Friday, January 17, 2014

Jimmy Rizzardi: The Illegitimate Grandfather - Pt. 1

My attention was divided between the two adults in my kitchen and my children, a baby and a toddler, who were making just enough noise that I couldn't hear everything that was being said. I clearly remember the expression on her face though, just like it was yesterday. Florence wasn't even five feet tall but the spark in her eye was commanding. As she gazed up into the face of her grandson her expression left no doubt; what she was about to reveal was important and she wanted to make sure he was listening with both ears. Perhaps she feared it was too late to tell the truth and that we were going to think she was senile. But no, this woman was sharp as a tack up to the day she died, and we all knew it. 

Florence P. Melvin Scott
My husband respectfully leaned down closer to his grandmother and gave her his full attention. Like her grandson, Florence was soft spoken, so all I heard of the conversation was the name "Rizzardi" and "He put something in my drink" and "I told Jimmie (another grandson) too"...and finally: "I want all you kids to know the truth".

Well...we had all suspected the truth for years but it had been covered up more often than not, stubbornly painted over and brushed aside by those who knew. But the rumor had been around so long that we knew there was something to it. Now, in her late 70s, Florence was determined to put an end to the rumor and make sure that cat would never crawl back into the bag.

So now here it was 1980 and the rumor was finally fact. Out-of-wedlock births were no longer the big scandal they were thirty years ago; however, this event took place a full sixty years earlier so I can only imagine how difficult life must have been for my husband's grandmother, who was only a teenager at the time.

Florence died in 1989 and a few years later I started researching the genealogy of our families, but it was still several years after that before I even considered doing any research on my husband's illegitimate grandfather, Jimmy Rizzardi. The first search turned up just enough information to get me hooked on the hunt, and over the years I have put together quite a timeline on Jimmy's life and that of his parents, his siblings, his many wives, and his one known legitimate daughter. When merged with the timeline I created for Florence, and with two telling excerpts from family letters, there is no room left for doubt about her story; not like there ever was any doubt really, but just in case!

A brief history of the Rizzardi family 1866 through 1921

Jimmy's father was James Joseph Rizzardi, Jr. (some records, and his tombstone, list him as "Giacomo" - which is the Italian version of James). He was born in Italy on October 17, 1866. His death certificate gives his father's name as James J. Rizzardi and states that both his parents were born in Italy.

James married Marie Louise Hallet between 1886 and 1889. The Flemish speaking Louise was born in Liege, Belgium on St. Valentine's Day in 1870. According to passport applications, James immigrated to the U. S. from Havre, France around 1887, and Louise immigrated still later, between 1888 and 1890. The different sources of data are only slightly conflicting so these dates are approximate, but fairly close. I don't yet know if James and Louise were married over seas or in the U. S., but it is likely they were married both places. They would marry each other twice more before they finally divorced.

Between 1890 and 1895 Louise had given birth to two daughters, Angelina and Annie, and one son, Gustav or Gastin, all born in Pennsylvania.

James Rizzardi received his U. S. citizenship in Greensburg, Westmoreland Co., Pennsylvania on the 31st day of July 1897.

From information obtained from passport applications and other documents, it would appear that James and his pregnant wife left Pennsylvania early in January of 1900. On January 30, 1900, James and Louise's fourth child, James Joseph "Jimmy" Rizzardi III was born in Joliet, Will Co., Illinois and in April that same year, in the same county, James and Louise married again.

By early June of 1900, the Rizzardi family had landed in LaFollette, Campbell Co., Tennessee, an area that had been known as Big Gap Creek just a few years earlier. There, they lived in a rented house and James found employment as a coal miner with the newly established LaFollette Coal, Iron and Railway Co. It is very likely that James had been a coal miner during the years he lived in Pennsylvania. Many immigrants of all cultures would come to LaFollette for employment opportunities offered by the town's founders. In 1900, the town of LaFollette had a population of 300. By 1920 there had been a significant increase to a population of 3000.

In 1902, Louis, the fifth and last of James and Louise's children, was born. In late 1905 or early 1906, James made a trip back over seas and returned in late May 1906 on the ship "La Provence". In April of 1908, he and Louise were married once again in Campbell Co., Tennessee, and by 1910 James owned his own farm in La Follette. (All records appear to indicate that there were no divorces between marriages up to this point.)

In March 1913 Louise and son Jimmy sailed to Liege to visit her parents and returned about 4 months later aboard the ship "Kroonland".

In October of 1917, young Jimmy Rizzardi married his first wife, Lois Gladys "Lassie" Seivers, daughter of Samuel Smith and Mary Elizabeth Norman Seivers. In September of 1918 Jimmy filled out a WWI draft registration card. On it, his occupation was listed as receiving clerk for the American Express Co. In October that year Jimmy and Lassie's daughter, Marguerite Madalon Rizzardi was born. The young family lived with Jimmy's parents in LaFollette.

In May of 1921 Louise made arrangements for another visit to see her parents in Liege. She left in June from the port of New York on the Red Star Line, this time alone.

In late December of 1921, at a bar in Louisville, Jimmy Rizzardi seduced the impressionable and inexperienced 18 year old, Florence Melvin.



  1. Very Interesting Lisa, enjoying the story, and looking forward to the next part!

  2. Can't wait to read the second part. I love these "cat out of the bag" stories. I've let a few cats out myself.

  3. Interesting - I'm looking forward to Part 2!

  4. Jimmy's brother, Gustav, grew up to be Gus Wirtz Jr, my daughters' great-grandfather. His father was not James Rizzardi, but Gus Wirtz Sr. Marie Louis Hallet married him in 1892, claiming on the license that her former husband had died! She apparently returned to James Rizzardi sometime later. Gus Jr. said that while growing up in the Rizzardi household, he always knew that his real dad lived down the street. He also knew about the lie on the marriage license.

    1. Wow Marci! Now that just totally makes sense! I could never figure out why there were so many marriage records for Louise and James when I wasn't seeing evidence of a split. I see that Gus and his wife are buried in the same cemetery as some of the Rizzardis. Was Gus the only child that did not belong to James? I do hope you will contact me again as this has been very helpful. My e-mail is at the bottom of this page, just above the photo of my dogs. Thank you so much for contacting me and I hope I hear from you again!