Calling in the big guns

January 30, 2008

So, to judge by the results of several genealogy website searches, it looks like the trail of Mario Contasino could be rather elusive. Perhaps, then, it’s time to call in the services of some experts.

The first on my list is Manuele Gragnolati, University Lecturer in Italian at Oxford University. I’m hoping that his expertise in Italian (not to mention his experiences studying in New York) might help me uncover any variant spellings of Mario Contasino’s name. I sent Manuele the following email:

Dear Manuele,

Please forgive the intrusion of this unsolicited email, but I saw your details on the Oxford University website, and was hoping to avail of your Italian expertise.

I’m currently trying to trace the descendents of a Mario Contasino, who, in 1931, ran over Winston Churchill in New York. I’ve only done a very preliminary search so far, but it seems to me that the surname Contasino is quite unusual (a Google search for ‘contasino’ returns only 34 results). So I’m wondering whether his name was copied down incorrectly by early eyewitnesses of the incident, or if, as a recent immigrant to America, he might have changed his name at some point.

So I was wondering if you knew of anybody who might have any knowledge or expertise of Italian surnames – somebody who might be able to help me by suggesting any likely variations of Contasino that might provide alternative avenues of research.

I’d be enormously grateful if you could let me know if this is something you might be able to help with – and, once again, sorry for the unsolicited email.

Next on my list is Russell James, editor of Your Family Tree magazine. I’m hoping that he might be able to reveal any leads or openings that I might not have considered. This is the email that I sent him:

Hi Russell,

Hope you’re keeping well. I’m just getting in touch because I’m trying to track down a historical figure, and I was wondering if you had any expert advice.

The historical figure I’m trying to track down is Mario Contasino – the man who, in 1931, ran over Winston Churchill in New York. The reason that I’m trying to track him down is that Codemasters are bringing out a videogame called Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, which is based on an alternate history in which Churchill was killed in that automobile accident. And so they’d like to honour Mario’s descendents, and so I’m trying to find them, and reporting my progress on a blog.

So far I’ve tried a few of the online genealogical sites like ancestry.com, but can’t find any fruitful leads. In fact, Contasino seems a very unusual name – there are only 34 searches returned by Google, for example.

So I was wondering if you happened to have any tips or advice for tracking down somebody so elusive. I’d be really grateful if you could get back to me to let me know.

Finally, I sent another email to the Churchill Archives Centre, located at Churchill College, Cambridge, to see if they might have anybody on hand who knows a bit more about the matter:

I’m currently trying to track down Mario Contasino – the man named as the driver of the vehicle that struck Churchill while he was in New York. And I’m recording the fruits of my search in a blog. Which leads me to an enquiry: is there anybody at the Archives Centre who might know of any other documents in which Contasino is mentioned? Some accounts of the incident seem to suggest that the two men struck up a friendship after the event, so I was wondering if, for example, whether there existed any sort of correspondence between the two men.

Once again, I’d be enormously grateful if you could get back to me to let me know.

I’ll keep you posted on the results. In the meantime, don’t forget to email any advice or information about the whereabouts of Mario Contasino’s descendents to search@codemasters.com.

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Internet searching

January 28, 2008

If you’re joining us for the first time: welcome. We’re about to start the search for the descendents of Mario Contasino, the man who, in 1931, ran over the future leader of Britain, Winston Churchill, nearly changing the course of history and inspiring the Codemasters action game, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty.

In our last update, we took a brief look at the sorts of documentary evidence that we’ll need to sift through if we’re to find more information about Mario himself. One of the problems is that many of these sources aren’t available online, or they’re only partially available online, which will make our task slightly more difficult. However, there are several websites aimed at amateur genealogists and family historians that search through those sources that are available online, and that’s where we’ll be taking our first tentative steps to locate him. For no reason other than its obvious url, our first port of call is ancestry.com. The site includes a searchable database of family and local histories drawn from various libraries (including genealogical society collections and documents from the US National Archives – you can see the full list here). However, the results aren’t too impressive: Typing just ‘Mario Contasino’ into its search function (leaving the other fields, such as birth and location, blank) returns no precisely matching results.The most promising result is an entry for a Mario Contizioni, drawn from the 1930 US Federal Census, but his birth date, of about 1923, would make him around eight-years-old when he ran over Winston Churchill on that fateful day in 1931, which probably rules him out as a candidate. The search also produces a plethora of Mario Cendeses, and a few Contessos, but nothing that looks like an actual lead worth following.

Other websites are even less useful. None of the following (thrown up by Google searches) provide either complete or partial matches for Mario Contasino: Family Search; Genesreunited; GenCircles; GeneaNet; Genealogy.com; and Yourfamily.com.

Obviously this is a far from exhaustive search (this site lists plenty of other sites to start looking, for example). But maybe it’s time to enlist the help of some experts. More on that later. In the meantime, f you have any advice to help the search for the descendents of Mario Contasino, please email it to search@codemasters.com.

If you’ve just tuned in, Mario Contasino is the man who, in 1931, accidentally ran over Winston Churchill while the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was in New York. In real life, Churchill was lucky to escape with just a few knocks and bruises. In the forthcoming Codemasters game, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, this incident resulted in Churchill’s death, triggering a counterfactual version of history in which the Axis powers occupy Europe and invade America. We’re trying to find Contasino’s descendants in order to honour a man who, had fate been crueller, might have made a much more significant mark on history.

Having found out a little more about the event itself (here), the next step is to identify potentially fruitful avenues of research. The obvious places to start looking for somebody from the past are any census records that might exist; any records of births or deaths (such as probate records, or funeral registers); marriage records; perhaps church records; military service records; voting registers; immigration records and so on. In fact, there’s a good introduction here and here. Most of these sources aren’t available online, or are only partially available online, but over the coming weeks I will be trying to locate as many as possible.

Other possible means of tracking down Mario Contasino and his relatives include contacting the New York Times (one of our best sources for the incident); contacting Churchill’s descendents (since some reports indicate that Churchill and Contasino subsequently became friends); contacting any archives or museums that might have any information (such as the Churchill Archives); and so on.

One place that I probably won’t be looking for Mario Contasino’s descendents is the current phone book: a search here suggests that there is nobody with the surname Contasino who owns a telephone in the United States. There are, however, records for many people with the surname Contadino, raising the intriguing possibility that Mario Contasino may not actually be Mario Contasino’s name: it may be the case that early accounts of the accident spelt the driver’s name incorrectly; or that they got his name entirely wrong; or that Mario Contasino later changed his name. Which is, of course, something that I’ll have to bear in mind while searching through those archival avenues listed above.

Another place that might seem an obvious place to start looking in our modern information age is Google. Unfortunately that, too, doesn’t appear to be very fruitful: type ‘Mario Contasino’ into Google and there are (currently) only four links. Typing ‘Contasino’ extends that to ten results.

It could be a bit of a challenge.

But it’ll all be worth it if we can find Mario’s family, so anyone with information as to their whereabouts, or suggestions about where to look for them should contact me on search@codemasters.com

My First, Tentative Steps

January 19, 2008

On December 13th, 1931, Winston Churchill was run over by a car while crossing the street on a visit to New York. Today, the event is little more than one of history’s footnotes, and barely merits a mention in most biographies of Churchill. But while we all know that Churchill would go on to become one of the most influential leaders in history, we know next to nothing about the driver who hit him.

So what did happen to Mario Contasino, the unemployed mechanic who was driving the car in question? Over the coming weeks, that’s what we aim to find out, by tracking down his descendents.

Before we start though, it might be useful to find a little bit more about the incident, to see if it throws up any interesting leads about the man himself. It’s not especially well documented: a quick trip to the local library confirms that the incident wasn’t considered important enough for many of Churchill’s biographers. It was certainly serious enough for Churchill, however, who suffered a severe scalp wound and two cracked ribs, and who noted, after the event: “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.” He even suffered an attack of pleurisy during his hospital recuperation.

The event is, however, mentioned in Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and America, where Mario Contasino is named as the driver who hit Churchill, and it is also recounted as part of an interactive display at the Churchill Museum in London.

The incident was described thus by the New York Times, in an article on Monday December 14, 1931:

Winston Churchill, British statesman, who arrived here last Friday for a lecture tour, was struck and painfully injured by an automobile last night while crossing Fifth Avenue between Seventy-sixth and Seventyseventh Streets.

The paper would go on to describe him leaving hospital, “With a large dressing patch covering his forehead and a smaller patch across the bridge of his nose”. Indeed, last year, the paper revisited the incident here.

“About 10:30 p.m., he set out to visit his friend Bernard M. Baruch, the financier, at 1055 Fifth Avenue.

Travelling north in a taxi (Fifth Avenue was two-way in those days), Churchill became confused about the building numbers. The taxi driver, who was new to Manhattan, turned around. Churchill got out on the Central Park side, walked a few paces north and then tried to cross the avenue against the light.

Used to traffic that keeps to the left, Churchill looked to his right, saw no one coming and kept walking. A car driven by an unemployed mechanic named Mario Contasino, moving about 30 miles an hour, dragged Churchill several yards and flung him into the street, bruising his right chest, spraining his right shoulder and cutting his forehead and nose.”

That isn’t our only evidence of the incident, however. Churchill himself provided a first-hand account in an article entitled My New York Misadventure, written for the Daily Mail on January 5, 1932 (I’ve emailed the Churchill Archives Centre to see if a transcript is available). He even sent a telegram to the physicist Frederick Lindemann asking him to calculate the impact that the car might have had on him. Lindemann’s reply was as follows:

“COLLISION EQUIVALENT FALLING THIRTY FEET ONTO PAVEMENT EQUAL SIXTHOUSAND FOOTPOUNDS ENERGY EQUIVALENT STOPPING TEN POUND BRICK DROPPED SIXHUNDRED FEET OR TWO CHARGES BUCKSHOT POINTBLANK RANGE STOP SHOCK PRESUMABLY PROPORTIONAL RATE ENERGY TRANSFERRED STOP RATE INVERSELY PROPORTIONAL THICKNESS CUSHION SURROUNDING SKELETON AND GIVE OF FRAME STOP IF ASSUME AVERAGE ONE INCH YOUR BODY TRANSFERRED DURING IMPACT AT RATE EIGHT THOUSAND HORSEPOWER STOP CONGRATULATIONS ON PREPARING SUITABLE CUSHION AND SKILL IN TAKING BUMP

Coming up next: the search for Mario’s descendents gets underway.

The Quest Begins

January 16, 2008

On December 13th, 1931, the 57-year-old Winston Churchill was hit by a car while crossing Fifth Avenue in New York.

The incident left him seriously injured. But in a characteristic display of resilience, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom bounced back, and within just a few weeks he was writing about his escapade in the British press.

Churchill would go on, of course, to become the wartime leader of Britain, inspiring the Allied forces to their famous victory against the Axis powers in the Second World War. But what would have happened had Churchill not recovered from his accident? How would the Allied forces have fared without such an inspirational leader?

It’s on such small turning points that history is balanced.

And it’s on this precise turning point that the new alternate World War II action game Turning Point: Fall of Liberty is based. The game supposes that the automobile accident in which Churchill was hit proved fatal – and that without his inspirational speeches to galvanise the Allies, the course of the Second World War changed, with the Axis Powers even invading America.

From a historical point of view, this alternate reality is of tremendous interest. Had the car been travelling slightly faster, or had Churchill been struck differently, the outcome of World War II could have been drastically skewed.

For such a potentially significant event, there’s very little documented. One wonders whether, as World War II loomed, the taxi driver – unemployed mechanic Mario Contasino – ever paused to think of the moment where he could have shaped destiny. We all know what happened to Churchill – but what happened to Mario Contasino? Did he have a family – and do his descendents know of his historical collision with fate?

Google Mario Contasino’s name and there are four results (five now, I suppose). Churchill had yet to truly make his mark. And as for Mario Contasino? He seems to have disappeared.

So some 75 years after the incident, I will be searching out the descendents of the driver of the car that struck Churchill – a driver who, through no fault of his own, nearly changed the course of modern history.

I will recount the fruits of my labours, here, and hopefully, with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, I will eventually be able to reveal the current whereabouts of Mario Contasino’s descendants – the descendents of a man who shaped twentieth history; the man who inspired Fall of Liberty.

We would like to officially recognise his descendents. We’d like to find out more about this incredible man, to thank his family for his compassion. Churchill and Contasino became firm friends.

Imagine if this had been a hit and run.

Anyone with information as to the whereabouts of Mario Contasino’s descendants, or suggestions about where to look for them can join the adventure by contacting me on search@codemasters.com .

In the meantime, stay tuned for further developments.