Early Records for the "Warner Brothers" Family
(a narrative reconsidered)

by Doug Sinclair © 2007; a part of Doug Sinclair's Archives, all rights reserved

     Primary source material for Benjamin Warner and his wife Pearl Eichelbaum, parents of the men who would form The Warner Brothers film company, has been lacking in published biographies. This has left a gap filled with unsubstantiated information, which in turn has become the basis for common knowledge about the family. The problem is magnified on the internet, where one erroneous reference can be quickly picked up by hundreds of other sites that don't fact-check. This article is the result of examining those primary resources to come up with a more reliable narrative about this family in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

     Books that include early history of the family(1) relay a vague, partly fictionalized and occasionally conflicting story that Benjamin Warner came from Krasnoshiltz in either Poland or the Russian Empire to Baltimore in 1883 or 1885. The rest of his family followed. His wife was Pearl and two surviving children came with her: Anna and Hirsch, later known as Harry Morris Warner. In Baltimore Abraham/Albert, Samuel, Rose and Fannie were born. Sons David and Jacob/Jack were born in London, Ontario. The family returned to Baltimore after several years, then moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where Sadie and Milton were born.

Primary records

     Beginning with the United States Federal Census, the 1900 enumeration places the Warner family in Youngstown, Ohio.(2) That source says Anna, Harry, Abraham and Samuel were born in Russia. The rest were born in Maryland. Their immigration date is 1886. The 1910 census has children Harry M. and Samuel born in Russia, Jack and David born in Canada and the rest in Maryland.(3)

The immigration dates are 1898 for Benjamin, 1899 for Pearl, Harry and Samuel, and 1894 for Jack and David. Rose Warner's age in those censuses were 11 and 21 respectively. They differ in her place of birth, 1900 saying Maryland and 1910 saying Germany. The latter was after her marriage. No immigration year is given.

     The World War I draft cards for Albert, Samuel Louis and Harry Morris Warner (which give their occupations and confirm they were who we know as "The Warner Brothers") say they weren't native born, but naturalized citizens based on their father's naturalization.(4) The Warners' origin in Krasnoshiltz is confirmed on Benjamin's death certificate.(5) The informant was his son Abe, and Benjamin's place of birth is written as "Krasnanashiltz." Krasnoshiltz, at one time in the Russian Empire, is now the Polish town Krasnocielc. This is also a primary source for Pearl's maiden name Eichelbaum, she being named as Benjamin's wife. Pearl's death certificate gives her parents as Joseph and Bascha Ackelbaum of Poland.(6)

     From these records it's clear that the Warners didn't immigrate in the first half of the 1880s and that Samuel wasn't born in Baltimore as is widely stated. United States Federal censuses are particularly unreliable sources for accurate immigration dates. The 1910 census appears very unreliable by giving the dates of 1898 and 1899. The 1894 date for the arrival in the United States of the two sons born in Canada is reasonable. If 1898 and 1899 are changed to 1888 and 1889, it would allow for all the children down to Rose to be born in Russia before the family immigrated, which other evidence indicates.

     To further explore the origins of this family, it's helpful to know that the 1883-1885 immigration period must be wrong before research into passenger lists. Abraham and Pearl clearly had children in Russia after those years. In the indexes to passenger lists involving Europeans coming to Great Britain and the United States, only one possiblity turns up for Benjamin and that is Benjamin Wonsal in 1888. All the information given for this man matches what has been accepted about Benjamin Warner except the immigration date, which is evidently incorrect. Benjamin "Wonsal" of Krasnoshiltz left Hamburg, Germany, for Liverpool, England, on the British steamship Chester.(7)

     Also on this ship was Alter Eichelbaum of Krasnoshiltz, age 22. He was Pearl's brother.(7.5) Benjamin then stepped onto the British steamship Polynesian for Baltimore, Maryland, traveling in the steerage section.(8)

     He arrived there on the 3rd of February. The Hamburg passenger list says he was 30, born in Krasnoshiltz and was a "handler." This is a very generic German term for someone with a trade. The Liverpool list gives the same age for Benjamin as the Hamburg list and says that he was born in Russia and intended to settle in Baltimore. His occupation was shoemaker.

     Using 1889 as a start year for the rest of the family, only one possible family group turns up. In October 1889 Pere Urnsal arrived in Baltimore on the German steamship Hermann, having embarked at Bremen, Germany.(9) Pere is on the passenger list as a male peddler, age 37, with Rifke, 10, Moses, 9, Abraham, 6, Schmul, 3, and Reisel, 10 months. They were Russians, and their declared final destination was Maryland. They traveled in steerage.

     The children in the Urnsal family group arguably match those of Benjamin and Pearl Warner with one exception in name. It was common practice among immigrant Jews to anglicize their given names. The passenger list names - Rifke, Moses, Abraham, Schmul and Reisel - were all Hebrew or Yiddish names, granting some misspellings.(10) Jews in Eastern Europe were often given two names, one Hebrew and one Yiddish, and either or both were used in various situations. Moses, for instance, was often changed to Morris. Moses "Urnsal" became Harry Morris Warner. The Warner family also calls him Hirsch, the common Jewish version of Henry and the nickname Harry. This suggests he was Hirsch Moses or Moses Hirsch when he was born. "Rifke," more correctly spelled "Rivke," is clearly Yiddish and translates to Rebecca. She was the same age as Anna Warner. Her birth name may have been Hannah Rivke or vice versa. Abraham "Urnsal" was the same age as Abraham/Albert Warner. "Schmul," a misspelling of "Schmuel," was usually changed to its translation "Samuel," and Schmul Urnsal's age is the same as Samuel Louis Warner. In his case, his middle name at birth may have been Levy, which translates to Louis. Reisel was 10 months old in October of 1889. Her age matches Rose Warner. "Rose" was often chosen as an alternative for "Reisel." No evidence has been found for "Pere" being a given name in any language. The closest given name in spelling is Perel, the English equivalent being Pearl. Pere's age of 37 doesn't match that of Pearl (Eichelbaum) Warner, but if the 7 in 37 was somehow confused with a 1, that would match Pearl's age. Harder to explain is the reference to Pere as male and a peddler. The passenger list held by US Customs was made in Bremen or during the voyage and signed-off by the captain. A list was also was held at Bremen, assuming the process was the same as in Hamburg. Was one a transcription of another? The lists held in Hamburg also give the town of origin, which was not required by US Customs at that time, so the benefit of comparing lists is lost for Bremen passengers. If this was Perel, or Pearl, the extent of the mistakes in her entry is atypical. Given the weight of other evidence, though, it's very unlikely this wasn't the Warner family.

     Had the Bremen passenger lists been preserved, a comparison could have been made and a town of origin possibly given, as is the case with the Hamburg records. The passenger lists held by US Customs were transcriptions of orginals made before the ships docked at their destinations. This was certainly the case for ships leaving Hamburg. This dispells the common adage that immigrant names were changed at Ellis Island. The entry for "Pere Urnsal" is hard to explain. Was this a very poor transcription of the original list? This kind of mistake was atypical, but given the weight of other evidence, it's very unlikely this wasn't Pearl Warner and her children.

     New names weren't forced on immigrants by US Customs as is often supposed. Reviewing publications and online webpages, it's generally accepted that Benjamin Warner chose his last name once in the United States and that the original name was unknown to descendants. The documentary The Brothers Warner, aired as part of the PBS "American Masters" series, includes a telephone conversation between creator Cass Warner Sperling and a woman who says that Benjamin Warner was the brother of one of her ancestors and that the surname of the family was "Wonskolaser." No further evidence was given to support this, and a search of published indexes to primary records for anyone with this name who could have been of Benjamin's generation was not fruitful. Why was Mr. Wonskolaser thought to have been Benjamin Warner's relative? If Benjamin Wonsal was Benjamin Warner, it is reasonable to imagine him simplifying the name Wonskolaser to Wonsal, for whatever reason. However, "Wonsal" is a name that appears in 19th century vital records for the Lomza Gubernia, which then included Krasnoshiltz.(11)

Summary of proposed corrections to the accepted early history of the Benjamin Warner family

     Benjamin "Wonsal" immigrated from Hamburg to Liverpool on the steamship Chester in January 1888, then from Liverpool to Baltimore on the ship Polynesian in January and February 1888. His wife Pearl was the "Pere Urnsal" who came to Baltimore from Bremen on the steamship Hermann in October 1889. Traveling with her were her children "Rifke," "Moses," "Abraham," "Schmul" and infant "Reisel." In Baltimore the family name was changed to Warner. Rifke was given the name Anna. Moses, whom the Warner family also called Hirsch, became Harry Morris. Abraham became Albert in his adulthood. Schmul, who may have had the second name Levy, became Samuel Louis, and Reisel became Rose. Harry, Albert, Samuel and their younger brother Jack eventually entered the motion picture business and started the "Warner Brothers" film studio.

The Russian-born Warner brothers of the motion picture industry
Harry Warner
Harry Morris Warner, original name perhaps Hirsch Moses Wonsal (the Warner family apparently referred to him as Hirsch), born in the Russian Empire, probably in the town of Krasnoshiltz, 12 December 1881.(12)
Albert Warner
Albert Warner, called Abraham in childhood, original name perhaps Abraham Wonsal, born in the Russian Empire, probably in the town of Krasnoshiltz, 23 July 1883.(13)
Sam Warner
Samuel Louis Warner, original name perhaps Schmuel Levy Wonsal, born in the Russian Empire, probably in the town of Krasnoshiltz, 10 August 1885.(14)

1. Prominent among them are: Bob Thomas, Clown Prince of Hollywood: The Antic Life and Times of Jack L. Warner, (McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New York:1990); Cass Sperling, Cork Millner, Jack Warner, Hollywood be thy Name, the Warner Brothers Story (University Press of Kentucky:1998); Michael Freedland, The Warner Brothers (Harrap:1983).
2. Ancestry.com, 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line], (Provo, UT, The Generations Network, Inc.: 2004); from United States of America, Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, Youngstown, Mahoning County, OH, Ward 1 (Washington, D.C., National Archives and Records Administration: 1900), Roll T623 1300, E. D. 58, pg. 24A.
3. Ancestry.com, 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line], (Provo, UT, The Generations Network, Inc.: 2004); from United States of America, Bureau of the Census, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1910 Youngstown, Mahoning County, OH, Ward 2 (Washington, D.C., National Archives and Records Administration: 1900), Roll T624 1212, E. D. 107, Page 1A.
4. Ancestry.com, World War I Draft Registration Cards [database on-line], (Provo, UT, The Generations Network, Inc.: 2005).
5. Familysearch.org, Ohio, Deaths, 1908-1953, [database on-line], (Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City:2013), image of Ohio Department of Health death certificate, Mahoning County, 1935, #1613,.
6. Familysearch.org, California Death Index 1905-1939," [database on-line], (Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City:2012), image of California Department of Health death certficate, Los Angeles County, City of Los Angeles, 1934, state file #42871, local registration #9998.
7. Staatsarchiv Hamburg, Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850-1934 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2008; from Staatsarchiv Hamburg, Bestand: 373-7 I, VIII (Auswanderungsamt I), Mikrofilmrollen [-], Indirekt Band 72, ship Amerika, p. 61. U. S. passenger lists are dated according to their arrival, not their departure.
7.5. "Virginia Death Records, 1912-2014," ancestry.com database online, 1932, [cert #] 23492-23832, image 111 of cert. #23592, Michael Eichelbaum, son of Joseph and (Bessie) Eichelbaum, d. 16 Nov 1932, age 66, Lynchburg, VA. See also his gravestone, Beth Joseph Agudath Sholom, Madison Heights, VA, inscription "Alter Bear son of Joseph Eichelbaum born 19 Oct 1866 died 17 Nov 1932," image at www.findagrave.com/memorial/82228133. 8. Ancestry.com, Baltimore Passenger Lists, 1820-1948 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2006; from National Archives and Records Administration, Passenger Lists of Vessel Arriving at Baltimore, MD, 1820-1891, Roll M255 44, ship Polynesian, p. 2.
9. Ancestry.com, Baltimore Passenger Lists, 1820-1948 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2006; from National Archives and Records Administration, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Baltimore, MD, 1820-1891, Roll M255 46, ship Hermann, p. 7. There are no extant Bremen lists from this time as there are for Hamburg, the latter of which give the town of origin.
10. Warren Blatt, "Jewish Given Names in Eastern Europe and the U. S.," Avotaynu, 14:3 (Fall 1998), pp. 9-15.
11. Jewish Records Indexing Poland.
12. His birth date is given in various publications. No vital records were found for the period of the Warner births in Krasnoshiltz. See note #1.
13. He provided this birth date on his World War I draft registration card (cited above).
14. Ibid.

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