Friday, April 4, 2014

The Doorway That Was Once Home

Home. Regardless of the time we live in, home has had the same meaning. A place to rest, to recharge, to reconnect. In trying to understand what life may have been like for the Feitner family, and in particular my great great grandfather Jacob, I felt I needed to see the places they called home. Families in 19th century New York City moved on average once a year. Rental terms lasted one year, usually beginning in May. Many families opted to move each Spring, and the Feitner's moved around the West Side of Manhattan with amazing frequency, often moving only a block or two away from their previous address. Census records and the New York City Directory have been invaluable in tracing their movements. Sadly, most of the buildings they lived in no longer exist.  But there is one, poignant building that does still stand in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan: the 5 story brick building at 504 West 48th Street.

Jacob moved his family here when the building was new, in the Spring of 1900. It may have been an ideal location for the family, with his wife's family living a block away and the Garment District close by. My great grandmother, his daughter Helen, was photographed in front of this building when she was barely two years old. It was also the building where Jacob died, less than one year after moving his family in. I visited the building recently and imagined his comings and goings through the ornate wood door, and the great sadness that must have been forever attached to the address for his wife and children.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Brief Life, Found.

19th century New York was no easy place to live. Regardless of social status, childhood illness and death touched every family and the Feitner's were no exception.  It was a bittersweet discovery when searching the New York State census of 1875, I found that Jacob and Anna had another son. They welcomed and lost their son Charles shortly after moving to Brooklyn from Manhattan in 1875.  Charles was born in February, and died in July; with his burial in nearby Green-wood Cemetery, in what is now an unmarked plot. A brief life, but I was glad to add his name to the family tree to be forever remembered.

With sincere thanks to Bob Collins for photographing the grave site at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Sister is Found, A Riddle Solved

"Elizabeth Van Hook". 

The name just didn't fit with the rest of my Feitner family research. But there it was, in the long list of loved ones buried in the family plot in Lutheran Cemetary.  I had accounted for everyone but her, noting their links to Anna Brenzel and Jacob Feitner.  I asked my grandmother, "do you remember the name Elizabeth Van Hook?"  Even she didn't know. This wasn't a good sign, since she could tell you the most interesting minutia when it came to the Feitners.  So there it sat, with a question mark next to it.

Today though, I found out who Elizabeth was.  Occasionally, I look through my family tree on  It had been a while since I did any real research on their site, since I felt I had exhausted their databases for the New York area.  Much to my surprise, another user had been doing research into the Feitner family and had listed an "Elizabeth Van Hook" in their tree.  After a quick dig into my stacks of cemetery records, I found I had a match.  Jacob T. Feitner, my great-great grandfather had another sister that I had been unaware of.  This was the Elizabeth Van Hook who had puzzled me for so long.  She was barely two years old when their father had died, and had not surfaced in any of the New York census records.  She married George Van Hook in 1897 in Mount Vernon, New York when she was 19 and seemed to have a very stable life in Westchester County and Yonkers thereafter.  She and George did not have any children.  Elizabeth died on December 5, 1943 and was buried in Lutheran Cemetery with her parents.

It finally made sense.  I proudly erased the question mark next to her name and replaced it with "Sister of Jacob T. Feitner".

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Search Begins

Jacob T. Feitner
It all started with a single photograph of a young man, with a thick mustache and wearing a tweed jacket and bow tie.  Written on the back in my grandmother's handwriting, it simply read "Grandpa Feitner".  He was buried at Lutheran Cemetery, she had told me, and had left behind a wife and 5 young children.  One of those children was her mother, Helen.

It didn't take much work to find out that Grandpa Feitner's name was Jacob (like his father, as I would later discover).  Jacob was born in 1867 in Manhattan and had an older sister, Anna.  After his father's untimely death in Brooklyn when Jacob was barely 11 years old, the trail goes cold. The New York City census of 1880 has no record of Anna Feitner, his mother or Jacob and Anna.  However, Jacob turns up later on, living in Manhattan on his own at the age of 15 in 1882.  His mother remarries in 1883, and lives with Jacob's sister Anna, who is a young widow with several children of her own.

Jacob builds a life of his own, becoming a highly skilled silk weaver; designing patterns for the bolts of silk fabric that were woven in a factory. He marries Alvina Clabes in 1888, who had also been a worker in the silk weaving industry and is likely to have met her while at work in the factory.  They have their first child, Albert Theodore in 1889 and a daughter Alvina M. follows in 1891.  Sadly, Albert dies just days before his third birthday of tuberculosis, a common cause of child deaths in New York City at that time. He too is buried in the family plot at Lutheran Cemetery, beside his grandfather he never knew.

Albert T. Feitner
Jacob and Alvina later have 4 more children: Elizabeth, John, Henrietta and Helen; living on the West side of Manhattan, moving from West 42nd Street to West 43rd and eventually to West 48th Street, living near his wife's family. 

In 1899, Jacob begins to show signs of a serious health problem.  Paralysis sets in on the left side of his face; an early symptom of leptomeningitis, a form of cancer.  In the spring of 1901, Jacob dies after suffering for nearly two years.  His burial at Lutheran Cemetery follows, and he is laid to rest beside his father and his son.

My grandmother mentioned that after his death, his wife Alvina took the children to the silk factory, demanding the pay that Jacob was owed.   I often wonder if working in the silk factory created this deadly disease in his body, and if his wife suspected that as well.

Whatever the cause, the reality was clear: Jacob died without a will, and for reasons that aren't completely understood, Alvina signed tax documents that left her without means to survive. Only 30 years old, and now a widow with 5 children, Alvina sends her daughters and son to live with her family.  It was the beginning of a new century, but Alvina never remarries.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Road Ahead and Behind

I'm starting this blog in the hopes that this will be a new avenue to finding out more about a branch of my family tree of which little is known.  I really had no interest in creating a blog.  Maybe this is a good idea; maybe it's a bad idea. Maybe, but I do have an interest in understanding who the Feitner family was.  I say "was" because it seems that part of the family line has all but ended. I hope I am wrong, though.

What I do know is dwarfed by what I don't know, and what I haven't been able to solve.

The story of the man who was my great-great-great grandfather begins with Jacob T. Feitner, a young German immigrant who came to New York City in 1860 when he was 21.  Five years later, he marries Anna Brenzel, also a German immigrant, and becomes a naturalized citizen.  Living on Cherry Street in lower Manhattan, Jacob is a barber by trade and works on Cathedral Street. They have two children: a son Jacob Theodore and a daughter, Anna.  By the mid 1870's, the family moves out of Manhattan to a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn along with other up-and-coming families.  He would die there on the first floor of his home on September 11, 1878 of tuberculosis, leaving his wife to raise the children alone.

The Feitner family plot at Lutheran Cemetary.
Jacob is buried a few days later at Lutheran Cemetary in the newly acquired family plot.  And there is where the road ends.

Who were his parents? Did he have any brothers or sisters?  Was he any relation to John Feitner, the marble monument maker who had his business just a few blocks from Jacob's home in Brooklyn?

I visited Lutheran Cemetery and was no closer to finding any of these things out after my visit.  The family plot was bare, not a stone or monument to be seen; a victim of cemetery "modernization" in the 1950's.

His only son Jacob would also see an early grave. And so would his grandson.