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Petitos in America
Posted by: Dan Cappiello (ID *****1312) Date: February 25, 2004 at 14:10:29
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Italy is divided into twenty regions, which are subdivided into a total of ninety-four provinces. Campania is one of those regions and Avellino is a province in that region. Sant’ Angelo dei Lombardi is a town in Avellino. It was from this town that Vincenzo Petito along with his 18 year old daughter, Carolina, and 16 year old son, Gaetano, would begin the long journey to America.

What drove Vincenzo, then 41 years old, to make this journey is a matter of conjecture. No stories have been passed down explaining or even hinting at why he was willing to move his family to a country whose language he could neither speak nor understand. In addition, the move necessitated separating his family for a time as his wife, Maria, and their two young daughters, Concetta and Angela Rosa, would remain in Sant’ Angelo until Vincenzo and the two older children were somewhat established in America. No doubt, there were stories circulating in Sant’ Angelo about how much opportunity there was in America and how well other “paisanos” were doing there, but the San Angelese were as well known for their boastfulness as were the Calabrese for their stubbornness. Vincenzo was unlikely to have been swayed by such stories. More than likely, the decision to go to America wasn’t so much a result of what America promised, but rather by what Italy denied. Sant’ Angelo was mostly a community of peasant farmers, and when bad weather in the 1880’s devastated crop production many in the town no longer had a means for supporting their families. This very well may have been the case with the Petito family. In any event, on or about April 17, 1891, Vincenzo, Carolina, and Gaetano traveled to Naples where they boarded the SS Brittania. On May 1, 1891 they arrived in New York City.

In 1883, construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was completed. The bridge joined lower Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn. Among other things, the bridge facilitated the establishment of an Italian-American community in downtown Brooklyn. Prior to the bridge’s construction, most Italian immigrants settled a short distance from the Battery, their point of disembarkation, along Mott, Mulberry, and Elizabeth Streets. As that community became overcrowded, they moved uptown in Manhattan to East 106th Street. Now they began to settle in downtown Brooklyn. Gaetano and his two children found a place on Tillary Street and Canton (later changed to St Edwards) Street, a few blocks from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

This area of downtown Brooklyn ran north-south from the Navy Yard to Dekalb Avenue and east-west from Hudson Avenue to Washington Park. It was largely an Irish and German neighborhood prior to 1890 when the Italians began moving in. In the next thirty years, Italian immigrants would pour into the area making it Brooklyn’s largest Italian community. The area had some decent housing especially as you traveled south from the Navy Yard, but in the immediate area surrounding the Navy Yard much of the area was considered a slum.

Speaking about the Navy Yard district in 1893, John Kobler writes:

“Rents in the area’s two to four-story red brick or wooden frame tenements ran between $3 and $4.50 per room a month. None had central heating, running hot water or bathrooms. The tenants heated water on potbellied coal stoves, which also provided their only protection against freezing weather.”

Kobler further points out that life in this area though harsh, was never drab, never stagnant.

“Hordes of ragged children gave the streets an explosive vitality as they played stickball, dodged traffic, brawled and bawled… Fruit and vegetable carts, standing wheel to wheel, made a bright, fragrant clutter along the curb. The fire escapes that formed an iron lacework across the faces of the squat tenements shook and shuddered as the El trains roared by close behind on Myrtle Avenue.”

Nighttime, however, was a more dangerous time and parents were wise to keep their children inside the house.

Sands Street, at night, all night, catered to more robust tastes, as droves of sailors piled ashore, clamoring for liquor and women. It was one of the roughest haunts in the country, the Barbary Coast of the East, where mayhem and murder constantly threatened the unwary. At the pothouse bars that sold raw liquor straight and cheap, the thirsty customers lined up three and four deep. If their money ran low, there were pawnshops a step away open all night. There were tattooing parlors, gambling dives, dance halls, fleabags with rooms to rent by the hour, and a galaxy of bangled, painted whores known in every port of the seven seas…

Fortunately, this area of downtown Brooklyn though not miles away from Tillary and Canton Streets was at least blocks away and the distance afforded Vincenzo and his children some measure of security and safety. The close-knit Italian community also helped as neighbors looked out for each other’s children. The neighborhood with all its inherent dangers must have seemed safe enough because within five months, Vincenzo sent for his wife, Maria, and daughters Concetta and Angela Rosa. They arrived in New York on October 30, 1891. Also traveling with them was a Francesco Sepe, 16 years old, apparently a relative of Maria whose maiden name was also Sepe. All four proceeded to the apartment in the Tillary-Canton Street area. Maria appears to have gotten to America just in time because in three weeks her eldest daughter, Carolina, would marry.

On November 22, 1891 in a church located at 35 President Street in Brooklyn, Carolina Petito of 56 Canton Street, daughter of Vincenzo Petito and Maria Sepe, married Amato Castellano of 56 Canton Street, son of R. Castellano and Rosaria Chuisano. Witnesses were Pasquale Cardone and Trena deLiberato. The bride was 18 years old and the groom was 20. The marriage would prove very advantageous to Carolina’s brother, Gaetano, who years later would become a business partner of Carolina’s husband in a bar, Castellano and Petty Liquors, located at 179 Navy Street. The best man at the wedding, Pasquale Cardone, may also have played an important role in the formation of the business.

A Kings County Census taken on February 16, 1892 lists a “Jimmy” Petito, 38 years old, as head of a family which includes Gaetano, 16, Maria, 39, Carolina, 18, Concetta, 8, Rosie, 6, Amato Castellano, 20, Gaetano Castellano, 18, and Frank Sepe, 16. This is, no doubt, the first census of the Petito family in America. It does however raise some questions. Jimmy Petito is apparently the Vincenzo Petito who came to America with Gaetano and Carolina and also the person listed as the father of Carolina on her marriage certificate, but why the name change and how does he lose 3 years (41 to 38) from May of ’91 to February of ’92? In answer to the age question, mistakes were often made on official documents either because of translation errors or simply because the person giving the information did not know for certain. The name change may have been a result of the census taker’s Americanizing the name, similar to Angela Rosa becoming Rosie. In a later census, Concetta becomes Katie. But why wasn’t Vincenzo’s name Americanized to Vincent or Vinny? Adding to the confusion is the fact that Vincenzo’s first male grandchild is named James, and not Vincent. Italian tradition would have dictated that the child be named after the grandfather. The questions notwithstanding, later evidence points to Jimmy and Vincenzo being one and the same.

The census raises other questions. Why is Carolina listed as though she is still part of the Petito family rather than as the wife of Amato Castellano? Though relationships were not indicated on the 1892 census, normally the head of the family was followed by his wife and unmarried children. A married female was normally preceded by her husband. Hence, Carolina, married to Amato for three months, should have been listed after him and not in the midst of her unmarried brother and sisters. At what address was everyone living? The marriage certificate listed Canton Street, but the census sheet listed Tillary Street. Was everyone living in the same or different apartments? The census didn’t separate by apartment or even building.

The census is helpful, however, in giving us an understanding of the Petito’s neighbors and their occupations. There were 80 people listed on the census sheet that contained the Petito family. All were of Italian ancestry. No one had become a citizen, except for the few children that had been born in America and automatically became citizens. Of the 80 Italians listed, 40 of the male adults had occupations that included: stonemason (1), laborer (4), bootblack (4), cutlery sharpener (12) and junkman (19). Vincenzo was in the fourth group, Gaetano, the fifth, and Amato, the second. Another interesting fact was that aside from this “Italian” building, nearly all the other buildings on Canton or Tillary were occupied mostly by people of Irish, German, or English descent. Though the Italians were later to comprise a majority in the area some years later, in 1892 they were a distinct minority.

Although no birth certificate has been found to verify it, it appears that Vincenzo and Maria had a fifth child, a second son, Michele, born to them in 1894. There are no photos of this Uncle Mike Petito; no one seems to remember him or even hearing of him, though there are two documents supporting the belief that he was indeed a son of Vincenzo and Maria. The first is a 1914 carriage list of people attending the funeral of Maria Sepe Petito. Michele is prominently seated in carriage #1 with Vincenzo. The other four children are seated with their spouses in carriages 2, 3, 4, and 5. The second document is a 1915 Kings County Census listing James (Vincenzo?) Petito, 64 years old and son, Michael, 21 years old, living at 248 Navy Street in a building also occupied by Amato Castellano, wife Carolina (Vincenzo’s daughter), and their three children.

This brings us to the status of the family in 1895. Carolina has been married to Amato Castellano for four years, has two young children, Mary, 1, and Joseph, an infant, and is presumably living close by but not with her father’s family. Vincenzo, or James as he continues to be called in the census, is living with Maria, his wife, and children Gaetano, Concetta, Rosa, and Michele, most likely on Tillary Street. It is in this year, 1895 that an event occurs that would affect the lives of many future Petito descendants: the arrival of Antonietta Razzano to America.

In 1895, Antonietta Razzano was a sixteen year old girl living in a small town, Sant’ Agata dei Goti, in the province of Benevento, Italy. She was the daughter of Nicola and Louisa Razzano and had at least two younger brothers, Michele, 13, and Andrew, 7, who would travel to and later settle in America. Unlike her future husband, Gaetano Petito, who at sixteen came over with one parent and was later joined with the other, Antonietta would be coming to America with neither parent. Not only that, she would be doing so knowing she would never see her parents again. For a sixteen year old girl, this had to be a truly traumatic and emotional event.

There was a story somewhat explaining this very difficult moment for both mother and daughter. Antonietta often told it to the six daughters she would have in America. Reportedly at the end of the story all the daughters had tears in their eyes. The only part of the story I was privy to was that when it came time to separate, Antonietta’s mother pointed to a fork in the road and told Antonietta each of them must take a different road. Louisa’s road led back to Sant’ Agata and the situation that had caused the separation. Antonietta’s led forward to Naples and the SS Scotia which would arrive in America on November 1, 1895.

It was long believed by Antonietta’s children that Antonietta was accompanied to America by Rosa Razzano, Antonietta’s aunt. A check of the ship’s manifest shows no Rosa Razzano listed as a passenger. On the contrary, records show that Rosa Razzano, 52 years old, from Sant’ Agata, traveled to America aboard the Spartan Prince on July 22, 1902. Who then accompanied Antonietta? Did this sixteen-year-old girl come to America on her own?

One of the ways of determining if an immigrant was traveling with relatives is to examine the names on the manifest just before or after the person in question. People traveling together usually booked passage together and were listed on the manifest close to each other. Antonietta was #50 on the ship’s manifest. The only other people on the manifest who were from Sant’ Agata were numbers 47, 48, and 49. The persons corresponding to those numbers were (Maria?) Giuseppa Maddaloni, 65 year old female, Luisa Cuozzo,29 year old female, and Francesco Angrisano, 2 year old male. Unfortunately, this manifest did not indicate familial relationships as some manifests did. Normally, children, nieces, and nephews were listed after the parent or guardian with whom they were traveling. From the order of names on the manifest, Antonietta could have been accompanied by Maddaloni, or Cuozzo, or been traveling alone. Only children under sixteen were required to have an adult accompany them on transatlantic trips. Hence there is no way to make a determination absent the familial information.

When Antonietta arrived in New York, it is unlikely that she settled in the downtown area of Brooklyn where the Petito family and her betrothed, Gaetano, were living. She probably lived in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The first hint of that is the fact that Antonietta was living in that area at the time of her marriage fourteen months later. The marriage certificate records her address as 2340 Pacific Street in East New York... Furthermore, it seems that East New York was the place of choice not only for Razzanos, but for other Sant’ Agata immigrants. A 1900 Kings County Census shows an Angrisano family living at 1696 Broadway, East NY, with three children, one who is named Frank. Mike Razzano, most likely Antonietta’s brother, is listed as a boarder with the family. A 1905 Kings County Census lists a Joseph Razzano and family living at 231 Rockaway Avenue in the East New York area. Joseph was Antonietta’s uncle. Though there is no evidence that he was living there or even in America when Antonietta arrived, it was obviously the place to which he migrated and remained for quite a while. Also at that Rockaway Avenue address was a Tomaso Maddaloni and the Angrisano family that had apparently moved from the 1696 Broadway address.

On January 10, 1897, in apparently the same church in which his sister, Carolina, was married, Gaetano Petito, 276 Tillary Street, son of Vincenzo Petito and Maria Rosaria Sepe, married Antonietta Razzano of 2340 Pacific Street, daughter of Nicola Razzano and Luisa Razzano. The groom’s reported age was 21, the bride’s 18. The service was performed by the Reverend Joseph Transerici of 35 President Street. Witnesses were Angelo Campetillo and Carolina Petito

It is at this point that we somewhat lose track of the Petito family until 1904. It’s rather unusual because during those missing seven years, Gaetano and Antonietta have their first five children. Childbirth is normally a tremendous aid in offering information about a family because the birth certificate gives the address of the family at the time. The absence of birth certificates for James, b.1898, Joseph, b.1899, John, b.1901, Julia, b1903?, and Nicola, b. 1904 makes it nearly impossible to determine whether Gaetano and Antonietta were living in downtown Brooklyn or East New York. The only census record we have for anyone in the family during that time is one for Amato Castellano, wife, Carolina, and their four children, Mary, Joseph, Amerigo, and Annie, all living at 90 Navy Street. Amato’s occupation is listed as bartender. (Historical note: across the street from Amato and Carolina at 95 Navy Street lived the Capone family whose son Alfonso, had been born in 1899.) No census has been found for either Petito family, Gaetano’s or Vincenzo’s. A marriage certificate for Vincenzo’s daughter, Concetta, who married Giachinno Leone in 1898, would establish an address for Concetta, and the rest of her family (assuming she was living at home) but no certificate has been found.

Based on the knowledge that his sister and brother-in-law were living on Navy Street in 1900 and a 1905 census that listed Gaetano as also living on Navy Street one might assume that Gaetano and his family were living in the area prior to 1905 also.. Gaetano’s naturalization papers challenge that assumption. Naturalization Record #130 of Volume 52 on June 7, 1904 states that Gaetano Petito living at 241 Rockaway Avenue, occupation saloon keeper, became a citizen of the United States. Witness to this was Dominic Ianotti, barber, living at 431 East New York Avenue.

The Naturalization Record raises a number of interesting questions. To begin with, is this the Gaetano Petito married to Antonietta Razzano? It would appear so. The Razzano connection to East New York has already been established. Antonietta’s brother Mike was living in the area in 1900. Antonietta’s uncle, Giuseppe (Joseph) is listed in the 1905 census at 231 Rockaway, just a few houses from the address in Gaetano’s citizenship papers. Giuseppe’s occupation was listed as liquor store, sometimes used as a euphemism for bar, and for the first time Gaetano’s occupation is listed as saloon keeper. Were the Razzanos instrumental in giving Gaetano his start in the saloon business? Did Gaetano and his family actually live in this area or was it merely used as a means of obtaining citizenship? Where were Gaetano’s parents, sister, and brother living at this time? Hopefully, time and more research will answer these questions, but from this point on the history becomes much clearer.

If Gaetano and his family were living in East New York in 1904, they wasted little time in getting back to the old neighborhood once Gaetano became a citizen. A 1905 Kings County Census lists a Thomas Pateo, 28 year old male, occupation: porter, wife, Anonette, and five children, Julia, Nicholas, James, Joseph, and John living at 201 Navy Street. The obvious misspelling of the names may explain why Gaetano Petito was not located in the 1900 census. Researchers are at the mercy of census takers who wrote down what they thought they heard and not what was. This is, no doubt, the Gaetano Petito family. If any confirmation is necessary, it is offered in the birth certificate of their sixth child, Ernesto, b.1907, whose address at birth is listed at 201 Navy Street.

The building in which the Gaetano Petito family lived in1905, 201 Navy Street, was a four story structure housing three families and a store. The other two families, the Kennedys and the Deeneys were reflective of the fact that the neighborhood still housed a large number of non-Italian families. Was Gaetano a porter in this building, something like a present day super who takes care of a building and is given a stipend and free rent? His accommodations at 201 Navy appeared to be markedly superior to those he had at Tillary or Canton Streets, and he obviously had given up his former occupation as saloon keeper.

The 1905 Kings County Census is helpful in suggesting something about Gaetano’s future. In 1905, Amato Castellano (listed in the census as Anthony) and his family had moved from 90 Navy Street to 248 Navy Street (also much better accommodations). His occupation at that time was listed as “day laborer.” Also living at 248 Navy were Pasquale Cardone and family. Pasquale’s occupation was listed as liquor dealer. This is at a time when Gaetano and Amato are listed respectively as porter and day laborer. By 1913 Gaetano and Amato are listed in the Brooklyn Directory as partners in Castellano and Petty Liquors. What made this happen? Did Pasquale Cardone play any part in this? There is evidence that he remained a close friend of the families for many years.

In July of 1909, Gaetano’s seventh child, Rosa, was born. The address on Rosa’s birth certificate (179 Navy Street) indicates that the family had moved from 201 Navy Street sometime prior to that date. It probably also marked the time about when Castellano And Petty Liquors was formed. The building at 179 Navy was three stories with the Castellano and Petito Bar on the ground floor. Twenty-five years later, the building would house the popular Italian restaurant, La Palina,

The story I had heard as a child was that the bar was solely Gaetano’s, but records indicate a dual ownership. Maybe this is what the children believed because the set-up as I understood it was that Gaetano was behind the bar, Antonietta was in the kitchen preparing the food, and a nickel could buy you a beer and all you could eat. Maybe, Amato was somewhat of a financial partner and Gaetano shouldered most of the work.

Another story passed down concerned both the physical and philosophical sides of Gaetano. A customer, who apparently had too much to drink, began loudly insulting Gaetano. Gaetano took offense to the remarks and promptly decked his protagonist. Antonietta, observing the situation tried to calm Gaetano saying, “The man is drunk; he doesn’t know what he is saying.” Gaetano answered, “Yes, he is drunk, but that’s when you know how someone really feels about you.”

In December of 1912, Gaetano’s eighth child, Victor, was born at the 179 Navy Street address. Eight months later, in July of 1912, Gaetano’s sister, Rosa, married Emilio Linfante. Rosa’s address, listed on the marriage certificate was 213 Willoughby Street. If Rosa was still living at home when she got married, this may be where parents Vincenzo and Maria, as well as brother Michele, were living. They weren’t living with Gaetano and family in 1905. In fact the last record we had of them at any address was the 276 Tillary address listed on Gaetano’s marriage certificate.

The year 1914 brought both happiness and sadness to the Petito family. In January of that year, their ninth child, Gilda, was born at the 179 Navy Street address. Unfortunately, less than three months later, on April 8, 1914, the matriarch of the family, Maria Rosaria Sepe Petito died of a heart attack at home. She had been suffering from chronic endocarditis for two years and her condition had deteriorated over the last eighteen days. She was 57 years old. Her address was listed as 246 Navy Street. She was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The funeral and burial of Maria Sepe Petito raise some interesting questions. The first concerns the Carriage List for the funeral. The Carriage list is somewhat similar to the limousines of today that follow the car carrying the deceased to the cemetery. Maria had a carriage list of 21 carriages. The first five carriages contained her husband, Vincenzo and son Michele, and her other four children and their respective spouses. Carriages six and held the Sepe contingent: Giuseppe Sepe, possibly a brother, Teresino Sepe DeVito, a confirmed sister and, most likely, her mother, Concetta Sepe, who was living in Brooklyn with daughter Teresino DeVito. Sadly, two years later, Concetta would also pass away, but would be buried with her daughter, Maria, at Holy Cross.

Two things aroused my interest when I visited Holy Cross Cemetery. I was directed to the Saint Cecilia Section, Range 5, Grave 103. I was curious about the headstone I would see, certainly one somewhat reflective of a Carriage List that totaled 21. And I wondered why no one had ever mentioned this burial site as the grave of my great grandmother. I believe that many of Gaetano’s children were not even aware of its existence. When I arrived at the proper location, there was no headstone! (Nothing to indicate that anyone had been buried there.) The cemetery office personnel explained that sometimes people were buried without headstones and this was probably one of those cases. But, I answered, twenty-one carriages and no headstone seemed highly unlikely. She replied that it had been almost eighty years since the last burial and maybe the headstone had sunk. In any event, she could not confirm whether there had ever been a headstone, only that Maria and her mother were buried there along with two other family members. The holder of the deed was Gaetano Petito.

The 1915 Kings County Census listed a “James” Petito living with son, Michael at 248 Navy Street. Vincenzo becomes James and the address is not the 246 Navy listed on wife Maria’s death certificate only a year ago. Vincenzo and son may have moved to a smaller apartment next door after Maria’s death because now listed at the 246 Navy St. is daughter Concetta (listed as “Katie”), her husband, Giachinno (listed as “Jack) and their seven children.

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