A few weeks ago we received a photograph of a World War I soldier. The donor didn’t have any details on the man, but among the spare copies of the picture, they found a name: Pasquale Cimaglia.
. . . Yes, that was the sound of me breathing a sigh of relief! Unidentified photographs make me sad. I always feel like the person in the picture has been cut adrift; it makes me wonder who they were and what their story was.
But give me a name and I’m off to the races.
To learn more about this mysterious soldier, I turned to FamilySearch, a service operated by the Church of Latter-day Saints. Putting in Mr. Cimaglia’s name brought up a number of documents that helped me stitch together a picture of his life.
Born on November 21, 1893, Pasquale Cimaglia immigrated to the United States from Banyola, Italy. (Google suggests that this is a misspelling of Bagnoli or Bagnolo, but there is a town called “Bunyola” on the nearby island of Mallorca… Makes you wonder!) He was only sixteen-years-old when he made his journey, and eventually, he came to reside on Water Street in Brownsville. He took up a job with the Monongahela Railroad, married, and became a naturalized citizen in 1919.
One interesting document that I came across was Mr. Cimaglia’s passport application. It tells us that he was about 5’6, brown-haired and gray-eyed, with a flushed complexion. A scar marked his left wrist.
These details were taken down in 1922, when Mr. Cimaglia applied for a passport so he might visit his mother in Italy. Was this his first trip home since his immigration in 1909? (Answering that question might take me to the Ellis Island website.) From the FamilySearch results, at least, it’s apparent that Mr. Cimaglia undertook the trip and returned to the U.S. in 1923.
A few other fragments of Mr. Cimaglia’s life came to light. The 1940 Census found him the father of seven children and still residing in Brownsville. Two years later, he was registered in what was called “The Old Man’s Draft” — that is, the World War II-era Selective Service registration of men between the age of 45 and 65.
There was tragedy, too. When I turned to Ancestry Pennsylvania, I came across the 1943 death certificate of the Cimaglias’ eldest son, Etre. At age 16, the boy was killed in an accidental stabbing at Brownsville Middle School. One of his friends was showing off a pen-knife when another student pushed Etre, who stumbled into the exposed blade. The teenager died within fifteen minutes of reaching the hospital.
Etre Cimaglia was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery on the National Pike. Ten years later, his father’s struggle against cancer was compounded by a severe bout of pneumonia. Pasquale Cimaglia died at the Veteran’s Hospital in Aspinwall on April 15, 1953, when he was 59-years-old.
But what of Mr. Cimaglia’s WWI military service? For a long while, his draft card eluded me. There was a Pasquale Cimaglia in the FamilySearch WWI Draft Card database — but that man was registered in Denver, Colorado! Of course I clicked through and checked it anyway. My own great-grandfather worked as a coal miner all over the western states before coming east again.
Upon reading the draft card, though, I could tell it didn’t belong to the Pasquale Cimaglia who I was looking for.
This is where you need to get a bit creative as a researcher. Speak the name aloud and consider the possibilities: What are the different ways that people might hear it? If the listener isn’t familiar with the speaker’s language, how might they interpret the speaker’s accent? A Polish “w” might become a “v” in English, just as a Spanish “ll” could be heard as a “y.”
You might even see if you can find the pronunciation online:
Apart from trying various spellings, you’ll also want to mix and match the information you’re putting into the search fields. When Mr. Cimaglia’s full name didn’t work for me, I tried putting in only his first name and the place he registered for the draft.
All right. Yes, Mr. Cimaglia was likely in there somewhere — but I decided to narrow my results even further. Knowing that he was born in 1893, I went back and added the range 1890 to 1895 for the date of birth. The FamilySearch form now looked like this:
Not super promising, right? Yet, the birth date matched. When I clicked through to look at the record, I saw that the transcription was a little off — and, the person who registered Mr. Cimaglia nearly a century ago spelled his name wrong, too!
Registration (June 1917): Pasquale Gemaylia.
Transcription (~2000s): Pasguale Gamaylia.
It seems that the registrar heard that “ci” (or “ch”) as “ge.” Take a look:
Mr. Cimaglia was registered in the first of three WWI draft registration periods. To learn more about his service, I could request his records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Unfortunately, many Army and Air Force records were lost in a 1973 fire. When you make one of these requests, there is no telling how much information — or how little — will have survived.
For now, I paid a visit to Mr. Cimaglia’s grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery. What I found might lend some insight into a quirk of genealogy: No matter how much you’ve uncovered about a person, there always seems to be another mystery to unravel.
I arrived with the hope of finding a veteran’s medallion on Mr. Cimaglia’s grave, and in this, I was not disappointed. I spotted the flag from a ways off and hurried over, eager to see if it confirmed his service in World War I.
Stepping up to the grave, I leaned in and squinted at the marker.
It said that he’d served in . . . World War II?
Perhaps he went to war twice for his new country! While my journey to research Mr. Cimaglia ends here, I think we can safely say that he led a very interesting life. I’m glad that his photo — and his story — will be a part of our collection for a long time to come.
UPDATE: In February of 2017, I was contacted by members of Pasquale’s family, who kindly explained the presence of the World War II marker on Pasquale’s grave. It turns out that he only served in World War I and that the World War II marker had been placed on his grave by mistake.
Thank you to Pasquale’s family for solving that little mystery and for getting in touch! I hope you (and all our other readers out there) enjoyed this story.