The Name-Change Game

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    Now, this should have been an easy case. No one had any objections. Normally, name changes aren't considered very important in busy courthouses. If you follow a few simple procedures, you'll get it done.

    Unfortunately, Francis and his family ran into a judge who was looking to make a name for himself (the judge will remain nameless here). Knowing the tabloids would pick up the story, he denied the poor kid his chance at becoming a Frank. Explaining his loopy decision, the judge mentioned that Francis Scott Key and Francis Albert Sinatra?who everyone of course knew as Frank?led very successful lives as Francises, and asserted that the young Francis in question should be proud of his name and just ignore the bullies.

    What an early 19th-century-anthem writer and a dead lounge singer have to do with a contemporary Francis on Staten Island, the judge never explained. He got his name into the paper, and the kid left the courtroom in tears. Francis and his parents vowed that he would be known as Frank, and damn what the court had to say.

    A record of name changes in Brooklyn and Staten Island can be found in Brooklyn's County Clerk's Office. In a far corner, back by some unwashed windows looking out onto Adams St., is a stash of eight huge books that hold every name change made in those counties from 1853 to 1994. A hundred forty-one years, and hundreds of pages of name-swapping. The books tell a story about America, if you're willing to leaf through them.

    The earliest recorded entry I could find was from June 16, 1853, when a man known as Thomas A. Sweet became Thomas W. DuPree. Back in those days, name changes weren't common, and it would be another 20 years before another person with a name beginning with a D would have a name change.

    As the century moved into the 1870s a lot of Irish changed their names. The Kellys became the Logans, the O'Connors became the Connors, the Fitzpatricks became the Russells. No reasons are provided why the names were changed, but given that the Irish were on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, a good bet is that it was to evade creditors and landlords. Take a loan out from the dry goods store in 1873 as John O'Reilly, change your name to James Stone in 1874, and it was as if you'd made everything go away. Who's that bum O'Reilly anyway?

    But it wasn't just to evade creditors that the Irish changed their names. The changes were part of a dynamic that continues today?foreigners wanting to become a part of this thing called America, where you could be whoever and whatever you wanted, at least sometimes, and if you got real lucky. And maybe some of the Irish just wanted not to be Irish anymore. In 1877 good old Christopher Reilly changed his name to Edwin Fernadid Marshess.

    The handwritten entries in these books are magnificent (at least until the 1960s, when ballpoint pens ruined everything). The script is rendered in a wonderful rolling style. You can picture a wizened white-haired clerk in a green visor bending over the huge book with a quill pen, carefully dipping into a well of jet-black ink so that Horatio Sims could become Horatio Ogden.

    By the 1920s in Brooklyn, the Irish were joined by the Jews and Italians in the name-change game. These newer immigrants weren't looking to duck creditors as much as to become more American. In 1928 the Silvers became the Whites, Irving Umschweif became Irving Ames and Samuel Aloff became Sam Allen (good strong American name, that one). In 1933 Charles Siciliano changed his name to Charles Atlas and went on to become the world famous strongman who, in his comic book ads, came to the aid of the 98-pound weakling.

    History informed the name-change game in 1933 when Morris Hittler?a Jew??saw what was happening in Germany and thought his name was a little too close for comfort. He had it changed to Morris Hilton. I searched for other notorious names, like Mussolini, Stalin, Oswald and David Berkowitz, but found nothing. Either no one was named those things in Brooklyn, or if they were, they didn't mind.

    In 1963, Abraham Treshansky changed his name to Abraham Tresh?maybe to honor Tom Tresh, who at that point was a rising Yankee star. Tom Tresh would later wash out and become known forever in the Bronx as Tom Trash.

    Then came the late 1960s. Now it was time to turn away from becoming American. By 1969, Francis Waters was becoming Francis Qualitiera. Smith became Abdul-Raiffs. Reynolds became Rodriguez. Prescott became Nukrumas. James Smith went back to his African roots as Karriem Malika.

    The name-change game boomed in the 1960s. A record book that once would have lasted 50 years would now be filled in five. Harried clerks were making ugly and rushed entries. Meanwhile, businesses got in on the game, updating their images. Tasty Bakery got on the modern bandwagon and became?and to call a bakery this now would be inconceivable?Systematic Bakery. To keep up with the times, Great Scot became Scot's Fashions in 1969. In 1970 came the first case of political correctness I could find in the volumes: Gator Belts became Kingstone Belts.

    By the 1980s and 90s, sex changes became part of the equation. Jose Rivera Santiago became Juanita Echevarria, Barry Scott Metz became Deborah Elaine Metz. Indians, relatively new to the ethnic mix, pop up, and the Ghotoras became Singhs. But people still went back to their roots. Gabriel Poser became Perter Yoni Omi, and William Friedman became Isaiah Shalom.

    By 1994 the court system was fully computerized. No one makes entries in the books anymore. The volumes sit on shelves gathering dust. As I took one last look through them, I was presented with a serious quandary from 1969. Why did Wing Wong Moy became Gee Wing Won?