Celebrities trace their roots. Actor and director Steve Buscemi uncovers the story of his maternal great-great grandfather, revealing a dark tale involving a secret family.
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Actor, writer, and director Steve Buscemi
is one of America's most respected screen artists.
Having earned almost 40 entertainment industry
nominations and awards, Steve most recently
won both the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards
for his performance in Boardwalk Empire.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Steve's family
moved to Long Island when he was eight years old.
He returned to Brooklyn in his 30s, and lives there now with Jo,
his wife of 20 years, and their son, Lucian.
It's funny...growing up, I always felt like my heritage was Brooklyn.
You know, I'm from the country of Brooklyn.
My dad would make these Super 8 movies
with my brothers and my cousins.
In this one film, Dad decided to make this little,
you know, episode of Superman.
But my older brother Jonny got to play superman.
And I got to play the bad guy.
So that was my first bad guy role,
and it's continued since then.
As an actor and as a director,
I'm always interested in the struggles of people's lives.
I'm hoping, just personally,
that there's a really interesting character
whose story is compelling.
To start his search into his family history,
Steve is travelling to Valley Stream in Long Island,
to visit his parents.
I really wanna ask my mom anything she knows
about her side of the family.
Because that's the side that I know the least about.
And it's her side of the family
that I'm most curious about.
My mom's mom, Amanda Van Dine,
died when my mom was, like, three.
We really don't know much about her.
And I think a big reason that we don't talk about her
is because it's a painful subject in the family,
because she took her own life.
I mean, it does make you wonder if...
If there was one family member that...
was able to take their own life...
if there's been a history of depression in the family.
It is something that I would like to know.
Hello? - Hey.
- How are you? - Hi.
Hey, Michael. - Good to see you again.
- How's it going?
- Hi, Ma. - Hi, how are you?
- Good, how are you? - Mm-mm, OK.
- You all right? Yeah?
We know about the Buscemi name
and that it was from Sicily.
But the big mystery, for me,
is where your family is even from.
- She doesn't even know what she is.
- Well, this is what we wanna figure out. So now your mom,
is Amanda... - Yeah, Van Dine.
- Van Dine.
You know her father... What the father's first name was?
- Charles. - Charles Van Dine.
- I like that. He sounds like Mr Moneybags from Monopoly.
- And this was my mother.
- Amanda Van Dine. So this is the picture that I know.
After my mother died, my sister had this made up.
- Because there were so few pictures of her?
- There was no... Yeah.
And this is my grandmother.
Jane Van Dine.
- Yeah, so Jane Van Dine is your...grandmother.
As far as you know, she was born in New York.
- Brooklyn, yeah. - And what year did she die?
- For me, you know, this is where I would like to start the journey.
And I'll let you know. I know you're curious, because...
you don't know anything about them.
- No, not a thing.
- Well, we'll try and change that.
- OK. (chuckles)
'It would be great if I can find out...'
some real concrete information about my mom's family.
Because I think it would mean a lot to her.
She sort of grew up not knowing much.
She couldn't get a lot out of her own father.
He never talked about his life too much.
And of course, she didn't know her own mother.
Steve's grandmother was Amanda Van Dine.
Her mother was Jane Van Dine and Jane's husband was Charles Van Dine.
Jane Van Dine died in 1928.
To research her records and try to discover more about her background,
Steve has arranged to meet genealogist Joseph Shumway
at the New York Municipal Archives.
Hello. - Steve?
- Hi, you must be Joseph.
- I am. Nice to meet you.
- It's nice to meet you.
- Come over here, let me show you what I've got. - All right.
- I was able to locate a death certificate entry
for Jane Van Dine for 1928.
- Here she is. Full name, Jane Van Dine.
Her father is... Ralph Montgomery.
"Maiden name of mother, Julia Vanderhof."
So Ralph Montgomery
would be my great-great-grandfather.
- Right. - And Julia Vanderhof
would be my great-great-grandmother.
So it says here that both her parents
were born in the US
But according to this,
she was 48 when she died,
but she'd only been living in New York for 32 years.
I'm wondering, "Well, where did she live before New York?"
It says that she was born in the US,
but it doesn't say... It doesn't say where.
- That makes me curious.
Where did they come from?
- One record we wanna definitely see
if we can pin down is a census record.
And see if we can locate Jane with her parents.
- All right. - So for the age range,
this here is our best match. - This top one,
"Jane Montgomery, born about 1869.
"Residence, 1880, Camden, New Jersey."
"The 1880 United States Federal Census."
Well, I see here, "Montgomery, Jane."
What is this? "11?"
That's her age? - That's her age.
I'm confused. It says "servant?"
As the relationship to who? To her...?
- It looks like, the head of the household
that she's residing in is this gentleman right here.
- "Tillman, Turner."
- So this is... I've never heard of this,
this is really confusing to me that...
so she did not live with her own parents.
She lived in Camden, New Jersey, at...
as far as I know,
she's not related to these people.
But she worked as their servant at 11 years old.
How does something like that happen?
- At this time period in the United States,
it was actually very common for young children
about Jane's age to have been sent out into the workforce.
There were no child labour laws at that time period.
Young children sometimes were orphaned,
they may have been abandoned.
The most common situation was that
their families were just poverty-stricken.
- Right. - And they needed all members of the family
to go out, and to work, and to help bring in money for the family.
- That is completely wild to me.
You know, that's something I couldn't imagine...
What were the parents...doing?
- Well, I've actually had a look for us
in the 1880 census.
And I've searched in Camden,
and some of the other surrounding areas,
and cannot seem to find a Ralph or a Julia Montgomery in that area.
But there is one other option that I think we should try,
and see if we can find any other people out there
who may have posted some of their personal research
that we could gather clues from.
- I should see if there's anybody else out there
who was connected to either
Ralph Montgomery or Julia Vanderhof.
- So we have a family tree.
An unknown person to me posted this.
- That is a really strange coincidence.
All right, so here's Ralph B Montgomery,
in Milton, Northumberland, Pennsylvania.
These would be his... Ralph Montgomery's children.
So there's Jane.
So he had other children.
And they have a living descendant.
- Probably the person who created this family tree.
- How do I get in touch with this person?
- Click on her username.
- Maybe this relative can tell me more about Ralph,
including how his daughter, Jane, ended up a servant.
OK. "Your message has been sent."
To continue his search and try to find out more
about Jane Montgomery's childhood and about her father Ralph,
Steve is heading to Harrisburgh, Pennsylvania
to visit the State Archives.
Right now, I just have a lot of questions in my mind
about Ralph Montgomery.
I really don't have a lot to go on.
But since Ralph was born in Milton, Pennsylvania,
I'll have to start with his life there
and work my way back up to 1880.
Your daughter doesn't end up working for another family
at a young age in another state for no reason.
Steve is meeting archivist Aaron McWilliams.
Hi, Aaron? - Hey, Mr Buscemi.
Nice to meet you. - Steve, please.
- Steve, let's go in. - OK, thank you.
In 1880, there was a fire in Milton
and many of the local records were lost.
But some tax and court records did survive.
Steve and Aaron are splitting their search efforts.
- We'll go up to 1857. Take a look at those.
Steve is starting with the 1856 and 57 tax records,
while Aaron checks the federal censuses.
Oh, wait a minute.
Here is a Ralph B Montgomery.
I don't think I would've ever imagined
that I had dentist in my family.
Under "With whom residing," it's left... It's blank.
So it seems like he was single.
I mean, if he was a dentist
by the time he was in his early 20s,
he was probably a very enterprising young man.
- Steve, you have any luck?
- Uh, yeah. I found a Ralph Montgomery.
He was single and listed as a dentist.
- Very well-respected in the community.
Much like today, dentists in the 1850s
used anaesthesia to perform painful tooth extractions.
Because anaesthesia was a new and risky practice,
patients sought out dentists they deemed trustworthy.
With a good reputation, a dentist like Ralph Montgomery
could build a lucrative practice.
- I took a look at the census records, and I found something.
- What did you find?
- This here is the 1860 US Federal census population schedule.
- All right, so here's an RB Montgomery, profession...
So he either decided that dentistry was not for him,
or he did such a terrible job
that he was run out of the business.
- And see, the individuals listed below
will be those living in his household at the time.
Most likely, they would be his wife and then the children.
That's odd. Why, I don't understand why...
Who this Margaret was.
He seems to have had another family
before the family he had with Julia.
Steve has discovered that around 10 years
before his great-grandmother Jane was born,
her father Ralph had a first wife and two children,
another family that Steve never knew existed.
What a story... is unfolding here.
- what would cause somebody to stop being a dentist?
You know, something must've happened.
And what happened to his first family?
Because I know that this was not the family
that shows up later.
Did he leave them? Did he abandon them?
There's another mystery there.
- The next step I would take is to go through
more of the Northumberland County records.
Court records, newspaper accounts...
We have a lot more searching to do.
- There's a lot of searching, yes.
There's a lot of questions.
Each day I seem to get answers,
but that also poses new questions.
He's not a dentist anymore. What went wrong?
And what happened to his first family?
It's the next day and Steve is back at the State Archives.
Aaron suggested that I search
the Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph in 1860,
when Ralph lived in Milton.
I'm wondering if earlier in that year
there's an article in the paper that would explain
why he stopped being a dentist.
And if I don't find it in that year, I'll just work my way back.
Very, very small print.
Now I'm on November 28th.
Here is a Ralph Montgomery.
And it says here...
Well, I was talking about going down dark roads,
and this certainly seems like one.
"A few days ago, Mr Israel Brunner
"found on the river shore...
"a porter bottle, tightly corked.
"which contained the following,
"written with a lead pencil.
"'Tired of this world,
"'I take this method to shuffle off this mortal coil.
"'Upon this lonely island,
"'a few miles below this town,
"'if this be ever found, it will be known
"'that my body is in the Susquehanna River.'"
"'Weep not for me, my friends.
"as I have gone to a better world.'
"Signed, Ralph Montgomery."
My great-great-grandfather was so troubled by something
that he...at least, he wanted to take his own life.
And I know by this time, he had a wife and two kids.
I mean, I know that he survived
and ended up having another family,
whose daughter is my great-grandmother, Jane.
Her daughter, Amanda, my grandmother,
she DID take her life.
Ralph thinks that suicide is the only way out.
Why would he even want to commit suicide?
Aaron has come across a document
that might help explain Ralph's mindset.
- Well, I found something.
- What is this that I'm looking at?
- It's "the grand..." - "The grand..."
- "Inquest..." - "Inquest of the..."
Both: "Of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
- "Present that Ralph Montgomery and..."
John Mc... McMuttry? - Mm-hmm.
- "An assault did make...
"did beat, wound, and..."
- "And ill-treat." - Ill-treat.
- "And other wrongs to the said Samuel Rhule..."
So what this is basically saying is that in 1857,
Ralph Montgomery and this other guy, John,
they beat this guy up. This Samuel Rhule.
- Yeah, basically. - And by 1860,
he was... He stopped, you know, being a dentist.
And so I'm thinking, maybe something like this
could've put a damper on his business.
- Definitely. - Yeah.
- There is a second document I did find.
This is a docket entry for the same case.
- "Charge, assault and battery.
"November 27th, 1859.
The prosecutor agrees to withdraw this suit."
So the charges were dropped.
- Yeah. Two years later.
- Although he was cleared, the damage was done.
Then that brings me to this note that was found.
He throws this bottle into the river
From... Maybe from up there.
- And then decides...
not to jump in himself. - Second thoughts.
- And maybe he thinks, "Well, I'll just go back to my family,
and hopefully, no one will find this note." But then, months later,
it's found and not only found, but printed in the newspaper.
- Yeah. - So now everybody knows
that he was contemplating suicide.
And so I imagine back in that time,
suicide would really be looked at so unfavourably.
I mean, it's not like today, where you would get help.
You know. - Mm-hmm.
- He would be ostracized probably by the town.
- He disappears from the tax records by 1861, so...
- And so 1861, he's gone from Milton.
- Correct. - Wow.
There's certainly something mysterious about Ralph.
He definitely had dark thoughts, that's for sure.
This is sort of bothering me now.
He was this young, ambitious guy,
and then his circumstances changed,
and he disappeared. Where did he go from here?
In 1861, this was the start of the Civil War,
so I guess I could check army records,
if he was in the Union Army.
Here we go.
"US Civil War soldiers,
"Ralph B Montgomery, Pennsylvania." There he is.
"Side, union. 91st Pennsylvania infantry. Company F.
He didn't just up and leave town,
he joined the Civil War.
This is pretty amazing.
To find out what happened to Ralph as a soldier in the Union Army
during the Civil War, Steve is following his trail
to Fredericksburg in Virginia. He's meeting historian Andy Waskie.
- Well, there you have a copy... - Ralph B Montgomery.
This is his muster roll?
- Every two months,
one of these would have to be filled out for pay.
- "and November 20th, 1861.
"91st regiment, Pennsylvania infantry.
Age, 28 years old." OK.
- This is the next muster roll that we have.
- "A muster roll for May and June, 1862."
And the remarks...
Oh, my God. "deserted." - Yes.
This is a volunteer... a citizen army.
Discipline was a big problem.
And so desertion was very common.
- But do we know how long he was missing?
- That will be indicated in the next muster roll.
- So he's returned.
"Remarks... gained from desertion."
- August 22nd.
- So he deserted in June, he was brought back in August.
- So he was gone for a couple months. - Two months, yes.
- What was going on around that time?
- This was a tumultuous time for the Union Army.
General Burnside launched a campaign
- And so his decision to come back...
- Could've been a patriotic response
to the emergency of the period, yes.
On December 13th, 1862,
Ralph Montgomery and the 91st regiment
fought in the battle of Fredericksburg,
one of the Union Army's biggest military blunders.
With the aim of claiming the confederate capital of Richmond,
the union troops made their way through Fredericksburg,
to the outskirts of town.
There, the confederate soldiers lay in wait
behind a half-mile-long trench-like stone wall,
muskets trained on Ralph Montgomery
and the Union Army's completely exposed approach.
- This wall was lined with confederate infantry,
probably close to 4,000 men,
actually standing where we are right now,
where the men were just loading and firing as quickly as they could.
Union General Burnside believed that firing
upon the confederates' position behind the wall was futile.
So he commanded his union soldiers,
including Ralph Montgomery's 91st regiment,
to break the confederacy's impenetrable line
using a strategy called a bayonet charge.
The union troops entered the battlefield in waves,
lining up shoulder-to-shoulder,
marching forward in unison, bayonets extended...
- Not firing. They were not loaded.
And the idea was to make it to that wall
and over. - and over the wall,
and bayonet the enemy behind it, yes.
That's exactly right. - That seems totally insane.
What he must've seen,
no man should ever see.
After suffering more than 12,000 union casualties,
Burnside retreated and was later relieved of his command.
The experience of war
seemed to be too much for Ralph Montgomery.
After another battle, this time in Chancellorsville,
he deserted his regiment for the second and final time.
It's not a shock,
knowing that he deserted for a second time.
I mean, I have to say, it is disappointing
to know that he did leave.
But yet, I can certainly understand why he did.
After the Civil War, Ralph did not return to his family.
He moved to New Jersey and started a new life and a new family
which included a daughter, Steve's great-grandmother, Jane.
He died in 1878, aged just 44
and was buried in an unmarked grave,
leaving his wife and children in poverty.
So with Ralph gone, I wanna find out what happened
to his wife Julia and their kids,
including my great-grandmother, Jane.
And I did receive a message from the person
who posted the Montgomery family tree.
So I'm heading back home to Brooklyn to meet this newfound relative.
Hello. - Hello.
How are you? - I'm good, how are you? I'm Steve.
- And I'm Carol, Steve. - Hi, Carol.
Steve's great-great-grandparents, Ralph and Julia,
had five kids.
Two of the siblings were Jane, Steve's great-grandmother,
and Ralph Jr, Carol's great-grandfather.
So that makes Carol Steve's third cousin.
- Pleasure to meet you.
- It's really great to meet you. My third cousin!
- I would like to know
what became of Julia after Ralph died.
- Well, I have some information for you here...
that Julia actually gets remarried.
To "Charles Brandenburg."
And I'm wondering if she... if she got her kids back then.
Because Jane, my great-grandmother,
at 11 years old, she was living in Camden, New Jersey
with another family.
And she was in fact working as a servant
for another family.
- Julia also sent her son, my great-grandfather Ralph.
- She did? - Because I found him
in the 1880 census as a servant as well.
- He was working with another family?
Well, this is actually a New York census.
- Mm-hmm? - Flatbush.
- "In the county of kings."
That's Brooklyn. - Yeah.
So we've Julia. - Julia Brandenburg.
There's the Montgomerys. - Right.
Ralph. - Ralph Montgomery.
And that's your...? - That's my great-grandfather.
- Looks like Jenni. - Yeah, Jenni Montgomery.
This was my great-grandmother.
Her name was Jane, but I guess they sometimes called her Jenni.
- So they're all back together again.
She got it all back together.
- That's great. That's really wonderful. And now I know how...
How my mom's family...
when they started in New York, in Brooklyn.
- Right. - Cos this is how Jane,
my great-grandmother, ended up in Brooklyn,
and I guess got to know the neighbourhood.
Well, I started this journey hoping
to find an ancestor with a compelling story.
I also wondered if I'd uncover
a history of depression in my family.
And I found both in Ralph Montgomery.
And now I'm looking forward
to sharing everything I've discovered with my parents.
Especially my mom, who until now has known little about her family.
- How are you? - Hi.
- So this journey took me to really unexpected places.
It's not a simple story, you know.
I mean, the story of Ralph Montgomery is...
I love having that sense of knowing
where my great-great-grandfather,
you know, practiced dentistry.
- And I never would've imagined we had a dentist in...
- In the family. - In the family.
- We need one! - Yeah, tell me about it.
- I guess I've always taken it for granted, you know, that...
i have a good family.
cos every family has stuff that they may wanna hide or not talk about.
But when I think of the past generations,
the things that they went through...
and that they survived...
it really makes me so much more appreciative of my family.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Brooklyn-born actor and director Steve Buscemi - star of many classic movies and TV series, from The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire - is no stranger to the darker side of life, given the characters he tends to play, and he specifically wants to know if there are any similarly shady characters in his ancestral past. And indeed there are; Steve uncovers the story of his maternal great-great grandfather Ralph B Montgomery.
Steve traces Ralph back to the 1870s in New Jersey, where he lived with his wife Julia and his burgeoning young family. But as Steve digs deeper, he finds a darker story - another secret family, a tarnished Civil War service record and, most mysteriously, a suicide note without a suicide.
Steve's journey takes him to Philadelphia and Virginia, but eventually brings him full circle back to Brooklyn and a surprise encounter with a distant relative.