What would you do...
If there was a sordid tale of murder in your family history? 🙈🙉🙊 or 🕵🏻♀️
Not all heinous crimes are documented in a newspaper and if you want to know the story behind the sordid tale, you might just have to dig a little deeper into your family history.
Helene Stapinski did just that. She wrote about her efforts in uncovering the skeletons in her Italian family. Sure, we are all familiar with the family stories about your great-uncle's mob connection (yes, I did really uncover a case with a mob-connected murder), but Helene's story turned out to be much more than that. Murder in Matera, A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy had me in its grip from the very beginning.
Those of you who know me know that I cannot resist a good mystery, family history, and gripping story all rolled into one. Helene starts her book off with a cast of characters, including Beansie Vena, Helene's "career criminal grandfather, who tells the story of Vita" Gallitelli to her mother, and Vita herself, Helene's great-great-great-grandmother and "alleged murderess from Bernalda". 😲🕵🏻♀️
From a very young age, Helene had been told these stories about Vita from her mother who was passing them from her father as family lore is often handed down. We are not talking about fairy tales and yet there were morals to the story. Vita was described as a 'loose woman' who left Italy with three of her children after murdering someone. She was seen as a martyr and a criminal who paid a heavy price for her crimes.
But who was murdered? That little detail, like so many others in this family tale, was missing. Helene's story was ten years in the making as most genealogical adventures take time to unravel and get to the truth.
In 2004, Helene, her 72-year old mother (Ma), and her two young children (ages 4 and 1) traveled to Italy on a genealogical vacation of sorts.
Lessons can be learned from reading about the travels of others. Tip number one if no one has cared for the cemetery tombs, your long-lost relations might have been removed and the plot sold to another family. Tip number two plan ahead by contacting the commune (city hall) ahead of time to request records. Not all records are kept locally. Tip number three if you are traveling to a foreign local to perform research ~ avoid holidays and feast days. While the tourist in you might enjoy the sights and sounds the researcher in you will be frustrated with the closure of city offices, sometimes for the entire week. Tip number four in Italian pharmacies you can purchase some medicines over-the-counter that would require a prescription here and vice versa something you can buy here over-the-counter will require a prescription. I learned this the hard way, bring a full complement of OTC with you when you travel. Tip number five don't expect others to be as excited as you to find the skeletons in their closets.
When Helene traveled home four weeks later she had more questions than answers. But our intrepid genealogist in the making also had a renewed vigor to uncover the mysterious past of Vita.
Bernalda (Bare-NAL-da) is a town in the instep of the Italian boot about 120 miles northeast of my mother-in-law's family ancestral town which we visited in 2014. Coincidentally, Helene made her second trip to Bernalda that same year.
Armed with ten years of research into the lives, people, and criminal minds of Southern Italy in the 19th century, Helene found that she had been looking in the wrong place.
Tip number six do not focus your research on just one village, town, or city. Humans are transient. They were hundreds of years ago and continue to be now. Tip number seven read every document thoroughly. Clues can be found in what is not said as often as what is said. Tip number eight every family story has some truth to it. Oral traditions, regardless of accuracy, are important clues to the lives of our ancestors.
Want to know how Vita's story turns out? Check out Murder in Matera yourself!