Some ancestors stand out in the research process. Every person’s life is interesting and hold countless stories, but most don’t make it through time. Of those that I have uncovered, this is one of my favourite and I wonder how it was talked about and then forgotten or perhaps hidden from subsequent generations.

I have mentioned this black sheep in an earlier post, Friday’s Faces From the Past: Those Eyes. If you remember I said that there was a foundling in our family. This was one of my most exciting discoveries over the time that I have been researching my ancestors. Giuseppe Stagno was a very difficult individual to find records on because he was from the city of Messina, a very populated city with many records. I spent hours, days, months trying to find his birth record. Here’s a lesson: Don’t skip over the secondary indexes. That’s where they put the foundling’s birth records and you might just find your ancestor in one of them! But it was not his birth record that tipped me off to Giuseppe’s foundling birth. It was his marriage record, which I found on FamilySearch.

Giuseppe married Olivia Spavara on the 31st of MAY, 1888 in Galati, Messina. (A village of the city of Messina). On the record where Giuseppe’s parents names should have been listed were the words: ignoti genitori, which translates to ‘Unknown parents’.

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I googled around trying to find other examples that would explain a person having unknown parents. A foundling child was one explanation. You can see their marriage record below. They are the record on the right. Click on it to see it in detail:


Using Giuseppe’s age on the marriage record (26) and place of birth (Messina), I calculated that he must have been born around 1862. We will probably never know when Giuseppe Stagno was actually born. But in his “foundling birth” record the 31st of MAY, 1862 is given as the date when he was dropped off at the ‘wheel’ and also the date he was baptised. I should perhaps explain a little more about what a foundling child is, and what happened when a baby was not wanted in 19th century Sicily.

Infant abandonment was common in Italy during the 19th and early 20th century for a couple of reasons. The most obvious was that in devoutly Catholic Italy, a single woman who became pregnant out of wedlock was a social disgrace, not only for herself but for her whole family. Another reason was that many people were destitute and poor and without contraception back then, there was very little a woman could do to take care of and feed her children. Sometimes her only choice was to give up her child. Infant abandonment got so bad eventually that the civil authorities developed a system in many towns to deal with the influx of babies. Both on mainland Italy and Sicily, a device called ‘la ruota dei proietti,  ‘the foundling wheel’ was installed on the outside walls of churches, convents and in larger cities foundling hospitals or orphanages.

The wheel was designed so that the baby could be placed on the wheel, and spun into the building without the person receiving the infant being able to see the person who was ‘abandoning’ the child. The mother, or whoever was dropping the infant onto the wheel then rang a bell to alert someone inside that a baby was there. The child may have then been baptised, like Giuseppe Stagno was, then kept in a foundling home with others, and fed by wet nurses. The future for these abandoned children was bleak. They may have stayed there for years until they could work as servants or labourers. They may have been place into a foster family. Or, in the most likely situation, they died in infancy due to the poor living conditions, diseases passed on from the wet nurses or malnutrition.

For a more thorough history of foundlings and the wheels check out this article titled “Foundlings” on Coniglio Family

Giuseppe Stagno was dropped off onto a foundling wheel that looked just like one of these depicted in photos taken by bypallantecenter:

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Giuseppe Stagno’s birth record tells of how he was taken from the wheel, and baptised on the same day that he was found at 10AM by Francesco Sciuto, a servant of the hospital. This tells us that he was dropped off at a foundling hospital, which as I have already said, was common for large cities such Messina.

Giuseppe was given the last name Stagno which means pond in Italian. Illegitimate children were commonly given surnames that were unusual and often stigmatic to set them apart from the other family names in the place they lived. Proietto (castoff) was a common last name for these children, as was naming them after towns or cities.

Screen Shot 2014-03-01 at 11.41.37 PMYou’ll find a copy of Giuseppe Stagno’s birth record which I found at Antenati, below. Click on it to enlarge:giuseppe stagno birth record foundlingGiuseppe and Olivia had 8 children that I know of: Salvatore, Francesca, Ignazio, Maria, Maria, Salvatore, Concetta and Santa. Ignazio was the only son to live to adulthood. I have not yet discovered Giuseppe’s date of death, but I estimate that it was sometime after 1906, when his last child Santa was born.

And that concludes today’s lesson on Sicilian foundlings!