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Kris Williams: Three Days by Horse

In the last five years I have seen more than half the states in our nation, plus 22 countries and counting. In that time, I have bounced from one hotel to the next with everything I own packed tightly inside two 25” pieces of luggage.

My downtime has been spent with family in New England, visiting good friends all over the United States and visiting my boyfriend in Australia. Even when I am not working, I somehow manage to stay on the road. Through all of this, there are times where I have taken the technology to travel and stay connected for granted, and there are other times where I’ve been completely amazed by how far we have come. With every generation’s advances in technology our planet continues to get smaller and more connected.

The first time I remember being completely blown away by our progress was while talking to my great-grandmother’s cousin. My great-grandmother passed away when I was only four years-old. Through my genealogy work I was able to track down her cousin, Albertine, about 10 years ago.

I remember her surprised look when I explained to her who I was, and I will never forget her response when I told her it only took me two hours to drive to Vermont from New Hampshire: “It only took you two hours?! It used to take us three days by horse!”

In those days you didn’t just hop in a car. There were no short visits, no phone calls, texts or emails. They would send out letters announcing their visit with the intention of staying a week or more after traveling for days by horse or foot.

Today, having to rely on a horse, and not having a car, is unimaginable. Then again, it was only six short years ago that traveling the world – never mind dating a man who lives in another country – also seemed unimaginable. It all seemed so impossible and, just a few generations ago, it would have been.

Now, as I write this, I’m waiting to board a plane in Australia to head home to the United States. I will have woken on one side of the planet, and will be climbing into bed on the other side – all on the same day!

All around me people talk, some complaining about the long flight ahead. I will admit, the idea of a 14-hour flight stuck in coach isn’t my idea of a good time.  But five generations ago, my second great-grandparents boarded boats in Europe that were headed for America. Following two weeks at sea in cramped quarters, they finally reached their destinations.

If Albertine was surprised by my two-hour drive, how would those great-grandparents respond to my 14-hour flight across the globe? Then again, how would my ancestors from the Mayflower react to my great-grandparents’ “short” two-weeks at sea?

Yes, I had relatives on the Mayflower! Setting sail from Plymouth, England, on Sept. 6, 1620, it took the ship a total of two months to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Two months! There were a total of 102 passengers packed into cramped, cold and damp living quarters. Most found themselves seasick and some passengers died due to illnesses. At least one man was lucky enough to be rescued after being thrown overboard by rough waters.

As a female, I am most amazed by the pregnant women who made the voyage, one of whom gave birth on the ship. Through all of this, the passengers of the Mayflower wondered if they would even make it to the shores of America due to damage that was done to the ship from storms.

They spent two months at sea, and here we are, in our coach seats being served food and drinks. We’re flying in a relatively safe, large metal object and we are complaining about a 14-hour trip from Australia to America.

Once I land Los Angeles, I will be spending the next three weeks looking for an apartment. For me, leaving everything I know in New England is both exciting and scary. In some ways it’s a fresh start; the first time in my whole life where I will be completely responsible for myself and I am excited about it.

However, I still can’t quite shake the fear of leaving what is familiar, and the guilt that hangs over me about leaving my family. What if this move turns out horribly? What if something happens back home and I’m not there? Can I handle being that far from my family? I am willing to bet these same fears and questions haunted my ancestors from the time they packed their bags until years after they settled in New England.

Taking into consideration the day-to-day challenges they continued to face as soon as they touched land, I feel a bit foolish. Once my ancestors made the voyage from Europe to America, that was it. Those who were lucky enough to make the trip alive found themselves in a foreign land having only the limited possessions they brought with them. Chances are they would never see the friends and family they left behind again, and their only communication would be through an occasional handwritten letter.

Today, people regularly move from state to state and I continue to meet many who have moved from country to country. Although we may experience the same fears, we have options. If we are missing home, we can jump in a car, catch a bus, hop on a train or book a flight. While missing our family and friends in-between trips, we have the luxury of making a phone call or sending out a text message.

Not enough? Then there’s always the convenience that comes with the Internet from emails, video chat and social networking sites that allow us to post and read regular status updates or share pictures.

From the days of uncharted lands to the days where you can look up any location on the globe by satellite, I have absolutely no idea where life is going to take me. I may decide to stay in California. I could eventually head back to the east coast or maybe even find myself living outside of the country.

Wherever I am, I hope to always be thankful for how far we have come, and make use of everything we have available to stay connected with my family and friends. As I now sit here on my flight, I also can’t help but wonder what stories I will someday share with my grandchildren that, to them, will seem unimaginable.

By Kris Williams

Twitter: @KrisWilliams81

Kris Williams: Alcatraz - The Great Escape

This month marks the 50thanniversary of one of the most mysterious prison breaks in history. On June 11, 1962, four men - Frank Morris, brothers John and Clarence Anglin and Allen West - took part in what became known as The Great Escape from Alcatraz. Having had the chance to work at “The Rock,” I can’t help but remember my amazement at the lengths they went to escape, as well as remember the experiences I had there while roaming the halls, hunting for spirits of criminals who were believed to still haunt the grounds.

Originally, Alcatraz was built as a military fortification for the purpose of protecting the San Francisco Bay. During the Civil War it doubled as a military fort as well as a military prison where they jailed confederate soldiers and sympathizers. Following the Civil War, actions were taken to update Alcatraz’s outdated defenses until they decided to switch gears, turning the fort strictly into a military prison. Alcatraz was considered the perfect location for a prison due to the isolation created by the cold waters of the bay and its strong, hazardous currents.

My fascination with Alcatraz came with my personal interest in studying true crime, and from my love as a kid for the movie “Murder in the First.” Alcatraz served as a federal prison from 1933 to 1963, and was used to hold the worst of the worst. If you caused enough problems at other prisons, or repeatedly tried to escape, you would eventually find yourself at the inescapable jail. Mickey Cohen, Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud aka “The Birdman, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and - a familiar face from Boston - James “Whitey” Bulger were just some of the notorious residents here.

In the years it served as a federal prison there were a total of 14 escape attempts made by 36 men. While I was on the island I was surprised to learn that of those 36, 23 were caught, six were shot and killed, and two drowned.

But there were five men listed as missing.

Since there was never any evidence found that any of these men made it to shore, they were assumed to have drowned and washed out to sea in the strong currents. Three of these five missing men took part in The Great Escape. Today, people still wonder if Frank, John and Clarence did indeed drown or if they were successful in their escape.

 Frank Morris had a record that included drug possession and armed robbery. However, what landed him in Alcatraz were the several attempts he had made to escape several other prisons. It was during Frank’s stay at an Atlanta prison that he met brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The Anglin brothers were bank robbers who, like Frank, were transferred there after several attempts to escape other prisons. The fourth man involved in The Great Escape was Allen West. Allen had met John at a Florida prison, and was in Alcatraz serving his second term.

Together these four men carried out their fairly hilarious and creative attempt at freedom. Using crudely made hand tools out of objects they secretly lifted from around the jail, they spent months making everything they needed for their escape. The men took turns digging through their individual cell’s ventilation system, made rafts and life preservers out of 50 raincoats and glue, while using soap and toilet paper to make paper machete dummies they painted to look lifelike (they even went so far as adding hair they got from the prison barbershop). It was basically one big arts-and-crafts party made up of hardened criminals.

Once the boys were done with their cutting, pasting and finger painting, Frank, John and Clarence squeezed through the hole in the wall of their cell. Allen was left behind since he failed to finish digging in time. Once inside the prison walls they climbed 30 feet of plumbing before reaching the roof. They then secretly made their way across the roof to climb another 50 feet down the outside wall of the prison. Once outside, they planned to use their handmade raft and life preservers to get to the mainland. By the time Allen finally broke through the wall of his cell and climbed to the roof, Frank, John and Clarence were gone leaving him no choice but to return to his cell.

Over the years there have been many books, movies and documentaries that revolved around The Great Escape. In the end they all had their own theories as to what may have happened to Frank, John and Clarence. But again, no bodies were ever found. However several items were recovered from the water and the shores of nearby Angel Island, which just added to the speculation.

My visit to Alcatraz was due to the paranormal claims that now surround the island. People reported experiences that included noises of crying, moaning and sounds of a banjo (that was believed to played by a ghostly Al Capone); cold spots and sightings of prisoner apparitions and military personnel were also reported. One of the craziest claims was of a prisoner who told a guard he was being killed by a creature with glowing red eyes in his cell. The following morning that same prisoner was found strangled to death in his cell.

While there, I did have a few strange experiences, however what unsettled me the most had nothing to do with the paranormal. In the early morning hours I stood in one of the cells that looked out over the bay. The whole prison was cold and dark - an experience shared by many of the prison’s former occupants. The only sounds in the prison were carried over the bay from the city. I could hear people laughing, cars beeping and live music playing. I could even see faint headlights pass in the distance. I remember thinking, “talk about a daily reminder that life is going on with out you …” It was actually a pretty horrible, lonely feeling.

These men that were locked up at Alcatraz probably deserved their punishment, but I can’t blame them for wanting to get out.

For anyone captivated by Alcatraz and their extreme efforts, the question will always remain: Were three of them successful?

By Kris WilliamsTwitter: @KrisWilliams81

Kris Williams: Genealogy & Your DNA

Just recently I received my AncestryDNA kit results and I can honestly say I was pretty shocked by them. For the most part, on my father’s side, my family has been in this country since the Mayflower - or came on ships that followed soon after.  Others came down through Canada from Nova Scotia. Everything I knew about my Dad’s side of the family brought me back to England and Scotland. My mother’s side is a bit different since the majority of her family only goes back in the United States a few generations. Most of her family came over from Ireland in the 1800s, with the exception of her grandfather who came over from Italy with his family in 1909.

Knowing all of this I asked myself, “How much can the test really tell me?” Through all that I have found on my own, I figured my ethnicity would mainly originate on the British Isles with a small percentage of Italian. That was not the case.

What were my results?

According to my DNA, I am 53% Scandinavian, 37% Southern European, 8% British Isles and there was a small 2% that was marked “Uncertain.” I was confused.

Scandinavian? Where the hell did that come from? What I thought would be my largest ethnic percentage ended up ranking third?

The results made me question what else I could learn about my family through my results and AncestryDNA. To get a better understanding, I took a look at how the test worked.

AncestryDNA uses a new DNA technology called autosomal testing. The main differences between this new technology and previous tests used are that autosomal testing examines a much larger portion of your DNA and it covers both the maternal and paternal sides of your family. Previous tests only cover one or the other and a significantly smaller portion of your DNA. So, with the help of expert population geneticists and molecular biologists, autosomal testing gives us genealogy nuts a bigger and more complete picture of our family in one DNA test.

Not only was I surprised by how convenient and easy it was to take this test, I am now excited by the other features AncestryDNA offers to make further use of my results. With my results, I got a list of matches that show me other AncestryDNA users who I may be related to based on our DNA.

With a subscription to Ancestry.com, you are able to reach out to that match and work together to figure out your common link. To make the search easier, the site even provides you and your match with a list of shared surnames from your trees. I have already reached out to one of my matches and I’m excited to start working with him to learn more about my family! Another feature I love is their interactive map, which pinpoints places of birth for everyone you have entered on your tree. It is pretty fascinating when you can see where all of your known ancestors had to travel from for you to be here. It has also made me more curious to find out the reasons behind their moves.

Now that I have my results, and have gone through all the features and have a better understanding of how the test works, I’ve learned to look at the bigger picture. All this time I had viewed my ethnicity as based strictly off of the countries my family came to the United States from, without putting much thought into where their ancestors originated. Being marked 53% Scandinavian by my DNA, I realize that my family tree will eventually lead me back to Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

Taking the history of those locations into account, this possibly brings my family back to Viking times. Vikings were known as merchants, explorers and feared as violent pillagers by coastal towns. Being well-traveled explorers, their adventures took them to nearby England, Ireland and Scotland as well as several other far off lands to establish villages. Knowing this, I am now able to see how Scandinavian descent may have dominated my results.

I can honestly say I am very happy with my decision to try AncestryDNA and am excited to see where this new information takes me! Not only has it given me some insight to my family’s past it is giving me the ability to reach out to others who may share it. The best part is that over time, my list of matches will only continue to grow as more people take the test. Who knows, after taking the AncestryDNA test you could find yourself trading family notes with a long lost cousin and ghost hunter.

Contributed by Kris Williams, Genealogist & star of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters International 

Twitter: @KrisWilliams81

Life Advice…From the Grave

My great grandfather, Abramo Donato Cantelli was born in San Donato, Italy on February 4, 1903. He was only six years old when he boarded a ship headed to America called the Canopic Line with his mother and two brothers. After two seasick weeks they finally landed in Boston where Abramo’s father was waiting for their arrival.

Abramo attended school until he was 12 years old, leaving to work at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, MA to help his family. There he made $80 a week working on destroyer ships during WWI. It was at this job, he began to hate his name. His co-workers regularly picked on him for it, “There’s a lot of ignorant people, they make you feel like two cents”. Due to the constant harassment, for his confirmation, he took on the name Biajoso he could call himself Joe. From then on, he was known as Joseph Cantelli.

Joe started an apprenticeship as a stonecutter in South Quincy around the age of 21. He worked on several different jobs but the one I was told most about was a statue of a woman. He worked on the folds of her dress as well as some writing. No one in the family seems to know where this statue ended up but we do know Tiffany’s of New York bought it.  During the Great Depression he said that “It was impossible to live on stonecutting…Life is too hard. In the depression if you wanted to buy a nickel for six cents you couldn’t do it”.

My great grandfather was extremely proud to become an American and worked hard to fit in. Besides the name change, he refused to teach his kids to speak Italian. He would often tell them, “In America, you speak like an American!”.Joe would only speak Italian with his parents, brothers and sister. As much as I admire his pride and hard work, it also bums me out that this part of my family’s culture wasn’t passed down. Today, the best my grandmother can do is swear in Italian and I’m left trying to learn with CD’s and books!

My great grandfather gave a lot of advice through his own life experiences concerning work, family and remembering to enjoy the simple things. It’s his advice on relationships and marriage that have really stuck with me most.

Joe met my great grandmother Kathryn Mary Gaynor at a dance. They were married October 14, 1923 in Randolph, MA with a simple ceremony to keep costs down. The thing that I love about my great grandparents is how crazy they were about each other. I remember talking to my grandmother’s sister Kitty about it. She told me a story about how they were so affectionate with each other, even late in life; they could make others around them blush.

In a day and age where divorce is common, I really want what they had for myself. I have had several friends my age, who’ve been divorced, joke that I need a “practice marriage”. The idea of this being funny saddens me. Being a bit of a hopeless romantic in a “me generation” is difficult at times to hold on to. His advice on relationships and marriage holds true, especially in today’s society. Today we are so plugged into technology; we are forgetting how to communicate outside of it.

“When you get married, you become one. There’s no more two. It’s 50/50. Set up a stake and both of you reach for that goal. Sometimes his trouble will spill over onto you. If you think you might hurt each other with something you’re going to say, put on the breaks, and don’t say it; don’t hurt each other. Think first about what you’re going to say. It’s communication that’s the most important thing. You’ve got to be friends. Both work together, plan together and communicate. When you don’t communicate, no one knows what’s going on, the left doesn’t know what the right is doing. That’s why there are so many divorces these days. They don’t communicate, and they don’t know what the other wants. They have different goals.”

As a female today, I have also found that sometimes I feel a little lost. Women have come so far since his generation. The sad part however, is that today women who find themselves in a demanding career are almost forced to make a choice. Do I continue to climb the ladder or do I want to have a family? It’s a sad world when you are made to feel like having a family is a “set back”. Growing up, taking pride in being a strong female, I always said I didn’t want to justbe a mom… where today, I have realized it will probably be the most important role I’ll ever play.

“That’s what I like to see, two young people in a garden of flowers. That makes me happy, to see… two people always together and happy. You need to get a nice little house, with a little fence and a little workshop downstairs. It’s natural to want a house and family”.To me, he is right. I am tired of feeling like I have to reject something that is natural to want, just to prove something to a society that’s slowly losing sight of what’s important.

My great grandparents were married 61 years when Kathryn passed away, “We miss each other. I am useless with out her”.I can only hope to someday celebrate 60 years of marriage with a man who feels just as strongly about me. Someone who makes me want to be a better person by simply being around him. Jobs come and go. Money can be gained, lost and gained back again. Fancy cars and big houses prove nothing. It’s family and the people we surround ourselves with that get us through and make life worth living.

The craziest part about all of this, my great grandfather passed away in 1986, when I was only five years old. The only memory I have of him is hiding under his lawn chair at a family reunion in Quincy, MA. However, here I am 26 years later hearing and finding comfort in his words. I owe a huge thank you to my Mom’s cousin Suzy for taking the time to interview him. Had it not been for her interest in genealogy and our family in general, I never would have had the opportunity to hear them.

Contributed by Kris Williams, Genealogist & star of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters International 

Twitter: @KrisWilliams81

 

Don’t go by what you see on T.V., it’s a big balloon that’s blowing up and destroying the country. Show business is no good. My wife had better legs than those women any day!  -Joseph Abramo Donato Biajo Cantelli

Kris Williams, part-time ghost hunter and genealogist, shares her thoughts on the Titanic voyage.