Finding John Costello, puzzling

Finding John Costello – A DNA Journey: The Missing Brother

Finding John Costello


Long-standing brick walls exist for a reason.  Or reasons.

Those reasons might be lack of records, record loss, lack of records access, not knowing where in the world to look, inaccurate information, and then the really big one – the mystery individual may have had a reason to hide, alter, or change their identity.

Clearly, one, or many, of those things in that list are going on with John Costello.

Based on John’s DNA matches, his name at birth can’t have been John Costello.  Does that factor, plus the complete lack of evidence to support his story, make him a candidate for the last category?  Someone who had a reason to hide, alter, or change his identity?



So HOW ON EARTH will I be able to find him?!  How will I know him when I finally do see him in a record?


John’s Life in Spain & His Immigration Story


Family lore is important.  Tucked away in those slowly shifting tales are nuggets of truth.  Tiny kernels of fact that can help us understand the records we find.  Sometimes.

So, let’s examine the family lore surrounding two parts of John’s pre-marriage life – his life in Spain with his family and his immigration story.

The life in Spain part is pretty straightforward.  I’ve heard slight variations that all sort of boil down to this basic set of facts:

  • John had 3 sisters, no brothers.  Some versions say that the sisters were younger.
  • The family lived on a small farm or ranch in Barcelona.
  • They weren’t literate.

The immigration story is another matter entirely.  We have three versions that just don’t work together at all.

Version 1 – John left Spain when he was about 14 to avoid the Spanish Civil War.  Except there wasn’t a Civil War in Spain anywhere near that time frame.  It has also been suggested that he left to flee Franco’s oppression.  The big problem with that idea is that ALL of John’s children had been born in Spokane, Washington before Franco rose to power in Spain.

Version 2 – John ran away from home when he was about 8 or 9 years old.  He got to London, got into some trouble and was picked up by local law enforcement.  He happened to have a ticket to America in his pocket for a ship leaving the next day and was told if he got on the ship they would let him go.

Version 3 – John left Spain when he was about 21.  His family threw him a going away party.  Two of his uncles – usually stated that they were maternal uncles – each gave him a ring.

There are two facts that are not disputed:

  • John did emigrate from somewhere.
  • John did have two rings that he always called family heirlooms.  The two rings were given to his two sons.  John told his grandchildren that those rings would be given to the oldest sons of each of John’s sons.

Here are the three big problems with reconciling the three immigration stories – the rings, the running away versus being sent off with a going-away party, and the differences in ages.

If John ran away at age 8 or 9 why would he have two rings that were “family heirlooms”?  Would he have stolen them and then treasured them even in his golden years?  I have a hard time imagining that.

Running away and having a going-away party with all of your family are two very different events.  The latter is generally joyful with a bit of teariness and the former is generally sneaky and often involves fleeing some sort of trouble or danger.

Age 8 or 9, age 14, and age 21 are very different.

The pieces of family lore don’t fit together.

But can I reconcile them?

Not with the current information.  But some missing pieces just might help.


Chatting with Cousin Sarah*


Remember that cluster of close cousins I wrote about last time?  Well, my awesome cousin Sarah and I were chatting on FB messenger about our DNA project when she mentioned something that made me stop and say – wait, WHAT?!

She said, “We know Annie had at least 2 sisters and an older brother.”

Ummm… did she just describe a family as having an older brother with three younger sisters?!

Like John’s family?

Why, yes.  Yes, she did.


The messages started to fly back and forth at a breakneck pace.

It turns out that my close cluster of DNA cousins whose common ancestor – Hinde Fried, whom they called “Grandma Annie” – the woman who is either John’s sister, half-sister, aunt, or niece has a family story of a lost older brother.


After much communication, cousin Sarah wrote a letter to the descendants of John Costello’s family that includes this:


“My name is Sarah, and I’d like to tell you a story about my family. It happened more than 100 years ago, generations before I was born. But it’s been a central story to my family’s history. My great grandmother’s name was Hinde Fried, she had 2 sisters, Fannie and Sara, and an older brother. My family is Jewish, and they lived in Europe during a time when simply living life as a Jewish family was dangerous.

“The story goes like this:  my great grandmother, her siblings and her father were traveling by wagon in a town. 2 boys recognized them as Jews, and attacked them. They yelled Anti-Semitic slurs, and started throwing stones, one of which hit their fathers head causing a large gash. My great grandmother’s brother feared for his sisters safety, and took it upon himself to protect his family. He dragged the boys into the woods, and beat them up, badly. So badly, that they could never harm the family again. After this incident, her brother disappeared, never to be heard from again. For generations this story has been passed down, this brother, who’s name is unknown, has been held in high regards. He’s been celebrated for protecting his family. We never thought we’d find him. And then, last year, for completely unrelated reasons, I had my entire family’s DNA tested. I thought we’d find some fun fact about our DNA, I thought we’d find out we were 2%  Eskimo, or that we had the gene for male pattern baldness, or some other trivial fun fact. We did find out that we have the gene for male pattern baldness, but we also found your family. We found your children and your grandchildren. And we found the story of John Costello. We believe that John Costello is the brother that disappeared over 100 years ago. The story fits. The DNA fits. The paper trail (or lack of a paper trail) seems to fit as well. Our family found more than we could have hoped for, we found out the cherished older brother made it out of Europe, lived, had a family, and left a legacy…”



So is my John Costello the missing older brother?



Comparing Sarah’s Story with John’s Story


If John is, in fact, the missing older brother in Sarah’s family, how does Sarah’s story compare with the family lore about Grandpa Costello?  Can Sarah’s family lore help reconcile the different, conflicting story bits in my own family?

Maybe.  Let’s do some comparing.

First the family details.

John’s family supposedly had one older brother, three younger sisters.  So did Sarah’s family.

John’s family supposedly lived on a small ranch or farm.  So did Sarah’s family.

John’s family supposedly lived in Barcelona, Spain.  Sarah’s family likely lived in Lublin, Russia – now Poland.  Our first difference.  Can it be explained?  Possibly.

John’s family was supposedly illiterate and he didn’t seem to know his birthdate.  Sarah’s family was supposedly illiterate as well and the long-running joke in the family was that Grandma Annie had no idea what her birthday was so they just made one up.

John was 8 or 9, 14, or 21 when he left.  Or, in reality, any age under about 25.  In Sarah’s story, the older brother is presumed to be in his young to mid teenage years.  That at least lands in the middle of our family lore.


So everything works except for location and the age is kind of fuzzy.  But someone who is trying to hide, alter, or change their identity might lie about their birthplace, might be vague about their age.  Or, maybe genuinely didn’t know his age just like his possible sister.  Hmmm…

Next, the immigration story.

In Sarah’s family lore, the older brother disappeared, ran away, was just gone.  His younger sister remembered him and told his story to her descendants but she didn’t know what happened to him and couldn’t remember his name.  She was about 4 or 5 at the time of the event.

The big conflicts in John’s three immigration stories are the running away versus being sent off to America, his age, and the presence of the rings.

So, what if I can take my family lore and piece it together with Sarah’s family lore in this way:

John is the older brother in the story.  The setting is Lublin or the surrounding area at the end of the 19th century.  This means that John would have possibly experienced the pogroms or lived under the fear of them through stories from his parents.

We have the incident from Sarah’s story and now John’s life is likely in danger.  The family returns home after the incident and his parents decide he needs to leave.  This becomes a moment of running away for his own safety that is also partly being sent away by his family.  What if the rings really did come from his uncles?  Maybe with the intent that John could sell them along the way to help him get to America?  What if there was a small family gathering with older family members as they sent him off?  Some last goodbyes, pieces of advice, reminders of how to be safe, and so on.

What if John really did get as far as London where he had some sort of experience that led to him boarding a ship bound for America?  What if the ticket or passport he used was for someone named John Costello?  That is a very Irish name, if he really was in London, it would be a lot easier to see how he might somehow have gotten his hands on something under that name.  Was the London moment the moment he became John Costello?

As he travels, he can’t bear to part with the rings.  They are all he has of his life and family at home.  Instead of selling them, he treasures them.  He works his way across the US and learns basic reading and writing in English from a farmer and eventually gets to Spokane.  Like his sister, he picks his own birthday – first 4 July 1890 on his WWI Draft Registration and then 14 February 1893 when he meets and marries his wife.

After his experiences with anti-semitism, he chooses to continue using the name John Costello as a protection for himself and his future family.  He hasn’t abandoned the Jewish faith completely and in Spokane continues to participate in synagogue for a time.  He tells some truths about his family, but out of habit or fear changes his birthplace from Eastern Europe to Spain.  He has, after all, run away.  He had a dark complexion, just like his sister Hinde, and maybe someone along the way suggested it was safer to be from Spain than to be a Jew from Lublin?

While living in Spokane, he receives anti-semitic hate mail and worries for his family – possibly around the time of WWII.  At this point, he gives up working and attending synagogue.  He lives a very quiet, hermit-like existence.  He never allowed his back to be exposed and always sat in the corner of the room with his back to the wall.

Shortly after WWII ends, his son Dan marries a lovely girl who is very, very Catholic.  John has been passing for a Spaniard for years now.  Many Spaniards are Catholic, it was probably really easy to attend Mass and pass for Catholic after his son Dan converted.  He continued to attend Mass.  Around this same time, his other son and future daughter-in-law try out their high school Spanish on him which John doesn’t understand at all.  That makes a lot of sense if he grew up speaking Russian, Polish, or Yiddish and not Spanish or Catalan.

John died when his grandchildren were very young and ended up being buried in a Catholic cemetery.  His wife Mary lived for 31 more years and was able to shift the narrative over time until what we have left is a collection of disparate facts that don’t quite fit.

Well, at least that is, until the story of the missing brother is told to us by our closest John Costello DNA matches.

So, does it work?  Possibly.

Can I prove it?  Maybe.

How?  DNA?  Plus other scraps of story, possibly a record or two that fit the above narrative?

Will it be definitive?


And now I’m right back where I was at the end of the last post – hoping for more data in the form of DNA, stories, artifacts, and records.

But there is one BIG difference – I DO have a possible explanation for why John Costello is such a tricky brick wall.  He just might be the missing brother from Sarah’s family.  The lost brother who had to run.

Grandpa Costello, did I find you?



Dear readers, what do you think?



*Sarah is not my cousin’s real name.  But I do have her permission to write about our shared journey to solve our respective family mysteries that just might be the very same family mystery slowly being woven back together by curious descendants seeking the truth.  😉