Shelly Parshall

Shelly Parshall

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

Have you ever wondered where you came from?

Are there murderers, thieves or just normal boring folks in your bloodline? Should you be concerned for your children with the whole nature versus nurture question, if some of your ancestors did bad things?

This is the question Helene Stapinski found herself asking often and wondering if the stories she heard about her great-great-grandmother being a murderer were true.

Helene was told that Vita, her great-great-grandmother, fled Italy in 1982 with her three children after committing murder. This story was told to her often by her mother who heard the story by her father, Grandpa Beansie. Grandpa Beansie himself had spent time in prison for stealing and other illegal activities.

Helene was a journalist and was consumed with discovering the truth about her great-great-grandmother and her story partly due to the fact that Helene had two small children and one of them prone to temper tantrums and outbursts. Was this normal child behavior or was it something more, passed down from generation to generation?

She had little to go on, just a death certificate for Vita, birth certificates of Vita’s sons and a few street names. With this information she made the decision to take her two small children and her mother on a trip to Italy for a “vacation” to try and find some answers. Thus beginning her 10-year journey to discover the truth about her ancestors and writing the book, “Murder in Matera: a True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy.”

This true story takes you on the journey with Helene. The story goes from present day following Helene’s journey of discovery to the past and Vita’s journey from childhood to her death at the age 64. Unfortunately, Vita couldn’t read or write, so there were no journals for Helene to use so the voice of Vita is as Helene imagined her thoughts and reactions to be. She didn’t have much luck on her first trip to Italy but going back 10 years later she had much better results.

She discovered Vita had left Italy to go to America in 1892, the same year a quarter million Italians emigrated to escape horrible hardships. It wasn’t normal for women to travel without a man as Vita did and with her three children. Not three boys as the stories said but two boys and her 7-year-old daughter who unfortunately was lost on the long journey to America. Vita’s life wasn’t an easy one, and the stories that Helene had been told starting at the age of 4 was filled with untruths and misinformation, yes there was a murder and Vita had an affair, but some things were completely out of her control.

Discovering your ancestors can be a fun and surprising journey. If local history is what you’re after check out local author on West Salem history, try Errol Kindschy’s book, “Taking Care of Business, the West Salem Way.”

There are some resources available at We have a link to Heritage Quest online, a collection of genealogical and historical sources. From our website click on Badgerlink on the bottom of the page and go to all resources, from there to heritage quest. Also check out our link for ECHO (exploring cultural history online) from the Winding Rivers Library System which has an online collection of pictures and a searchable database.

Stop in at any of our La Crosse County Library locations at Bangor, Campbell, Holmen, West Salem and Onalaska to pick up or order any of your favorite library materials or visit us at to search our catalog or see what’s happening at the library.

Shelly Parshall works at the West Salem branch of the La Crosse County Library.


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