More Than 100 Words – The Story of John William Achnitz

My Trip to Kensico Cemetery

Valhalla, New York

One of the many things I remember my grandfather always telling me that I will never forget was, “If I ever said more than 100 words to my father, it was a long conversation.”

Suffice it to say, they were not close.

Despite having a rough childhood, and I mean rough childhood, my grandfather always loved his father even though there was plenty there to hate him for.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it because my grandfather wasn’t the type to be overly affectionate or sentimental. He was a man’s man. However, despite his rough exterior, I will also never forget the glowing nature of how he spoke about others. My grandfather would never tell you that he was proud of you to your face but you could bet your bottom dollar that he would tell the rest of the world.

I remember hearing my grandfather speak with pride about how his father was a respected police officer for the New York Police Department. I remember him bragging about how his father was the President of the NYPD Holy Name Society. I remember him talking about how his father would host bigwigs for dinner, from the respective realms of the good, bad, and the ugly.

john-achnitz
From: Spring 3100 – A Magazine For Policemen

I also remember that there wasn’t much more than that. The stuff he didn’t speak about was painful to even think about. I heard bits and drabs over the years from my grandmother, my father, and my aunt. However, my grandfather’s disdain for his father was more than apparent.

“If I spoke more than 100 words to my father, it was a long conversation.”

At this point, you’ve read 275 words.

I think you can get the picture.

As a kid, my image of my great-grandfather was purely negative. He was described to me numerous times as a drunk, a womanizer, and a violent man…someone to not be proud of. In fact, the only story my father really recalls about his grandfather John William Achnitz is that he tried to give him a hug at the time when his wife (my father’s grandmother) passed away. John said, “Billy, I am your grandfather.” My dad replied, “No, my grandfather died 4 years ago,” referring to his other grandfather on his mother’s side.

my-dad-and-martin-burns
My father with his grandfather Martin Burns – circa 1974-75

Naturally, I understood why my father didn’t like his grandfather and in reality why he didn’t even recognize him as his grandfather. My dad hated seeing his father hurt. And like any son, he was going to stand by his father. In a way, my grandfather was robbed of that same opportunity. He never really got the chance to stand by his father although I know deep down my grandfather always loved his father.

my-dad-and-grandpa
My Grandpa with my Dad – circa 1983

Despite all of John’s faults and indiscretions though, I came to see him in a much different light by learning more about him through genealogical research. In fact, I can distinctly remember the day that my grandfather discovered a New York Times article from 1902 about the death of John’s half-brother William Achnitz just by googling his own name. At the time, he had no clue who this William was and I don’t think John ever knew about him either.

This tragic event, which I’ve posted about before, was the key to John’s existence. It is the key to my existence. In fact, everyone alive today that is descended from John is only alive because of William’s death.

I know that sounds like a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. John’s life, and hence my own is predicated on this one event taking place, for after that event, John’s father, the very first William Achnitz, not only lost his youngest child (at the time) to a tragic train accident, but his wife with their 3 remaining children and a coworker of William’s all disappeared. Turns out they all went to Australia and there is no telling whether William ever figured that out. For all he knew, they could have all died.

Nevertheless, he lost it all. He lost his business, he lost his wife, he lost his son, and he lost his other children. He lost his entire family and potentially he could have lost his sense of self and purpose too.

He went from owning his own industrial-scale bakery on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan to working the rest of his life as a janitor. He did remarry though. In 1905, he married my great-great grandmother Katherine Achnitz. In 1906, they had their first and only child together John (although he was born with the name William, which he later used as a middle name). I’ve often wondered if John did this as a result of finding out the real story behind his father’s first family. I could definitely understand the possibility that he may not have liked the fact that he was clearly named after his half-sibling that had passed away 4 years before he was born.

john-achnitz-birth-cert
John Achnitz was actually born William Achnitz on February 18, 1906 in Manhattan, New York. He later used the name John with William as his middle name.

Wondering how John became the father that he was, I often wondered what John’s relationship was like with his father, William. It was certainly short-lived as John lost his father in 1923 at the young age of 17. Did William losing his family and his business turn him into a monster of a person? Was he already a monster of a person and that’s why his family left him in the first place? Whatever the answer is, John was clearly not prepared to be the best father that he could have been.

Perhaps, John thought that it was best for him to be as absent as possible. In a way, thinking that this would be the best way that he could be a father to my grandfather and his brothers. Certainly, he wouldn’t have been the first father to ever do this.

Whatever was going on in their heads at the time, I like to think that John did the best he could given the cards that he was dealt with as a child. The analogy that I like to use to describe the Achnitz men is that each Achnitz generation has been dealt a better hand over time. And as an avid poker player, I know that my grandfather would really appreciate that analogy. He was certainly dealt a slightly better hand than John. My father was definitely dealt a better hand than my Grandpa. I’ve definitely been dealt a better hand than my Dad. And it is my hope that my kids one day will be dealt a Royal Flush.

I honestly never thought that I would end up visiting my great-grandfather John. And I don’t think anyone in my family has ever visited him. In fact, they didn’t even know that he had died at first. My grandfather found out several months after the fact after his second wife Blanche had told one of my grandfather’s brothers. This absolutely tore my grandfather up inside. I don’t even think that my grandfather ever even got to visit his dad’s gravesite.

So, in a way, I felt like this was my opportunity to make amends and forgive him for any and all mistakes that he had made in his life not to mention, pay my respects.

I sat down in the grass right next to his headstone for about 30 minutes and just prayed.

john-achnitz-headstone
John William Achnitz died on October 26, 1985 and was buried with his second wife Blanche in Valhalla, New York.

I prayed that he was in a better place and I prayed that he was somehow able to be the father to my grandfather that he always wanted him to be. I remember the sun shining brighter in that moment and I remember getting a warm sensation throughout my body. It’s moments like that that have made me believe in something deeper than life.

I told him about myself. I told him about how I was on my way up to Buffalo to watch my wife graduate with her Master’s degree. I told him what I knew about him. I told him how I was the only one that had figured things out about him that perhaps no one else had figured out. I asked him to always be a part of me, which after thinking about it further, I realized he’s always going to be a part of me.

I just hoped that in some way, both him and my grandfather were truly at peace. Sons may end up having issues with their fathers in life and all of us may have to live with the sins of our fathers. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make every effort to have the best relationship possible with them. That’s what I certainly strive for with my own father.

 

3-generations
Three generations of William Peter Achnitz – circa 1991

 

john-achnitz-family
John, his wife Veronica, and three youngest sons: my Grandpa (standing in back), Frank aka Spike (in middle), and Bobby (to the right). This photo was taken at their oldest brother Jack’s wedding on May 21, 1950.

This is why I love genealogy. You uncover stories and you can truly learn about yourself in the process.

If you are related to John William Achnitz, he is buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Until next time, keep on digging.

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How Many Repps?

My Trip to St. John’s Cemetery

Queens, New York

As any researcher knows, some things are harder to figure out than others. In the case of genealogical research, some branches of your tree will provide you with a rushing flood of information without any issues while others are simply a giant brick wall.

In the case of the Repp side of my family, I had to do some heavy lifting in order to break through the proverbial brick wall of my family tree.

When I first started researching my family tree, I had never even heard of the name Repp.

In fact, the only thing I knew about my great-great grandmother was that her name was Lillian Burns, though sometimes she was referred to as Mary, according to my grandmother, by her husband Henry Edward Burns.

So, what was Lillian’s maiden name? Well, when I asked my grandmother she didn’t know, not because she didn’t know the name, but rather she had heard of two names – Lillian Cortland and Lillian Holland. According to my grandmother, her grandmother Lillian was not very open about her life and she spoke very sparingly about her family. From what my grandmother has told me, Lillian stated that she was raised by her grandmother and an Uncle Chris and was not close with either of her parents. My grandmother also stated that she had heard that Lillian’s mother was an opera singer or some other type of performer that kept her constantly on the road and her father was not active in her life.

Now, although this was good information to start searching to build my tree further, it didn’t produce a lot of leads. For example, Lillian lived with her grandmother and an Uncle. But were they Cortlands? Were they Hollands? Were they her paternal relatives? Were they her maternal relatives with a completely different last name? Did Lillian take on her father’s name or perhaps a stepfather’s name at birth? All questions I didn’t know the answers to.

It turns out, her name at birth was Lillie Mary Repp.

birth-certificate

You might be asking yourself how I could have managed to find this certificate. Well, after giving up on running countless searches of both Cortlands and Hollands with Lillian’s birth year, I came across a website called Fulton History, a newspaper search engine that contains many of New York’s historical newspapers.

One of the first things I found was a notification of Lillian’s marriage to Henry in 1913.

lillian-burns-marriage
From The Brooklyn Daily Standard Union, May 28, 1913

As you can see, she appears here as Lillian Cortland. But it was this next document that opened up the floodgates.

obituary-for-margaret-holland
From The Daily Star Newspaper, January 28, 1929

On January 28, 1929, Lillian’s mother Margaret Holland passed away. As you can see from the obituary, she is survived by her daughter, and her brothers Christopher and Joseph Repp. I had found Uncle Chris and apparently Uncle Joe too.

This document was really the key to breaking through that brick wall. From there, I found more and more records and I was able to figure out the entire make-up of Lillian’s family (with the exception of her father). As you will notice, it is more than evident that Lillian was right when she said she was raised by her grandmother Catherine Repp and her Uncle Chris.

1900-census
In 1900, Catherine Repp is living in Manhattan at 610 East 17th Street with her daughter Margaret, her sons Joseph and Christopher, and her granddaughter Lillian.
1910-census
In 1910, Catherine, Margaret, Chris, and Lillian are living in Brooklyn at 218 Monitor Street.
1915-census
By 1915, Lillian has moved into a new residence with her husband Henry. Uncle Chris and her mother Margaret are still living with their mother, this time at 187 Moffat Street in Brooklyn.

Again using the Locate A Loved One search engine, I was able to find the exact gravesite of where Catherine Repp and Margaret Holland were buried. Catherine’s son and Margaret’s brother, Joseph A. Repp, is also buried with them. Here is their headstone.

catherine-repp

Unfortunately, it appears as if Catherine’s name was the only one that got inscribed.

“In Loving Memory of Our Beloved Mother”

I hope to one day add the rest of their names.

Catherine Elizabeth Repp (nee Bochmann)

1841-1918

Section: 19 | Row: E | Grave: 66

Margaret Philomena Holland (nee Repp)

1866-1929

Section: 19 | Row: E | Grave: 66

Joseph A. Repp

1873-1938

Section: 19 | Row: E | Grave: 66

There’s certainly more Repps out there. I look forward to finding them!

The Burns Family Plot

My Trip to St. John’s Cemetery

Queens, New York

Next on my list of locations to visit in St. John’s was the Burns. One of my more difficult branches to research (mainly due to the commonality of the Burns surname), my Burns ancestors were one of my favorite branches to conquer. It started with, of course, interviewing my grandmother (who was born a Burns). My grandmother remembers all sorts of stories about her grandparents, and one of the most interesting characters, was her grandfather Henry Edward Burns (1881-1963), who went by Harry. He was your typical jolly, hard-working, jokester of an Irishman who allegedly had to give his wife his paycheck every payday out of fear of blowing it all at the bar.

For the longest time, I was unable to pinpoint his birth record. Born in 1881, there was a good chance he may not have had a birth record. However, I didn’t give up running searches and rather than running a search with his first name, I simply ran one for the year 1881 with just the last name Burns. This is what I came across.

henry-burns-search

May 9, 1881 was his birthday. Charles Burns was his father. There are two records though? One of which has a death date of the same day? Did my 2nd great grandfather have a twin? I couldn’t wait to tell my grandmother as I was sure this was a piece of information she had never heard before.

I said, “Grandma, did you know that your grandfather Harry Burns had a twin?”

She replied, “Yeah, he did have a twin. Actually, he used to make a joke about how he kicked his twin to death because he needed more room.”

Maybe not the best joke to make about the twin he never got to meet, but that just goes to demonstrate the good nature of the man. Even the most tragic of scenarios could be infused with a little bit of humor.

Here is their birth certificate:

henry-burns-birth-record

This opened the door to another generation and led to a number of other discoveries, including where my 3x great grandparents were buried. Charles Burns was not buried with his first wife, Mary McCadden. Instead, I came to learn that Mary had passed away on May 22, 1900 and was buried in a plot at Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn presumably where her infant son was also buried.

Charles Burns remarried a couple of years later to Margaret Catherine Scally (1877-1939), and had two more children, Daniel Francis Burns, and Margaret C. Burns. All four of them are buried together in the plot seen below.

burns

Unfortunately, there are no names inscribed on this headstone – just the Burns surname signifying it is the Burns Family Plot. In that moment, I thought perhaps there used to be footstones marking each individual’s name. However, Margaret C. Burns (their daughter) had passed away in 1990 and Daniel F. Burns (their son) had passed away in 1982. According to my grandmother, Margaret and Daniel lived together their entire lives, never married, and never had kids.

Their father was first buried there in 1928 and their mother next in 1939. Why did they never get their names inscribed? Was it their wish for the stone to only say Burns? Why leave all of that space on the stone then? Did two earlier footstones exist? Who was responsible for their burials?

All questions I’d like to find out answers to. I can’t imagine they would have not wanted their names on their headstone. How would they be remembered? All it says is Burns.

Anyways, if it was indeed just due to the lack of follow through on the part of other family members, I want to make sure that I am one day able to get their names inscribed. In the meantime, they will be memorialized here.

Information found from Locate A Loved One that prompted this search:

Charles Burns

1855-1928

Section: 6 Row: L Plot: 85 Grave: 2

Margaret Scally Burns (Charles’ 2nd wife)

1877-1939

Section: 6 Row: L Plot: 85 Grave: 3

Daniel F. Burns (Charles’ youngest son)

1902-1982

Section: 6 Row: L Plot: 85 Grave: 3

Margaret C. Burns (Charles’ youngest daughter)

1906-1990

Section: 6 Row: L Plot: 85 Grave: 4

 

pop-burns-with-boys
Circa 1926-27: Harry Burns aka “Pop Burns” (right) with his children and half-brother Daniel Burns (left)           Courtesy of: My Grandmother

If you want to support my research and quest to make sure that all of my ancestors are properly remembered, please let me know. I started Flat Tire Genealogy to ensure that no one in my tree would be forgotten. So, anything you can do to help, especially if these people are in your tree too, would be greatly, greatly appreciated.

As always, keep digging.

A Tale of Two Rosalies – Part One

My Trip to St. John’s Cemetery

Queens, New York

Before I got the flat tire, I visited St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, New York. The staff there was incredibly helpful in assisting me with finding the final resting places of the many ancestors of me and my fiancé that are buried there. In fact, there were only two people that I needed them to look up because I came in already knowing the exact spots of where many of our ancestors were.

This was thanks to their online tool called Locate A Loved One. This search engine offered by Catholic Cemeteries gives you the exact location of where your ancestor is buried. It covers St. John’s Cemetery, Mount St. Mary in Flushing, Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn, and St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale. Not all records have been uploaded to the website though. So, don’t assume that just because one of your ancestors doesn’t appear in the search results that they aren’t actually buried there. The best way to confirm where your ancestor is buried is to obtain their death certificate.

For those that died in New York City before 1949, you can purchase their death certificate online from the New York City Municipal Archives. Some people opt to actually visit the archives and take photos of the records in order to save some money. However, if you do not have the capability to travel to New York City, then you will have to pay the $15 fee to obtain a copy of each record. I always make my records available on Ancestry.com because to me it just doesn’t make sense to make people continue paying for the same information. I wish New York State made their vital records publicly available but for now hopefully you have a cousin out there that has made it available instead.

If you have not a clue where to begin to locate a death record in New York City, the NYC Death Index provided by the Italian Genealogical Group is a good place to start. I have had a lot of success using this tool and the ancestors I am about to highlight were all first found using this great database.

The first ancestor I received information on at St. John’s Cemetery was Rosalia Fariñas (née Garcia), my great-great grandmother. I actually wrote about her before as part of the #52Ancestors challenge in 2014.

I always wondered why she wasn’t buried with her husband, Juan Fariñas, who is buried at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale. When I asked my grandmother about it, she stated that her grandfather Juan was supposed to be buried with her but a little boy in the family had passed away and was buried at the plot in St. John’s. I suppose there was such a large gap between the two of them passing away (33 years) that the plot in St. John’s had filled up and the choice was made by Juan to get another plot in a Long Island cemetery instead. Anyways, I was intrigued to see who these other people were that were also buried with my great-great grandmother.

The other ancestor I received information on at St. John’s Cemetery was Rosalia’s mother, my 3x great-grandmother, Rosalia Garcia (née Bautista).

Rosalia Garcia - Death Certificate
At the bottom of Rosalia’s death certificate, you can see that her place of burial is St. John’s Cemetery.

As I had figured, they were buried in the same plot together. Knowing it is standard for many plots to just hold 3 people, I figured it was the two Rosalias and the “little boy” – perhaps a kid brother of my great-grandmother that our family never knew about. What I found was interesting and beautiful.

Rosalia Garcia

What I was looking at was one of the most beautiful headstones that I had ever seen – certainly something more than what I thought my Spanish immigrant ancestors could afford. The stone was absolutely stunning and quite frankly looked brand new. No doubt that this is the type of stone that will last hundreds of years without needing any type of restoration.

Another striking thing I noticed was the age of the second Rosalia. Two Rosalias were there just as I had been told, and the first one matched the death date of my 3x great-grandmother. However, my 2x great-grandmother had died in 1933 at the age of 42. She did not die in 1927 and she certainly was not 15 years old at the age of her death. Could this be a mistake made by a mason? Highly doubtful – not with that kind of work. Could the office have made a mistake and my 2x great-grandmother is buried elsewhere? That seemed to be more plausible.

I called the office back. They said, “No, she is there.” Turns out there weren’t just two Rosalias there. There were three. I had never heard of this Rosalia. I had also realized that someone had failed to make sure that my 2x great-grandmother’s name was added to the stone. Through this website, I hope to be able to be that person that finally gets her name up there.

So, who was this other Rosalia? And who was Juanito? Turned out my grandmother was right. There was a little boy buried there (died at just 4 years of age). What happened to them? How were they related to me? Who were their parents? They seemed to be too young to be the children of my 3x great grandmother and to my knowledge they weren’t my 2x great-grandmother’s kids. So, who were they? So many questions…Questions that never would have been asked had I not taken the time to visit them.

My hypothesis was that they were the children of Rosalia’s brother Louis (who I mentioned in my last post about her). Where was Louis buried though? Why weren’t they with their parents? All things I had to look into. Well, I did and I am happy to share what I have found…in my next post.

Until then…keep digging.