Sunday, 16 January 2011

Looking for Leopold: My Search for my Elusive Grandfather

Back in November and December 2007 I wrote about my research into my Levy family, specifically my attempts to find out more about my elusive grandfather, Leopold Levy. In those posts I wrote of what little I knew of him -- the story that he came from Alsace, was proficient in seven languages and had supposedly married my grandmother, Alice Rodrigues Da Costa, in Haiti. I also described how I found out that the marriage had actually taken place in Colon, Panama, that they lived in Kingston where their seven children were born, how three of those children died in childhood and that the family had moved around, living at various addresses in Kingston. Later on, in 2009, I wrote about my grandmother, Alice Rodrigues Da Costa, but somehow I never returned to Leopold. It’s time for me to go back to my paternal grandfather and what little more I’ve been able to find out about him.

A few years ago I made contact with a cousin in the United States. My cousin, Cheryl, is the granddaughter of my Aunt Essie, my father’s sister. Although my mother did keep in touch with Essie and her daughter-in-law, Gloria, Cheryl’s mother, the family was never close, though I do recall that Essie would send us a box of Whitman’s Sampler chocolates at Christmas. Cheryl and I corresponded several times by good old snail mail, and she sent me a number of photographs which she had found in her grandmother’s possession. Most were not identified, but I am pretty sure that a couple of them were of my grandfather, Leopold, and of his wife, Alice. Here is the photo which I believe to be of Leopold:
Of course, I have no proof that it is him, but I like to think that it is. Also in the photos I received was this one, which I am quite sure is of Alice and two of her children, my father, Michael and his sister, Essie.
I see the resemblance to my father in the eyes of the little boy, but I’m even more sure of the little girl, especially when I compare her face to the one in this photo of my Aunt Essie:

It’s always been one of my regrets that I never knew either of my grandfathers, both being so much older and dying long before I came on the scene. Ironically, I have no photograph of my grandfather, William Dey Smedmore, but I certainly knew quite a bit about him, thanks to my mother and her siblings. My grandfather, Leopold, was a mystery. He was from Alsace, or as the family called it, Alsace-Lorraine, that unfortunate part of Europe between France and Germany which seemed to bounce back and forth between the two countries. I knew nothing of how he came to be in the West Indies, or how he met my grandmother. I knew that they had married in Colon in 1886, barely two months before the birth of their eldest child. I knew this because of a notice in the Gleaner which had been pointed out to me by Madeleine Mitchell who had come across it while extracting information from the microfilm of the Gleaner. Once the Gleaner went on line I was able to find the notice myself.
So now I knew exactly where they were married, but more questions arose. Where did they meet?  Was it in Jamaica? Did Alice go to Colon to get Leopold to marry her?  I wondered if Alice’s pregnancy had become a scandal in Kingston and that marriage was the only option. The notice in the Gleaner might well have helped to stop some of the gossip. Again, who knows? Leopold was Jewish, Alice was Catholic, and marriage in a church must have been out of the question, hence they were married by the registrar. Unfortunately I have been unable to find a record of the marriage. At that time Panama would have been a colony of Colombia and I assume records of civil registration for Panama in the 19th century must be somewhere in Colombia, but I have not been able to discover how to access them.

From what little information I could glean about my grandfather it appeared that he was a traveller of sorts. According to the family story, he was an optometrist, and I found the same information in my father’s entry in the Jamaica Who’s Who of 1941-46, keeping in  mind, of course, that he would have given that information
However, I never found any evidence to support this. On the various records of birth and death for his children, I found Leopold’s occupation variously described as “merchant”, “book clerk”, “accountant”, “book-keeper”, and “clerk” – no mention whatsoever of “optometrist”.  He married Alice in Colon in 1886, was still there when Daisy, the eldest child, was born. He was in Kingston for the birth of his second child, Lucien, but was listed as being in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when Essie was born in 1891. He was back in Kingston for the birth of Gustave in 1894, and I have no idea where he was for the births of Leo and Joe in 1895 and 1900 respectively, as he was not the informant for either event.  As I mentioned before in an earlier post, the family seems to have moved from one address to another in Kingston; in fact, they lived in seven different places in the span of fourteen years between 1886 and 1900.  

Apart from the above the only other tangible record I had for Leopold was his signature on two documents – the birth of his son, Lucien in 1887:
and as a witness at the marriage in 1907 of his wife’s niece, Naomi Da Costa, to Gabriel Oppenheim Alexander.
So at least I knew that he was in Jamaica in 1907, but that was all.  When did he die and where, and was it possible to find out when and where he had been born? In my next post I’ll write about the discoveries I did make as a result of finding a notice of Leopold’s death in the Gleaner.

Arras Memorial

Arras Memorial

Trooper Victor Dey Smedmore

Trooper Victor Dey Smedmore
My uncle Victor