204 – Who is Josephine Pensa?

We’ve found the home village of our Pensa and Gardella families.

We’ve found citations for the marriage of Antonio Pensa and Rosa Gardella. We’ve even discovered their parents’ names.

But there’s one big mystery remaining. Who is Josephine Pensa?

Of course, we know that Josephine Pensa is our 2nd great grandmother. She’s “Mama Riley,” the grandmother that Kathleen Gallagher Teply was so fond of.

But there are conflicting stories about Josephine’s birth.

Which story is true? Let’s have a look.

Was Josephine born in New Orleans?

Here it is. Plain as day. It’s on Josephine’s death certificate in Sedalia, Missouri.

Death Certificate – Josephine Jane (Pensa) Riley – Sedalia, Missouri – 1958

The certificate states that Josephine Jane (Pensa) Riley was born July 14, 1869, in New Orleans, Louisiana. That’s five months after her family arrived in America.

This fact is corroborated by the 1880 United States Census. It reports that she was born in New Orleans. The censuses of 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 all report that she was born in Louisiana. The 1940 census reports that she was born in Missouri.

US Census – Pensa family – St. Louis, Missouri – 1880

These are compelling documents, but they aren’t true! The passenger list for the S.S. Paganini includes a baby Giuseppina (Josephine) Pensa when the ship arrived at New Orleans custom house on March 1, 1869. That’s five months earlier than her death certificate’s birth date of July 14, 1869.

Passenger list – S.S. Paganini – New Orleans, Louisiana – March 1, 1869

Josephine wasn’t born in New Orleans. And she wasn’t born in July 1869.

Was Josephine born in Italy?

The 1870 US Census was taken just a year after the Pensas arrived and were living in St. Louis. The reporting details are a mess, but the census reports that five children were born in Italy, and a 1-year-old child was born in Missouri.

US Census – Pensa family – St. Louis, Missouri – 1870

The five children born in Italy are the same five children on the passenger list. That includes Josephine. This indicates Josephine was born in Italy. I don’t know who 1-year-old Kate is, born in Missouri.

If Josephine was born in Italy, we should be able to find a birth/baptism record. Antonio and Rosa were very religious, so we’re almost sure to find a birth record.

Josephine was born after Italian unification, so we’ll have to look for her records in Neirone municipal records instead of San Lorenzo church records. Records were kept in Neirone, the head of the commune municipality.

Searching those records, we found a birth record for Giuseppina (Josephine) Maria Pensa, born to Antonio Pensa and Rosa Gardella Pensa on March 19, 1867.

Birth Register – Giuseppina Maria Pensa – Neirone, Italy – March 20, 1867

It’s an exciting find. There’s no doubt that Antonio and Rosa had a baby girl named Giuseppina (Josephine) Maria in March of 1867.

But wait! That means that Josephine would have been 2 years old upon arrival in New Orleans in March 1869. The passenger list records Josephine as a baby.

And our grandmother Josephine’s middle name was Jane (Gianna), not Maria.

A conflict

On the one hand, we have Giuseppina Pensa, born in March 1867 in Roccatagliata.

On the other hand, we have Giuseppina Pensa that’s listed as a baby in New Orleans in March 1869.

Are these one and the same person?

Genealogical records are full of mistakes. But not these two records. The birth record in Neirone is ironclad. No mistakes there. And it’s hard to accept that the customs officer in New Orleans would record a two-year-old as a baby.

We have conflicting evidence.

A theory

It’s possible that Giuseppina Maria died as an infant, and Antonio and Rosa used the same name for their next female baby – Giuseppina Gianna. That was a common practice in baby naming, since infant mortality was so high.

If the “Two Josephines” theory is correct, we should be able to find a death record for Giuseppina Maria and a birth record for Giuseppina Gianna.

I searched and searched and could not find any record of a death or birth.

That’s not like Antonio and Rosa. They were religious. They wouldn’t have ignored this responsibility.

More to the theory

If Giuseppina Maria died as an infant, and the next female baby was then named Giuseppina Gianna, why are there no records in Neirone?

It’s possible that Antonio and Rosa had left Roccatagliata and Neirone before Gianna Maria died, either to make trip arrangements in Genoa, or even to board ship. They wouldn’t have had the opportunity to record an infant’s death and a new baby’s birth in Neirone. Perhaps Giuseppina Gianna was actually born aboard ship, giving credibility to some family speculation.

Two Josephines

Until we have other facts, I’m proposing the “Two Josephines” theory that Giuseppina Maria is a different person than Giuseppina Gianna. Giuseppina Maria died an infant.

Further, I’m going to say the Giuseppina Maria died after the family had left Roccatagliata. So they didn’t record her death in the municipal records of Neirone.

Then, sometime after Giuseppina Maria died, another baby was born and was named Giuseppina Gianna.

In later life, Josephine claimed that her birthday was July 14, 1869. It’s possible she was instead born July 14, 1868. That would make her 8 months old upon arrival in New Orleans on March 1, 1869. That would be the correct age to be recorded as a baby.

If Giuseppina Gianna was born in July 1868, that means the family left Roccatagliata before that date, since there’s no record of her birth in Neirone records. Perhaps they went to Genoa for an extended time to make arrangements for their journey. They left Italy six months later in January 1869.

Or perhaps Giuseppina Gianna was born aboard ship, shortly before March 1869. That would make her July 14 birthday incorrect, but that’s not uncommon. It would explain the later claims that she was born in New Orleans, since she would not have actually been born in any country.

Josephine Pensa wasn’t born in Roccatagliata, and she wasn’t born in New Orleans. She was born somewhere in between.

Now it’s up to you

I’ve done my research and drawn my conclusions. Now it’s up to you. I hope you find further evidence and solve the mystery once and for all. Good luck.

The mystery lives on

I don’t like this outcome. We didn’t solve the mystery, other than to say Josephine was not born in America or in Roccatagliata. We didn’t meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

Nibbles Extra Credit

The Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) is a guideline for establishing the reliability (“proof”) of a genealogical conclusion with reasonable certainty.

It has five elements:

  • reasonably exhaustive research
  • complete and accurate source citations
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

To reach a sound conclusion, we need to meet all five components of the GPS.

In this case, we didn’t resolve the conflicting evidence. So we can’t make a genealogical conclusion.



3 thoughts on “204 – Who is Josephine Pensa?

  1. MB Gallagher March 12, 2022 / 10:45 am

    Wow, what a great find and story. Fascinating
    Heard the grandkids were coming for a visit. Enjoy.


    • Mark Jarvis March 12, 2022 / 11:46 am

      Yes gkids are coming. Should be crazy and fun. Saw your photos of Charleston. Looked fun too. But where was photo of you?


  2. Madeleine May 13, 2022 / 12:30 pm

    Yes. It was an Italian costume to name a new born after a deceased sibling. This happened with my mother who was born in 1921 in NYC. It was not until the 1980s that one of her sisters discovered a birth certificate for an earlier Maria who died as an infant.


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