St. Louis

Following My Own Advice: Tending to a Family Tree

Brickwalls, the figurative ones, exist to torture genealogists. I talk about them a lot. Why they exist, strategies to break them, condolences when it appears the brickwall might stay standing. In early 2021, I presented a virtual talk for the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington, with a focus on methods a hobbyist genealogist can use to get to the next level. I push them to think about how they research, and what they do with the information they find.

In the talk, I point out that just like in real life, our genealogy trees need pruning and routine maintenance. Perhaps incorrect information got added during a late-night research session, or a clue missed on a previously reviewed document. Or maybe a brickwall can be broken with a genealogy “do-over,” because the information needed is now accessible, or more easily available.

Work on one of my brickwalls traces back more than a decade. I wanted to determine the relationship between my great-grandfather, Samuel Brand, and Harry Brandt. Samuel Brand traveled to the United States with Harry’s family, lived with them, and bought a house with Harry. They shared a surname, kind of, but how were they related? Sam was about 18 years younger than Harry. Was Harry an uncle, cousin, much older sibling, or no relation at all?


I needed to know Harry’s father’s name, and the most likely place to find that was on a death certificate or a headstone.

Harry Brandt and his son Aaron vanished from St. Louis about 1913, and I could not figure out what happened to them. Did they go back to Russia? Did they relocate? Another of Harry’s sons moved to Chicago, and I could find a suitable Harry Brandt there, but not with enough information to prove a match. Parts of the family spelled the surname Brand, and I could find men named Harry Brand, too, in St. Louis, Chicago and other locations. But the right one? No clue.

A lot less was available online when I first began work on this problem. I ordered Harry’s naturalization documents from the National Archives in Kansas City, and the copies were sent to me on a DVD. I scoured the St. Louis Public Library’s obituary index, ordering any Brand or Brandt, and the library sent me photocopies in the mail. I visited the St. Louis Recorder of Deeds and using both microfiche and microfilm, got copies of the home ownership papers.[2] I photographed every Brand or Brandt at Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery. I tried to make use of digitized newspapers at Chronicling America, but their OCR search combined with the last name Brand(t) gave me thousands of hits for every advertisement of “Brand Name” or “Brand New” and trying to find Harry in that haystack of hits was not possible.[3]

I traced Harry’s other children, and where they went. I contacted some of their family members. No one knew what happened to Harry. I needed Harry’s father’s name to try and place him within my family’s Brand(t) lines. And I could not find it.

Fast forward to March 2021, and a project I am a part of with a group of other professional genealogists who focus on late 19th and 20th Century immigration to the United States. As part of the effort, we collected examples of naturalizations from different courts around the US. I pulled up Harry’s file, but no new revelations came from reviewing the documents, and a naturalization doesn’t have the one piece of information I needed to include him in the project – his date of death.

I typed Harry’s name into a genealogy database search, wondering if anything new might show up. And there it was. A death certificate in Los Angeles, from 1914, for a man born about 1862, named Harry Brandt. I clicked on the thumbnail to open the image. At first glance, it seemed to be another record that might not give me enough information to form a conclusion, as the name of the informant was helpfully written as “son.” But Box 18 offered literally,

SPECIAL INFORMATION …. Former or Usual Residence: St. Louis

I was on to something. I obtained a photograph of the corresponding headstone, and finally solved this brickwall. Now, I can welcome my great-grandfather Samuel Brand’s older brother, Nachman Tzvi son of Mordechai Leib, to the family.

Figuring this out opens a lot of research doors for this line, but for now I will sit and ponder if the answer had been there all along? Probably not. Genealogy website search engine algorithms are funny things. But why did I decide to check again, and why did it show up right away? Our brains are funny things, too. We see information we might have missed the first time, we interpret and analyze documents differently with fresh eyes. New data is added to genealogy sites daily. It’s hard to keep up, but important to remember that trees need occasional maintenance. A spring cleaning, if you will.

[1] St Louis Recorder of Deeds Archives, 1909, book 2255, page 423.

[2] This was a feat unto itself. A researcher has to start with the name of the present owner of the building, then work their way back in time, from grantee to grantor, charting the numbers of each transaction, until the name of the people in question are located. This information is on microfiche. The numbers located are then used to pull up, on microfilm, the copies of the deeds.

[3] The Library of Congress’ free digitized newspaper collection. This was before any other online newspaper search engines launched.

[4] “California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994,” database and images, FamilySearch. Death Certificate #1778, 1914.

75 Years On

Understanding the past through the lives of our ancestors helps give a personal look at history. Documents of all sorts can explain the politics, the employment opportunities, the weather, even what’s on sale at the grocery store, but rarely, if at all, do we learn what our ancestors and relatives thought. Those lucky enough to have letters, diaries or oral history gain a different perspective, but this is uncommon. Most of us have to hold back on the “did he think; did she know” type ponderings, and focus on what story can be told from the records that do exist.

My great-uncle Irwin “Irv” Carl, the youngest of his siblings and one of two children born after the family arrived in the United States, enlisted and served in World War II. At the time of his enlistment in May 1942, he had a wildly successful nightclub, the Empire Ca-BAR-et, and according to the St. Louis Star and Times, had a III-A Draft rating,[1] so the choice to serve came from another reason lost to time.[2]

Researching Irv’s war-time experience taught me a lot about the military, and preparation for war. Irv trained. And trained, and trained. Mostly at Camp Carson in Colorado, and there are some great photos he took out there. Then Louisiana, California, and Camp Butner in North Carolina. It wasn’t until 1944 that it seemed he would end up in the war theatre, and it wasn’t until the Spring of 1945 that he did.

In the coming weeks, I’ll present the research I conducted on the 89th Infantry Division, and specifically the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, as they marched across France, Luxembourg and Germany. The 89th, the 914th (and others) were part of the liberation of Ohrdruf, and they witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities committed there.

Rolling Ahead Publication Map[3]

Irv served more than three years in the Army, and returned to St. Louis in time to celebrate the Japanese surrender while at a “lock in” at his brother’s bar – Carl’s Cocktail Lounge.[4] Irv returned to the nightclub scene himself, operating the Orchid Lounge, and died in 1955.

I interviewed those who knew Irv when he was alive, and no one recalled him ever speaking of his Army experience. I have the documents, I have the photos, and in all of that, I only have these words written by Irv: “No sleep for 3 days & nites.  Mighty tired.  Leichenstein [sic] Germany

Next in the series: Researching the soldier’s story.

Looking for information on

[1] “Kid Regan’s Column,” The St. Louis Star and Times, Thursday, 21 May 1942, p23.

[2] Men with dependents, not engaged in work essential to national defense. This refers, most likely, to Irv’s aged mother, with whom he lived and supported. accessed 24 Feb 2020.

[3] Map insert, Rolling AHEAD! The Story of the 89th Infantry Division.  Major General Thomas D. Finley and staff, Orientation Branch, Information and Education Division, Hq., USFET, no date. Collection of the Carl Family.

[4] The story of the lock in to celebrate the Japanese surrender was relayed to me by Jack Carl, who occasionally worked for his Uncle Max at Carl’s Cocktail Lounge. Jack was 19 years old in 1945.

Bottle Recycling

Today, 16 January 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition, a 13-year experiment in honing the skills of bathtub brewers, bootleggers, counterfeiters, and illicit supply chains.

Max-on-right-bottle-wagon~1920s edited

A year after its ratification, the 18th Amendment went into force. It changed the trajectory of the Carl family business, bottle recycling. Bottle recycling was a good gig in St. Louis. The city was full of breweries and other businesses that relied on glass bottles. Wagons collected the empty bottles, which were sorted in a warehouse, and then sold back to the manufacturers. The Carl’s were green way before it was cool.

Prohibition took a big bite out of the bottle recycling business, so the family added distribution of “intoxicating liquors” to the portfolio, eventually leading to a stay in Leavenworth for one of the brothers, and a family rift that never fully healed.

Researching this part of my family history involved newspapers, St. Louis Police Archives, records of the FBI, records of the U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern Division of the Eastern District of Missouri, and Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, the latter two record sets via the National Archives in Kansas City.

Image: Carl Bottle Company horse-drawn wagon. Date unknown, likely late 19teens, early 1920s. Max Carl on the far right.

Of St. Louis and Bread Memories

I was born in St. Louis. My parents are from St. Louis – born, raised, married there. My great-grandparents chose St. Louis when they immigrated, some arriving in the 1890s, and all settled there by 1908.

My bread memories of St. Louis don’t have bagels in them. My bread memories are of oblong sourdough rye loaves, in a thick coat of crispy cornmeal. Tzitzel bread made by Pratzel’s, a bakery founded in 1913.[1] After we moved away from St. Louis, we’d return home from a visit with a trunk full of rye bread, thinking it might somehow be enough to last until the next trip.

1962 Carl 2 Cents Plain Post Card cropped 2My family also knows a few things about the delis of St. Louis. My dad’s uncle Louis and cousins Jack, Charlie and Bill ran delis. Not just delis, famous St. Louis delis. Delis with pastrami, corned beef and barrels of dill pickles. Delis with tradition.

When the story of “bread-sliced bagels” as a St. Louis “tradition” broke the news cycle this week, I thought about Jack and Bill. In their retired years, I got to know Jack and his brother Bill a little bit. They aided me in the oral history of the Carl family, and Jack, in particular, seemed like an encyclopedia of St. Louis, lost when he died in 2015. I wondered what would happen if someone walked into Carl’s Deli and asked for a “bread-sliced bagel.” Bill, always putting the customer first, would have obliged, but would have wondered why. If the same order happened at Jack’s 2¢ Plain, Jack, the Soup Nazi long before there was a Soup Nazi, would have berated the customer.

Where did this “tradition” come from? Was it really a St. Louis thing? Panera’s parents were a Boston-bred cookie company, founded in 1980, and the St. Louis Bread Company, founded in 1987. Their union resulted in Panera’s birth in the 1990s. Panera is a millennial. It’s not a St. Louis tradition.[2]

Cities change. 2¢ Plain is gone now. Bill sold Carl’s Deli to an employee, and you can still get a real pastrami sandwich there. After baking tzitzel bread for nearly 100 years, Pratzel’s closed. We mourned the loss of the beloved bread, but a few years later, my cousin Melissa discovered that Mike Pratzel, of the St. Louis Pratzel’s, had a bakery in Madison, Wisconsin, and made tzitzel bread with the same sourdough starter that began his family’s bread legacy.  With the magic that is overnight delivery, we can order tzitzel bread from Manna Bakery in Madison. Maybe next time I’ll ask them to cut it like a bagel.

[1] accessed 28 March 2019

[2] accessed 28 March 2019


The Name Change Myth

2016 was the year of Fake News. Let’s make 2017 the year that one of those fake stories finally goes away.

Your family’s surname was not changed at Ellis Island.[1]

You know the story. It goes something like this:

  • Carl? That’s not Russian.
  • The clerk at Ellis Island named your family after his son.
  • It was “German Day” at Ellis Island and that’s how your ancestors were called Carl.
  • The name was too long and ended in –sky or –itz or something and the clerk shortened it to make it easier to write.

There are hundreds of variations of this story. None of them are true.

Nope. No. Nein. Nem. Nu. Nie. Нет. קיין .

Language plays an important role in this myth. Many of the people who purport the story of the name change have ancestors who emigrated from a country that used a different alphabet, or had different letters, or used diacritical marks to distinguish pronunciation. An immigrant from the Russian Empire might know how to spell their surname using Cyrillic or Hebrew letters, and that name had to be transliterated into the Latin alphabet. A Pole with the letter Ł in a name would expect a “W” sound, not “L.” Umlauts and other diacritic marks from German, Hungarian, Czech and other languages do not neatly transliterate.

The creation of the ship’s manifests, or passenger lists, took place in Europe. The clerk was at the ticket agency. A copy of that list was sent with the ship’s captain to be presented at the port of entry. Sometimes a copy of that list remained at the port of embarkation.

On 29 May 1900, the Lake Huron set sail for North America from Liverpool, bound for the Port of Quebec in Montreal. An “Outwards Passenger List” was cre1900-jankel-karol-border-crossingated, and kept in England. A similar version of the list went with the ship, and can be found in the Library Archives Canada collections. Both lists have the same version of the surname of an immigrant from Russia: KAROL.

Wait. Montreal? That raises another big factor in the myth. Did the family arrive at Ellis Island? What about its precursor, Castle Garden? Or Montreal? Or Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans or Galveston?

The final destination of this passenger was Boston, not Montreal, so another list is associated with the travel – on a form required by the US Government. Called a List or Manifest of Alien Immigrants for the Commissioner of Immigration, it too, was created prior to arrival. The fine print on the document illustrates that point:

Required by the regulations of the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, under Act of Congress approved March 3, 1893, to be delivered to the Commissioner of Immigration by the Commanding officer of any vessel having such passengers on board upon arrival at….

In this case, the list was used when the passengers prepared to cross the border from Canada to the United States. Again, the surname of the passenger was spelled KAROL.

After a few years of living with his sister-in-law’s family in Boston, this immigrant moved to St. Louis. He earned enough money to pay for the passage of his wife and children. They boarded the Pennsylvania in Hamburg and traveled to the Port of New York, arriving at Ellis Island on 22 Jan 1905. The surname on the manifest read CARROL.1905-jankel-carrol

I can hear the myth-lovers: “that’s it – it was Irish day at Ellis Island, and that is why they changed KAROL to CARROL.”

No. Nope. Nein. Nem. Nu. Nie. Нет. קיין. Or as the Irish might say, Ní féidir.

Like the UK Outwards Passenger List, immigrants leaving from Hamburg were noted on passenger lists; lists stored at the Staatsarchiv Hamburg in Germany. The Hamburg lists match the Ellis Island passenger manifest, surname spelled CARROL.

Sometime between arriving in Boston in 1900 and moving to St. Louis about 1904, Jankel KAROL changed the spelling of his name to Jankel CARROL. When he purchased the steamship tickets for his family, the manifest listed his name and address as: Jankel CARROL, 814 Biddle Street in St. Louis, nearly an exact match to the listing in the City Directory for Jacob CARROL at 814 Biddle Street. Jankel is the Yiddish nickname for Yaacov, the Hebrew version of Jacob. It’s not just surnames that change as families Americanized.1906-fold3_carroll_jacob_p_317_city_directories_for_st_louis_missouri

The surname CARROL changed one additional time, to CARL, before 1910, in St. Louis, some 950 miles from Ellis Island. Why? That cannot be answered. Som1911-jacob-carl-petition-for-naturalizatione educated guesses could be made, but those guesses become stories, and those stories run the danger of feeding the myth.

Let’s recap:

  • Passenger lists and manifests were created by ticket agents in Europe;
  • Alphabets and pronunciation play a role in spelling;
  • Some ports of departure kept copies of passenger lists and the names from those lists match the names on lists at the port of entry; and
  • Not all immigrants arrived at Ellis Island!

Still not convinced? Here are some additional resources discussing the myth of the Ellis Island name change:

Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed at Ellis Island (and One That Was)
Philip Sutton, Librarian, New York Public Library

American Names: Declaring Independence and Examples of Name Changes from the National Archives
Marian L. Smith, Senior Historian, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service

The Name Remains the Same
Robin Meltzer, Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington

[1]If only Snopes was on the case.
[2] English slang, Italian & Spanish, German, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish.

Liberty Enlightening the World


On a grey, cold day in October, I boarded a ferry outside the gates of Castle Garden, at the tip of Manhattan.  Looking out the ferry window, my parents and I could see a misty Statue of Liberty. From this vantage, the scene would have looked similar to one more than 100 years ago when three of my four grandparents[1]  arrived in the United States via Ellis Island.

The St. Paul, the Pennsylvania and the Kroonland carried my ancestors through the Narrows and within sight of the famous statue. After the ships passed quarantine inspection, they docked at the Hudson River piers and citizens and most 1st and 2nd class passengers disembarked. Immigrant steerage passengers passed through customs and then boarded ferries, taking them to Ellis Island for medical and legal inspection. They entered the main floor past stacks of luggage, and climbed stairs to the Inspection Room [2].


Across this floor and through these lines walked

  • my maternal great-grandparents, my great-grandmother four months pregnant with her first child, my grandfather.
  • my paternal great-grandmother, shepherding four children under the age of 10, including my five-year old grandfather.
  • my maternal grandmother, three months old and bundled in the arms of her mother, along with her father and older half-sisters.

My maternal great-grandparents passed through inspection, and with $10 and a dream, headed into the cacophony of Suffolk Street and a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

My paternal great-grandmother and her children already had train tickets to their final destination of St. Louis, and after passing inspection would have taken a ferry to the railroad, probably out of New Jersey.

My infant grandmother, her parents and half-sisters also had train tickets to their final destination, however they were detained for several hours over concern that the group might be L.P.C., or Likely Public Charge. They ate dinner (lunch) in the detention cafeteria before it was determined that the group had not $10 but actually $45 dollars and the capacity to continue the journey by train to St. Louis.


My parents in the Ellis Island Registry Room.

The visit to Ellis Island brought me and my parents back to the beginning of our immediate family’s life in the United States. Our Ellis Island immigrants comprised just 12 of the more than 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island during its years of operation (1892-1954).

What is your immigrant story?







  1. Including my maternal grandfather in utero.
  2. Detroit Publishing Co., Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. Inspection room, Ellis Island, New York. [between 1910 and 1920] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed November 03, 2016.)

Wiki Trees and Shaking Leaves: A Cautionary Tale

Crowdsourcing a tree can be a fun diversion. It can also work. The algorithms that provide hints to an online tree on, for instance, can be useful. Connecting with someone researching a common ancestor can break down brick walls and build up family connections. But sometimes those algorithmic hints can lead you astray.

Mordeche Hirsh Polinsky is a great example. Mordeche, also known as Mordecai and Max, had seven children. He had at least four brothers.  His brothers also had many children. Online, there are numerous versions of the family tree, and almost all of them have the same mistake.

Photograph of headstone of Mordecai Hirsh Polinsky

©Renée K. Carl

Mordeche Hirsh Polinsky did not die in 1911.

Yet, the animated leaf keeps sending out hints that he did. Why? has uploaded a photograph of Mordecai Hirsh  Polinsky’s headstone at Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol Cemetery which clearly shows a death date of 30 November 1911. Same thing with The headstone must be correct – the family placed it there and it’s inscribed in stone, afterall.

The headstone is wrong.

Two other sources offer information that conflict with the headstone. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch printed burial permits in the newspaper, regardless if the family could afford to purchase an obituary. On 2 December 1910, the Post-Dispatch announced a burial for “Max Polinsky.” At first glance, they do not appear to be the same person, however, Max is a known Americanization of the name Mordeche, and Max was the name Mordeche used for the 1910 Census.

The second source is a death certificate for Max Polinsky. The death certificate gives the date of death as 30 November 1910. The address on the certificate matches a known address for the family. The informant on the death certificate is Max/Mordeche’s son “P. Polinsky” and his full name was signed iMordecai Hirsh death certificaten Yiddish: “Pincus Polinsky.” The burial took place on 30 November 1910 at Hamedrosh Hagadol Cemetery, the same cemetery as the headstone in the photos. The name of Max’s father listed on the death certificate is “Meyer,” the same as what is written in Hebrew on the headstone. The newspaper and the death certificate indicate a date of death in 1910, but the headstone has 1911.

Which is the correct year? 1910.

On a trip to St. Louis, I spoke with the executive director of Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol. We walked together in the oldest part of the cemetery, where Mordeche Hirsh Polinsky is buried. I asked him about the stone and told him about the conflicting dates. He smiled, and explained that the stone in the photograph is not the original one. It was replaced, probably in the 1950s, as the old stones were deteriorating from age and weather. The original cemetery records from 1902–1937 were destroyed in a fire. The mistake could have been misreading the old, crumbling stone when creating the new one, or misinformation from the family.

Is a year difference a big deal? The Genealogical Proof Standard requires both a “reasonably exhaustive search” as well as a “resolution of any conflicting evidence,” so in this case, to meet the standard means to examine resources other than the headstone. Which leads to the conflicting evidence, and sorting out the proper conclusion.

So think twice before hitting “accept” on that shaking leaf, or merging a tree with another. Better yet, get out a rake, pile up the leaves, and be prepared to put many of them on the compost pile. It will avoid a small mistake, like the wrong year being added to the tree, or a big one, like the wrong person. The internet has revolutionized genealogy, but the hard work of proof remains just that, work.