Saturday, February 9, 2013

Genealogy by the States: Massachusetts, Where "Pappy" Markell Was Born

Joseph A. Markell (1894-1975), who married my great-aunt Mary Mahler (1896-1979), was born in the Boston area, the son of Bernard (Barnhart H.) Markell and Rose Lebowitz. Who knew he'd wind up on a ship that almost touched off an international diplomatic incident?

Markell's mother, Rose, died young. In the 1910 Census, Joseph (then 16) is shown as living in his grandmother Fanny Leibowitz's apartment with her widowed son-in-law (Joseph's father), plus uncles Morris Leibowitz (23 yrs old) and Samuel Leibowitz (18). According to one of my cousins, Joseph (called "Pappy" by his grandchildren) later ran away from home after his father remarried because of conflict with the new stepmother.

The family story is that teenaged Pappy wound up at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, making money by shining the shoes of sailors who were going on shore leave. This seems to be confirmed by the 1920 Census, which shows Pappy as a yeoman serving on the USS Niagara, anchored in Tampico, Mexico, when the enumeration was completed in February, 1920.

Why would the USS Niagara be off the Mexico coast? Well, the Mexican Revolution was underway and the US and Mexico had been skirmishing along the border.

In 1914, there was an incident in Tampico (an oil-rich area of Mexico) involving the Mexican authorities arresting US sailors. This "Tampico Affair" escalated into a US occupation of Veracruz. During WWI, Germany secretly tried to forge an alliance with Mexico, which only heightened tensions along the border.

By the fall of 1919, when the USS Niagara steamed to the coast off Tampico, WWI was over but the Mexican Revolution wasn't quite finished. When the Niagara arrived, it immediately suffered a major outbreak of malaria (according to the documentation declassified in 1980 and posted on Fold3, where I read much of it--see a snippet above). 

In December of 1919, the USS Niagara was dispatched to intercept another vessel, the San Jacinto, before it could land at Tampico. The goal was to prevent the Mexican government from arresting someone thought to be on board the steamship San Jacinto, a person believed by the Mexican government to be a spy. However, the Niagara was unsuccessful in convincing the San Jacinto to stop, and it took no further action to avoid provoking an unnecessary international incident between Mexico and the US. And that's probably a good thing for Pappy, too.

This prompt is part of the "Genealogy by the States" series by Jim Sanders.


  1. Pappy had quite the exciting life. Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. Thanks for sharing. These are the kinds of stories our ancestors need to be remembered for. They are not just names and dates...

    Regards, Jim

  3. Jim, I'm enjoying your prompt series. Thanks!