We have just a few scraps of information to go on in searching for Joseph Smith’s original identity, many of which are questionable. But we have to make the most of what we have, since that’s all we have.
Joseph always said his birth date was 15 July 1896. My experience has been that if someone changes his name, he usually keeps his original date of birth, but if he steals someone else’s identity, he is forced to use the date of birth of his victim. In Joseph’s case, we have to assume that he changed his name but not his date of birth; without a birth date, we lack a key search criterion, making the potential pool of candidates nearly limitless.
Another clue is that Joseph’s mother’s name may have been Anna Spivack, the name that Joseph’s son Irwin supplied for her on Joseph’s death certificate. Her first name Anna is the most reliable information we have, because Joseph requested that his youngest granddaughter be named after his mother. Of course, we have to take into account variations on the name – she could have been called Anne, Annie, Fannie, or something similar. And her last name may have only been close to Spivack, perhaps even Litvak; it is common for a capital S to be confused with a capital L.
Joseph gave his father’s first name as either Isaac or Irwin. Well, what do you think?
And what about his brother Jack who was supposedly in the construction industry? If Joseph was Jewish, as Morton’s DNA test results indicate, was Joseph’s brother’s real name Jack, or was his real name Jacob and his nickname Jack? The information about his brother came from Joseph himself as part of the story of the unidentified cousin, Jack’s son, who passed through Los Angeles on his way to serve in the South Pacific in WWII. Someone surely did pass through Los Angeles, but was he really Joseph’s nephew? If so, how did this nephew know how to contact Joseph several decades after Joseph had “disappeared”? Was Joseph still in touch with his family?
Living in the era of “big data”, it is great to have access to so much information online, and to be able to connect with other researchers who can retrieve records for us that are thousands of miles away from where we sit at our computers. The downside to this, however, is that the amount of data available is so large that we are bound to come across coincidences. Sometimes it can be simple to recognize one for what it is worth, but in Joseph’s case, how can we distinguish a coincidence from the truth when we are not so sure what that truth is?
Along the way, I’ve confirmed some close calls for Joseph in the 1900 and 1910 census records. I know they are close calls and not the real thing because I’ve been able to track the “calls” past 1913 using later censuses and military records.
One of the most interesting near misses is John Joseph Spisak, born 7 April 1897 in Suterville, a tiny community about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. His parents were Istvan (Stephen) Spisak and Anna Stefanocski, who emigrated from Hungary in about 1895. Despite the obvious parallels – the initials or first names of his parents, his Eastern European ethnicity, and his middle name – John Joseph can’t be the same person as Joseph Smith. John J appears in the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses in Suterville. In 1920, he is living with his parents; in 1930, John and his wife Florence live next door to his parents. By 1940, John and Florence have already had four of their five children and Anna is listed as a widow. Stephen had died earlier that year; Anna died in February 1941. John J and Florence are buried along with Stephen and Anna and a few other Spisak family members in the West Newton Cemetery in Westmoreland Co., PA.
1920-1940 census records listing John and Florence Spisak, Suterville, Westmoreland Co., PA
The Spisak Grave in West Newton Cemetery
A second close call involved another John Spisak. According to his death certificate, this John Spisak was born 15 Jul 1894 in Pittsburgh, PA. He was the son of Michael Spisak and Annie Timchak. There are a few John Spisaks in the census records, but I have not been able to locate this one. I’ve also discovered a few couples named Michael and Ann Spisak from Pennsylvania or Upstate New York, but none who match the parents given on John’s death certificate.
John Spisak’s death certificate.
Fortunately, John’s birth date is confirmed as 15 Jul 1894 by the image of his tombstone on FindaGrave.com. He and his wife Mary are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in McKees Rocks, Allegheny Co., PA. The fact that they are buried in a Catholic cemetery probably also rules him out. We don’t know if Joseph’s family practiced any religion, but Morton’s DNA test results indicate that Joseph’s parents were Ashkenazi Jewish from somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Still a third interesting possibility was discovered by Flynn Clarke Kennedy. As she explains:
I found a possibility: a 15-year old Joseph Smith is listed in the 1910 census living with his Aunt Kate on Nicholas Street in Philadelphia. This would fit if he was orphaned in 1908. She worked as a janitress at the Police Dept. and her nephew Joseph worked as a stock boy at a shoe factory. This Joseph Smith was exactly the right age. His census info was recorded on April 27, 1910, and it listed his age at last birthday as 15, which would be correct because he wouldn’t be 16 until July. Our Joseph married a woman whose nickname is Kate (at least that’s how she’s listed in the 1930 census), he worked at a shoe store, and he would have been 15 years old on April 27, 1910. The Joseph Smith in the 1910 census had an Aunt named Kate, worked in a shoe factory and is exactly the right age. Wow, how interesting. If we could look at the Guardianship records in the Philadelphia County Orphan’s Court, which I’m told is a division of the Court of Common Pleas, under the names Joseph Smith or Kate Smith, we might be able to find more info about Aunt Kate or Joseph, and would be able to eliminate him/them or confirm that this is our Joseph.
Aunt Kate’s Joseph is listed as having been born in Phila., but his parents are also listed as having been born in Phila. If they wanted to hide the fact that they were Jewish, this might be why the places were listed incorrectly. It might be that Aunt Kate wasn’t really an Aunt, just a friend of the family, and didn’t know or that Aunt Kate wasn’t the informant and the informant didn’t know.
Based on Flynn’s discovery, I’ve located a Kate Smith in the 1900 census who fits the description of the Kate in 1910. This Kate was born in August 1865. She was living with her mother Mary Flynn, Mary’s three grandsons (Kate’s nephews) William D (b Jun 1892), Vernon D (b May 1893), and Joseph D (b Sep 1895). They were all born in Pennsylvania. Also in the household are Mary’s married daughter Annie D. Anderson, and Annie’s two children John W and Mary S. This family can be traced back first to the 1880 census through Kate’s mother Mary (and her father W. D. Smith), and her married sister Annie Anderson, and then back to the 1860 census through Mary’s mother-in-law Susan (married to Jos T Smith). The parents of the three boys are listed on an Ancestry tree as William Deets Smith Jr and his wife Alice.
It’s likely that this Joseph Smith who worked in the shoe factory was not Karen’s grandfather.
There is one additional possibility worth mentioning. In the 1900 census for the New York Foundling Asylum in Manhattan, there is a Joseph Smith, b June 1896, listed on line 74. This Joseph would not necessarily be a serious consideration, except that there is an Irwin Smith, b Jan 1897 listed on line 84.
Our Joseph Smith named his oldest son Irwin.
I’ve tried to find a Joseph Smith with this birth date in later census and military draft records, but to no avail. It is impossible to know if he is the right one.
Finding the candidates listed above depended on searching on names similar to Spivak for Joseph’s mother, or by assuming that Joseph’s name really was Joseph Smith. Since the 1900 census gives birth months and years, another way to search for Joseph would be to include in the search his assumed birth date of July 1896, and to assume his mother’s first name was Ann (and variations), while leaving his first and last name out.
Unfortunately, this produces tens of thousands of possible candidates, but the number can be drastically reduced to 167 by entering the place of birth for his parents as Russia, Poland or another Eastern Bloc country. When the search parameters are changed to allow his parents to be born anywhere, but limiting the number of hits by introducing a brother named Jack or Jacob, only 24 possibilities come up, including six with parents from Russia or an Eastern European country who also appear in the first search.
One of the most puzzling of these is Henry Mitzmon, who appears in the 1900 census for Manhattan. His parents are listed as Barnett and Anna. They stated they had been married for 20 years, yet they only had six children, all under the age of eight, and all of whom appear in the household with them: Dave (b Feb 1892), Jack (b Mar 1893), Max (b Sep 1894), Henry (b Jul 1896), Benjamin (b Jul 1898), and Polie (b Sep 1899).
When the family appears again in then 1910 census, their story is different. Barneth (sic) and Annie now state that they only have three children, all of whom are living with them – and Dave (18), Jack (16), and Max (14). There is no mention of their three youngest children Heny, Benjamin, and Polie (perhaps Pauline).
There are several other records for Barnett and Annie and their three oldest sons. In the 1915 New York city directory, David appears living with Barnett at 116 Eldridge St in Manhattan. In the 1920 census, both Jack and David are living with their parents at 88 Attorney St. in Manhattan. The WWI draft registration cards are available for Dave, Jack, and Max. Although their birth dates are not the same as those recorded in the 1900 census, they are identifiable because all three gave their address as 88 Attorney St. and reported that they had to support their father and mother. According to FindaGrave and Italiangen.org, Barnett died 21 Jan 1920 and Annie died 14 Jun 1930. They are buried in Mount Judah Cemetery, Ridgewood, Queens County, New York.
Draft registration records for David, Jacob J, and Max Mitzman
Although these and other records give us the history of Barnett, Annie, and their three oldest sons, their three youngest children Henry, Benjamin, and Polie seem to vanish after 1900. How could the couple have reported that they had six children, all of whom were living with them on 6 April 1900, and then have changed their story in 1910 to having only three? What happened to their youngest children, and most importantly, what happened to their son Henry, b July 1896? Could he have left the family by 1910, only to reappear as Joseph Smith at Fort Slocum on 4 November 1913?
One last effort I will mention is that I’ve also contacted the webmasters at www.italiangen.org, to ask for a search of the New York birth records for possible Joseph candidates. They were kind enough to send me the list of 255 male and female births they had transcribed for 15 July 1896 for all the boroughs in New York City, but there were no Joseph Smiths on the list and nothing to call out one birth over another. It will take some time to go through the list, but we will keep trying.
Part I – Who Was Joseph Smith?