Happy July 4th! Here is my American story.

Happy 4th of July!

Let me first note, transparent in my pedantry, the Declaration of Independence was actually approved on July 2, 1776. Nonetheless, it was dated July 4, 1776 and signed August 2, 1776.

Allow me next to relate I was physically born (at long-since-closed Metropolitan Hospital, then at 3rd and Spruce) roughly 1/5 of a mile (about 4½ city blocks) southeast of Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were written.

And permit me to conclude with the fascinating coincidence that both the 2nd president of the United States, John Adams, and the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1826—50 years to the day from the day we designate as our official day of independence from England.

That is, I conclude these introductory paragraphs that way.

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A few hours, I began to write a thread on Twitter. It opened thus:

1/ For July 4, I present my American story.

I was born in Philadelphia–where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States were written.

I was adopted in utero in the late summer of 1966. Both of my (legal) grandfathers were born outside the US.

The thread ties together the various elements of my background into a single, “American” story. Regular readers of this site will not be surprised, given a series of posts I have written (collected here) telling parts of this same story.

Moving right along:

2/ Morris Berger was born in what is now Poland in 1894 and came to the US when he was 4 years old. A Yiddish speaker, he became a successful business owner and Jewish community leader in West Philadelphia.

His son David Louis was my (legal) father.

He went the other direction.

Two things here (besides proudly observing I was given the Hebrew name Moshe ben David Leib in his honor).

One, the year of my (legal) paternal grandfather’s birth is incorrect. Twitter, however, lacks an edit function, so I could not correct this tweet once it was posted.

Two, there is some uncertainty as to when, exactly, Morris Berger (and three of his siblings) was born.

Next:

3/ Charming, gregarious and generous, “Lou” spiralled down after his iron-willed mother died in 1972. A gambling addiction cost him the business his father and uncle had built. He also lost his marriage–though he never lost me. He died, broke, from a heart attack at 46 in 1982.

David Louis “Lou” Berger died on June 30, 1982, meaning the 37th anniversary of his death was four days ago. By an egregious act of bad timing, June 30 is also the birthday of a close cousin. In fact, my mother and I spent the evening he died at a birthday party for this cousin. As we walked in the front door of our apartment after the celebration, the phone was ringing shrilly. My mother walked behind her white-and-chrome desk to answer it. It was her ex-husband’s—what is the adult form of “girlfriend?”—calling from her hospital bed to inform us of Lou’s sudden passing.

At the time, he was driving a cab for a living (quite happily, I hasten to add, because it gave me a freedom he had rarely known). He was headed to Little Pete’s diner (which closed in 2017) to meet some fellow cabbies for a meal, when he collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel (where my wife Nell and I stayed a few times early in our relationship). He was dead before he hit the ground from his third heart attack in 10 years.

Ignoring decades-old tears and moving on:

4/ Yisrael HaCohen was born in what is now Ukraine in 1904. He came to the United States when he was 7, speaking Yiddish. To join the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1930s, he changed his name to Samuel Kohn (sounded less Jewish) and changed his birthplace to Cleveland.

This story I have told before, so let us proceed:

5/ He served for nearly 20 years, rising to Detective. He ultimately retired to Atlantic City.

His daughter Elaine was my (legal) mother.

Serious reproductive health issues (and hysterectomy) led her only natural child (b. 1962) is “severely intellectually disabled.”

Again, one cannot edit a tweet—that should read, “led…to be.”

Because it is better to laugh than to cry, I sometimes tell the following “joke”: My mother had two miscarriages and a hysterectomy, and then I was born!

It was not until I became my sister’s sole legal guardian and began receiving her annual Life Enrichment Plans that I knew the extent of my mother’s reproductive miseries. Besides the two miscarriages—and a prolonged, painful labor resulting in her daughter being deprived of oxygen at critical moments during her birth process—Elaine Berger also had uterine cancer. Thus, the hysterectomy.

Oy.

Next:

6/ I am my sister’s legal guardian. She lives in a facility run through private-public partnership; she is funded through supplemental Social Security income. Thank you, FDR.

Elaine took the opposite path from Lou. After her marriage ended in 1977, she worked a minimum wage job.

She actually took that job—cold-calling folks on behalf of the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company—some time around October 1976, as her marriage was inexorably coming to an end.

And I must say this: the end of my (legal) parents’ marriage was about as amiable as such an event can be. As painful as it must have been (the night before they officially separated was the only time I saw my father cry), I will always be grateful to them for this civility.

Meanwhile, this is what I mean by “supplemental Social Security income.”

Moving on:

7/ Eventually, Elaine bought that business and, with some help from her own business-owning mother, made a good living for nearly 25 years.

But her reproductive issues returned, and she died from ovarian cancer, aged 66, in 2004.

Oh…her mother. Irene Gurmankin, later Goldman.

Yes, my (legal) maternal great-grandfather—or, at least, his four daughters—also Anglicized his name.

Three years after Elaine Berger began as a minimum-wage-earning telephone solicitor, the owner—a lovely man named (if memory serves) Schwartz—retired. My mother worked out a deal with the man who owned the actual carpet-cleaning machinery to run the business together. A few years after that, this other man retired (or something, my memory defies interrogation on these points), and Elaine Berger took over the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company (a two-person operation—three when I pitched in, mostly by filing or placing leaflets on car windshields—to be sure) for good.

Here she is in 1988 running that business (same desk, different apartment) with her two children framed in the background:

1988-2.jpg

Next:

8/ After divorcing Samuel Kohn in (I believe) 1964–a rarity in those days–she started a cosmetics and costume jewelry business. That business–and her own iron will and fierce work ethic–became fairly successful, allowing her to live comfortably until her death at 92 in 2007.

For some reason, Irene Kohn (she kept the surname) soon moved 60 or so miles west to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she set up shop at the newly-opened Host Farm. Because of her beauty and extroverted (if sometimes cruel—my relationship to her was complicated) charm, she quickly established herself as the unofficial hostess of the sprawling resort. This was a great boon to my cousins and me, who effectively had the run of the place (two pools, a game room, a gift shop, three great restaurants with employee discounts, endless hallways to explore, a superb daylong program called the Peppermint Parlor). Heck, I got to see my man Rupert Holmes perform in the Host Farm Cabaret (for free) in the summer of 1981!

She finally moved back to Philadelphia in 1984, though she never actually retired, running a mail-order business for loyal customers well into her 80s.

Next:

9/ Meanwhile, Morris Berger died, aged 61, in 1954 (correction, he was born in 1893–if only Twitter allowed editing), and Samuel Kohn died, aged 73, in 1978.

OK, that is my legal family, the only family (prior to marriage and parenthood) I have ever known.

I really wish I could have known my namesake—whose death was one of a series of blows to young Lou Berger, who was asked to shoulder more responsibility than he was prepared to. As for “Pop Pop Sam,” for all his “combative personality” and temper, he was a kind and loving grandfather, and I miss him still.

The next few tweets in the thread speak for themselves:

10/ Here is what I know about my genetic family.

My maternal grandmother could trace her ancestry–and family presence in the United States–to the 1700s. English, Dutch. Her ancestors primarily lived in the southeasterern [sic] United States.

Where they fought for the Confederacy.

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11/ Alice Mulkey married an Irish Catholic Philadelphian named William Dixon, and moved to Philly. Their first child is my genetic mother.

They lived in what was then a working class area

At 19, while working at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, she met my genetic father.

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12/ This part is…fuzzy…so I elide it.

However, the man she met was almost certainly the only son of legendary naval historian Reuben Elmore Stivers. Assuming I am correct, my genetic father died in 2006.

The Stivers family also goes back in the United States to the 1700s.

I exaggerate only slightly when I use the word “legendary” to describe the man who is almost certainly my (genetic) paternal grandfather. When I explained to a different cousin, who serves his country ably and proudly as a Lieutenant Commander, Naval Intelligence, “Smokey” Stivers was likely my ancestor, he said admiringly, “Oh, THAT Reuben Stivers!”

Continuing the thread:

13/ Except they were primarily in Kentucky.

And those men fought for the Union during the Civil War.

“My” branch settled in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. This could explain my (legal) mother’s belief that my genetic father was Colombian.

I miss her (and my father).

Two points.

One, it was not just Kentucky. It was specifically around Lexington, Kentucky, based on what I have learned on Ancestry.com and through discussion with newly-discovered genetic cousins (who have been unfailingly gracious).

But more to the point, I was shocked to learn my genetic ancestors fought each other (perhaps literally, I do not know) in the American Civil War; ponder that counterfactual for a while. This discovery also fits well within the context of my “split identity” first post.

Two, Elaine Berger was so convinced (after a bad game of Telephone: my genetic mother conveyed what she knew to Modell, who passed it on to his client, who probably misunderstood “District of Columbia”–which had only just received its three electoral votes—as “Colombia”) of my genetic paternal heritage she went to the library to see what Colombian children looked like. I do not know what photographs she saw, but she told me numerous times she thought I would be black, or at least much darker-skinned.

She was one of a kind, my mother was.

14/ Upon learning she was pregnant, my genetic mother–unmarried and lacking means–chose to put me up for adoption.

That adoption was arranged through another child of Jewish immigrants, Herman Modell.

How, you ask, did my (legal) father and uncle know the powerful Mr. Modell?

I scrupulously avoid injecting my own political beliefs onto this site, but I make an exception here.

Had I been conceived seven years later, my genetic mother could have had her fetus legally aborted, thanks to Roe v. Wade.

Now, because of her Catholic upbringing—and this is pure speculation on my part—my genetic mother may have carried me to term anyway. She also may have been living in different economic and/or personal circumstances after January 1973. The counterfactuals make my head spin.

And let me back up a second here.

Nell and I have discussed on more than one occasion how much of a role privilege (read: white privilege) plays here. Her own mother was raised with a modicum of wealth, and there is no doubt that if she had found herself with an unwanted pregnancy early prior to 1973, her family would have quietly arranged an abortion for her. It is a near-certainty my genetic mother had no such option (which is why, as long as I am shouting from my soapbox, I have always been opposed to the Hyde Amendment—it denies less well-off women access to a Constitutionally-protected medical procedure and is thus, frankly, unconstitutional. Talk about an “undue burden!”).

But if, under ANY circumstances, my genetic mother had chosen to abort the fetus gestating in her womb—the fetus that would not really become yours truly until the end of September 1966—I would absolutely and unequivocally support that decision.

It was her body, so it was her choice. As it is for all women, everywhere. If you do not like abortions, do not have one, but do not sit in any sort of judgment on any woman who makes that most painful of decision in private consultation with her medical providers and selected loved ones.

Just as I do not get to sit here, more than 50 years later, and judge my genetic mother for any decision she made (or did not make, or could/would have made). I did not yet exist as an autonomous being…and I if I had never existed as an autonomous being, so be it. It was never my decision to make.

My (legal) mother would often remark something to the effect of “If men could get pregnant, you would be able to get an abortion on any street corner.”

For a woman with only a few years of post-high-school medical technician training, she saw things with exceptional clearly.

Returning to my Twitter thread:

15/ Through their simultaneous membership in La Fayette Lodge No. 71.

Yes, my (legal) father, his uncle and the powerful lawyer who arranged my adoption were brother Freemasons.

To be fair, my (legal) father was asked to leave La Fayette Lodge No. 71 for non-payment of dues.

I have told some of this story before, so let us move on; see also here. I would just add that to the extent you knew my father—and realize he was a Freemason for about 10 years—any support for the myth of the controlling influence of the Freemasons evaporates.

16/ But consider this.

When the unplanned child of two people who could trace (mostly) ancestry in the United States to the 1700s was placed for adoption, with whom was he placed?

The children of Yiddish-speaking immigrant fathers who had built successful lives in Philadelphia.

And there it is…thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.” Often lost in our collective squabbles over immigration: the descendants of recent immigrants often do better economically and socially than the longer-term “original settlers.”

Speaking of bearing with me:

End/ I was fortunate to be raised by loving parents of some means in the leafy suburbs north and west of Philadelphia. Nature and nurture cooperated successfully, and I enrolled in Yale College in 1984, sparking a fairly successful life of my own.

And that is #MyAmericanStory

Here is a photograph of those leafy suburbs, as my (legal) father holds his two children (backstory here):

Sue Ellen Drive Feb 1967 or October November 1967

And here I am with my legal mother and maternal grandmother at my graduation from Yale in 1988.

Yale graduation with Nana and Mom 1988.jpg

Here is the first postscript:

PS/ I am writing a book (inspired by, of all things, trying to explain why I love #FilmNoir so much) detailing this history. Working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir, Identity and a Search for Truth.

For more, please see justbearwithme.blog.

Thank you, and Happy 4th!

Hmm, this is getting very circular.

And, finally:

PPS/ My profile picture is from my (legal) parents’ wedding in January 1960. Their wedding, literally and metaphorically, took place about half a mile south of City Line Avenue. They were on the Philadelphia side, but maybe they could see their future home in the suburbs.

For those of you who do not follow me on Twitter (tsk, tsk–@drnoir33), here is that photograph:

Elaine and Lou Berger with parents January 17 1960.jpg

I do not know who the gentleman on the far left is (a great-uncle?), but from left to right are Rae Caesar Berger (mother of the groom, Lou Berger, Elaine Kohn Berger (photograph taken after exchange of vows), Irene Kohn (mother of the bride) and Samuel Kohn (father of the bride).

I LOVE this photograph, even if the men on either end look dyspeptic.

Please have (or continue to have, or I hope you had) a safe and festive holiday!

Until next time…

A Skeptic is Born

If this blog has anything like a unifying theme, it is evidence-based investigation.

In fact, my original stated purpose was to use a careful presentation of data to answer what I felt were interesting—if not always momentous—questions. Sometimes that took the form of challenging conventional wisdom, and at other times it took the form of thinking critically about arguments I had encountered online. Elsewhere, I engaged in speculative history backed by the best evidence I could gather.

I have even critiqued my own data analyses.

An unexpected, and unexpectedly powerful, outcome of that original purpose is the notion of “interrogating memory.” I am even writing a book with that title.

In other words, I strive to examine every assertion, every question, every story with the same critical-thinking eye. I may not always succeed (confirmation bias, for example, is powerful—and admittedly one reason I prefer MSNBC to other cable news networks), but that is always the goal.

This was not always the case, however.

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One of my favorite phrases as a child was “howcum?” Inherently curious—and with otherwise-solid report cards often featuring a variant of “does not like to follow directions,” I questioned everything.

Fairly early, that need to know why led me straight to detective fiction and, a bit later, classic mystery films.

But at other times my innate curiosity failed me, and I allowed the allure of “unknowably mysterious” to blind me to the non-existence of actual “mystery.” This transpired even as Scooby Doo and this underrated movie told me that “supernatural” events have prosaic explanations.

Just bear with me while I outline a pre-adult life spent immersed in pseudo-mysteries.

Fact-checking what I wrote here, I was probably closer to seven years old when I first encountered my mother’s copy of Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, the first astrology book I ever read. My mother was particularly taken with the section on the Libra child, because it seemed to describe my (at times) indecisiveness; the example in the book is how the Libra child cannot decide which breakfast item placed in front of her/him—orange juice, toast, cereal, etc.—to select first. For the record, my wife Nell also ascribes my “on one hand…on the other hand…but on the one hand again” mode of analysis to my being a Libra (just as she ascribes some of her own personality traits to being a Scorpio).

Goodman’s broad overview launched a deeper immersion in astrology, whose ostensible quantitative precision—all those beautiful charts and numbers!—appealed to my mathematical mind. This was followed in short order by numerology, the prophecies of Nostradamus (and other alleged clairvoyants), card reading and many other forms of divination.

Decades later, this is all that remains of my “occult” book collection. You can see how battered and well-thumbed these books are.

Occult books.JPG

Using the red hardback book, I spent much of high school (1980-84) doing “card readings” for my mother and her friends (and, on occasion, my own friends); in retrospect, I was really doing a kind of layperson therapy: having the cards “reveal” (with a healthy dollop of intuition and psychology) what the person being analyzed wanted (or needed) to hear. Between the rush I got for being the “expert” and the attention my “clients” received, it was benign fun for all concerned.

The numerology text picture here is the successor to my first text from the late 1970s; I am not sure what happened to it. And the World Almanac volume is taped together because I practically memorized it in the summer of 1980, when my job co-running the canteen at Camp Kweebec allowed me ample time to read. (It was also when I had perhaps the greatest steak sandwiches of my life—man, those chefs were friendly and talented; hold that thought).

Meanwhile, even as I was absorbing all of this, I was being introduced in Hebrew school to the Gematria. The teacher who taught us this Jewish version of numerology was a Chasidic man named Mr. Devor, who also taught high school science: a juxtaposition which fascinated me). He was also a brilliant and gentle man who I completely adored. In essence, what Mr. Devor taught us was that a proper decoding of the arrangement of Hebrew letters in the Bible would reveal mystical truths (or something). To be fair, I still have the copy of the Hebrew Torah (the first five books only) I bought for further numerological investigation.

Hebrew Torah closed.JPG

Hebrew Torah open.JPG

Looking back, the thing about these divination methods that captured my imagination was the sheer audacious confidence of the assertions presented. To these authors, it was simply an established fact (sometimes couched in the language of “ancient wisdom”) that the relative positions of celestial objects influenced our lives, or that certain combinations of numbers or letters or cards were better or worse (according to Cheiro, they “vibrated” better—whatever that means).

But it was not only divination methods which called to me. For my sixth grade “gifted program” final project, I chose to put together a compendium of the most interesting “unsolved mysteries”—or enigmas—I could find[1]; I even appropriated the word “enigmatologist” to describe what I thought I wanted to be. From Sasquatch (or Yeti or Murphysboro Mud Monster), to the Bermuda Triangle, to the Loch Ness Monster, to Atlantis, to reincarnation, to UFOs and so on—I fervently read what I could find. That is not to say I was not smitten with less “fanciful” unsolved mysteries: I was equally enamored with the Oak Island “money pit,” the statues of Easter Island, the possibility that Anastasia Romanov survived the 1917 execution of her and her family, etc[2].

The thing is, the appeal lay not in the potential to “solve” these “mysteries,” but in the very idea there was any mystery at all. Despite my “howcum?” refrain, I broadly accepted the truth of divination methods; the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, dangerous vortices, Atlantis and ancient aliens (heck, I even wrote a book report in sixth grade about one source[3]); that the lovely Anastasia[4] had somehow survived; and so forth. I suspect some of this was resulted from intellectual malaise; quotidian reality was not exciting enough for me. It may also have been a way to assert some control over my life as my parents’ marriage ended, which began when I was nine years old—or, rather, to cede control to unseen cosmic forces. There was nothing I could do to fix my parents’ marriage—or prevent a series of moves—but if all of this was preordained in some way…

Ancient Mysteries book report.JPG

Or I simply had a child’s combination of imaginative awe and undeveloped critical thinking skills.

And yet…and yet…

Tarot deck.JPG

What strikes me now is how much I kept searching (without quite acknowledging it) for some sort of proof—or at least for some underlying reason for how these things could be true. While it was not until high school (at the earliest) that I first heard the phrase “correlation does not equal causation,” what began to nag at the back of my mind was the question WHY would the location of distant constellations or specific numbers or the random ordering of playing/Tarot cards (I still have my pack, as you can see) have ANY measurable impact on, well, anything? What was the causal mechanism at work in these instances? Or, as I would later frame the question as a data analyst and practitioner of epidemiologic methods (itself a form of epistemology):

What is the most direct and logically-coherent story I can tell to account for the association I have measured between variables X and Y?

Here is where Occam’s razor comes into play: the least complicated explanation for any unexplained phenomenon is usually the correct one.

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Not that I necessarily wanted to be dissuaded from my beliefs, mind you.

I do not remember when I first heard of Alan Landsburg, but it was probably around the time my parents separated (March 1977). The book I reported upon in elementary school—In Search of Ancient Mysteries—was first published in 1974 (co-written with his wife Sally Landsburg), launching the “In Search of…” series; I devoured these books. The television series of the same name debuted in 1976, quickly becoming a favorite of mine.

However, when (probably in 1978) I started to read about Atlantis in Landsburg’s 1976 book In Search of Lost Civilizations, I found myself reading instead about Minoan civilization and volcanic eruptions on the island of Santorini. What did any of this have to do, I asked myself in annoyance, with a sunken continent somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean that was once home to the ancient world’s most advanced civilization and maybe had something to do with the Bermuda Triangle—or the Bimini Road?

Pushing through my annoyance, I slowly realized that Landsburg was providing one possible rational explanation for what had inspired Plato’s original story of Atlantis—the conflation of a highly advanced civilization (long since vanished) with an epic natural disaster.

Oh, I thought, that is really cool—and far more intellectually satisfying than the other possibilities. It was the first time I began to shift from “mysterious, just because” to “what mystery?”

Still, I was not quite ready to shift completely from being Ryan Bergara to being Shane Madej (for fans of the Buzzfeed Unsolved channel on YouTube, in which conspiracy-theorist true believer Bergara and extreme skeptic Madej jointly investigate unsolved crimes and supposedly haunted locations)[5].

The real turning point would not come for another six years.

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I have written about the nighttime drives I took in the summer of 1984, during the joyful limbo between graduating from high school and enrolling at Yale. In that post, I described how I found the 24-hour Vale Rio Diner—which I would frequent on and off until it suddenly closed in early 2008 (I was horrified to drive there that May, only to find a Walgreen’s instead!),

This diner stood opposite where Route 113 north veers off from Route 23 (to the right if you are driving west, with the Vale Rio on your left). If you follow Route 113 north for 0.3 miles, it makes a sharp left turn towards downtown Phoenixville.

In the summer of 1984, at 450 Bridge Street, directly in front of you before you made that left turn[6], was a pizzeria called Nardi’s that made a pretty fair cheesesteak[7]. That was the same summer I worked at Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA and, while fiddling around on the grill one day, created my specialty sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

Given that I was not quite old enough to take truly late-night drives (I wanted to be home by 11 pm to watch Star Trek, after all), I would generally seek out a place to have such a sandwich supper—and maybe some pie and decaffeinated coffee for desert.

I always had a book with me on these drives. One of those books—which I avidly read in Nardi’s on at least one occasion—was a black paperback with blue lettering and an angry-looking SOLVED written in shiny red letters on its cover; it had first been published in 1975. I had started to read it once before, but like In Search of Lost Civilizations six years earlier, it had annoyed me.

Bermuda Triangle book (original)

Why did it annoy me?

Because rather than proposing something, you know, interesting like energy vortices or force fields from Atlantis or alien abductions as the solution to all those unexplained disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, Lawrence David Kusche—amateur pilot and former research librarian at Arizona State University—was proposing something far more radical.

He proposed that the solution to the Bermuda Triangle Mystery is that there never was a Bermuda Triangle Mystery!

As Kusche puts it:

“My research, which began as an attempt to find as much information as possible about the Bermuda Triangle, had an unexpected result. After examining all the evidence [including contemporaneous newspaper accounts, ships logs, etc.] I have reached the following conclusion: There is no [single] theory that solves the mystery. It is no more logical to try to find a common cause for all the disappearances in the Triangle than, for example, to try to find one cause for all automobile accidents in Arizona. By abandoning the search for an overall theory and investigating each incident independently, the mystery began to unravel.”[8]

Indeed, after a 16-page opening chapter titled “The Legend of the Bermuda Triangle As It Is Usually Told,” Kusche devotes 52 relatively short chapters to a detailed investigation of 50+ supposedly mysterious events, from the first voyage led by Christopher Columbus through the Triangle in 1492 through the Linda in October 1973, nearly always finding a rational (even mundane) explanation that fits Occam’s razor.

And when Kusche could not provide such an explanation?

“With only a few exceptions, the mishaps that remain unsolved are those for which no information can be found. In several cases important details of the incident, and in other cases, entire incidents, are fictional.”[9]

More to the point (and more damning to purveyors of the Bermuda Triangle “mystery” canard):

“Many incidents were not considered mysterious when they occurred, but became so many years later when writers, seeking reports of additional incidents in the Bermuda Triangle, found references to them. It is often difficult to find complete information (even when one wants it) on an event that occurred many years before. […] .Many of the writers who published the events did no original research but merely rephrased the articles of previous writers, thereby perpetuating the errors and embellishments in earlier accounts. […] In a number of incidents writers withheld information that provided an obvious solution to the disappearance.”[10]

Finally, here is Kusche’s lament from the “Update” to the 1995 reissue I recently purchased (I do not know what became of the copy I had in 1984):

“These examples are typical of what has happened in the Bermuda Triangle in the past ten years. Nothing has changed. Incidents of various types, some big, some small, continue to happen. They can be hyped into “great unsolved mysteries” by almost anyone. It is very easy to do. Just don’t bother to check the facts thoroughly, do some imaginative speculating, toss out a few unanswered questions, and use a few exclamation points. Personally, I find it more interesting to dig deeper and look for logical explanations.”[11]

I was on my second attempt to read Kusche’s clear-eyed, well-structured accounts (which should be required reading for any serious student of epistemology) as I contentedly munched on my mushroom provolone pizza steak that night at Nardi’s in the summer of 1984. This time, for whatever reason[12], I was willing, in the author’s words, “to think more critically, to be more skeptical, to be more concerned about the quality of what”[13] goes into my mind.

Once I made that mental leap, though, I was riveted—and each chapter was more satisfying than the last.

And a skeptic was born.

OK, it would still be another two decades or so—during which I learned advanced quantitative methods which forced me to frame every research question with care, precision and the most accurate data available—before I became a full-fledged SKEPTIC with the purchase of this essential volume. But once I finished Kusche’s landmark book, there was no going back.

Until next time…

[1] A combination of over-ambition and laziness resulted in my never finishing the project.

[2] My fascination with unsolved murders would not come until later.

[3] I think it was sixth grade—I neglected to write a date on it. At any rate, my grade on this hand-written, five-page gem was a 98.

[4] I freely admit that I developed a crush on the late Grand Duchess—and, yes, genetic testing finally confirmed her death—the first time I saw a photograph of her.

[5] I recommend watching some episodes, typically around 20 minutes long, if only for the friendly—and often-profane—banter between the two hosts. Despite not accepting the existence of ghosts, I seriously want a spirit box.

[7] I did not actually remember the name of the place, but I found it an advertisement on page 118 of the April 18, 1985 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, thanks to the indispensable Newspapers.com.

[8] Kusche, Lawrence David. 1995. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pg. 275.

[9] Ibid., pg. 275.

[10] Ibid., pg. 276-77.

[11] Ibid., pg. xiii.

[12] I would say my impending enrollment in Yale College triggered an upgrade in my intellectual maturity (or something equally pompous), but that is probably just a coincidence.

[13] Kusche, pg. xiii.

When memories defy interrogation

I first used the term “interrogating memory” in August 2017.

One month earlier, I simultaneously

An unanticipated side effect of these intertwined activities (the book has also become both a search for “identity” and a social history) was the need to subject memories and stories to rigorous analysis and validation; given my post-graduate academic training in biostatistics and epidemiology (with its toolkit of quantitative epistemological methods), this should not have been a surprise.

For example, I had long believed my genetic father was Colombian. My adoptive mother was so convinced of this fact that in the summer before I was born, she went to the library to look for photographs of Colombian children. I have no idea what she actually saw, but she expected me to be much darker-skinned than I actually am[1].

Imagine my surprise (and, yes, disappointment) when genetic testing revealed that I was almost exclusively northern European (British, Irish, French/German, Scandinavian), with less than 1% Iberian (i.e., Spanish or Portuguese) I hoped against hope was the source of my “Colombian” ancestry. But that was only the first iteration of my results. Subsequent algorithm changes readjusted the relative percentages to 64.4% British & Irish, 12.8% French & German, 1.6% Scandinavian, 0.9% Italian and 0.2% North African & Arabian, plus 19.7% Broadly Northwestern European, 0.2% Broadly Southern European and 0.2% Broadly European[2]. What little Spanish ancestry I thought I had vanished with this final recalculation. Moreover, the Native American maternal great-grandparent that was also part of my “adoption story” did not seem to exist either[3].

In other words, rather than being a “walking UN,” I was, like, the whitest white boy ever.

Further research (and my near-certainty about the identity of my genetic father) led me to hypothesize that my mother, when meeting with the lawyer who arranged my adoption, somehow translated the fact my genetic father (unnamed in official court records) “grew up in the District of Columbia” as “he came from [the nation of] Colombia.” Short of my genetic mother flat-out lying about (or not knowing herself) who my genetic father was—and until I ask her directly (yes, I know her identity), this is the best explanation I have.

This is merely one example of a memory—or collection of related memories, or story—I was able to interrogate using available sources of information: public records available on Ancestry.com (Census data, city directories, birth and death certificates) and elsewhere on the internet (Google maps, “White Pages,” obituaries, etc.), the indispensable Newspapers.com and my own personal archives (including e-mails, bank and credit statements, diaries, address books, family documents).

But then are those intense nagging memories that simply defy interrogation.

Below, I present three examples of such memories (to the best of my ability to reproduce in words what I see with my mind’s eye), along with the less-than-fruitful steps I took to interrogate them.

Memory 1: My father and I are in a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged store somewhere in Philadelphia; I THINK it was in a line of stores on a commercial street somewhere to the east of Ridge Avenue just east of the northeastern edge of Fairmount Park. Everything in the store feels dusty and old. Half-empty shelves line the wall, on the right-hand side as you enter from the sidewalk, all the way to the ceiling (I cannot picture the opposite side of the store). There are some counters as well. I am unclear what the store sells—or even why we are there—but I get the impression of adding machines and typewriters. My sense is these were used machines, or possibly repaired, or maybe neither. In the darkened back of the store is an open doorway leading to a back room through which I see light. I do not know why we are there, but I BELIEVE my father and the proprietor of the store—a shorter older man?—went into the back room alone for a brief time; I read and/or fiddled with the machines while I waited. This visit almost certainly occurred between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my father’s death in June 1982.

This memory has been near the forefront of my conscious mind ever since I began writing my book, which (as of now) has four chapters devoted to my film noir “journey[4].” One, which I am tempted to call “Night and the City,” explores the interplay between my life-long love of the night and my suburban mythologizing of “the city.” This “old dark urban store” visit is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think about pre-adulthood trips into “the city.”

Growing up in the 1970s in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, “the city” meant two things: 1) Center City, home to most of the historical and cultural attractions and 2) everywhere else, including predominantly-minority and/or less-well-off areas. This was when “law and order” Frank Rizzo (seen here in 1969, when he was Police Commissioner, with a nightstick tucked into his cummerbund) was mayor (1972-80), and the city—like many in the United States—was facing a shrinking tax base and “white flight[5].”

Rizzo NightStick

At this young age, I mentally conflated every section of Philadelphia north, south and west of Center City[6] with the presentation of “inner cities” in popular television shows like Welcome Back Kotter[7], Good Times and What’s Happening!!—and even All in the Family, an inescapable part of the cultural zeitgeist even though I rarely watched it. And like many suburban children, I came to mythologize “the city” as a place simultaneously exciting and dangerous, alluring and repellent[8].

As for this particular store, which I mentally locate in what I have learned is the Allegheny West neighborhood, I have been unable to locate it using Street View in Google Maps or by searching for advertisements for it on Newspapers.com. The 4000 block of Ridge Avenue sort of fits my memory of the store’s exterior, except for the Route 1 expressway bridge looming overhead. What I need, actually, is a set of Philadelphia Yellow Pages for the late 1970s; one of the listed “office supply” or “typewriter repair” shops listed should theoretically match my “mental location.”

Even if I am able locate the store itself, however, I still may never know for certain why my father and I were there—although two possibilities come to mind. The first is that this is where I acquired my beloved portable blue-and-white Olivetti (?) typewriter to replace the battered old Royal typewriter I had been using. While it is hard to imagine such a new typewriter emerging from the musty store of my memory, it does fit with what I remember being IN the store (as well as my father’s penchant for getting “deals”). The timing works as well, since I received that typewriter sometime around the first week of March 1980, when my mother and I moved into a new apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley; whether by design or not, the typewriter matched the fresh décor my mother chose: navy, white and silver.

A more sinister possibility is that my father was conducting some less-than-legal business with this man. Following my parents’ separation (and the loss of a family business), my father had a series of temporary positions—salesman for Sylvan Pools, selling roadside signs with removable plastic letters, cab driver (he found some peace and contentment doing this, I think[9]). He was also a bookie for a time[10], and he was deeply in debt to enough people that he would never sit with has back to the door of a restaurant. Perhaps he was collecting payment from, or delivering winnings to, the old man in the back room?

The former explanation is far more likely (would my father really conduct an illegal transaction while he had his 12- or 13-year-old son with him, even in a back room?), but there is a “noir” feel to the latter explanation that appeals to me.

In fact, it is revealing how dark I envision this store being, as though the darkness itself was somehow nefarious. It was daytime (I am almost certain), and perhaps quite sunny, so the store may simply have felt darker by comparison. But the impression of that darkness is something entirely different.

Someday I may figure out why that is.

Memory 2: One Saturday night in 2002, 2003 or 2004, I took a meandering night drive. Somewhere in Montgomery County, north of Philadelphia, I found myself driving on a “road with a route number.” I then turned left onto a different “road with a route number” to explore further; I may have intended to find this latter road from the start. Sometime later, I find a 24-hour diner (on weekends, at least); I park and enter. I am almost certain I walked up a few concrete steps to do so. It was clean and kind of “retro-modern;” despite my sense of a great deal of black and white in the décor, I also feel like there was a fair amount of neon and chrome. I sat at a small-ish counter (curved?) in a separate room to the right as you entered (there were some booths behind me); in front of me may have been glass shelving stacked high to the ceiling. Behind me and to the left was a large glass window through which I can look down onto an asphalt-covered parking area with at most a few spaces. The diner itself is sort of tucked into a dark urban commercial corner, almost as though it jutted out from an adjoining building. I do not recall what I ordered or what I was reading, or whether I even liked the diner or not. I never returned there, and I can no longer recall the name of the diner or its precise location.

 The late-night drive in search of—something or other (ideally including a previously-unknown-to-me 24-hour eatery)—has been a favorite pastime of mine since the summer of 1984; I have yet to heed the warnings offered here.

But the nature of those drives—wandering down unknown roads for hours until I figure out once again where I am, then find somewhere to stop to eat before driving home—means that I cannot exactly reproduce many of these journeys. That being said, however, I never forget a 24-hour-diner, no matter how much I meandered to get there; that is what makes this particular memory so frustrating. It is conceivable that I had a very poor experience there…but why do I not remember THAT?

What I also remember—assuming I have not conflated this part of the memory with various dreams[11]—is that a) the “road with a number” from which I turned left was Route 202, b) the “road with a number” onto which I turned (forming a three-way intersection) was Route 152, and c) I strongly associate this journey—maybe even this particular intersection—with a female coworker with whom I had become very friendly. She was raised in a Montgomery County town just north of Philadelphia.

I literally clicked my way along the entire stretch of Route 202 on Street View between Norristown and the border with Montgomery County. While I found the intersection with Route 152, it was far too rural to be the one in my memory; no other intersection was even close. As I was writing this, I again looked at Google Maps—and realized I had forgotten about Business Route 202.

And…lo and behold…the intersection with Route 152 north is a three-way intersection whose building layout broadly corresponds to my memory.

But that is as far as I can go. Following Route 152 north into towns like Perkasie and Sellersville, there is no commercial urban corner even close to what I recall. Moreover, I literally searched “24-hour diners” on Google Maps for all of Montgomery County north of Philadelphia—not one of them is the diner of my memory. Finally, I was not able to find any record of such a diner existing on Newspapers.com, even going back to 2002.

There is one possible explanation for the association of the intersection of Business Route 202 and Route 152. At some point during this time period, I spent one Saturday afternoon in the charming Bucks County borough of Doylestown. While I was perusing the shelves of a used book store, literally on Business Route 202, my cell phone rang. It was my work friend wondering what I was doing and whether I wanted to hang out with her that night. It is a near certainty I would have taken Business Route 202 back to my apartment in King of Prussia (which means this diner visit could not have occurred earlier than February 2003). As I think about it, the intersection with Route 152 north is one I could easily see filing under “explore this some Saturday night soon.”

Doylestown book store

I have a sinking suspicion this particular eatery has since closed; this was 15 or so years ago, after all. Or else I have simply mixed up an intersection from one drive with a diner I happened upon in another—though I highly doubt it. What remains mystifying is how this late-night restaurant could have made such an impression on me—yet I have no idea where it is/was or what its name is/was.

Memory 3: One night between July 2010 and April 2011, I drove either to a public transit station (likely on the MBTA–or “T”) or to a medical building because a male friend—let’s call him “EH”—needed a ride home. EH emerged from my left as I sat in the driver’s seat of my Honda Accord—perhaps down a ramp or short driveway. Immediately in front of me and to the left is a chain link fence. Rows of triple-deckers are both in front of me (lining the far side of a road intersecting with the road on which I am sitting) and to my right. When EH enters the car, the conversation quickly turns to my frustration with finding a new gig as a health-related data analyst. Having just been working with hospital employees (?), EH suggests I look for such a gig in local hospitals. “They always need biostatisticians!” (or words to that effect). Beyond what the area around the pickup looked like, however, I am at a loss where this was—or why I was picking up EH in the first place. This drive may also be when the idea (now an annual event) of my wife Nell and I watching a film noir on my birthday with EH and his wife was first formulated; the possibility that there was snow on the ground, however, would mitigate against this idea because my birthday is in late September.

I actually called in reinforcements on this one: I wrote to EH and his wife, who were every bit as baffled when, where and why this pickup occurred. The conversation is ongoing.

That said, I can at least pinpoint the “when” with some precision because of the conversation about hospitals hiring biostatisticians[12]. I was laid off from Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership on June 30, 2010, then started at Joslin Diabetes Center on May 11, 2011; those two dates are the absolute earliest and latest this event could have occurred. IF EH and I also discussed watching films noir on my birthday—that tradition began in late September 2010, narrowing the window of time to July, August and early September 2010. Again, that is IF we had that conversation; there may also have been snow on the ground, which would most likely put this event in December 2010, or January to March 2011.

EH and his wife both scoured their e-mails and calendars for further evidence; I searched not only my e-mails, but also my bank and credit card statements, in an attempt to find, say, a gasoline purchase in an atypical station. None of these efforts bore fruit.

I was left literally examining, using Google Maps and Street View, every T station and medical center northwest of Boston—where I am almost certain this event took place. And I thought I had hit pay dirt with the Oak Grove T station in Malden, MA; the view looking south on Washington Street, with the T station to my hard left, the chain link fencing in front of me and to the left, and the triple-deckers in front of and to the right of me almost precisely matches my location memory. However, when my daughters and I drove there one recent night, the area did not quite match my memory; though neither can I rule it out entirely.

Oak Grove 1.JPG

Oak Grove 2.JPG

But here is the thing: I may well be conflating the area around where I picked up EH with what I recall of the houses in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC; during the nine months or so I lived there starting in September 1988, I visited some acquaintances there once.

And this is precisely why interrogating memory, no matter how certain we are of what we recall, is so tricky. Over time, memories decay and become confused with other memories—and even with images recalled from dreams. As an example, I was convinced that I saw my first Charlie Chan movie one afternoon during the summer of 1976. A careful search of television listings in the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, revealed that it was actually at 8 pm. And then the diary I kept in the summer of 1976 told me that on the following afternoon, I watched A Night at the Opera. Despite my eventual near-obsession with these Charlie Chan films, it was the Marx Brothers classic that was most salient at the time, as evidenced by it being recorded in my diary and not the Charlie Chan (and Sherlock Holmes film; it was a double feature). But, later, when I looked back, I mistakenly took the emotional impact of a film I watched the following afternoon to mean that I had watched the film with more current resonance at that time, rather than the night before.

For all that I have been frustrated to this point, though, I will continue to interrogate these memories as best I can. Stay tuned.

Until next time…

[1] OK, she actually said “black” (or maybe even “shvartze?”)  in a furtive whisper. Behold the casual racism of mid-1960s white people—the daughter and son of Jewish immigrants from modern-day Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, no less—who had just moved to the suburbs from West Philadelphia. THAT said, she and my father were no less excited to adopt me.

[2] With 50% confidence, that is. With 90% confidence, I am 13.9% British & Irish, 1.7% French & German, 66.8% Broadly Northwestern European, 15.8% Broadly European and 1.8% Unassigned.

[3] I pieced together the root of this story through e-mail exchanges with a genetic maternal aunt (who herself had been given up for adoption, as had her older sister—to the same family, no less—by my genetic mother’s mother). My maternal grandmother truly believed that her own mother was part Cherokee, likely because of where in Oklahoma she was born, though it was not quite where the Cherokee Nation lived.

[4] These follow chapters that discuss my film noir “journey” and research more generally; my family’s immigration from the Pale of Settlement to (ultimately) West Philadelphia, as well as the lives they led there; my parents’ childhoods, meeting, marriage and eventual move to Havertown with my severely mentally-challenged older sister, their only natural child; the Freemasons and their connection to the lawyer who arranged my adoption; the adoption itself.

[5] To be brutally honest, this included my own parents. My father was raised in West Philadelphia, while my mother grew up in Strawberry Mansion and Overbrook. Following their January 1960 marriage, they lived for four years in Wynnefield, just over the city line from the Main Line township of Lower Merion. In 1964, they moved to a new housing development in the borderline-Main-Line suburb of Havertown.

[6] To the east is the Delaware River and New Jersey

[7] On a trip to Philadelphia last August, I visited Har Nebo Cemetery, where, among other family members, two of my paternal great-grandparents are buried. Looming over that cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia was a large building eerily reminiscent of the Brooklyn school shown in the opening credits of Welcome Back, Kotter.

[8] Moreover, when I consider why I love film noir so much, I realize that what these films gave me—particularly the so-called “classic era” of the 1940s and 1950s—was a completely different version of “the city.” This was a vibrant, middle class city in the era before suburbs as we know them today, the city my grandparents helped to build and in which my parents were raised. Indeed, my maternal grandfather was a Philadelphia police officer between roughly 1935 and 1953 (the exact dates have been hard to pin down), rising to the rank of Detective before serving briefly under the very same Frank Rizzo. The contrast between the older—and to be completely honest, lily-white—city of film noir and the city of my childhood continues to fascinate me.

[9] Making it that much more tragically ironic that he died while on a break from this job. On the evening of June 30, 1982, he was on his way to meet some fellow cabdrivers at Little Pete’s coffee shop for a meal when he suffered a fatal heart attack directly across the street, on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel. He was just 46 years old.

[10] There was a rumor he also sold drugs, but given his disapproval of my mother when she began to smoke marijuana in 1970 (when she was 32, which was thus when I would be allowed to start doing so—event though I smoked my first joint when I was 19, quite ineffectively), that seems highly unlikely.

[11] One, from 1990, involved driving up a similar road with businesses on either side of it before reaching a 24-hour eatery on the left-hand side, complete with curved driveway. A second, from 2005, includes my being in a darkened front room at night. This room is on the second floor of a two-story building. Through a bay window I can see a darkened commercial street corner with a street lamp; there may be a railway tunnel to the right.

[12] I did not yet have my doctorate in epidemiology.

My great-grandfather, his brother-in-law…and The Three Stooges?

This coming October 15 would have been my great-grandfather David Louis Berger’s 150th birthday.

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

Eight days later, I will mourn the 100th anniversary of his passing, under bizarre circumstances, but that is a tale I reserve for my book.

“Louis,” as he preferred to be called (like my own father David Louis Berger liked to be called “Lou”) was almost certainly born in the town of Przasnysz (pronounced “pruhzh-nitz”). His father was named Shmuel Meyer (Berger); I have yet to learn his mother’s name.

Around 1891, Louis Berger married Ida Rugowitz, with whom he would have five children, including my father’s father Morris (born in Przasnysz on August 5, 1893), for whom I was named[1]. Well, we share identical Hebrew names: Moshe ben Dahvid Laib. My mother Anglicized “Moshe” to “Matthew,” which she preferred to “Michael” for some reason.

Morris and Rae Berger

I have no clue where my middle name—Darin—came from.

And the above photograph of my grandparents Morris and Rae (Caesar) Berger was probably taken in Atlantic City, NJ around 1949.

My great-grandfather Louis set sail for Quebec from Liverpool, England on the S.S. Tongariro with his wife and children on May 6, 1899[2]. The ship arrived in Quebec City on May 16 and in Montreal—its final stop—on May 17. I do not know in which city they disembarked—though his United States of America Petition for Naturalization states that he arrived in the port of “Philadelphia via Quebec,” suggesting it was Quebec City.

While I cannot definitively place Louis, Ida or any of their children in the United States until December 2, 1902[3], I do not think they tarried long in Canada. Rather, my working hypothesis is that they immediately boarded a train (or series of trains) for the 500+-mile trek south to Philadelphia[4].

Which begs the question: why Philadelphia?

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My great-grandmother Ida Rugowitz (born June 12, 1870, most likely also in Przasnysz) had at least two siblings. One was a brother named Charles (Anglicized from Tzadik) who was born in July 1862, and the other was a brother Daniel born in April 1882; the latter was unequivocally born in Przasnysz, meaning the former almost certainly was.

My great-great-uncle Charles married Rebecca Pearl Berman in 1880, then they moved to Philadelphia in 1886 (or, at least, they arrived in the United States that year—the earliest I can definitively place them in Philadelphia is March 14, 1889, when their son Emmanuel was born). His brother Daniel would not arrive until May 1903.

As I continue to research my book, tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity, I have spent many mostly-happy hours diving down the rabbit hole of Philadelphia City Directories from 1880 forward, as well as more generally on Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. United States Census records can tell me which relatives were living where on a decennial basis, but the city directories (to the extent they are complete—inclusion does not appear to have been as automatic as it would become in the age of telephone-number-based directories) can do so on an annual basis.

This is how I discovered that my great-grandfather Louis (along with his wife and four, soon-to-be-five children) were very likely living at 105 Kenilworth Street, approximately the length of a football field west from the Delaware River, as of 1902; no “Louis Berger” is listed in the 1899, 1900 or 1901 directories. This South Philadelphia address was barely a block east of 712 S. 2nd Street.

From 1899 to 1908, that was the residence and bakery of Louis Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—and I presume my great-grandfather was simply moving to the same American city as his successful brother-in-law—which is to say, his wife’s brother.[5]

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Just bear with me while I briefly outline some of the street topography of Philadelphia.

Center-City-map-small2.jpg

The section of the city known as “Center City” is bounded to the east by the Delaware River and to the west by the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River; West Philadelphia extends some 33 blocks west of the Schuylkill (and is primarily where my parents were raised, especially my father, who was born at the end of 1935).

The primary east-west thoroughfare in Center City Philadelphia is Market Street (originally High Street), and the primary north-south thoroughfare is Broad Street, exactly as William Penn planned in 1682, when he designed the grid of streets in his new city of Philadelphia. In 1871, construction began on Philadelphia’s City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market, the rough geographic center of Penn’s original city.

The north-south streets are numbered, moving west from Front Street roughly to 27th Street (the curvature of the Schuylkill makes this somewhat imprecise), with the numbering resuming on the west side of the Schuylkill; “Broad Street” is what would otherwise be called “14th Street.” I-95 actually runs parallel to the Delaware River through Center City—meaning Front Street is no longer the easternmost street in Center City (Christopher Columbus Boulevard is).

The main east-west streets are usually named for trees or other vegetation. Thus, beginning from Market and moving south are Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard and South; an alphabet soup of smaller streets and alleys exist within this primary grid. North from Market, meanwhile you find Arch, Race, Vine, Callowhill and Spring Garden.

South Street marks the boundary with South Philadelphia, while Spring Garden marks the boundary with North Philadelphia. There are other neighborhoods (like the “Greater Northeast,” where I spent a lot of time in high school because a close cousin lived there), but they do not concern us here.

**********

When I was growing up in the suburbs just west of Philadelphia, South Street between Front and about 8th Streets was the center of Philadelphia’s punk and new wave culture, making it the flame to which all us suburban moths were drawn; it has since become more gentrified.

At the turn of the previous century, however, the easternmost-blocks of South Street were the mercantile center of a thriving Jewish community, a roughly 50-block area (bounded by the Delaware River to the east, 6th Street to the west, Spruce Street to the north and Christian Street to the south) where Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement were settling after arriving on the steamships from Liverpool (or, apparently, by train from Canada).

If you walk south on 2nd Street from South Street, the first major street you cross is Bainbridge. One-half block down on the western side of the street is #712, which sits directly across the western end of a one-block stretch of Kenilworth Street[6]. Just one block to the west is 105 Kenilworth Street.

As I noted above, a Louis Berger—variously described as “grocery” and “varieties”—lived at 105 Kenilworth from 1902 to 1905. My great-grandfather was, in fact, a purveyor of “meats” from 1906 (when he is first listed in city directories residing at 2241 Callowhill, as close to the Schuylkill as I hypothesize he had been to the Delaware[7]) until about 1915. Around 1914, he operated his meat business (what I suspect we would now call a delicatessen) out of a store at 2313 Fairmount Street, less than two blocks west of Eastern State Penitentiary.

IMG_0292.JPG

I took this photograph inside the penitentiary walls in July 2013. It is every bit as creepy as it appears.

Starting in 1915 (as seen in this section of page 2023 of that year’s Philadelphia city directory), however, the family shifted away from “meats” to the moving/storage/used furniture business that would occupy my grandfather Morris (then just 21, but the emerging English-speaking face of the family) and, later, his brother Jules until they died in the 1950s (when my father took over…but that is also a story for another day).

Berger Storage Company 1915.jpg

And this is where we leave my great-grandfather (who, as I noted, would die just four years later) and his wife and children.

**********

The first appearance of Louis’ Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz as a baker was in 1895, fully nine years after he arrived in the United States, when he is recorded living at 752 S.  7th Street (one block west of the western edge of the Jewish Quarter described above). This address is literally just around the corner from where his brother-in-law’s first cousin’s widow Lena Berger would be living as of 1899, and possibly as early as 1895 (see footnote 5). In fact, the buildings shared exterior walls.

By the following year, Charles  Rugowitz had moved to 929 South Street, where “Rugowitz and Berman”—variously described as “bakers,” “cakes” and “crackers” would be situated until 1898. Clearly, my great-great-uncle was pushing the boundaries of Philadelphia’s “Jewish Quarter.”

“Berman,” by the way, was Harry Berman, the younger brother of Rebecca Pearl Berman[8], who had married Charles Rugowitz back in 1880. The two men lived together—presumably above their bakery—from 1896 to 1909. I do not know when Harry Berman first arrived in Philadelphia.

Harry Berman was also one of two witnesses to Louis Berger’s naturalization petition in October 1906. The other witness was Max Rugowitz, the first cousin of Charles, Daniel and Ida Rugowitz (and thus my first cousin, three times removed). Max Rugowitz had been born in 1872; let’s posit he was born in Przasnysz as well. United States Census records say he arrived in the United States in 1896 or 1897. The first official record of Max Rugowitz is as a grocer (misspelled “Rugwitz”) living in 1903 at 109 Naudain St—a very narrow brick-paved road running between Front and 2nd Streets, just one short block north of South Street. By 1905, he is selling cigars and living at 533 S. Front Street—the northeast corner of the intersection of Front and South Streets (now a parking lot)[9]. In 1910, he moved to 345 South Street (just off the northeast corner of the intersection of 4th and South Streets—diagonally across from where the legendary Jim’s Steaks would open in 1976). Here, Max Rugowitz would live until his death on April 9, 1929, at the age of 57.

As for Charles Rugowitz, the bakery he co-owned with Harry Berman had moved to 712 S. 2nd Street as of 1899 (this is where Louis Berger came into the story originally), where it would remain until 1910. The bakery was apparently successful, because as early as June 1901, Charles Rugowitz is already serving on the house committee of the Home for Hebrew Orphans[10]. He was still on the house committee in December 1907, when he helped to arrange a fundraising dance at the Musical Fund Hall at 8th and Locust Streets. And, yes, I appreciate the irony of a Jewish fundraising dance being held on the evening of Christmas Day.

That same year, Charles briefly co-owned a shoe store in West Philadelphia (5145 Haverford Avenue) with a man named Lewis (or Louis) Maltz; the former would serve an executor of the latter’s will in May 1924[11]. Emanuel Rugowitz, now 18, lived that year at 5136 Haverford Avenue (across the street) and managed his father’s shoe store.

By 1909, however, the Berman-Rugowitz partnership was coming to an end, as Charles Rugowitz had moved to 245 South Street—one block east from his cousin Max, just off the northeast corner of 3rd and South Streets. Here he would live through 1919; by 1921, he had moved to 114 South Street, where he and Pearl would remain until his death on March 25, 1931 at the age of 68. He left an estate of $15,500 in trust for his wife (and, with her passing, their six children and the Home for Hebrew Orphans, among other recipients)[12]; that would be worth about $235,000 today.

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But let us return to 1910, when the Rugowitz cousins—Charles and Max—first started living just one block apart on South Street.

Ten years earlier, a 21-year-old jeweler named Joseph Feinberg was living with his brother Nathan and his family at 122 Kenilworth Street—just a few houses west from where Louis Berger and his family would be living in 1902.

But by that year, Joseph had married Fanny Lieberman and opened a jewelry shop with her at 606 S. 3rd Street. This was just three doors down on the west side of 3rd street from the southwest corner of 3rd and South Streets, diagonally across from where Charles Rugowitz would move in 1909 (one year after the Feinbergs moved to 246 N. 2nd Street, unfortunately).

It was at 606 S. 3rd Street, however, that Louis Feinberg was born on October 5, 1902. And perhaps it was here that young Louis accidentally spilled the acid his father used to detect gold content on his left arm, burning him so badly skin grafts were required. After taking up the violin to strengthen his arm, Louis became so proficient that he began to perform locally. He also briefly took up boxing while attending Central High School, winning one bout, until his father put a stop to it.

He did not graduate from high school, choosing to perform instead—play the violin, perform Russian dances and tell jokes. In 1921, he appeared on the same bill as Mabel Haney, who later became his wife. Perhaps it was around this time that Louis Feinberg adopted the stage name “Larry Fine,” because he soon joined his wife and he sister in act called “The Haney Sisters and Fine.” While performing in Chicago, IL one night in 1925, a vaudevillian comedian named Ted Healy caught a performance along with two members of his act: brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (born Moses and Samuel Horwitz).

When “Larry Fine” then agreed to replace Shemp, that started the process resulting in the formation of The Three Stooges (with the addition of Jerome Horwitz, better known as “Curly” Howard), who would make 190 short films for Columbia from 1934 to 1958, becoming one of the top comic acts of the 20th century.

IMG_0274.JPG

The idea to honor the birthplace of Larry Fine/Louis Feinberg began with a suggestion in the Philadelphia Weekly. David McShane was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of Jon’s Bar and Grill (which moved into 606 S. 3rd Street in 1981); it was dedicated on October 26, 1999, with Larry Fine’s sister Lyla (then 78 years old) in attendance. The mural was repainted in October 2005—and I took this photograph of it in July 2013.

Sadly, in November 2018, Jon’s Bar and Grill announced that it was closing after 37 years in business.

I would like to think that a young Louis Feinberg, with or without his family, would have found his way at least once a few blocks south and east to the bakery of Rugowitz & Berman at 712 S. 2nd Street.

Or, conversely, it is easy to imagine the successful baker Charles Rugowitz spending time shopping for watches or other jewelry in Joseph Feinberg’s shop at 3rd and South Streets.

Even if neither of those things ever happened, though, I would still be fascinated by the fact that my great-great-uncle lived for nine years just a stone’s throw from where the great Larry Fine was born…and that perhaps, just perhaps, my grandfather lived across the street—however briefly—from Larry’s then-single jeweler father.

Until next time…

[1] He died on November 14, 1954, nearly 12 years before I was born. This is important because it is Jewish custom not to name a newborn after a living person.

[2] His United States of America Petition for Naturalization, dated October 26, 1906, lists the day as “May 5, 1898.” However, the Tongariro did not make its maiden Liverpool-Quebec voyage until August 1898, three months later. Louis Berger was most likely simply off by one year in his recollection—the last Liverpool-Quebec voyage began on May 6, 1899. If he, Ida and their four children (their last child Julius would be born in Philadelphia in 1904) boarded the vessel the night before their departure, that would be May 5, 1899—exactly one year after the date written on his naturalization petition.

[3] I scoured the 1900 United States Census, to no avail.

[4] It is about 500 miles from Montreal and about 600 miles from Quebec City.

[5] When I was a boy my father and I prepared a list of “Bergers —  death dates” which included a Joseph Berger and his wife Lena. Joseph Berger’s death date is listed as “March 6, 1900,” when in fact (according to his headstone) it was March 6, 1898. That same headstone tells me he was born on April 18, 1860. My guess is that he too was born in Przasnysz—but I may never know for sure. He married the London-born Lena Cohen around 1879 or 1880…and by April 1881, when their eldest son Philip (who appears on my “death dates” list) was born, they were living in Philadelphia. While there are a handful of listings for “Joseph Berger” in the Philadelphia city directories starting in 1888, none seem to fit the broad criteria (or were still alive—going by their listed occupations—after 1898). Only in 1899, does “Lena wid Joseph” first appears, with the address 702 Clymer Street. Given that Joseph, Lena and three of their sons (Harry, Philip, William) appear on the “death dates” list (implying a close familial relation), and given that Joseph was born just nine years before Louis, I assumed Joseph and Louis were brothers. However, examination of each of their headstones (it is often the case that the Hebrew names of the deceased—“first name, son/daughter of father’s first name”—are also written on the headstone) reveals Joseph was the son of Yitzchak (usually Anglicized Isaac) while Louis was the son of Shmuel Meyer (Samuel Meyer). My new working hypothesis is that Joseph Berger and Louis Berger were first cousins…making Joseph Berger my first cousin three times removed. All of which is to suggest that another reason to for Louis Berger to choose Philadelphia as the new home for himself and his family was the presence of his first cousin’s widow Lena and their eight children (as of May 1899).

[6] I suspect Kenilworth once ran from river to river, but has since been chopped up into a handful of one-block lengths to accommodate larger structures.

[7] The westernmost stretch of Callowhill has long since been demolished to clear the way for the admittedly majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[8] Rebecca was born on August 15, 1863, in modern-day Lithuania, while Harry was born on December 12, 1874, presumably in the same place.

[9] It seems cousin Charles bought the property for him from a Patrick Sexton for $1,450 on July 9, 1903; this would be about $42,000 today. “REAL ESTATE TRANSFERS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 11, 1903, pg. 5.

[10] “Hebrew Orphans in New Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 24, 1901, pg. 8.

[11] “WILLS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), May 2, 1924, pg. 32.

[12] “W. M’L.FREEMAN LEAVES $214,048,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 1, 1931, pg. 12.

Organizing by themes III: Interrogating memory and identity

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

The sequence of events that resulted in the unifying concept of “interrogating memory” went like this:

  • September 2014: Facebook post for my 48th birthday rank-ordering 24 favorites films noir
  • December 2014: Defend epidemiology doctorate at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH); within two months, doctoral committee and I begin to haggle over publication
  • March 2015: Start building comprehensive film noir database (4,825 titles as of January 2019) as result of September 2014 Facebook post
  • May 2015: Skip official BUSPH Commencement in lieu of informal private ceremony; haggling had become personal and nasty
  • June 2015: End four-year senior data analytic position at Joslin Diabetes Center (19 years in health-related data analysis career) when federal grant funding expires
  • July 2015-July 2017: Look for new position in field, more half-heartedly than I care to admit
  • Early 2016: Realize 50th birthday coming in September, begin to think about discovering truth of genetic family as present to self. This goes nowhere fast.
  • August 2016: Commence long-overdue psychotherapy and begin to take low-dose anti-depressant. Early sessions zero on in establishing my “identity.”
  • September 2016: Turn 50. World does not end.
  • December 2016: Debut Just Bear With Me blog, inspired to large degree by the accessible data journalism of FiveThirtyEight.
  • Early 2017: Realize am spending far more time writing about American politics and culture than anything related to epidemiology (which, along with biostatistics, was focus of 10 years of graduate study at BUSPH).
  • May 2017: Publish Film Noir: A Personal Journey
  • June 2017: Begin to express doubts about my career path 
  • Summer 2017:

By August 2017, I was fully engaged in three interlocking processes:

  1. Writing a book with the working title Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity.
  2. Using online tools (and documents I had carefully archived over the years) to build comprehensive, ever-expanding family trees, first for my legal family (the only family I ever knew until the last 18 months) and later for my genetic family
  3. Using 23andMe’s DNA Relatives tool to supplement slow-moving legal process to learn about genetic family.

This is easily the single most entertaining and rewarding process I have ever undertaken—especially when you learn the death of your father’s father’s father—the handsome and dapper David Louis Berger—made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer in October 1919!

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

And it is far from complete.

On July 4, 2019, I wrote a series of tweets that tied two sets of genealogical strands into a single, all-American narrative.

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The funny thing is that I had never intended to write that much about these genealogical research process, given that I had originally conceived this site to be a place to disseminate “data-driven” odds and ends.

The innate storyteller in me could not resist, however, and on July 22, 2017, I wrote 23and…Who? This proved to be a relatively popular post, so whatever residual disinclination I felt to continue writing about my familial research evaporated almost immediately.

In fact, in a span of four days in mid-August 2017 I wrote three consecutive posts about what I was learning.

Making personal connection, 60 years later

Querying the impossible, just for fun

Interrogating memories of childhood fires

One month later I returned to the research with a cri de coeur about the perils of genealogical research.

I had little new to report until December 2017, when I wrote the following three consecutive posts; in the second one I finally dropped the tattered pretense that this site is solely devoted to “objective data-driven” analyses:

Querying the impossible once again…

In which the objective is to get more…personal

Interrogating memories of the LAST Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl

After a two-month hiatus during which I described in glorious detail my recent adventures in San Francisco, I returned to my genealogical investigations with two posts:

Questions of identity

Two worlds collided…

These were followed by a May 2018 post focusing less upon genealogy and more on my ongoing search for identity.

That August, I traveled to my birth city of Philadelphia, PA to conduct on-site research (and to visit friends and family). I shared what I learned from that trip in a three-part series:

Visiting Philadelphia 1

Visiting Philadelphia 2

Visiting Philadelphia 3

From then until mid-December, I was preoccupied with the 2018 midterm elections. It was not until what would have been my maternal grandfather Samuel Kohn’s 104th birthday (or so I had always understood) that I returned to both the book and the research. I followed that up with a cri de coeur reprise less than one month later, followed in February 2019 by the tale of my paternal great-great-uncle.

The assimilation of Samuel Joseph Kohn

The many Samuel Schmucklers

Louis Berger, Charles Rugowitz and the Three Stooges

But what happens when memories defy interrogation?

Finally, here are the posts that are about my life (separate from my taste in music and love for baseball) but do not necessarily fall under the heading of “interrogating memory.”

Welcome…and just bear with me.

July 2017 Odds and Ends

Questions asked…and answered

Moving memories

Moving serendipity

And for my 100th post…

Remembrance of restaurants past (and present)

Wait…did I mention that I have learned the name of my genetic mother?

Until next time…

 

Two (at least) Samuel Schmucklers: a cautionary tale

In a recent post, I described the metaphoric journey my maternal grandfather took from being Yisrael HaCohen, born in the small town of Shpola (in what is now Ukraine) in November 1905, to being Samuel Joseph Kohn, born in Cleveland, OH in December 1904. His literal journey included crossing the Atlantic with his parents, Joseph and Bessie (Koslenko) Cohen, and six (seven?) siblings from Liverpool to Philadelphia on the Haverford (in steerage, buffeted by a violent storm) in December 1912.

One sibling was named Sofia, later Sophie; what little information I have about my great-aunt Sophie (other than a passing reference in a single-page report I wrote about the Cohen family in 8th grade[1]) comes from official records available on the invaluable Ancestry.com.

As I lamented here, it can be very difficult to pin down dates of birth for immigrants who arrived around the turn of the last century. Sophie Cohen was no exception. Her father gave February 2, 1903 as the date on his naturalization petition, while her death certificate lists it as February 15, 1902. Meanwhile, the 1920 United States Federal Census (“Census”) records her age as of January 14 as 18, putting her date of birth somewhere between January 15, 1901 and January 14, 1902.

In other words, three different official documents put her date of birth anywhere from January 15, 1901 to February 2, 1903—a window of more than two years. This is actually one of the more benign “occupational hazards” of meticulous genealogical research.

Far more troublesome is the presence of two or more persons with the same name living in the same community at the same time, as I have come to learn.

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This meticulous genealogical research is part of what I anticipate will be Chapter 3 of the book I am writing (working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity). For this chapter, one of a series which trace the movement of my Jewish ancestors from the Pale of Settlement to West Philadelphia, so that David Louis Berger could marry Elaine Kohn in January 1960, I have spent hundreds of hours painstakingly collating information from such Ancestry records as Censuses, death certificates, marriage records, city directories, naturalization petitions and other online family trees. Where possible, I supplement these data with information published in contemporary newspapers.

It is from the 1920 Census, for example, that I know that Joseph and Bessie Cohen were living with their five youngest children at 729 Morris Street in South Philadelphia as of January 14, 1920. Examining Google Maps Street View and a typical real estate website tells me their home, a three-story red brick row house built around 1915, still stands on narrow Morris Street.

That record also informs me that the unmarried, teenaged Sophie was making cigars in a factory, having either quit or graduated from high school, depending on her actual age.

Official marriage records[2] reveal that later that year (I cannot pinpoint the exact date, despite the Philadelphia Inquirer publishing daily lists of marriage licenses issued), Sophie Cohen married a man with the euphonious name of Samuel Schmuckler (sometimes written “Shmukler”). Jumping ahead a bit, the 1930 Census lists an 8-year-old “Evelyn Schmuckler” living with her grandparents (Joseph and Bessie Cohen), two uncles (including my grandfather) and an aunt in their new home at 1842 N. 32nd Street, in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of Philadelphia, just east of Fairmount Park.

In fact, Sophie Cohen Schumckler had given birth to a daughter named Evelyn in her Morris Street home on January 13, 1922[3]. However, something went horribly awry during the birth, because within a few days she almost certainly started to suffer from flu-like symptoms (fever, pain, chills, loss of appetite) accompanied by a swollen abdomen and a foul-smelling vaginal discharge; she may also have had pale skin and an increased heart rate. These are the typical signs and symptoms of puerperal sepsis, a post-partum infection caused by bacteria in the uterus[4]. The risk for puerperal sepsis is highest (as of 2016, at any rate) with a Caesarean section, especially if the operation occurs after labor has begun. Today the infection could be easily treated with antibiotics—or even prevented by using antiseptics—but these were not available in 1922.

As a result, at 10:30 in the morning of January 20, 1922—just seven days after giving birth to her only child—Sophie Cohen Schmuckler died in her bed, just a few weeks shy of her 18th, 19th or 20th birthday[5].

The Informant on her death certificate was “Samuel Cohen” of “729 Morris Street.” This was most likely her younger brother (my grandfather), himself only 16 or 17 years old, though it could have been her husband Samuel, with a confusion of surnames.

And this is where the story takes an unusual turn.

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In an earlier draft of “Chapter 3,” I wrote something to the effect of “After living with her grandparents, uncles and aunt for a number of years, Sophie Cohen Schmuckler went to live with her father, his new wife Tessye (Dounne) and her half-brother Stanford. She was living with them when she graduated from Gratz High School in 1938.”

I wrote this passage because I had uncovered (through Ancestry’s “hints” and other search methods) an Evelyn Love Schmuckler, born in Philadelphia in 1922, whose father was Samuel Schmuckler (who married Tessye Dounne…at some point).

But here is the thing.

When I was growing up, the enormous extended Cohen family would celebrate the first night of Passover with the ritual Seder meal at a vast kosher banquet hall in northeast Philadelphia called the Doral; those nights rank among the happiest memoires of my childhood. One of the many adults (whose precise relationship to me was often a bit murky) I would look forward to seeing every year “Cousin Evelyn Gable,” along with her husband “Dicky” Gable.

However, I have absolutely no memory of a “Cousin Stanford”—nor does he appear in a handwritten, three-page Cohen family tree written out by a first cousin of my mother in 1979:

sophie cohen

I decided to investigate further—to interrogate my own interrogation, essentially. It did not take long to ascertain the following:

  1. Samuel Schmuckler married Tessye Dounne in Philadelphia…in December 1921.
  2. Their daughter Evelyn Love Schmuckler was born in Philadelphia…on October 9, 1922 (not January 13, 1922).[6]
  3. Evelyn Love Schmuckler later married a man with the surname Goodhart (not Gable).

As a baseball announcer might say after a three-pitch strikeout: good morning, good afternoon, good night.

Unless my great-uncle (by marriage) had rapidly divorced and remarried while his teenaged bride was pregnant with their first child—then quickly impregnated his second wife, who gave birth to a child ALSO named Evelyn…it would appear there were TWO Samuel Schmucklers who fathered a daughter named Evelyn born in Philadelphia in 1922.

**********

I have had little success tracking down what became of “my” Samuel Schmuckler (and why his daughter was living with her grandparents, uncles and aunt eight years after her birth). This is due in part to the number of men with that name inhabiting Philadelphia in the early 1920s. The Philadelphia City Directory for 1921, for example, lists both a “Schmuckler, Saml,” a dealer in fruit living at 1720 N. Wilton Street, and a “Shmukler, Saml,” of “Shoes Sales Co” living at 2935 Norris Street.

The former address is West Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the western edge of the western edge of Fairmount Park. Because Sophie Cohen Schmuckler’s death certificate clearly states she was still living at 729 Morris Street in January 1922, the fruit merchant living in West Philadelphia is almost certainly a third Samuel Schmuckler, albeit of indeterminate age.

As for the latter (in Strawberry Mansion, only a few blocks north and east of where the Cohen family would move in a few years)—on December 7, 1921, 2935 W. Norris Street was the home of a “Tessye Doum” who had received a marriage license to marry “Samuel Shmukler” of 623 N. Marshall Street (in the southernmost part of North Philadelphia)[7]

Wait, but it gets better.

I have uncovered two World War I registration cards from 1918 for a Samuel Schmuckler (or Shmukler) of Philadelphia.

One, dated September 12, 1918, is for a man of medium height and slender build with blue eyes and brown hair who was born in the United States on January 18, 1898. He was a brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and he gave 247 Poplar Street as his permanent address, care of a Morris Shmukler. Well, the 1920 Census lists Morris and Jennie Shmukler living with their 22-year-old son Samuel at…you guessed it, 623 N. Marshall Street (just four block west on Poplar Street).  This is the Samuel Schmuckler who married Tessye Dounne, and in 1920 he was an accountant working in an office[8].

The second World War I registration card, also dated September 12, 1918, is for a man of medium height and medium build with hazel eyes and light hair who was born in “Russia” (i.e., somewhere in the Pale of Settlement) on January 5, 1898. He was a “bolter” for the Sun Ship Company of Chester, PA (about 12 miles south of Philadelphia along the Delaware River), and he gave 202 N. 2nd Street as his permanent address, in care of his cousin A.S. Cohen.

Or, at least, that is what it looks like…but on closer inspection the handwritten script upper-case “S” could easily be an upper-case “L.” Which aligns, perhaps, with the fact that as of December 19, 1918, an Aaron L. Kokin was living at that address—and had just gotten a license to wed Anna Cooper of 823 N. 10th Street.[9] Could A.L. Cohen actually be A.L. Kokin?

Just to confuse things further, the 1918 Philadelphia City Directory shows an Aaron L. Koken (“stoves”) living at 220 N. 2nd Street; this could be a simple typographic error in either source. Except that taunting us from the past, the 1916 and 1917 Directories put Aaron L Koken at 213 N. 2nd Street, while the 1919 Directory put him at 237 N. 2nd Street; he is not listed in the 1921 Directory (the 1920 Directory is unavailable). Quite the peripatetic stove-maker was Mr. A. L. Koken, who seems to have had competition from John McConville at 215 N. 2nd Street.[10]

At the same time, on October 30, 1918, 202 N. 2nd Street was the address listed to apply to be a cashier at a retail grocery store in West Philadelphia[11]. Actually, a quick review of the available 1918 Philadelphia newspapers suggests the 200 block of N. 2nd Street (between Race and Vine) was heavily commercial. The occupant of 209 N. 2nd Street even had a two-ton Autocar truck for hire.[12] As of the 1960s, according to photographs on PhillyHistory.org, there was both residential and commercial use; it could easily have been that way four and five decades earlier.

But none of these records place A.S./L. Cohen/Koken/Kokin’s cousin Samuel Schmuckler at 202 N. 2nd Street. Meanwhile, the only Samuel Schmuckler in the 1919 Directory is an “actor” living at 958 North Franklin Street—just three blocks north and east of 623 N. Marshall Street (where the Samuel Schmuckler who married Tessye Dounne lived in December 1921). Were they the same man, with acting what he did after being a railroad brakeman, but before he took up accounting? Curiously, Morris Shmukler of 247 Poplar is nowhere to be found in the 1919 City Directory, though he appears (as a tailor) in 1917 and 1918.

At any rate, his son Samuel Schmuckler died from an acute myocardial infarction (resulting from diabetes mellitus and chronic nephrosclerosis) on February 1, 1963. His death certificate[13] lists his job as “chief clerk-tax department,” meaning he had remained an accountant for more than 40 years; the 1940 Census lists his occupation as “investigator” for “city hall,” suggesting he was worked as a kind of forensic accountant for the city of Philadelphia. His date of birth is listed as February 5, 1898 (in the Pale of Settlement, of course). Which makes him the same Samuel Schmuckler described on a World War II Draft Registration card (1942) as 5’9” tall and weighing 238 pounds (for a body mass index of 35.1, which is “obese”) with a ruddy complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair.

So…three Samuel Schmucklers based in Philadelphia around 1920 were born within a month of each other in early 1898, two of whom had a daughter named Evelyn in 1922.

But that does not count the Samuel “Shumkler” in the 1940 Census listed as 44 (born between April 1895 and April 1896) who worked as a housing contractor specializing in paperhanging and printing. He, his wife Ida and two teenaged children (Shirley and Bernard) lived at 5860 Washington Avenue in southwest Philadelphia. And what about the “salesman” named Samuel L. Schmuckler of Philadelphia who married Mollie Laveson in 1923 and moved across the Delaware River to Camden, NJ (and later Chicago, IL)? Or the Samuel “Smuckler” who married a woman with the surname Cooper in Philadelphia in 1922? Were any of them “my” Samuel Schmuckler?

The truth is, I may never learn what happened to my great-uncle-by marriage following the birth of his daughter Evelyn—and the death of his wife Sophie—in January 1922. The fact that 8-year-old Evelyn Schmuckler was living with her grandparents, aunt and two uncles in 1930 suggests he either died or otherwise split the scene, though I have as yet found no evidence of either. And if he remarried either Ms. Laveson or Mr. Cooper, why not raise his daughter with his new wife?

The search continues.

**********

Happily, I know much of what happened to my first cousin, once removed.

In 1942, the 20-year-old Evelyn married a 21-year-old college senior named Richard Edward “Dicky” Gable (born Philadelphia, December 16, 1921), with whom she would have two daughters. On May 4, 1943, less than one year after marrying, “Dicky” Gable enlisted in the army to fight in World War II; he would leave active service—honorably discharged from nearby Fort Dix, NJ—on April 14, 1946. Four years later, while living at 5407 Chestnut Street (only about nine blocks north and west of where my 14-year-old father was living) in the Jewish enclave of West Philadelphia, “Dicky” Gable received $410 (a little over $4,200 today) as compensation for both domestic and foreign service, the latter totaling 14 months.  As of 1959, the Gables lived at 122 Waldo Street in Holyoke, MA, while Richard taught art some five miles south in Springfield, MA. At some point in the following decade, they returned to Philadelphia, becoming Doral Seder stalwarts—and by 1978 they had settled into Apartment 18D of a luxury apartment building at 3900 Ford Road (photograph from here) in the Wynnefield neighborhood of Philadelphia, just off the eastern edge of the Main Line suburbs. This was where they would spend the rest of their lives. “Dicky” Gable died on July 26, 2004, aged 82, followed by his wife of 60+ years on January 22, 2008, aged 86.

3900 ford road

Just bear with me for a brief postscript.

In 1984, a woman named Irene Kohn moved back to Philadelphia from Lancaster, PA—where she had settled in the mid-1960’s after divorcing her husband of more than 30 years, Samuel Joseph Kohn. She settled into apartment 10M of the apartment complex at 3900 Ford Road. That is, the former wife of the man who, as a teenager, had been the Informant on his sister’s death certificate would live eight floors below that sister’s daughter and her  husband for the next 20+ years. I only wished that on those occasions I visited my grandmother—and then stopped in to see the Gables (usually with another cousin)—I had known more about “Cousin Evelyn’s” life story.

Until next time…

[1] Dated January 20, 1980—I was 13 years old at the time.

[2] Pennsylvania, Marriages, 1852-1968 and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marriage Index, 1885-1951.

[3] Confirmed by U.S. Public Records Index, 1950-1993, Volume 1 and U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014.

[4] This is the cause of death listed on her official death certificate.

[5] Curiously, I wrote in my report that “Sima Bella died in childbirth.” My sources clearly did not remember which one had died.

[6] Stanford was born nine years later.

[7] MARRIAGE LICENSES ISSUED. Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), December 8, 1921, pg. 13.

[8] Despite the discrepancies in occupation, I do not want even to begin to imagine two Morris Schmucklers with a son Samuel of the same age living a few blocks apart.

[9] MARRIAGE LICENSES ISSUED. Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), December 19, 1918, pg. 14.

[10] Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), December 8, 1918, 2nd Section, pg.4.

[11] Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), October 30 , 1918, 2nd Section, pg.4.

[12] Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), March 7, 1918, pg. 19.

[13] His son Stanford was the Informant.

Her name was Elizabeth Short…

At 11:47 pm on January 14, 2019, I parked my black Accord on Salem Street, in front of the ironically-named Brookline Bank; behind where I sat was the rotary where one accesses I-93 from MA-60—or continues along MA-60 into Medford Center. The drive from Brookline, including stops at an ATM and my old Star Market in North Cambridge (which, I was heartbroken to learn, is no longer open 24 hours[1]) had taken less time than I had anticipated.

I wanted to perform my modest version of The Poe Toaster’s ritual precisely at midnight, so I sat quietly in the darkened car for about eight minutes. At around 11:55 pm, I grabbed the plastic-wrapped bundle on the seat next to me, braced myself against the cold, and exited the car. After briskly walking to the other side of Salem Street, I stopped at the large black metal trash bin on the sidewalk in front of Nunzio’s Upholstery to strip the plastic wrap and rubber bands off my bundle.

Turning toward the rotary, I crossed a narrow side street and continued walking along the sidewalk past a small parking lot and a two-story red brick apartment building. Just beyond its entrance lay a narrow patch of grass; it separates the sidewalk from the cul-de-sac ending Fountain Street.

Toward the end of this narrow strip of grass stands a piece of rock, less than a yard high. I arrived at this rock with three minutes to spare, so I tried to read the plaque embedded in the side of the rock facing the street. I need not have bothered, since I had read it maybe half a dozen times before.

At the moment my iPhone switched from “11:59” to “12:00,” I knelt down and carefully arranged the bundle of white flowers I had bought at the Star Market along the base of the memorial. I was greatly heartened to see that others had recently left fresh flowers as well.

I then took two photographs with my iPhone. This is the second one; I like the effect of the flash reflecting off the metal and stone.

IMG_4041.JPG

And then I stood quietly, remembering why I was dropping off these flowers for the fourth year in a row (as I previously described here).

On the 72nd anniversary of the discovery of her body in an empty, grassy lot in Los Angeles, I wanted to honor Elizabeth Short, whose last home in Medford had stood about where the rotary is now, as a real human being, a naïve and imperfect 22-year-old dreamer who simply wanted to make it in Hollywood.

“The Black Dahlia” was an ingenious nickname, nothing more.

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I wrote about this ritual last April in the context of finding a photograph of a key suspect/witness in her slaying, Robert “Red” Manley, on the same page of the January 21, 1947 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer as a story about the Dock Street strikes in Philadelphia; Herman Modell, the lawyer who arranged my adoption, represented some of the strikers.

When I think of the investigation of Elizabeth Short’s murder, one thing that comes to mind is a wide range of lurid headlines from the Los Angeles newspapers, notably the Herald and the Examiner.

Having spent much of the last 18 months immersed in online editions of the Inquirer, thanks to the indispensable Newspapers.com, I was curious to see how they covered the murder of Elizabeth Short; it was hardly a local case. This curiosity was greatly inspired by my desire for a reliable compendium of primary-source information about the case analogous to The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Companion.

Limiting myself to the first month (i.e., through February 15, 1947), I quickly learned two things. First, the Inquirer relied upon the wire service United Press Associations (UP) for their Elizabeth Short stories; presumably, this meant that only the “key” facts were being reported. The one exception was “Special to the Inquirer” coverage of the “confession” of a corporal named Joseph Dumais, stationed at Fort Dix, NJ, just 38 miles northeast of Philadelphia. The other thing I learned is that this was enough of a national story to regularly merit coverage on page 3, and occasionally on page 1.

Here then are those 19 articles, presented in chronological order (with brief commentary). Read in order, they reveal how the case unfolded in real time—and how quickly the lack of genuine clues and likely suspects manifested itself.

The case first appeared on page 3 of the January 16, 1947 edition. And I cannot imagine the UPI (United Press International, following the UP’s 1958 merger with International News Service), Associated Press, Reuters or McClatchy using the word “Fiend” in a headline today.

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This is only the first article, and there is already a mistake in reporting. Elizabeth Short’s body was not discovered by “a motorist,” but by a woman named Bette Bersinger, who was walking along the edge of Leimert Park (on South Norton Street) with her young daughter at about 10:30 am PST.

The next day (January 17) brought only a photograph of the victim on page 3, now identified by her fingerprints as Elizabeth Short. She had in fact been born in the Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park (July 1924), although she was raised primarily in the suburb of Medford.

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On January 18, 1947 (page 3), we see the slow building of the mythology that still surrounds Elizabeth Short: the “trail of boy friends,” the “sheer black gowns” and, most importantly, the nickname “Black Dahlia.” The presence of this macabre sobriquet in a wire story only three days after her body was discovered confirms that it was given to her while she was still alive, most likely in a Long Beach drugstore (supposedly in a nod to the 1946 film noir The Blue Dahlia and because of the amount of black clothing she wore and the white flowers she would wear in her hair).

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The story of policewoman McBride (who believes she encountered a frightened Elizabeth Short on the night of January 14—the last of the “missing days” between her last verified sighting on the evening of January 9 and the discovery of her body on the morning of January 15) is an intriguing one—and deeply tragic, if true.

Meanwhile, the UP reporter is apparently confusing Ann Todd with an actress named Ann Toth, who actually was a friend of Elizabeth Short.

This article, finally, gives readers the first hint of a key witness/suspect named “Red,” who sent her a telegram in San Diego (where she had lived since December 1946).

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The first persons to be considered (and rejected) as suspects appear in this page 3 article on page 3 of the second edition of the Sunday morning Inquirer (January 19, 1947). Mrs. Phoebe Short, tricked into giving a reporter information about her daughter through a lie about her winning a beauty pageant, arrives in Los Angeles (where Elizabeth’s married sister Virginia West had recently married). And the hunt for the “handsome red-haired ex-Marine flier” named “Red” continued.

He would be discovered the next day, though he was actually only 25 years old. This story put of the murder of Elizabeth Short on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer for the first time (January 20, 1947).

And here I correct a mistake (as I interrogate my own memory) I made in my April 30, 2018 post: Robert Manley did not turn himself into the police voluntarily. Rather, he “was taken into custody…for questioning,” in that he “was arrested” although “no charges had been filed.”

Manley would later admit that when he first saw Elizabeth Short on a street corner in San Diego (in December 1946, I believe), he had picked her up to test his love for his wife. He would also attempt to sleep with her in the motel (not, as the article says, “hotel”) room they shared on the night of January 8, 1947, but got nowhere. For this intended-if-not-consummated transgression, Robert Manley would be hounded (though not by his forgiving[2] wife Harriette) for the rest of his life: he would be confined to a mental hospital (yes, by his wife) in 1954.

There is a curious slip in this article (and not the mythologizing about her being a “party girl”). Manley and Short were seen “at a drive-in restaurant near San Diego the day before” the latter’s body was discovered in Leimert Park. The waitress who saw them, Jadell Gray, claims to have served the “black-haired, black-clad” girl on the night of January 14—but that makes no sense given the Manley last saw her on the evening of January 9 (as will be established below).

Was it a case of mistaken identity, a misremembering of dates (confusing the night before her disappearance—or some other visit to the restaurant by “Beth”—with the night before the discovery of her body?), or did the UP reporter simply miswrite the date?

Robert Manley’s custody ended after one day, as the full text of the article (back to page 3) accompanying the photograph I first posted in April 2018 reveals. How disappointed must the Los Angeles Police Department have been not to be able to break Manley’s alibi?

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For the first time, we read about (though not by name) the Biltmore Hotel, where Manley dropped Elizabeth Short on the evening of January 9, 1947; this was the last place she was confirmed to have been seen (other than by her killer) alive. We also get the first intimations (whether true or not) of a violently jealous boyfriend.

The humanity of the story, meanwhile, returns with Elizabeth’s mother Phoebe being (understandably) unwilling to view her daughter’s remains unless absolutely necessary.

Four days would pass before the Elizabeth Short murder reappeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer—on the front page, with one heck of a headline.

So far as I know, nothing ever came of the arrest of the 21-year-old 6’1” blonde Caral Marshall and her “male companion.” If anything, the UP buried their lede: the interception of the envelope addressed in cutout letters to the “Los Angeles Examiner and other Los Angeles papers” containing a wide range of Elizabeth Short’s personal belongings (including an address book stamped with the name Mark Hansen). Incidentally, the note actually read, “Here! is ‘Dahlia’s belongings letter to follow.”

One day later (back to page 3), the UP was no longer burying its lede. The receipt of Elizabeth Short’s belongings—and the extraction of usable fingerprints (despite the sender—almost certainly Ms. Short’s killer—having soaked the envelope and its contents in gasoline) was one of the biggest breaks in the investigation. One of the only big breaks, really.

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Of course, they had to drag poor Robert Manley back in to the story (he did identify the shoe—though it was found in a restaurant dumpster, not in the “city dump”) and make sure the readers knew he had “had a few dates with Miss Short shortly before she was killed, but who was absolved of any implication in the crime.”

There was no Inquirer article about the case on January 27, 1947, but on January 28 (page 3), the “Black Dahlia Avenger” makes her/his first appearance—supposedly he would turn himself in to Los Angeles police on the morning of January 29 (exactly two weeks after the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s body).

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S/he never did, as we will see.

A small story appeared on the front page of the January 29, 1947 Inquirer marking an inevitable turn in the investigation: the first of dozens of false confessors turned himself in to the Los Angeles police.

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Even more fake confessors appear in this January 30 article (back to page 3). The focus on the false confessions is telling—little new evidence was emerging.

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The lack of new evidence is also revealed by the fact that the UP did not put out a new wire story relating to the death of Elizabeth Short until February 11, 1947 (and that was about an entirely different murder victim). Or, at least, the Inquirer did not print any UP story during that period.

In the meantime, however, Inquirer reporters had uncovered a possible lead much closer to home—and they broke the story on the front page on February 6, 1947.

While the latter half of this story provides no hard new information, it does tie a black bow around the emerging (and distorted) portrait of “man crazy” Elizabeth Short, based solely on a collection of photographs of men in her album—and the discreet sentence “She never did have a steady job, and made money by a variety of part-time work, including posing for a Hollywood photographer.” I let the probable implications of “posing” speak for themselves.

One day later (back to page 3 again), the “Corporal Joseph Dumais killed the Black Dahlia in an alcoholic blackout” story was already unraveling—and the single clipping in his wallet had become “clippings.”

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The unraveling continued on February 8, 1947 (page 3), with some confusion as to the accuracy of records (this is a military base, mind you—and Dumais was military police) indicating Corporal Dumais had returned to Fort Dix on January 10 (and not left after that—it is a near-certainty Elizabeth Short was still alive on the night of January 14).

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Meanwhile, the casual aside about Elizabeth Short’s “fondness for sheer black lingerie” (did she exhibit her underwear in the Long Beach drug store where the moniker “Black Dahlia” likely originated?) is telling. It is almost as though Elizabeth Short is becoming only a bit player (ironically) in her own murder investigation.

The saga of Corporal Dumais continued on the front page of the February 9, 1947 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as he had now formally “confessed” to a killing he was supposedly too blackout drunk to remember committing.

And Elizabeth Short is still wearing sheer black undergarments around Long Beach.

Beyond that, however, no new hard evidence is cited in the article…and the story of the “confession” of Corporal Joseph Dumais essentially comes to an end the next day (February 10, 1947), albeit on the front page.

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The UP stories returned to the front page of the Inquirer the next day, but with an entirely new victim: 40-year-old Jeanne (not “Jeane”) T. French, former flight attendant and Army “flying nurse,” whose murder superficially resembled that of Elizabeth Short[3]. The most “tangible” connection were the initials “B.D.” written in lipstick on her body (under an obscene phrase).

Corporal Dumais makes an encore appearance in a three-paragraph article just under the story of Jeanne French. Clearly, the Inquirer was reluctant to let their local connection to the murder of Elizabeth Short go.

A page 3 article on February 12 offers no new evidence in the Elizabeth Short murder investigation.

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And by February 13, 1947, investigators were clearly grasping at straws, as this tale of a 21-year-old Boston parolee named George F. Poleet shows. As in the previous two articles, Elizabeth Short herself barely appears.

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This was the last article about the case—which remains officially unsolved—to appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer in the month after Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered in Leimert Park. I will not speculate here on who killed her, for the simple reason that I have absolutely no idea.

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I offer a brief “mea culpa” postscript to this retelling of the first month of the investigation into the death of Elizabeth Short.

I drive our two daughters to school on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. This past Tuesday, January 15, 2019, was the morning after my ritual drive to the Elizabeth Short marker in Medford. Half-asleep, I was telling the girls in the car about my adventure the previous evening (leaving out the meh slice of pepperoni pizza I bought near Tufts University—most of whose campus is in Medford—after leaving the marker). Forgetting how young our precocious daughters actually are, I let slip some of the details about her murder. When I mentioned she had been bisected (I may have said “cut in half”) our eldest daughter responded “Oooh, really?” with a mixture of disgust and fascination; she does like her murder mysteries. Our youngest daughter said nothing.

I had completely forgotten the conversation until just after 9 pm that night, when the younger daughter emerged from her bedroom crying, though she did not know why. My wife Nell took her back into her bedroom to comfort her.

A few minutes later, Nell called out from her bedroom in her “you’re in trouble, mister” tone of voice. Reluctantly leaving the “A” block of The Rachel Maddow Show playing on our television, I walked into the bedroom.

“Do you want to tell Daddy why you were crying?”

It transpired that she had been lying quietly, thinking about the morning, then remembered the conversation she had overheard in the back seat.

Ooops.

At this the eldest daughter sleepily poked her around the corner to find out what was happening. When told, she worried aloud that SHE would now have nightmares.

Double ooops.

Luckily, neither had any nightmares (though I did awaken the younger daughter a few hours later rearranging the pots and pans in a kitchen cabinet) that night, nor so far tonight.

Fingers crossed.

Until next time…

[1] When I lived just over the line in Somerville from September1989 to February 2001, Porter Square had a 24-hour supermarket, a 24-hour CVS (still there, still open 24/7), a 24-hour White Hen convenience store (long since demolished) and a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts (still there, no longer 24/7). Fin de siècle, indeed.

[2] And, if I may be forgiven a personal note, absolutely beautiful. I have never found Elizabeth Short particularly attractive…but Harriette Manley is another story entirely.

[3] Ms. French was one of a number of female murder victims in Los Angeles spuriously linked to the death of Elizabeth Short, most notably a 20-year-old oil heiress named Georgette Bauerdorff.