Maria Dominica D'Agostino - A Generous One

Updated: Nov 22, 2018

A picture of a woman in traditional dress in Villa Badessa, Abruzzo, 1840s.

Pasquale found the baby crying at his door at eight o’clock in the morning on March 14, 1844. Often the March nights in Abruzzo are chilly with Fahrenheit temperatures in the 40s. The little baby was likely shivering and weak and I can imagine Pasquale bending down and moving the cloth to see the child’s face.

Pasquale picked up the child and traveled the mile or so to the city center of Pianella to report his discovery and to hand the baby over to the officials. The child was placed with a ricevitrice and Pasquale returned home. See my last blog for more details on the beginning of my great-great grandfather's life.

What happened to the poor baby? Would there be another generous one to protect him or would this young child continue to suffer? The next part of the story sees little Antonio accepted into a family, but he suffers in a bizarre incident that took me by surprise.

Sometimes you have to consult specialists who can help you find documents for a particular region. I turned to a specialist in the region of Abruzzo: Emidio Spinogatti of Abruzzo Genealogy. Emidio worked for 8 hours in the archives and found incredible documents that helped me learn more about Antonio’s early years. These documents introduced me to Maria Dominica D’Agostino - another generous one whose actions allowed Antonio to survive.

Emidio told me that a woman called a ricevitrice only had a role in the first days/weeks after the baby was found. After that, the baby was assigned to a woman called a balia that breastfed the baby and sometimes then took care of the baby until the age of 8. One set of documents that was helpful was the Mantenimento dei Proietti which was an account of the expenses made to support the foundlings. It includes monthly and quarterly summaries about the status of foundlings in each town and scattered letters and papers about specific issues that arose. The documents for Pianella in the collection start in 1848 - four years after Antonio was born so we don’t know for sure where he went immediately after the ricetrice.

In 1848 Antonio Gasbarrino appears in the documents under the care of the wet nurse (“balia”) Maria Domenica D’Agostino. The information reported in the quarterly summary tables is the name of the balia, the amount paid to her (2,40 ducati), and the date Antonio was found and his presumed date of birth. The same information appears in all the quarterly tables of the years 1848, 1849, 1850, 1851. The complete table for the year 1852 is missing, however, the table of variations for the first quarter of 1852 is included and Antonio Gasbarrini is reported as discharged on March 16, 1852. This is just when he turned 8 years old which was the age at which the local administration would stop paying for his care.

Villa Badessa

The records showed that Antonio lived with Maria Dominica D'Agostino in the small village of Villa Badessa about a two hour walk south of Pianella. So he lived in Villa Badessa from 1844-1852 for sure, and stayed in the area until 1865 when he had to go to the army at age 21 (according to his military record).

Villa Badessa, 1846 - 20 years before the birth of Antonio

Emidio told me that Villa Badessa was a settlement founded in 1744 by the King of Naples to host a group of families coming from Albania. This group had fled from religious persecution in 1743. They came from Epirus, in particular from the villages of Piqèras, Ljukòva, and Nivizzaa in the south of Albania, and settled in Abruzzo in 1743. In the beginning, the settlement was in the territory of Pianella, then passed to the neighboring Rosciano.

Our Antonio spent the early ages of his life in this hamlet. He might have learned to speak Albanian here.

The church in Villa Badessa

A Terrible Beating

Sometimes one can find unexpected details in the records, and I was shocked to learn from Emidio that there were notes in the records related to a beating that almost killed 6 year old Antonio.

In the folder for the year 1850, some letters about Antonio are included. For example, on March 11, 1850, it was reported that Antonio Gasbarrini received severe injuries apparently after being beaten by a woman named Dea D'Attanasio. It seems that this event was life-threatening for the little Antonio.

By the beginning of June 1850 there are official records about who should pay the expenses for Antonio’s care due to the beating. For example, the Judge requested the Mayor of Pianella, as President of the local charity commission (Presidente della Commissione di Beneficienza Locale), to pay the expenses. The mayor answered that he was not obliged to pay the expenses and that they should be charged to the foundling and canceled after his impossibility to pay was certified. Then, the Judge wrote to the intendant of the province of Teramo explaining the facts, attached the letter from the mayor, and asked for a solution. On June 28, 1850 the Intendant answered the judge that the foundlings are essentially poor, so they cannot be charged for the requested expenses.

What an incredible cache of documents! What a terrible story! Antonio had now been abandoned as a newborn and almost killed in a beating and he was only 6 years old.

Emidio went even further with his search of the records, trying to find any documents related to the dispute over payment or about the beating itself, but no more were found. However, in reading through court documents, Emidio noted that there seemed to have been a very bad feud between two families in this hamlet -- the D'Attanasio family and the D'Agostino family. There were a number of court cases from the 1850s that showed that these two families were involved in serious confrontations.

This is important for us because my ancestor Antonio - when he was only 6 years old - must have gotten caught in the midst of this feud.

After the beating we know that Antonio stayed with Maria’s family for at least two more years. They took care of him from at least the ages of 4-8, if not for longer. There was some financial benefits to caring for him, but from what I read about the history of women who took children in, they often could make more money serving as a wet-nurse (for a year or so) rather than as a foster parent of an older child. Perhaps Maria grew to love little Antonio. Perhaps she felt it something she should do.

Antonio survived abandonment and a severe beating. What happened to him next? And how did he manage to get to the United States? Who helped him? Are there more generous people that allowed him to survive and perhaps thrive? I will post what I find next in my next Generous Ones post.

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