Jill Jacobs: The first Italian-American First Lady and her Sicilian Origins

Following Joe Biden’s victory of presidential election, media all across the globe are talking about Jill Biden, the first Italian-American first lady of history.

Jill Biden, born Jacobs, is an American teacher, writer and philanthropist. She married the president-elect in 1977. Born in Hammonton, New Jersey, Jill is daughter of Donald Carl Jacobs (1927-1999), of Italian descent, and Bonny Jean Godfrey (1930-2008), of English and Scottish descent.

In an interview for Vogue in 2008[1] she stated that her grandparents changed their name from the Italian “Giacoppa” to a more English-sounding “Jacobs”.

The reason for such a change is to be found in the hard situation Italian immigrants had to face once they reached the American shore. They were often victims of prejudice both from the locals and migrant of other nationalities, as it is still the case today for those who seek a better future in a foreign country. Back then, being identified as Italian meant that they had to face discrimination and exclusion[2], in a very similar way to what happens today with immigrants from Africa who reach Italy, or, in America, with Mexicans. That’s why some Giacoppas and Giacoppos (as well as Giacoppes and Giacobbes) succeeded in converting their family name in Jacobs, that indeed sounds very similar.

Jill’s grandfather was Dominic Jacobs[1], born in 1898, married to Mabel Sarah Blazer end died in 1984[3]. But who was her grand-grandfather?

There are two different answers you can find this question. Some refer to Dominic’s father as Placido, others as Gaetano. The reason for such confusion is that there were to men named Dominic who were both born in 1898, yet there is a detail that differentiate them in a substantial way.

The 1st August 1898 in Gesso, a village near Messina, Sicily, Domenico Giacoppo[4] was born, son of Placido Giacoppo[5] and Angela Caruso. Placido and Angela got married in Gesso in 1889[6] and had four children: Antonio, born in 1890[7] , Natala, born in 1892[8] , Giovanna, born in 1895[9], and Domenico, born in 1898. On the 29th of May, 1900, Angela Caruso (registered as Angela Giacoppo in the immigration records) and her four children came to America to join her husband Placido[10].

At the same time, in 1898, in Hammonton, New Jersey, another Domenico Giacoppo was born, son of Gaetano Giacoppo and Concetta Scaltrito/Squadrito. Gaetano was born in Italy around 1856 and emigrated to the United States around 1886, while his wife was born around 1866 and emigrated around 1890. The two of them had seven children: John Giacoppo, born in 1890, Giuseppina Giacobbi, born in 1892, Maria Giacoppe, born in 1893, Frank Giacoppo, born in 1895, Domenico Giacoppo, born in 1898, Josephine Jacobs, born around 1900, and Joseph Jacobs, born around 1904.[11][12]

The change in name must have taken place before or during 1900 United States Census. In fact, in that Census all of Gaetano and Concetta’s children were registered with the family name of “Jacobs”. [12]

Giacoppo is a Sicilian name that is very common in the area of Messina[13]. Traces of this name go back to the year 1682 in the towns of Villafranca Tirrena and Calvaruso[14]. Although his birthplace is still mysterious – as it is neither Gesso, nor Castanea delle Furie – Gaetano is with no doubt of Sicilian descent. The birth certificate of Jill’s forefather Gaetano that can be found on the English Wikipedia page dedicated to her is actually wrong. The certificate listed here refers to Gaetano Giacoppo[15] born in Castanea delle Furie in 1855, who married Maria Giacobbe in 1884[16], with whom he had several children[17], all of them born in Castanea delle Furie between 1887 and 1905. At the very same time, the other Gaetano already lived in America and had his children there.

Scaltrito is a rare name that can be found both in the areas of Messina and of Bari[13], while Squadrito is a Sicilian name common in the area of Messina[13].

Concetta Scaltrito was born in Gesso in 1865[18] and emigrated to the United States in 1889[19], followed soon after by her mother and her brothers. Age, time of emigration, and other things let us know with a fair degree of certainty that she was indeed Gaetano Giacoppa/Jacobs’ wife.

In Sicily it was common use (much less today) to name children after their grandparents with a strict order: the first children would be named after their father’s parents, then after the parents of their mother. If we look closely to the names of the four elder children of Gaetano Giacoppa/Jacobs and Concetta Scaltrito/Squadrito, what we find is, in order:

  1. John, English version of Giovanni, likely named after Gaetano’s father;
  2. Giuseppina, likely named after Gaetano’s mother;
  3. Maria, likely named after Concetta’s mother;
  4. Frank, English version of Francesco, likely named after Concetta’s father.

Concetta’s parents were Francesco Scaltrito and Maria Bruno.

Jill Jacobs – Credit: Instagram DrBiden

At a first glance it looks like there is no trace of Placido Giacoppo and his wife Angela’s family in American censuses. With enough patience and perseverance though, in 1910 Census a “Giacobbe”[20] can be found, while the same family unity was registered under the name of “Giacoppe” in 1915 Census[21]. It is safe to assume they are the same people because of several reasons:

  1. According to records, Placido Giacobbe/Giacoppe was born in Italy in 1863, the same birth year of Placido Giacoppo born in Gesso;
  2. Placido’s wife is registered as Angela (or with the variant Angelina), the same as Placido Giacoppo’s wife;
  3. Giacobbe/Giacoppe’s wife and children arrived in the States in 1900, the same year Giacoppo’s wife and children left Italy for America;
  4. One of the daughters of Giacobbe/Giacoppe is registered with the name Natala (a quite rare name) and was born in Italy in 1892 – which perfectly corresponds with Giacoppo’s daughter, born in the same year;
  5. In the American immigration records, there is no trace of Natala Giacobbe/Giacoppe, immigrated in 1900; the only Natala that can be found is Natala Giacoppo. The same holds true for all of the member of the family.

Thanks to censuses it is also possible to infer other pieces of information. Both in 1910 Census and 1915 no male son of Placido Giacoppo are recorded. This could mean that Antonio was already married by 1910 and therefore not to be registered in the same family unit as his father. The same cannot be said about Domenico, who by the time was only 12. The only remaining explanation is that Domenico, born in Gesso in 1898, must have died in America before 1910.

Censuses[12] also confirm that Gaetano and Concetta Jacobs children were born in America and this is the most relevant piece of information that tells apart the two Domenicos, both born in 1898, one in Italy, the other in America. Out of all Gaetano and Concetta’s children, only Giuseppina and Maria died at a young age, and none of them are recorded in 1900 Census[12]. All of their siblings reached adulthood, as also stated in Gaetano Jacobs’ obituary, dated 1943[22].

The name “Gaetano” is not unknown to Jill Jacobs. In July she referred in an interview[23] to her grandfather with that name, albeit with some confusion. In fact, Gaetano was the name of her grand-grandfather.

The last piece of the puzzle is given us by 1940 Census[24]. In this record we can find that Dominic Jacobs, 42, born in New Jersey, is the head of a family that also includes his wife Mabel, and two children: Donald Jacobs, aged 13 (Jill’s father), and Barbara Jacobs (Jill’s aunt). This document is of main importance, as it proves for good that Jill’s grandfather was born in New Jersey and not in Italy.

1940 Census, see note 24

[1] https://archive.vn/20140831054148/http://legacy.vogue.com/magazine/article/jill-bidenbrall-the-vice-presidents-women/

[2] “L’America degli Italiani” di A. Giovannetti, Ed. Paoline, Modena 1975

[3] https://images.findagrave.com/photos/2013/42/104221612_136073881811.jpg

[4] 1898 Birth Domenico Giacoppo – Gesso – Record 47

[5] 1863 Birth Placido Giacoppo – Gesso – Record 33

[6] 1889 Marriage Placido Giacoppo and Angela Caruso – Gesso – Record 14

[7] 1890 Birth Antonio Giacoppo – Gesso – Record 57

[8] 1892 Birth Natala Giacoppo – Gesso – Record 8

[9] 1895 Birth Giovanna Giacoppo – Gesso – Record 10

[10] List or Manifest of alien passengers for the U.S. immigration officer at port arrival of New York – Passengers: lines 6 to 10 – They left Naples on 05/12/1900 and arrived in New York on 05/29/1900

[11] The birth data for the period 1890-1898 are taken from the transcript of the deeds of “New Jersey, Births and Christenings, 1660-1980”. In these acts the surname of Concetta is transcribed in different variants such as “Scaltrilo”, “Scaltrito”, “Squastia” and “Squadrito”.

[12] The birth data of the period 1900-1905, the age of Gaetano and Concetta, as well as the year of migration are taken from the following Censuses:

“Year: 1900; Census Place: Hammonton, Atlantic, New Jersey; Page: 15”;

“Year: 1905; Census Place: Hammonton, Atlantic, New Jersey; Page: 10”;

“Year: 1910; Census Place: Hammonton, Atlantic, New Jersey; Page: 22”.

In the 1900 Census, John’s birth is indicated in September 1890, Frank’s in August 1894 and Dominic’s in July 1898. In the 1905 Census, strangely enough, those birth dates are changed to August 1889, August 1895, July 1899 respectively.  

[13] https://www.cognomix.it/mappe-dei-cognomi-italiani

[14] Deputazione del Regno Serie “Riveli di anime e terre” (1681-1756) n. 51 A, Indice onomastico, a cura dell’Archivio di Stato di Palermo – Soprintendenza Archivistica della Sicilia.

[15] 1855 Birth Gaetano Giacoppo – Castanea delle Furie – Record 89

[16] 1884 Marriage Gaetano Giacoppo and Maria Giacobbe – Castanea delle Furie – Record 15

[17] The children of Gaetano Giacoppo and Maria Giacobbe were all born in Castanea delle Furie:

Antonino in 1887 record 80, Antonino in 1888 record 130, Giovanni in 1891 record 79, Francesca in 1892 record 125, Giovanna in 1894 record 21, Giuseppa in 1897 record 11, Giuseppe in 1902 record 21, Maria in 1905 record 50.

[18] 1865 Birth Concetta Scaltrito – Gesso – Record 3

[19] New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1891 – Passenger: line 6 – She left Naples and arrived in New York on 11/20/1889

[20] “Year: 1910; Census Place: Hammonton, Atlantic, New Jersey; Page: 14”.

[21] “Year: 1915; Census Place: Hammonton, Atlantic, New Jersey; Page: 24”.

[22] https://images.findagrave.com/photos/2020/311/104221612_7b8c08bf-9b9f-4bea-9c75-74b77cb46bef.png

[23] https://www.usworldherald.com/jill-biden-growing-up-italian/

[24] “Year: 1940; Census Place: Hammonton, Atlantic, New Jersey; Page: 2”

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