Sunday, October 9, 2016


I've been accused of being the family historian and am admittedly guilty. I know a lot about my mother's side of the family. As a child, I eagerly absorbed all that my relatives chose to reveal. As an adult, I excavated the things that they chose to remain buried. It was a colorful family, to say the least.

My maternal great-grandfather John Gordon (Janos Gurdonyi) was of royal blood, descendant of a Hungarian prince, who lost his inheritance when he married a commoner.
My great-uncle Frederick Lang was a murderer, who was executed for his crime in 1909 at age 24 - the last man to be hanged in New Jersey (I published an article about this).

My maternal grandmother Anna Gordon Knoll had eleven siblings - most of whom were flamboyant characters. 

Her husband, my grandfather Charles Knoll, came from a dysfunctional family shrouded in secrets.

 My maternal grandmother Anna Gordon Knoll (right) with her sister Lizabeth

My grandfather Charles Knoll, whose mother was Sofia Horvath

My grandfather's mother, Sofia Horvath, was an intriguing mystery. Despite extensive research, I could find no information about her whatsoever. No birth or death records, no marriage records, no grave site. I have no idea whether she was born in America or Hungary.

She is the mysterious ghost in our family - who haunts me solely because of her elusive existence.

She was described as being reserved, cool, distant. Everyone in the family agreed that she was beautiful - and it was said that my mother strongly resembled her.

Sophia Horvath was married several times and had numerous lovers. Each of her three sons had different fathers. I was surprised to discover that the identity of my grandfather's father is uncertain, and that Knoll might not even be his correct surname.

My mother said that she only saw her grandmother Sofia once in her entire life - when she was a child. Mom remembered her as being tall, slim, well-dressed, and elegant - a quiet, elusive woman who never smiled.

My great-grandmother Sofia Horvath died long before I was born. Her death was as mysterious as her life. She was discovered drowned in the Raritan River (New Jersey) - a possible murder, but most likely suicide.

A beautiful, mysterious, deeply troubled woman who seems to have left no trace....

 The Raritan River and the Raritan River Railroad Bridge

When I was twenty years old, I wrote a poem about her.


In April they dragged the river
for her body
waiting patiently under the ice
for months.
She yielded reluctantly,
still obstinate
after all these years.
On the edge
of the riverbank
yellow wildflowers nodded rumors
raising their heads to see.

I never knew her.
I only know the stories
told in sporadic whispers:
that she was beautiful
had several husbands
many lovers
and never smiled.

The lonely secret
of her shadowed existence
finally unraveled
like a carelessly abandoned
mourning shroud.
When she emerged
from the tomb
of thawing ice,
some say her lips
bore warm traces
of an unintentional smile.

Jon V.
from Love Letters to Ghosts      



  1. Jon,

    The haunts of those we know little about, I have a whole bunch on my wife's paternal side. I have been unable to really get a good tracing of that family. It frustrates me. I must say, you com from a long line of handsome and beautiful people, as well as interesting lives.


  2. I know very little about either family tree, and I have had no interest in tracing it. I think I'll let the departed RIP.

  3. When was she born an died, I like to dig up dead people. I would start with NJ

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Rats. I made some spelling errors, copied my astute and profound comment, then it wouldn't paste.

    The only thing I remember is saying that my dad was one of the original "Little Rascals" type of lad. His mother put him on the street to live or die when he was 8 years old. So there's no family history. He taught me ALL he knew about survival and how to fight dirty, but when he wanted to tell me about his life, I turned a deaf ear. Youth believes the past (if it belongs to a parent) is unimportant.

  6. O with you on this. I find it intriguing to know about our family trees. Yours is quite something else!!!! We have things in common again. My father side came from Dutch royalty though on his father side. His side of the family is far more interesting and colorful compared to my mothers. Aaron Burr is the most interesting relation on that side. It seems odd you can't find any info on Sofia. Maybe because she married so many times had something to do with it???

  7. Always interested in reading about your family history and looking at the old fashioned pictures.

  8. Love your tribute poem to such a mysterious woman. :)

  9. I member well this poem for Sofia ... your last lines still give me pause.
    I, too, have a mystery ancestor. Unfortunately, no-one in our remaining family seems much interested in the saga of our paternal grandfather Franz. (Guess Grandma's ill-will worked.)

    PS - Your grandfather Charles was dang handsome!

  10. Jon,
    I believe every family has these mysteries. It's a shame that the passage of time often buries these mysteries which is lost to succeeding generations. In my family I solved one such mystery and proved that my grandmother had a child out of wedlock when she was a teenager who was raised as her younger brother. When my Mother knew I was researching our family history she asked me about "Uncle Alfred" who died when he was eleven years old. I had to jump over a lot of hurdles but I finally got his birth certificate that showed my grandmother (who died at 27 years old from after effects of childbirth) was his Mother. Alfred's death certificate had listed my grandmother's parents as his parents, which was a lie.
    Family history, always interesting. Thanks for sharing yours.

  11. Your family is most remarkable. Your mother's grandma sounds more remarkable than most. Fancy not even having a birth certificate... a mystery indeed.

  12. Sofia Horvath. Sofia means "Wisdom", in Greek I think. Looked up Horvath and learned it was a common name in Hungary --with reference to Croatian lineage. Out here in the wild west, and elsewhere, it was not uncommon to use a Christening or Baptismal document in lieu of a birth certificate --my own grandfather was always 2 years older than he legally was-- but the documentation of Sofia's death seems inconsistent with the progress government record-keeping was making at the time. Truly an enigma.


I love comments. Go ahead and leave one - I won't bite. But make sure you have a rabies shot just in case.