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L to R: Nicholas Bessignano, Mary Besssignano Quaglio, Pete Besssignano, Margaret Bessignano Venice, Frank Bessignano

Many, many thanks to Tom Castaldi for sharing the following narrative-in-progress about the Bessignano family history.  


Additional "Resources":
1. Some additional pictures and family history notes the webmaster has (and hasn't had time to compare with Tom's masterpiece) are available by clicking here.
2. Narrative of 2006 family trip to Cirigliano, Italy


Bisignano o Bessignano  

Bisignano o Bessignano in English is Bisignano or Bessignano.  No matter how you spell it, they are the names shared by a family whose members emigrated in the early twentieth-century from Italy to America, worked hard and succeeded in their adopted country.  Their entire story is not well known, however, as interest grows among family descendants, more information may be uncovered that will tell of the remarkable efforts of four brothers and two sisters.   What follows is just a beginning.

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If you have birth dates, marriage dates, dates of death for our ancestors, let us know. And, send what stories you remember about our family in a letter to:

Tom Castaldi, 13707 Brook Hollow Court, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46814. TLCastaldi@yahoo.com 

Tom Castaldi

May 1, 2008 

Leonardo and Angela Bisignano  

            Imagine viewing the beautiful Bay of Naples, where this story begins.  It is difficult to know the misery felt by the millions of people living in southern Italy at the beginning of the twentieth-century.  Population was rising rapidly, but industrialization had come slowly to the region.  Few factory jobs were available to people hoping to escape from poverty.  Little could be done to improve the productivity of local agriculture, because the land had suffered from centuries of over use.  In any case, those who owned land found that frequent subdividing had produced plots too small for their needs.  Landless farm laborers who worked for absentee landlords earned about fifteen-cents for a day’s work.  Barbers and tailors earned a little more than laborers if they could find customers.  Women who harvested crops or did embroidery earned even less. 

            To the depressing economic situation was added government indifference or outright oppression.  In the face of natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and outbreaks of malaria and cholera, the government increased personal misery by requiring more military service and ignoring the schools.  More than half the people were illiterate. 

            Faced with such hardships, many people responded to messages from the United States that told them of plentiful jobs paying fifty-cents a day.  Steamship lines advertised twelve-day trips to New York for as little as forty-dollars.  Italians who came to America told of stories they had heard back in the old country that when they came to the United States they would find the “streets paved with gold.” 

            Most of the four and a half million emigrants from southern Italy departed from Naples.  In 1900, it was Italy’s largest city and busiest port.  Although some had lived and worked in the city of Naples itself, many more had worked on the land and lived in the villages of the surrounding countryside.  These emigrants who left small towns identified with Naples and considered themselves Napoletani.  The numbers of emigrants were so great that the mayor of a village outside Naples was said to have greeted visiting U.S. officials by saying, “I welcome you in the name of all the people of this town: half are already in America and the others are preparing to go.” 

            Southern Italy, including Sicily and Sardiania, is known as the mezzogiorno.  It was behind agriculturally and economically because of climate, terrain and soil deficiencies.  Along the coasts there are relatively fertile belts that provide land for tomatoes and other garden vegetables, vineyards, orchards and olive and almond groves, but the hilly interior of the region has been able to support only a limited agricultural activity based on sheep and low-yielding cereal grains.   

            The Handbook for Italy (1977), reports that landholding patterns vary considerably throughout the mezzogiorno.  The large estates, or latifondi were owned by absentee landlords and worked by landless day laborers.  Called condidini, these peasants in the area, whatever their status with regard to the land, live in large villages or towns rather than on the land they work.  The inadequate size of the landholdings remains a major problem in the higher yielding coastal area, where grape vines and such tree crops as olives, citrus fruits and almonds predominate.  

            The problem of disease especially from the low marshland insects that spread malaria drove people to the higher elevations in the mountains.  For a long time people lived in mountainous areas going down to the low land farms to work during the day.  Retreating back up into the “hills” at day’s end, they sometimes carried the infection back into their homes.  Nevertheless, the trend, generations ago, was to move up and out of the dangers of malaria. 

           Cirigliano, Italy  In the very southern portion of Italy, just above the “arch” of the country’s boot shape, stands the village of Bisignano.  Generations ago, a family may have moved from Bisignano traveling north to Potenza near Matera in the tiny village of Cirigliano some ninety-nine kilometers from Matera.  As did many others, they moved up in the mountains to escape some political enemy invader, brigand or malaria leaving the province of Calabria headed for Basilicata.  Presently, it has a population of about 1,000.  Was it malaria they sought to escape or the ravages of the Moslem Sarasens who invaded Christian-held lands?

Tom and Linda Castaldi with daughters Angela (right) and twins Chris and Cathy.  Rosann Haines back right.

  In Cirigliano, typical family names were Venice, Carbone, Mattiaccia, Bisignano, Dragonetti and Fortuna.  No one knows for certain today, but perhaps one of those descending from the people from Bisignano, was Leonardo of Bisignano who married Angela Dragonetti in about 1870.  On March 23, 1879, a son Nicola, or Nicholas, was born to their union and baptized in the Parrocchia di Santa Maria Assunta, or the parish of Saint Mary Assumed, just two-days later.  Naturalization papers, however, state that his birth date was March 24.  Be that as it may, he celebrated his birthday on the 25th. 

            Several children of Leonardo and Angela Bisignano’s family immigrated to America:

--Son John settled in New York and his children were Peter, Leonard, Joseph, Christine, and Angeline.

            --Daughter Margaret married Nicola Venice making their home Peru, Indiana, and the children of this union were Anthony, Angeline Quaglio, Mary Calabro, James, Madolyn or Nicolina (Nook) Baldini, Roscoe and Leonard.

            --Son Peter married an Angeline Mattiaccia and came to Peru with their two-year old son Leonard and additionally became the parents of Frank, John, Dominic, Rose Rozzi, Catherine Ann Babe Radke, Nicholas, Helen (Nellie), Joseph, Ernestine (Ernie) and Antoinette (who died from burns at age 4 or 5) all born in America.

            --Son Tony remained in Italy.

            --Son Nicola married Angeline Mattiaccia – no relation to Peter’s wife of the same name – and came to Peru.  Their children were Margaret Martino, Theresa Horvath born in Italy, Catherine Pasquale, Anna, Mary Castaldi, Rose Pasquale, Leonard and Dominic.

            --Daughter Theresa remained in Italy.

            --Daughter Mary, wedded Gabriel Qualio moved to Peru and her children were “Coony,” Angelo or “Nonny,” Joseph, Leonard, Charlie or “Agar,” Frank, Mary “Cunch” Hileman, Angeline Foti, and John or “Young.”

            --Son Frank married Minni and settled in South Bend. His only child is Angie Tepe

            --Daughter Rose remained in her native Italy.  

            The generation of those who first came to America have lived their lives.  Their children, grandchildren, great grand children and more continue to develop the family’s story.  Here is a sketch of one branch of Bessignano that made the decision to come to America.  

Nicola’s Chapter  

            Mary Bessignano Castaldi, known to the family as “My” spoke of her parents saying:  “Our mother knew Papa when they were both children.  He was very poor and hid when he saw Mama coming because his clothes were so tattered.  His mother, Angela Dragonetti, died in either 1882 or 1884 at about the age of 42, when Nicola was not yet five-years old.  His father Leonardo lived to be a very old man in his eighties and even remarried in his elderly years.  He had all his children by his first wife Angela:  Giovanni (John) who settled in New York; Pietro (Peter) who came to Peru, Indiana; Margaret, who settled in Peru; then Nicola; Mary, who came to Peru; Frank, settled in South Bend, Indiana; and three other children, Anthony, Rose and Theresa all stayed in Italy.”  

            On a mountainside working as a shepherd boy, Nicola had no idea of the sights he would experience in the next few years.  For seventeen-years Nicola Bessignano lived out a late nineteenth-century southern Italy existence.  As difficult as it may seem, looking back he had no thoughts that this life would be left behind.  It was a country he loved for it was the land of his family and close friends.  

            Customs would be missed, but never forgotten.  The July 25th San Jacamo celebration imploring the saint to intervene in behalf of the community to protect them from foul weather that might damage crops would be missed; Santa Maria Assunta was remembered on August 15th and usually accompanied by a procession of religious, the Holy Virgin’s likeness in the form of a statue was carried by the townspeople and a small band providing music for the festa.  Other celebrations were just as popular such as Santa Lucia, Mart al Dolaretta and San Rocco.  San Rocco was said to have brought bread to a leper and cleansed the diseased man’s sores healing him thus leaving the generations of Cirigliano citizens asking for the great saint to intercede for healing those inflicted with leprosy.  Santa Lucia is honored with a large cathedral supported by a family headed by a baron, and there is still another church in the town named Marta al Dolaretta.  

            Nicola Bessignano’s wife was born Angela Mattiaccia on July 16, 1882.  In America, however, Angela celebrated her birthday on August 15th since it was often the custom in Italy to mark your years on the feast day of the parish patron saint rather than on the actual date of birth.  She preferred that her family and friends call her Angeline.  She was the daughter of Domenico Mattiaccia and Margherita Montesano of Cirigliano Mt., and baptized on July 17, 1882, in the church of Santa Maria Assunta according to her baptismal certificate.  

            Nicola’s brother Peter married another Angeline Mattiaccia a first cousin to Nicola’s wife, whose name also was Angeline Mattiaccia.  Leonard Bisignano had remarried a relative of Peter’s Angeline and may have been her sister.  

            Nicola Bessignano and Angeline were married on February 14, 1904, probably in the church of Santa Maria Assunta.  On January 30, 1905, their daughter Margaret was born and in 1983 she remembered her father Nicola’s decision to come to America.  Her mother Angeline insisted on joining him because she noticed that those who left her section of Italy for America often did not return.  “She decided that we would also go if Papa left.  Nicola (or Nick as he was known in America) sold his mule to Uncle Pat (Angeline’s brother).”  The mule pulled a cart that he used to transfer belongings or taxi people from place to place.  At the time Angeline was pregnant for Theresa their second child.  

            Fare to America was fifty-dollars which Nicola earned by selling the mule for 150 lira.  For Angeline and Margaret’s voyage, the money for tickets was borrowed.  Nick’s brother Pete and his brother-in-law Gabriel Qualio had come to America earlier in 1902.  Having landed jobs on the Lake Erie Railroad in Peru, Indiana, they knew that the railroad was hiring men and told Nick that they could get him a job on the same road if he too would come to America.  Gabriel Qualio married Mary, the sister of Nick and Pete. A point of clarity may be in order here because there were two with the names of Gabriel Quaglio that married into the Bessignano family.  Don Baldini grandson of Margaret Bessignano Venice explains that one lived in Peru and the other settled in Logansport. “We called the Logansport Gabe “Big Bill” who was married to my Aunt Angie Venice Quaglio who became the parents of Lawrence, Frank, Pooch, Margaret and Nick.  The Peru Gabe was married to Mary – sister to my Grandma Margaret and your grandpa Nicola – and were the parents of Angelo (Coony), Leonard (Nonny), Angie Foti, Joe, Coonch, Frank, Charles (Agar), and John (Young).  I think the Peru Quaglios dropped the g from their name thus Qualio . The two Gabe’s were related, cousins I think.”  

            After eighteen days at sea, on May 7, 1907, Nick and Angeline Mattiaccia Bisignano, their daughter Margaret, with Angeline’s brother Patsy and Pete’s wife’s sister (whose name by coincidence was also) Angeline Mattiaccia, arrived at New York Harbor.  Naturalization records for Nick state that May 15th was the official date of arrival.  

            Patsy fell in love with one of the Mattiaccia girls who was said to have been a very beautiful woman.  However, the lady did not share his affection and that may have something to do with her being his first cousin.  After a short time in America, however, Patsy Mattiaccia returned to Italy.  For now, the small group entered the New York Harbor and passed through customs on Ellis Island.  

            It may have been while processing through Ellis Island that the spelling of the Bisignano name changed to Bessignano.  Since none could read or write in English, pronunciation was all that mattered to them.  Changing names at the immigration entry was common because an Anglo version of the name sounded better or was easier to understand in the native American English.  

            Nick once told his grandson Tom that the steamship they sailed on to America was a block long and was fitted with large sails.  He did not remember the name of the vessel.  Angeline mentioned that after disembarking Naples’s harbor, the ship made a stop at Sardinia to pick up passengers and that she recalled passing by the Rock of Gibraltar.  

Life in America on East 10th Street  

            Eldest daughter Margaret who married Guy Martino said:  “Pop was twenty-seven and Mamma was twenty-four and I was only two-years old when we came to America.  (Note that these were the ages just before leaving for America.)  After we got to Peru, Pop took a section-hand job with the Lake Erie railroad, which later became the Nickel Plate.  He also worked for the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O).  We lived on East 10th Street next to (and on the west side of the) DiAmico’s who lived west of the Carbone’s.”  The address was 73 East 10th (now Daniel) Street.  

            “The first thing they did was pay back the money they had borrowed to pay our fare to America.  Here is where Theresa was born on November 10, 1907, and on February 7, 1910 Catherine.  We lived there for about three years then moved west in 1910 still on 10th Street at East 10th Street.  Pop (Nick) bought the house owned by Mrs. Daniel Sullivan.  Anna was born June 19, 1912.  Mary was born August 22, 1914.”  Mary often said that she disliked farms because her mother Angeline hated the farm they lived on all the while she carried “My.”  Mary was nicknamed “My” probably from “Ma-tay” or “Ma-ta-uch-a.”  Catherine also received a nickname from her parent’s expression, “Cah-ta-reen-ah” or “Cuh-ta-reen” and reduced to “Cut,” which one family story says came from her mother-in-law who created the shortened moniker.  Margaret was heard called “Mah-tooz” by the Italian speakers, but the American-born neighbors heard it as “Mar-tooz” and the name stuck. “Tha-dez” for Theresa” may not qualify as a nickname, but what did was the Anglicized version and she always responded when called “Tree.”  

            The 1910 United States Census, Miami County, Indiana, lists “Nicola Bessignano” as head of the household, age 35 and working as a laborer for the railroad.  Living in the home were: “Angelina, wife, age 27; Margarite, daughter, age 5; Teresa, daughter, age 3; and Katherina (sic), daughter, less than a year old.”  Included in the listing at this address were the following boarders: Joe Piarucci, 35 years; Vincent Caffirla, 22; Angelo Makau, 34; Carmen Cavallo, 35; and Louis (?), age 30.  

            In March of 1913, when the Wabash River flooded its banks over virtually its entire course, the water swept over Peru and the families on 10th Street were forced to pick up and leave their homes.  Water came inside the 39 East 10th Street home as high as the wainscoting in the dining room.  While the water invaded the house the family took refuge in the Ridgeview Elementary school several blocks away to the west on Logan Street.  

            In the Story of the Great Flood and Cyclone Disasters (1913), a chapter is devoted to the “Flood at Peru”. The author writes, “At 7 o’clock, Monday, March 24, all the lights in the city of Peru, Ind., went out.  Tuesday morning the flood waters descended and Peru shared the fate of many sister cities in Indiana and Ohio. Then followed 48 hours of abject misery for most of the inhabitants. With the trees, houses, bloated bodies of horses, dogs, and even human beings floating around, nothing to drink except the muddy yellow slop of the flood, full of sticks, straw, sand and chicken feathers, no light except candles, no heat, although the chill of the water is clammy and penetrating, and the supply of provisions, except canned goods, running low, Peru was a scene of horror.  A blinding snowstorm, which appeared to have swept the entire northern part of the State, sent terror to the hearts of sufferers. Two thousand people in the courthouse, made ill by the filth in the building, strove for permission to get into the streets. Those on the single square not yet submerged in their turn prayed for shelter from the blinding storm. All through the night from the steps of the courthouse could be heard the wails of the people in the street. And as the moans and shrieks of the sufferers floated across the muddy waters groans from those within the temporary refuge joined.” Peru led all Indiana cities in the number of deaths resulting from the flood. Of the fifty nine Indiana casualties, twenty were recorded in Peru on March 30, 1913.  

            Margaret Bessignano Martino continued, “My father’s father was Leonardo Bisignano who married Angela Dragonetti.  My mother’s father was Dominic Mattiaccia and he married Margaret Montesano.  Margaret suffered five or six miscarriages and raised (Pasquale or “Patsy,” Angeline or Angela, and Catherine) only a boy and two girls.  It cost Mom and Pop fifty-dollars apiece to come to America on a boat that took eighteen days to get here (As a two-year old child Margaret paid nothing for passage).  We came here in 1907, May 3rd, 1907.  We brought along a trunk, a large woolen comforter and a gallon of olive oil.  At Ellis Island we could see Uncle John from the boat but couldn’t get near him.”  After immigration processing, they boarded a train headed for Peru, Indiana.  

            In Peru, Margaret continued, “Next door to ‘tza Peet’ (dialect for ”Zio” or “Uncle” Pete) on 10th Street, a house was rented until the one at 39 East 10th Street was bought in 1909.  Then in 1914, thinking he was doing the right thing; Pop bought a farm on the (Wabash) river for $2,750 from Philip Fortuna.  It was nice.  It had a new house on it, but Mamma never liked it.  So in 1915, Pop traded the farm for the house on 14th Street, but moved back to 39 East 10th.  Papa rented the house on 14th Street (415 14th Street), but no one paid rent very well. Not until the Boyers moved in during the late 1930s did we have good renters.”  The family never lived in the 14th Street house but owned it as part of the deal when the farm was sold.  Margaret went on to say that, “Papa became a citizen; Mamma never did.”  

            Nick did not consult Angeline about buying the farm.  She was pregnant for “My” at the time.  “My” said many times that she was “marked” by her mother’s dislike of a farming life.  Angeline believed that Nick made the farm purchase from a fast-talking seller and was pressured into a quick buy.  Nick worked in the C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad) train shops nearby, and until this decision he had consulted with his wife on virtually every expenditure of money.  Angeline had spent a hard winter on the farm.  Nick would leave for work early, 6:00 a.m., and returned home after dark leaving his wife to feed the hogs, chickens, horse (used for pulling the wagon), carry both water and coal, plus cook, bake and wash for the family.  Angeline threatened that if they did not move; he would come home and find her with the four daughters dead in the river.  

            “My” could remember nothing of her time on the farm always believing that she had been born in the house at East 10th Street.  She remembered just being able to stretch on tip toe to see at tabletop level, her sister Anna’s funeral and her first day at school.  Other early memories included walking to and from school and of having the measles and chicken pox that left its mark on her right cheek near her nose.  Uncle John thought “My” was going to die before her time because she was so thin as a child.  

            Angeline Venice, married William Quaglio in 1915, said that she was looking through a collection of old photographs (with Catherine Bessignano Pasquale in November, 1980) and noticed that there were none of the Nick Bessignano family in the wedding pictures.  If Angeline Venice was married in 1915, Mary was born in 1914, so the Bessignano’s were living on the farm.  On the wedding day, the Bessignano’s came to town in their horse and wagon from the farm to East 10th Street.  Angeline Venice’s mother, Margaret, sister to Nick, claimed that she was angry with Nick for moving so far from the family on 10th Street.  Angeline said that her mother was so angry she did not invite Nick’s family to the wedding.   

Adapting to the New Country  

            What happened that caused the family name to change from Bisignano to Bessignano?  According to Margaret Bessignano Martino, “Bessignano is the way the name is spelled.  Mamma and Pop learned how to spell it from the letters they got from Italy.  Some of those in Italy had gone to school and knew how to read and write.  Many did not (such as Nick and Angeline) because it wasn’t thought to be important enough … they had to go to work to survive.”  Even so, Nick’s brother John, who settled in New York’s Bronx, from the time he arrived, spelled the name, “Bisignano”.  

            Margaret mentioned that the old folks had brought a gallon of olive oil with them on their voyage to America.  So what did they do for their oil after that?  How did they get the foods they wanted?  “The only place to buy Italian food was from Bonaventura Castaldi in Logansport.  He was our grocer and he was our consulate. When anyone had to deal with the government, Bonaventura would help them.  For groceries, some one always had a car or truck to drive, and who wouldn’t fit or couldn’t make the trip would have groceries purchased for them.  They’d buy $50.00 or $60.00 worth at a time and that’s when a twenty-pound box of spaghetti cost $1.20 a box.  They’d also buy big cheeses and olive oil.  By 1918 or 1921, folks would go to Logansport by Interurban electric train and it would cost only 35 or 40 cents to make the trip.”  

            Nick Bessignano probably learned of Castaldi Brothers Grocery Company (Bonaventura and Pasquale Castaldi) through his friend Angelo D’Amico.  Nick traveled from Peru to Dunkirk Village on Logansport’s west side in the autumn of 1907.  Here he found imported Italian foods in Bonaventura Castaldi’s store. Nick told Bonaventura the news that in November he had a new girl referring to his newly born daughter Theresa.  Bonaventura told Nick that he too had a new girl, his new wife, Mary Matilda Solimano.  

            Experiences speak a great deal about the values of these first arrivals.  In 1919, Giovanni Carbone lived on East 10th in Peru, and had purchased groceries on credit at Castaldi’s.  Giovanni received his pay from his railroad job, but he had no way to get the money to Logansport.  Feeling compelled to settle his account, however, he covered the entire twenty-miles on foot walking the railroad tracks to the grocery store.  Bonaventura Castaldi was so impressed with Carbone that he paid for Giovanni’s return trip on the next train to Peru.  People walked a great deal back in the early nineteen hundreds when owning a car was uncommon.  Very few folks had automobiles.  Nick had some sort of business in Rich Valley, Indiana.  To handle it, he too walked covering the ten or so miles to and from the place.  Hard to believe in the twenty-first century when today we hop in a car to travel even a few blocks distance.  

            After arriving in America, Angeline missed her friends and family she had left behind.  “My” said, “Until Mamma’s other children started to come she was so homesick she would cry and cry, she told me.  She had planned to return to Italy with Pop, but of course they never did.  Usually a man would come over and in four or so years would send for his wife back in Italy.  But some never did.  Some like Angelo Cavalli, the man who lived behind us never did send for his.  She would write and beg him to return or send her to America.  My godfather, Tony Leone, was here twenty-years before he sent for his wife.  By then his daughter was already married and stayed back in Italy.  They weren’t even from my mother and father’s town.  They were from the next little town (Stigliano) and Mamma said she could hear the church bells from there because it was on top of a mountain next to the one they lived on.  

            “My godmother, Comma Rose, (Rose Carbone), used her maiden name on my birth certificate, Rose Fortuna.  She went to school for a while in Italy.  She wrote and read all the letters for my folks.  Her brother Nick Fortuna came to New York, made money, and went back to Cirigliano to marry.  Then he and his wife came back to New York.  When he retired they went back to Cirigliano.  

            “My mother’s sister Catherina had two daughters who became nuns.  One dropped out early and later married.  The other stayed for twenty-five years until she was sick and was sent home.  Mamma had inherited the house back in Italy furnished with the tables, chairs, bed and everything.  Mamma felt so sorry for her niece Anania’s children, Francesco, Teresa and Antonetta and there were others because I think she had a set of twins.  Their father had died early.  Mamma left her house to her sister.  I remember Mamma going to Chicago with Aunt Marg and Uncle Guy (Martino) to find an Italian-speaking attorney to draw up the will.”  

            “My” Bessignano Castaldi passed along other memories of her parents, including what her mother said:  “Always make your bread and make your bed.  You never want to have some one come into your house without seeing that the bed was made.  She always said if you make your bed and wash your dishes your house is clean.  

            “Bread was made on Mondays.  Eight loafs on a large square board, about thirty-six-inches by thirty-six-inches, with sides where dough was mixed.  Mamma mixed the dough, made a cross in the dough on top saying in Italian the word for ‘rise’ then set it aside.  Each family had a hearth, a round igloo-shaped firebrick affairs about six-foot in diameter and three-feet high at the center.  It stood on legs, had a brick floor and the brick walls were sometimes cemented over on the outside.  The women would build a fire using eight or so logs inside then let it burn to ashes.  Then they would scrape the embers to the door; take a wet mop made of rags on the end of a long pole, and swab out the inside.  It would steam up till it looked as if the place was on fire.  As a matter of fact, the high school boys would stop their football practice across East 10th Street from the house and run across to the house to tell us that the barn was on fire.  Eight round loaves about twelve-inches to fourteen inches in diameter would be placed carefully inside the oven using a long wooden paddle.  A steel door was set in place (with embers still inside) over an opening in the oven and propped shut with a brick.  The bread baked for some length of time.  They knew just when to pull the loaves out.”  The eight loaves were covered with a clean cloth, set out and consumed before the next Monday baking day.   

            There were endless lists of recipes for meals intended to stretch food dollars learned from years of hard life in the old country.  One used for greens, spinach, lettuce or dandelions usually freshly picked.  Placed in a pan of boiling water, the greens cooked ten to fifteen minutes.  In a separate pan, two tablespoons of olive oil, three or four cloves of garlic were browned.  Then the greens were mixed in and stir-fried for five-minutes before serving slightly salted.  Another economical meal was pasta e faglie, (pasta vaa’-zool).  The macaroni was ditali or little tubes placed in a pan of boiling water and cooked to taste usually al dente.  Dry beans washed and boiled for three hours were used unless canned beans were available.  Water was drained off if canned beans were used and mixed with the cooked macaroni in a skillet with about two tablespoons of olive oil.  All was fried with three or four small cloves of garlic; for both color and taste, tomatoes or tomato paste was added to the mixture.  

            Simple foods such as cheese and fruit made a meal for lunch back in the old country.  Nothing was wasted, and the food had a single commonality, which could be expressed in a couple of words, “great taste.” Here are some typical examples of family dishes:  For pizza, a clove of garlic was heated in a frying pan and when the garlic began turning a light brown color, a jar of canned tomatoes was added.  It took about twenty minutes to cook down.  Meanwhile, a piece of bread dough was worked into a large circular shape.  Enough dough was used to make the pizza bread about fourteen-inches in diameter and three-quarters inch thick.  Using the tips of her fingers, Angeline made small “pock” marks over the top of the bread dough.  Olive oil was used to coat the top of the dough.  The oil settled into the depressions with the tomato spooned over the surfaces and Pecorini Romano or Parmesan cheese added.  When it was cooked in the brick oven in the barn with the olive oil baked in, it tasted wonderful.  Ask anyone who ever took a bite.  It would be ready for the kids when they returned home from grade school on baking day. Spreading butter on the bread seems like a simple treat, but if it were available it was spread on the bread for even a bigger taste.  For pasta dough the yeast was eliminated and great macaronis were the result.  It was how this dough was made that made the difference.  Six or seven cups of flour was placed on a table top; a large depression was made in the center of the flour and about four eggs, a teaspoon of salt and a cup of warm water was added.  It all was mixed adding flour until the dough was no longer too sticky to the hands while it was being kneaded.  Occasionally she would press the center of the dough and see if the depression returned quickly signaling that it was about ready.  Sometimes it was rolled out into a long snake or log shape and cut into very small lengths.  Using her thumb she would roll the dough piece and make the cappelli, or “hats” but later grandchildren knew them as “thumbs.”  

            Anna Bessignano was born June 19, 1912, to Nick and Angeline, and later died at the age of eight years.  Leonard, a son, died at age three.  Angeline Bessignano nursed her niece Nicolina or “Nook” Venice Baldini while nursing her own daughter Anna.  Shortly after “Nook’s” birth, her father died and her mother Margherita (Margaret), Nick Bessignano’s sister, lost her eye while chopping wood and was unable to nurse her own.  “Nook” said that she always felt that that was the reason she felt so close to her Zia Angeline and her family.  

            “My” Bessignano Castaldi said that in the first year her sister Margaret and Guy Martino were married Guy and Jimmy Calabro worked as laborers putting in Peru’s sewer system.  Guy knew Fred Tapella, the supervisor at the Joliet, Illinois, firm who got them the work.  

            Funerals were another difficult-to-forget memory.  “My” remembered when her sister Anna died.  “They embalmed her right there in the front room of our house and that’s where they laid her out.  Someone stayed up all night with her.  There was always someone there away from the immediate family who kept things from getting too morbid.  Someone would be, say in the kitchen, telling jokes.  The corpse would be at home for three days.  Pictures were covered, as was the piano. No music was allowed and when radios came along they were not allowed to be played.  They’d mourn for one full year.”  

            Births were another matter.  “Mamma would tell us that back in the old country pregnant women would return from the fields at the end of the day with a just-born baby wrapped in her apron.  We kids would have to be sent away when a baby was about to be born.  I know they used midwives, but my mother had a doctor come to the house.  He’d sleep on the couch while Mamma was in labor waiting for her to get ready for delivery.  I know my oldest sister Marg was in labor a long time for (her son) Frank Martino and the doctor slept on the couch til she was ready.  Frank was born August 5th and he was a big baby and during birth he got a black eye and a separated shoulder.  My cousin Mary Venice Calabro had a baby they named Anthony born on August 1st.  Anthony died at age three in an accident in a house Mary and Jimmy Calabro bought in South Bend on Elmer Street.”  

            Maybelle, who married Len Venice, lived next door to the Nick Bessignano household in the home left by her mother-in-law Margaret Bessignano Venice.  She always felt welcomed and later she said that it might have been because there was always a lot of work to be done.  Especially in the fall of the year, tomatoes had to be canned and it was hard work.  She remembers that when she was pregnant for one of her seven children, Angeline Bessignano would have Maybelle tighten the jar lids.  “She always said it was good luck to have a pregnant woman tighten the lids to get a good seal.  I suppose it didn’t really matter, they just wanted the help.  But she said pregnant women were the best.  It was another one of the old folk’s superstitious ways from back in Italy.”  

            On the way to school each morning, the Bessignano kids route passed by the Miami County Jail.  Prisoners at the jail windows frightened them.  In the morning, “My” said that they walked down the alley across 9th Street over the railroad tracks, a roadway which crossed just east of the Peru railroad depot.  “My mom would have just died if she knew the times we crawled under the rail cars stopped on the tracks.”  Next, they moved south alongside a lumberyard and crossed over 8th Street.  At this point, Wabash Street, a north-south street dead-ended at 8th Street.  They continued walking south on Wabash, to 5th Street where the jail stood, they turned westward.  In just two blocks they’d arrive at Saint Charles church and the elementary school they attended.  “My” was part of the Class of 1930, which was the last one to graduate before Sherman Mugivan donated $50,000 and a new school replaced the old one.  Mugivan (1874-1930) was successful in business and was co-owner of American Circus Corporation with the Bert Brothers.  

            “My” Bessignano received no additional formal education after the Eighth Grade.  She went to work for Redman Basket Company while still in grade school.  There she wrapped handles for fifty-cents a day.  She worked there for two weeks.  A certain Kenny Blackwood worked there while cousins “My” and “Nook” Venice were employed by Redman.  If a basket Kenny made was not just right, the foreman would toss it to the floor and thrash it under his boot.  These recollections became the source of a lot of hilarious stories told in later years.  

            She moved on to the “chicken factory” where her mother and Mrs. Carbone worked with “Nook” and the two oldest DiGillio sisters.  The chicken factory was located on Canal and Benton streets.  “My” was in the sixth grade and worked there after school and on weekends.  Its owners were two brothers one named Charlie and the other now forgotten.  The foreman was Jim McCutchen and in charge of feeding and watering.  Downstairs they “candled” eggs.  With the large egg crate in front of the inspector, eggs  (four at a time) were held before a light to discover the possible presence of blood clots or cracked shells.  If and when such eggs were found, they were placed in a separate case for shipment to bakeries. Brown eggs were separated from the white ones and the egg sizes were graded at the same time.  One corner of the place was reserved for the chicken killers.  Once killed, they hooked the chicken on an overhead conveyor, which passed through a scalding water bath.  After cleaning five chickens, they were placed on a shackle taken to the boss who gave credit for the work accomplished.  Next, the cleaned chickens went through cold water then on to a cooler, with neck down, legs under and breasts showing the innards were removed.  Into boxes went the chickens and later loaded and filled they went into railroad boxcars for shipment to New York.   

            At age eighteen, “My” Bessignano went to work for Mike Russo in his grocery store.  She earned $10.00 a week.  Her hours were 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on Saturdays.  She said, “I used to walk home for lunch and would have a headache from the deadlines.  In my pocket I’d have a handful of grocery orders for people who’d want their order on the two o’clock delivery, but I couldn’t make it til the four o’clock.”  She saved $160.00 with which she used to buy her wedding gown and pay for her wedding reception.

            “There were twelve Italian families in Peru and Pop wouldn’t let us girls date any guy unless he was from an Italian family.” according to Rose Bessignano Pasquale.  “I went to the door one time and told a guy that Marg and Theresa weren’t home.  They had arranged a date with two ‘American’ fellows and Pop refused to let them go out with them.  I was about ten -years old and I had to go to the door and be the one to tell them.  

            “Mamma and Pop didn’t go to church much when we were young, but they did later.  But Pop always got us up out of bed and made us go.  When I was dating Matt (Pasquale) he had to be up at 4:00 a.m. in the morning to deliver papers.  He’d fall asleep on the couch and I’d let him sleep.  But, Mamma would be up early in the morning to make sure he was awake in time to drive back to Logansport in time for his job.  On top of that, she’d cook breakfast for him.  I just slept through it all.

            “Mamma would pay for our schooling at Saint Charles school by washing the nun’s clothes.  A girl in my class asked me one time, ‘Isn’t that your mom hanging clothes over there?’  I said, ‘No no, that’s not my mom.’  But kids used to be so mean.  They’d call us ‘dago’.  I chased one kid all the way across the Wabash River bridge for calling me a name.”  

“They even threw rocks at us.  I always understood how many of the blacks felt when people called them names.”  “My” said adding: “We lived on the other side of the tracks, and we were really poor kids from across the tracks.  We used to go to the Square D plant scrap dump (at the east end of 10th Street) and get big electrical insulators and make dolls.  We had one real doll and there is a picture of Rosy and me with it between us.”  Many times she said that on the walk home, other kids from other neighborhoods would bully them. She remembered having stones tossed at her and called derogatory names usually directed at Negroes because of her dark complexion.  

            Rose continued, “The nuns use to tell the class that we had it hard because we had to speak two languages at home.  They were trying to be nice and protect us but it came out wrong.  It came out as though we were dumb.  So we began to believe it.  If we didn’t do well in school it must be because we had to speak two languages.  At home we tried to teach our parents English.  We never wanted to learn Italian because everyone made us think it was a bad thing to do.”  

Years have past and the first generations of Italians have died taking with them many other stories of their struggles and successes. Nicola born March 24, 1879, died on August 12, 1954, at the Wabash Railroad Employees hospital in Peru at age 75.  He was the son of Leonardo and Angeline (Angela) Dragonetti Bessignano and married February 14, 1904, in Italy to Angeline Mattio (sic). That’s how the local newspaper recorded his death.  Msgr. Paul A. Welsh of the St. Charles Catholic church officiated and the burial was in the Catholic cemetery in Peru.  

Angeline Bessignano was 78 when she died at St. Joseph Hospital in South Bend, Indiana, on December 28, 1960. She had been living with a daughter (Rose Pasquale) for several years. Her obituary states that she was born August 15, 1882, (actual date was July 16, 1882) in Italy she was the daughter of Dominic (Domenico) and Margaret (Margherita) Mattio (sic, Mattiaccia), and that she had married Nicholas Bessignano on February 14, 1904, in Italy.  Her funeral services were held in Peru Indiana’s St. Charles Catholic church with Msgr. Paul A. Welsh officiating. She is buried next to her beloved Nicola in the Catholic cemetery. Both Nicola and Angeline funerals were conducted by Brookman Funeral Home in Peru.  

The Family Endures  

            After nearly one hundred years since their arrival in America the Bessignano family remains tightly knitted.  You really cannot get away, nor for that matter would you care to get very far away from the family.  It is a large one with children, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles and godparents everywhere.  Friends are always welcome and there is always great fun when the relatives come together.  It is not necessarily organized with formal objectives, but the family who can make the trip to Peru meets once each year.  The meeting place has been located in Peru on the first Sunday in August.  For decades it has served to maintain a closeness among its members.  

            A good example was on October 13, 1984, in Notre Dame Stadium.  It was a rainy, 61º football afternoon an early game scheduled for televising Air Force’s victory over a troubled Gerry Foust ND team.  As the game wound to a close a familiar face loomed two sections to the right of where my mother and I were sitting.  Somehow across sections we caught each other’s attention.  It was our cousin Carmella Calabro Aspinwall, her husband Bill, both of whom were with her sister Margaret “Babe” Calabro Cole, and Babe’s daughter Debora.  They had my attention across the deafening football crowd and begin pointing eagerly to the section to their right.  Finally, in Section 17 I spotted Maybelle Venice, Leonard “Junior” Venice, and his wife Lois.  We were in Section 23 and couldn’t seem to make our hand signals communicate that beyond us in Section 25 sat Dom Bessignano, his wife Mary Jo and their daughter Ann Bessignano Olivia with Rose Bessignano Pasquale.  

            We met Carmella and arranged to have everyone meet at nearby Rose and Matt Pasquale’s home just north of the Notre Dame campus.  In another hour we were all drying out sitting and standing around the kitchen table, and even though none of the individuals had seen one another for a time the gathering was just as it has always been in this family.  Admittedly some of the food had been prepared and taken to and from the game earlier for tailgate lunches.  On the table was “Easter pizza”, white turkey meat slices, cold lunch meat cuts, carrot and celery sticks, fried hot peppers, hard rolls, homemade-style bread, ripe olives, Chablis wine, coffee, Pepsi and more.   Then came more:  roast peppers, potato salad, Bill Aspinwall-made wine, chocolate covered peanut and raisin cluster cookies.  

            Talk was about the game at first, but conversation finally got around to the usual discussion of “the family”.  How we missed those who have recently passed away, how Junior with his very recent quadruple bypass heart surgery was progressing and the like.  Then on to recipes such as the apple pie made from zucchini instead of apples, jokes from Maybelle’s little notebook she carries in her purse.   

            Finally, talk progressed to the favorite family subject and was the stories of events that happened years ago.  This time it was of something that our relatives had been taught not to speak about, il mal occhio, the evil eye.  It seems that when Babe was a small child, she got sick on a trip to Cincinnati and was returned all the way back to Peru to Mrs. DiGillio’s to be cured of il mal occhio.  As soon as the old woman looked at Babe, the child got better.  The old lady first yawned, and then proceeded to carry on in a strange sort of way.  How she did it, no one knew for sure, but she could get rid of the effects of il mal occhio. The entire time that Babe was talking she had fingers on both her hands crossed.  You never talk about the evil eye without fingers crossed she warned us and she was serious.  Mostly she said we were told as kids that it was best not to speak about it at all.  

            Early Bessignano family members believed in il mal occhio.  A small horn sewn inside a tiny cloth bag would keep il mal occhio away, so Angeline Bessignano would have one for her older children to wear somewhere on their clothing.  By the time her fourth child, was born some of the old superstitions were no longer so rigidly observed.  Perhaps the older folks no longer had the time to spend protecting and following all the rules of avoiding the evil eye.  Today, a small horn attached to a chain around the neck is considered purely decorative jewelry.  

            Typically, if a child suddenly became ill, he or she would be taken to an elderly woman who knew, “How to make the arts of il mal occhio”.  Sometimes an article of clothing was delivered and somehow the sick became well.   Both “My” and “Nook” Baldini remembered il mal occhio remedies used when someone took sick.  

            “Maybe it was a headache and Mamma would say, ‘you go to Rosaddie (Rosatta DiGillio) and have her make ‘ah facian’.  Pop would never go himself, but he would send us kids over with his hat.  Papa always wore a hat no matter if he were inside or out; he always wore his railroader’s cap.  “Nook” and I would walk over, knock on the door and say, ‘Rosatti, would you make ah facian?’  She’d say ‘Ah facian...ah facian’ touch her head, yawn and yawn and mumble words in Italian. She tried to make you a believer.  We thought it was funny.  We would have to hide our faces when we started giggling.  

            “My mother did not trust hospitals or doctors.  I remember when they took my sister Anna away in the ambulance after she had burst her appendix.  My folks said over and over, ‘she’ll never come back’, and, she didn’t.  They brought her back all right, but for her funeral that we had in the home back in those days.  Our folks covered the piano, pictures and mirrors all through the house during the funeral.  

            “Three years later my brother Leonard got pneumonia and Mamma sent for Mrs. DiGillio.  They made an onion poultice and spread it on his chest.  A little flannel pillowcase was filled with chopped onions fried in olive oil.  I don’t know if it was the warmth or the oil and onion blend, but anytime someone got a bad cold, they’d make an onion poultice.  Leonard never got better and finally he died.  But, Mamma and Pop didn’t believe a hospital would help especially after Anna had died in one.  They really believed in their own ways.  Someone recommended a chiropractor for daughter Rose for an appendix attack she was suffering.  The chiropractor came to the house, put Rosie over a chair and worked on her and the problem disappeared never to return again.” 

            “My” and “Nook” told a lot of these stories and all who heard them laughed with them.  That is the way this family seemed to enjoy itself most.  As members get older and little ones come along, it is important not to overlook the first of our people to come to this country.  They brought with them a strong sense of responsibility to family.  The strength that derives to the individual from that unity is jealously guarded by a quiet code.  

Good vs. Evil 

It may be difficult to understand the practicality of some institutions.  Italian immigrant ways recall the subject of il mal occhio, a name which comes from the area within the Mezzogirno that means “the evil eye.” A term used for the demonic potency, to the point of death, it is believed to be inherent in the glance of certain persons, although most illnesses cured of il mal occhio in modern times are considered psychosomatic.  It is an unspoken cultural tradition known in America by more than one nationality.  In 1956, the evil eye was still common in Italy and called mal d’occhio.  In the South around in Naples, it may be called jettatura.”  In Corsica it is called innochiatura; in Scotland, “struck” or “overlooked” and in Ireland it is known as “the eye of Balor.  On every continent through the ages, people have believed that a glance could cause illness or physical harm to those it strikes.  The vulnerable such as young children, pregnant women, cattle and field crops are all susceptible.  

To avoid il mal occhio, wearing a charm such as il corno or the horn (which is never purchased personally but only accepted as a gift) is very popular. If friction developed with some neighbor, it was customary to nail the horns of a steer on top of the front door frame, and supposedly when you looked that way the horn would stare back and frighten you.  The mano fica or sign of the fig made with the hand and fingers both are considered worthy protectors.  Blessings were a common practice, such as making various signs on bread dough and other dough for good luck. 

There are studies that delve into why human frailties might be controlled for the benefit of the community through the use of the mal occhio.  Its place as a mechanism of social control may help explain its existence.  Generally in small villages of the Mediterranean, there was a given amount of nearly all that was available to those who had either a desire or a need.  Whatever one person received deprived it from another. The have-nots were subject to envy and thus the root cause of the evil eye.  So as a social control, violent aggression was avoided keeping runaway egos in check.  

            One never eats in front of some one since a glance from a hungry bystander could “poison” the food.  One never admires a child without exclaiming Benedica, or bless you.  The helpless required special protection, and making the sign of the fig was considered a safeguard against an envious glance directed toward one’s child, woman or farm animal.  As a matter of fact this is the source for the idea that a pregnant woman may “mark” her unborn child with some particular trait.  A mal occhio glance causes the offspring to be physically or mentally “marked” ranging from a physical deformity to distaste for say, living on a farm or for having affection for animals.  If anything went wrong it was always the fault of il malocchio.  Not only sickness and death were blamed on the evil eye, it was believed to be why a person could not find a marriage partner, or failed in marriage or could not get nor keep a job, or experienced food poisoning, nearly everything and anything.  

Cure of the malocchio comes from one who has been bestowed the power to do so.  No formal instruction seems to be evident but handed down through the matrilineal generations of a family usually from a mother, an aunt or godmother.  Secrecy comes from various reasons:  some believe it to be just so much superstition while others believe it to be anti-Christian.  Virtually every one considered it taboo to speak of it let alone discuss the details. In the end it must be remembered that a tradition in an evil eye, recognizes the Christian philosophy that there is a battle between good and evil.  Although deemed seemingly superstitious by some, in fact it turns out to be a cultural device to effectively control the Evil of Envy.  

August 4,1996: (revised May 4, 2008)...Tom Castaldi  

If you have birth dates, marriage dates, dates of death for our ancestors, let us know. Send the stories you remember about our family to:

Tom Castaldi
TLCastaldi@
yahoo.com
 

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