Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New Netherlands becomes New York - finally finished with "The Island at the Center of the World"!

I just finished Russell Shorto's "The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America" and maybe it's just hormones, but I started crying as I read the last page. This is my new favorite book. It took me forever to get through it because life kept getting in the way, but the story Shorto tells and the way he tells it made me fall in love all over again with colonial New York history and my colonial New York ancestry. The world and the people in this book just come alive and jump off the pages and make my fingers itch to do for my colonial family tree branches what I've been trying to do for my more recent family history - really delve into the world they were living in. The book is about Dutch New Amsterdam and New Netherland, which ties into some of my ancestry, but it gives an interesting perspective of my English Long Island heritage, what those people looked like from the other side. If anyone has any kind of early colonial New York ancestry, Dutch or English (or any of the many other nationalities who settled in New Amsterdam), or has any kind of interest in early New York or even early American history, read this book!!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The importance of tenacity and our regularly scheduled reminder to SHARE!! :) :)

As genealogists and family historians, I think I can safely say we are all very good friends with Frustration - a missing maiden name, the incorrect recording of dates or their total omission whatsoever, trying to read someone's chicken-scratch handwriting, the proverbial brick wall.

Sometimes, it's something obviously important, and so we're more tenacious in our pursuit of tracking it down. But the truth is, when it comes to family history research, it's all important. You never know what fact, however small or middle-sized it might be, will lead you to something potential brick wall-breaking.

Take my 3rd-great-grandmother, Meta Tiedemann Ricklefs. She is positively dying for her family to be known and she keeps reaching out to me in unexpected ways. She's the one who had the illegible town of birth on her marriage certificate, which I figured out was "Mittelstenahe" while I was at the family history conference in Charleston. Before that, I struggled for years to read that one tiny word on one of several records I had on her - but I had a somewhat narrow place in Germany, Hanover, and I had the names of her parents, John Henry Tiedemann and Meta Buckmann. With that info, I had actually found records that I believed led to THEIR parents using FamilySearch, and so I figured, why drive myself nuts trying to figure out this town name? I had other clues to follow. But the trail went cold. And even once I deciphered that chicken-scratch handwriting on her marriage certificate, the trail went nowhere. All I could determine was that there were a whole lot o' Tiedemanns who came from Mittelstenahe and who still live there.

But when an ancestor wants to be found, they will find ways to make it happen, if you help them...I wrote about my Mittelstenahe Tiedemanns in this blog. And a few weeks ago I got an email from a man living in Ohio whose family also came from the Mittelstenahe and Lamstedt area of Hanover and who had access to primary and secondary church records and state records and compiled genealogies on many of the families from that area. Including mine. And though we are only very distantly related, he sent me info on this line that for years has confounded me. In an instant, he had taken me back at least two more generations. And today he wrote me again - he had been kind enough to take the time to compile information on my Tiedemann line for me and email me a report that traced them back to the 1600s, completely annihilating that brick wall. There is still work for me to do, but he not only showed me where to look and pointed me in the right direction, but he gave me an outline to work from, and I am so grateful. That's part of our job - if we have the primary or secondary sources, we need to share them with those who don't have them. We want all our trees to be as accurate as possible, right? In an age when there is just so much bad information or even completely unsourced information circulating, it's our job to make sure the right information sees the light of day. It doesn't do anyone any good if its simply locked up on our personal hard drives.

So I have two points - SHARE! And don't give up or think that good is good information is enough if you have better information at your fingertips that requires a little work.

Now, Meta, if you could just help me find some more information on your sons John and Charles, I'd be a very grateful 3rd great granddaughter! :)

If you're in its path, stay cool during this heat wave everyone!!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some light genealogical and historical summer reading

No chick lit for me, thank you. This summer my poolside and beach reading has been Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America. Published about six years ago, the title is pretty much self-explanatory. I'm only about a third of the way through it, but as a lover of history and a person with both Dutch and English colonial New York roots, this book is fascinating. It's so well-written and its based on actual Dutch documents that were, at the time, being translated and transcribed by Charles Gehring at the New York State Library as part of the New Netherlands Project.

Everybody knows about the Pilgrims and the Puritans and Jamestown, all the English roots of America, and I think people know about the Dutch in New York, but unless you're really into New York history or have colonial New York ancestry, the Dutch really are just a footnote in American history. I don't really know a lot about my Dutch roots - it mostly comes from women who married into my Raynor family and who I have so far been unable to trace back - so I focus a lot on my English colonial roots. But I remind everyone who will listen that the settlers of Hempstead on Long Island started their town in Dutch territory. And that many of the place names in the greater New York metro area are actually Dutch in origin - including the name of the county I live in, Nassau. Anyone who reads any Washington Irving reads about the colonial Dutch. Many of the old, established New York families, such as the Vanderbilts or, say, the Roosevelts, are of Dutch origin. People know it, but just might not realize how intertwined New York history is with the Dutch.

Anyway, it's been interesting to read about, among other things, how similar the beginnings of the Netherlands are to the United States, how different the raucous New Amsterdam and New Netherlands colonies were to their English contemporary counterparts. I even learned something new - I had no idea there were Swedish immigrants in America (down around Wilmington, Delaware) in the 1600s. It's a fun, easy read and I get excited and passionate about, obviously, history in general, but the fact that this book ties in to my own personal family history is making it all the more interesting.

You can find out more about this book at

Monday, July 11, 2011

Chasing Charlie: criminal worlds collide

The events that occurred in 1915 and 1916 are what originally drew me to John and Charles - they were the first stories I found that substantiated my grandfather's claim that my grandmother's family was a bunch of criminals. I think he probably said it half jokingly - but oh, if he only knew!

John was released from Sing Sing in July 1915, after serving 6 1/2 years of a 10 year sentence. He was 28. Charles was 18. Only three months later, on Oct. 24, "someone" robbed the home of John Linz. Only two days later, Leib Lurie caught three burglars in the act of robbing his home, and in the ensuing confusion, one of them fired a weapon at Lurie, and accidentally hit one of his comrades instead. A call for an ambulance at 456 Glenmore Avenue led police to John, who had been shot in the chin and was pretty badly wounded - he had to be taken to the hospital for surgery. He later claimed the reason he got shot was quite innocent - really John? Not the sharpest tack in the drawer - but the police believed he was the burglar who was shot while robbing Lurie's house, and he was arrested. He was also arrested for the John Linz robbery.

Now, nowhere in the newspaper is there any compelling evidence linking John to the Linz robbery. They don't say why John was arrested. So with what happens next, maybe Charles was telling the truth. Maybe it was him, and not his older brother, who was guilty. But I find it hard to believe at that point in time. John had already shown a pattern of behavior of immediately going back to his criminal ways upon being released from prison. He had a track record of burglary sprees. Maybe Charles *was* there - maybe John brought him along, now that his brother was old enough to bring along to such a thing.

Whatever the case, John went to trial in County Court in front of Judge Mitchell May on Jan. 8, 1916 for the John Linz robbery. Charles was called as a witness toward the end of the day, and as the newspapers reported, his testimony "caused a sensation" when he confessed that it was he, and friend Henry Heinz, who were the real culprits, not John. The judge had no choice but to acquit John and arrest Charles. On Jan. 31, Charles was sentenced to 2 1/2 to 5 years at Sing Sing. He was sent up the river that same day.

That was Charles' first time in jail. A 1921 newspaper article noted that "John was on trial as a fourth offender and to save him from a life term, Charles took the entire blame for the job." Five years is considerably less time than a life sentence, but going to prison, and a maximum security prison at that, has to change a man, and I think that first stint at Sing Sing did change Charles, and not at all for the better.

Anyway, Charles was in prison, and John's troubles were still not over, because now he was facing a life sentence if found guilty of the Lurie robbery. That trial happened in early April of 1916. One newspaper reported that he was still carrying the bullet in his chin. For that alone, having been shot in the face, John would seem to have had the worst luck in the world. But at that point in time, between his brother taking the fall and what happened next, John was the luckiest SOB on the planet.

Because on April 5, he was acquitted of the Lurie burglary. The doctor who attended to his bullet wound testified that he treated John at 2:15 in the morning, when the robbery didn't even occur until closer to 3. He had been at the Ricklefs house at 3:15, but got the time mixed up, and for his "stupidity," as Judge Aspinall called it, John got off.

Crazy frickin' justice system.

You'd think, having tempted fate twice and beaten it both times, that maybe, quite possibly John might have learned his lesson. And until recently, I thought maybe he had. But he did not. And neither did Charles, both of them back in prison within a few years, because as we all know now, those Ricklefs boys, they never learn...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Chasing Charlie: the criminal adventures of the brothers Ricklefs part II

My search for Jack led me to discover more about Charlie which has now led me back to Jack, so just to keep things moving in this circular fashion, we're going back to Charlie. At first, it was kind of exciting and scandalous when I found out about these two. But the more I learn the sadder I become for them and what they did, or failed to do, with their lives.

So, Charles Ricklefs was born to German immigrants John Ricklefs and Meta Tiedemann Ricklefs on January 5, 1897 in Brooklyn. He had a brother 10 years older than him, John, and four sisters. Charlie was the baby of the family.

His father bought the house on Glenmore Avenue in East New York in 1904 - Charles was only 7 but by then his older brother had already started his brushes with the law. In my head, I imagine that John Sr. was trying to get the family into a better neighborhood and I picture little Charlie, young and impressionable, with a bit of hero worship of his older brother. It was just the two of them in a house full of sisters. I have brothers. The little ones follow the older ones around - they want to be with them and be like them. Nice and heart-warming in theory - not so much when you consider the choice of role model.

Ok, so in the 1910 census, Charles is 13 and in school. His brother John is not living at home because he's in the middle of serving a 10-year sentence for burglary, grand larceny, and receiving stolen goods. I can only imagine how that affected Charlie's adolescence - oh wait, no, I have evidence. In 1912, at the age of 15, he was charged with burglary in children's court - the sentence was suspended. In 1914, at the age of 17, he was convicted of third degree assault - sentence suspended. I have no details on these cases as I only found out about them through Charles' Sing Sing Prison receiving blotter, but I have a feeling that in order to really get details about these charges and cases, I'm going to have to go to the actual court records, whatever I can find and wherever I can find them. This brings us to 1916, the year John and Charles' criminal lives finally intersect, where you can actually feel Charlie's totally misplaced love for and loyalty to his older brother, the moment when Charles' criminal activities went from childhood mischief to the real deal. This was a story that was in multiple newspapers not just in Brooklyn but across all of New York State, which years later another newspaper account described as an act that made Charles Ricklefs many little brothers would take the fall for a crime their older brother committed, especially if it meant doing time in a maximum security prison?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Back to our regularly scheduled program: oh Johnny, you're breaking my heart!

Right now, I am devastated.

Maybe that's a bit melodramatic, but the fact of the matter is, whereas I was tracing Charles Ricklefs' maddening spiral downward, his older brother John had seemed to, after 1916, drop off the criminal radar for the most part. He has a 1942 World War II draft registration card that has him living in Englewood, New Jersey, he's listed in the 1920 census in his parents' household on Elton Street in Brooklyn, and he's in a  June 1917 World War I draft registration as living with his mother. I conveniently ignored that it said he was working as a bricklayer in a New Jersey state prison. I had hope in my heart that somehow John had gotten himself onto the straight and narrow. But when it comes to people we are emotionally invested in (and I am becoming extremely emotionally invested in these two lost souls), we see what we want to see.

I had, in the course of my research, come across a couple of newspaper accounts of a John Ricklefs or John Rickless who escaped from a prison in Connecticut. In one story, his age was wrong. And my John was from New York. It had to be someone else.

But Ricklefs is not a common name out in the real world, must less within the smaller criminal population. This other John was also, like mine, from Patchogue, and served time in a New Jersey state prison. Just like Nancy Drew, I don't believe in coincidences. And like my boyfriend Sam says, I have an instinct for this stuff. Today my genealogist intuition is screaming at me to WAKE UP!!!! Because it now appears that not only did John serve in at least two maximum security prisons up the river but he was possibly in prison in New Jersey, Connecticut *and* Massachusetts between 1916 and 1936. Oh, and made several semi-successful escape attempts as well. ::Sigh::

And so while I had intended to tell the story of the brothers Ricklefs one brother at a time, in my next entry I think I will jump back in time to start Charles' story, while I try to sort out what exactly John was up to in what I had thought were quiet years. I'm going to have to look up more newspaper articles and try to navigate my way through the archives/criminal records of other states. I'm still waiting on more info from the New York state archives, and am now looking into getting my hands on any criminal court records I can find on Jack and Charlie - that looks like it might bring me back to a New York City municipal archive field trip.

Genealogy - the work, it never ends! :)

Monday, July 4, 2011

A brief holiday interlude...

Wishing all my fellow Americans a very happy Independence Day - it's a good day to think about our history and our ancestors, particularly if we have colonial American family history. Of course, somewhere in the universe the spirits of MY colonial American British-loving ancestors are's ok, Raynors. I still love you! :)

Enjoy your holiday everyone - have fun and be safe!