Thoughts and experiences

Which surname for grandma?

post women surnames

During my research I noticed that the surname of female ancestors is often an issue, especially for people from the USA.

In fact, in the US as well as in other countries, women take the husband’s surname when marrying. On the contrary, in Italy women keep using their maiden surname, with a mention of the husband’s one. But to make things more complicated this is not a general rule, especially when dealing with records: it depends from the place, the time, the circumstance and probably also from the clerk’s habit.

This post is thought for those of you who find this lack of a rule discouraging, for the ones who made mistakes with a grandmother’s surname and ended up following a wrong family branch and for the ones who faced a brick wall until they discovered the surname to search was another…

I will not tell you when and where women are recorded by which surname, but I will make you a list of (hopefully) all possible cases you may face during your research.

This can be used also for graves inscriptions, which follow no rule at all!

Your “grandmother and grandfather” in these examples will be MARIA ROSSI and GIUSEPPE FERRARI (two very common Italian names!)

Here is how Maria Rossi may be recorded after having married Giuseppe Ferrari.


This is the most common case

post 5 tab 1


post 5 tab 2


This is the worst case and a potential brick wall to find out Maria’s birth act

post 5 tab 3

And now, some cases that DID happen to my customers, and so they may happen again: watch out!

Case 1: husband emigrating first, wife emigrating later. At the arrival at Ellis Island she gives her maiden name and enters the US with that. My customer thought she arrived as a single and got crazy searching for the marriage record in the US. Actually, the woman had married before emigrating but the husband surname was not shown

Case 2: husband emigrating first, wife and children emigrating later. At the arrival at Ellis Island she is recorded with her maiden name. The clerk, assuming that this is the husband’s surname, register all children by the mother’s maiden name. Result: all children enter the US with a wrong surname. Passenger list records show wrong surnames too!

My suggestion: unless you are 100% sure that your female ancestor was recorder ALWAYS with her maiden surname or with her husband’s surname, take the effort of checking the other option, too: you may tear a brick wall down!

Last but not least, if you stumbled upon other forms or records, let me know so I can interpretate the meaning for you and add it to the list. Also, feel free to share any comment!

I hope this was useful


Last year this time I was starting my personal adventure: transforming a passion into a semi-pro activity.

Since then I had researched only for myself and for friends, but as I started E.G. Ancestry Research the challenge became more difficult: I was committing to give results, people were trusting me and I could not disappoint them.

These few words are for them, my first customers (the best I could ever find!

Dear all, you wrote me asking for help in researching your family history, but it was you who helped me, in the end!

A help made of encouragement, passion, enthusiasm, patience and gratitude.

You wanted to know more about your past, and now you do.

But thanks to you, I know more about my future: E.G. Ancestry Research will go on!

My endless gratitude to all of you!


What if you discover your ancestor was an outlaw?

Would you be interested to know what he did and whether he was proved guilty or not?

Would you be prepared to read the sentence?

In the web site of the State Archive of Torino (Turin) in North West Italy you can find the transcriptions of 28,786 trial sentences that were delivered by the Senate of Piedmont from 1724 to 1766.

Although the place and time are very limited, they are enough to get an idea about what was considered a crime and – most interesting of all – which sort of “fair” punishment was inflicted to the people.

Get ready to be shocked, here are a few examples:

  • Carlo Giuseppe M. in 1737 is sentenced to: being tortured to obtain the names of accomplices, paying trial expenses, refunding the victim and 10 (ten!) years of oaring on the royal ships. He had stolen 1 (one!) cow.
  • Giovanni Domenico M. in 1735 is proved guilty of the theft of a silver lamp from the church where he worked as sexton. The punishment is: sequestration of his ownings, refund of the church, payment of trial expenses and… public hanging!
  • Sebastiano B. in 1728 is proved guilty of armed robbery and offence and his sentence states: public hanging, the body cut in four pieces to be exposed in the usual places. Refund of victims, payment of trial expenses and a “tip” of 5 scudi (coins) to the judge.
  • Vitto P. in 1725 is punished for “producing false money and suiciding”. In fact, he had killed himself in jail, probably to escape a frightening punishment, and this is mentioned as part of his crime. The sentence pronounced after his deed is far from being merciful: his memory to be condemned, his body to be carried on a poor cart and transported to the usual places. At the arrival on the gallows platform, proceed with the formality of strangling and burning (the corpse) in public.
  • Giovanni Domenico T. is a soldier. In 1746 he is proved guilty to be an accomplice in the killing of another soldier and robbery of his clothes and sword. The sentence states: torture to acquire the names of the accomplices, public hanging after application of red-hot pincers, the body slaughtered and exposed in the usual places. Payment of trial expenses, refund of the heir of the victim, tip for the judge etc.

Ok, I think it’s enough for my stomach, today…

The transcriptions are only in Italian, unfortunately, but you can try the search option (ricerca libera) and see if you can find your ancestor’s surname. If you do and you are prepared to have a translation of the sentence, just ask and I will do it.


Post 3

I have been reading many posts and queries with the same subject: is it really possible to have access to the Italian parish records? Are they public? Can anyone have access to them? What if the priest says “no”? Is he allowed to refuse people to search into the books?

These were my questions, too.

Here is what I learnt by asking, reading… and also by experience.

The law states clearly that the records must be accessible to people who are asking to search their own family, or for any other kind of study. The Catholic Church is conscious of the inestimable historical value of the archives they are preserving, and they set rules to allow people to have access to their books unique content.

This means that no priest should refuse anyone to search their family history into the old record books. If he does, the reason might be:

  • Maybe he is not well aware of this rule. And actually, this is something that relates very little with his job: he should take care of the spirituality of people, he is not supposed to be an archivist!
  • Maybe he is timorous of having unknown people handling precious old records because if there’s a damage, he would be responsible. Rather than risking or wasting time helping, he might as well refuse the access with an excuse.
  • The following comes from my own experience: in the small villages that are so common in Italy, the parish archive might actually be… In the priest’s house!

The books might be public, but they are stored in a private place.

During my last research I went to a very small town, phoned the priest and went to him. He was very kind and lead me to the archive, that was in his studio/living room, but he told me he had a flu and needed to rest, so he disappeared in his bedroom.

While I was searching the records in his living room, I could hear him coughing and sneezing in the other room. Like an old, ill grandpa. But he was a stranger, instead… and I was in his house!

I did not feel comfortable at all! And he surely was annoyed and disturbed by my presence…

All this is to say: whichever priest you meet – aware or not of your right to sit on his sofa and scroll “his” books – you should approach him with gentleness and respect, making him feel sure that you are not the kind of person who could drip hot coffee on an ancient book, or tear a page apart to bring it home. Phone or visit him in advance, explain your needs and agree together for a date and time for the search that fits both of you, so you can be sure he will be there to unlock the door.

If you crash against the rudest priest ever and there is no way he will show you the books you are longing to read, do not desperate: many books should have a duplicate stored in the Diocese Archive. The procedure to get to them might be more formal and bureaucratic, but you will not depend from the priest’s mood.

P.S. there are limits to the accessibility of records if you are searching within 70 years back from now – for privacy reasons – and if you intend to publicize the records to make money out of it, for example if you are planning to write a book with family histories of a certain place.