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Immigrant Number One


She was 50, and is it a surprise that the cause of death was listed as heart failure? This was no glamorous pioneer lady, hit by a tram, no slim and highbred colleen as the drawings and bronzes suggested. She had spent nearly every year of her marriage pregnant with, giving birth to, or burying a child. Three of the survivors would go on to have children themselves, but only one—Geri’s mother, Catherine, known as Kitty—would outlive their father, who continued to work at the fish market nearby and never remarried.

This Annie was not the kind of hero American stories are made of; no wonder the world seemed bent on wiping out any vestige of her. Even the tenements she lived in were cleared, to make room for high-minded mid-century projects like the Alfred E. Smith Houses. About all you can see of Annie’s life now is her church, though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone Irish inside.

Much of my family came through Ellis Island in the years immediately following Annie. So did much of America’s: Estimates say at least a third of the country can trace its origins through that bottleneck. For a fee, online ancestry sites help curious descendants open some of history’s archives. The results are sometimes a shock. In the 1930 census, I found my paternal grandmother disavowing her Lithuanian heritage. Elsewhere, I found my maternal grandfather living with more siblings than I’d ever heard of. And then I found something even more unexpected: U.S. patent No. 320,003, dated June 16, 1885:

Be it known that I, Simon Schayer, a citizen of the United States, residing in the city, county and State of New York, have invented a certain new and useful Article of Manufacture in Confectionary … My invention relates more particularly to that class of confections known as “macaroons” … My improvement consists in combining and arranging with such macaroons a filling or layer of fig preserve or paste, which in turn is provided with a filling of peanut or other nut candy or paste, the whole united and baked together … A most delicious and attractive article of food is thus produced, in which the different flavors of the ingredients are blended and combined, while the body of the cake is rendered soft, but tenacious and gummous, thus agreeably protracting the degree of mastication essential to its consumption … In order to enable others skilled in the art to make and use my improved articles of food, which I intend to designate as “fig-blossoms,” I herewith set forth the process of manufacture …

Maybe crazy Aunt Geri wasn’t so crazy.

Six weeks after Smolenyak issued her challenge, several keys, turned in succession, led to the “real” Annie Moore. One came from Brian G. Andersson, New York City’s commissioner of records; after reading Smolenyak’s blog, he tracked down the 1921 Declaration of Intent—part of the naturalization paperwork—of Annie’s brother Phillip. Thanks to information on that form, Smolenyak was able to confirm that this was the very Phillip she’d found in the 1930 census, living with a daughter named Anna. Anna’s listing in a subsequent death registry then led, after several false starts, to her son, Michael Shulman, who was in the phone book.

Shulman and his sister, Patricia Somerstein, believed all along that they were the great-nephew and great-niece of Ellis Island Annie. So when Smolenyak called, Shulman was delighted to tell her she’d hit gold; indeed, he shared the family tale of the $10 coin. But the clincher came when Smolenyak spoke to Somerstein, who recalled her mother’s stories of wonderful trips to the Lower East Side to visit Annie’s widower—a man who had once, she thought, lived above a bakery. Smolenyak asked his name, but Somerstein couldn’t remember. Then she suddenly blurted out “Gus Schayer.”

She had no idea that Gus was short for Joseph Augustus Schayer, or even how to spell the last name. Once Smolenyak figured that out, it took only a few minutes to unearth Annie from census records. Soon she had located all but one of her living descendants, and Commissioner Andersson had found a notation of the Schayers’ 1895 marriage in a ledger at St. James Church. Next, a death certificate in the Mormon genealogical archive in Utah led Smolenyak to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, where a disgruntled sexton provided a list of the names of the others buried with Annie in the unmarked grave. With one exception, the names matched those of her children.

The exception was a 1-year-old named James, whom Aunt Geri’s niece, Maureen Peterson, was able to explain. Geri had told her about a Mrs. Doherty, who lived at 86 Oliver when Annie lived at 90. “When the Dohertys lost their baby James,” Peterson recalls, “and were so poor they didn’t have any place to bury him, Annie offered her plot.”


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