‘They Died from Misadventure and Accident’: Learning from our Missing Ancestral Failures


  • Bob Zecker




family history, industrial fires, immigration, Progressive Era


White ethnics have fashioned a valorizing narrative of hard-working ancestors playing by the rules and ‘making it.’ This narrative distinguishes between ‘us’ and parasitic ‘them’ (today’s marginalized non-white migrants) in a highly selective fashion. What if we interrogate the universality of the Ellis Island saga? Recovering stories of forgotten people, immigrant ‘failures,’ by applying Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistory approach, reveals many victims in early 1900s America. This paper interrogates these gaps in my maternal grandpa’s family, the Albaneses of Newark. My grandpa had an older sister (born in Italy) only everyone swears there was no Maria, even though there she is in the 1910 census, 19-year-old lamp-factory worker. Then I discovered in November 1910, there was a horrible Aetna Lamp Factory fire, two blocks from their home. This fire resulted in 27 deaths, three months before the better-known Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Was this why Maria disappeared? Another sister fled an abusive husband, only to be threatened with prosecution under the Mann Act for crossing state lines for ‘immoral purposes.’ Then there was brother Ben, riding freight cars for years before ending up in an L.A. flophouse. Other invisible immigrants appear in brief newspaper notices, as of a 19-year-old striker shot in the back by Pinkertons, or runaway men whose photos called out from the ‘gallery of missing husbands.’ Revealing industrial-age microhistories of loss and trauma can (potentially) resurrect empathy toward today’s migrants or remind us of the hefty blood price capitalism exacted from workers, in 1910 no less than 2023.      






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