient.

That's all I have for Marian (or Marion, as the case may have been). If anyone knows more about her, please get in touch. Thanks.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Student of the Week: Lillian Packer

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The Manhattan Trade School for Girls was founded and staffed by high-minded reformers — people we would generally consider to be progressives (at least in the cultural dimension of that term, if not necessarily the political one). So it's surprising when a blatantly retrograde comment shows up on one of the Manhattan Trade report cards in my collection. That's the case with Lillian Packer, the student whose primary record card is shown above.

As you can see, Lillian began attending Manhattan Trade in June of 1928, when she was about 15 (it's hard top be certain because her date of birth "[could] not be verified"). She was from a large family of Austrian Jews who lived in Brooklyn. She was a small girl — 4'8¼", 83 pounds — and was excused from gym class due to a hernia. Like many of the students, she took an appealing photo:

If we turn the card over, we see Lillian's grades, which show that she was a solid if unspectacular student (remember, E = Excellent; G = Good; F = Fair; P = Poor):


Interestingly, two of the early comments refer to Lillian being "untidy" and another describes her as "careless," but later on she's described as "neat and dependable." We've seen this same pattern on many of the other report cards we've examined — early critical assessments followed later on by more approving comments. It's unclear whether the students actually improved or if the school had a deliberate strategy of using early criticisms as a form of motivation.

Lillian's employment record was short and unremarkable:


And now we get to the card with the unfortunate comment. Here, take a look:


And there it is: "Very small. Average. (Not Jewish looking.) Piqued."

The assessment of Lillian as being "not Jewish looking" echoes the comment about Edna Carrington, the black student whose record includes the line, "Skin not terribly dark." It appears that the school found it particularly noteworthy when a student looked "less ethnic," so to speak. Such comments would never appear in a student's record today, but it's worth noting that many Jews still worry about looking "too Jewish" and many blacks still worry about looking "too black," showing that certain cultural prejudices have been stubbornly difficult to extinguish.