Today's economic troubles offer us the chance to understand some of our ancestors from an enlightened perspective. Americans have dealt with bankruptcy since the founding of our country; they've lost their homes and their fortunes.
The filing of bankruptcy isn't among the fun stories you heard at Grandpa's knee. In fact, such bits of history were so embarrassing they were usually discussed only in whispers.
Bankruptcy records are filed in the federal court system, and records of closed cases are at the branches of the National Archives. They may not provide a great wealth of genealogical data but may hold insights into your relatives' hard luck or poor business skills.
To access these records, go to www.archives.gov and click on the "Locations/Visit Us" link on the left side of the page. You'll see a U.S. Map - click on the yellow dot in the area of interest to you. These are regional facilities, so you won't find one in every state. For example, the Southeast Regional facility in Atlanta holds records for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Web site information for each of these facilities will instruct you on what records they have and how to obtain them in person or via the mail. Some can be ordered online. You also can contact the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Federal Records Retrieval Service to get copies of files not protected by privacy laws.
Expect to pay $25 and $70 per file to either agency, depending on which records you request.
While the bankruptcy court records themselves seldom are exciting, some of the criminal matters that followed them sound more like Hollywood movie scripts than dusty old files.
The FBI is charged with investigating people accused of filing fraudulent bankruptcy cases or trying to conceal their assets. The bureau's files from 1908 to 1922, housed at the National Archives, also are available at www.footnote.com. Researching them will cost you a subscription fee of $69.95, but the records you find on this site are priceless. Along with the FBI case files, you'll find a growing list of genealogically rich records. Your subscription will more than pay for itself if you find just one file you otherwise would have ordered from the National Archives.
One file I reviewed was a real page-turner, filled with gripping details of crime, a colorful cast of characters and a wealth of genealogical information.
In January 1919, Salvatore Mirabile was charged with concealing his assets after he filed bankruptcy on his Thompsonville, Conn., shoe store. Hot on his trail were Special Agent George Lillard and Special Employee Edward J. Hickey, whose investigative reports include interviews with Mirabile's associates and relatives.
Mirabile's own statement revealed that he was 36 years old (allowing me to estimate his date of birth as 1882). He had been a U.S. citizen for four years, coming from southern Italy, and was in the shoe business for seven years. He named two of his four children, Nicholas and Charles. Mirabile said he was married but did not identify his wife.
Other interviews revealed his father-in-law was Calogero Provansano, and his daughter was Gaetano. The 74-year-old Provansano told agents he was not an American citizen but had been in the country for 10 years. He lived at 11 N. St., in Thompsonville.
Mirabile told agents that in 1918 he became sick, had surgery and was hospitalized for about three weeks, accumulating a lot of bills. His brother-in-law, Calogero Misurago, introduced him to attorney Michael G. Luddy, who suggested he file for bankruptcy.
Several pages of the file form a lengthy list of business associates and friends alternately denying knowledge or spilling the goods on Mirabile and how he moved shoes from his store to hide them. Mirabile's defense was that he intended to open another store, so he removed shoes to store them in the basement of John Castellini's house.
Mirabile sounded like he had been "very carefully coached" in the interview, Hickey noted.
Castellini, a shoemaker who agents nicknamed "the shoe man," lived with his wife and five children at 5 North St. in Windsor Locks, Conn., and ran his business from 200 Main St. Agents wrote that he had a reputation for "being crooked." His brother Mike, however, was "an honest citizen." The brothers did not get along, and Mike said John was a "damn fool" for getting involved in Mirabile's problem.
Among many associates named in the file was John Spognolo, who the agents initially tagged "Macaroni Man." Spognolo had supplied and driven the truck from his macaroni business to haul Mirabile's shoes to Castellini's basement.
After his arrest, Mirabile, aided by his brother-in-law, escaped from custody. Misurago later was charged with interfering with an officer and assisting a prisoner in escaping. After three days on the lam, Mirabile turned himself in.
The big "aha" moment came when the file revealed that Mirabile hid his assets upon his attorney's advice. Agents arrested Luddy, and during interrogation - described by agents as a "severe grilling" - he "broke down ... cried most pitifully ... and confessed." A federal grand jury indicted both Mirabile and Luddy in January 1919.
Finding a case such as this is a reminder to all genealogical researchers that we must research not only our primary subjects but also their relatives, neighbors and business associates. Descendants of Mirabile's associates will find much about their colorful family members in this file.
Jewish Group Meeting
Ann Peterson, staff member of the Family History Center in Largo, will present "An Introduction to the Family History Center Archives" at the March 8 meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Tampa Bay.
The meeting begins at 1:45 p.m. at the Family History Center, 9000 106th Ave. N., Largo. For information on the organization or directions to the meeting, call Sally Israel at (727) 343-1652.