Primary source material about Benjamin Warner and his wife Pearl Eichelbaum, parents of the men who would form The Warner Brothers film company, has been lacking in published material. This has left a gap filled with unsubstantiated information, which in turn has become the basis for common knowledge about the family. Given the inaccuracy of that knowledge, this article provides an improved look at the Warner family history in the late 19th century with evidence from primary sources.
Books that include early history of the family(4) relay a vague and occasionally conflicting story that Benjamin Warner came from 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/Harry. In Baltimore Abraham/Albert, Samuel, Henry, Rose and Fannie were born. Sons David and Jacob/Jack were born in London, Ontario. The family returned to Baltimore after a couple of years, then moved to Youngstown, Ohio, where Sadie and Milton were born.
Beginning with the United States Federal Census, the 1900 enumeration places the Warner family in Youngstown, Ohio.(5) 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.(6)
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. They differ in her place of birth, 1900 saying Maryland and 1910 saying Germany. The 1900 census is also incorrect in saying her two younger brothers were born in Maryland. The 1910 information (for the Charnas household) may have been given by her husband Harry Charnas, who probably would have known his wife was not born in the United States, but may not have been sure where in Europe. The immigration year is also not given. They had been married within the previous year.
The World War I draft cards for Albert, Samuel Louis and Harry Morris Warner (which give their occupations and confirm they were "The Warner Brothers") say they were not native born, but naturalized citizens based on their father's naturalization.(7) No cards were found for brothers Jack, David and Milton.
From these records it is clear that the Warners did not immigrate in the first half of the 1880s, and that Samuel was not born in Baltimore as is widely stated. United States Federal censuses are particularly unreliable sources for accurate immigration dates. The 1910 U. S. census appears unreliable by giving the dates of 1898 and 1899, although the one-year separation is notable. 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 is helpful to know that the 1883-1885 immigration period must be wrong. Abraham and Pearl clearly had children in Russia after those years. In the indeces 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.(1)
The passenger list is dated 16 January 1888, which is very likely when the ship arrived in England. Also on this ship was Alter Eichelbaum of Krasnoshiltz, age 22, undoubtedly a relative of Pearl Eichelbaum. He then stepped onto the British steamship Polynesian for Baltimore, Maryland, travelling in the steerage section.(2)
He arrived there on the 3rd of February. The Hamburg passenger list says he was 30, born in Krasnoshiltz and was a "handler" (peddler). This is a very generic term for a seller of goods. Several other men who traveled with him all the way to Baltimore are also called that, but listed with differing occupations on the second leg of the journey. The Liverpool list gives the same age for Benjamin, the occupation of shoemaker, that he was born in Russia and his destination for settlement was Baltimore.
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.(3) Pere is on the passenger list as a male peddler with Rifke, 10, Moses, 9, Abraham, 6, Schmul, 3, and Reisel, 10 months. They were Russians, and their declared final destination was Maryland. They also had traveled in steerage.
Nineteenth-century passenger lists don't often confuse gender, but it is reasonable to think that German ship officers were not well-versed in the less common Jewish names. "Pere" Urnsal was supposedly a male peddler aged 37, but his children can arguably match those of Benjamin and Pearl Warner. Warner oral history, as it is implied in books, not to mention common practice among other immigrant Jews, says that more American sounding names were chosen for the children. The passenger list names - Rifke, Moses, Abraham, Schmul and Reisel - were all Hebrew or Yiddish names, granting some misspellings.(8) Jews in Eastern Europe were often given two names, one Hebrew and one Yiddish, and either or both used at various times and situations. Moses was often changed to Morris. Harry Morris Warner, according to the Warner family, was originally Hirsch. Hirsch commonly became Henry and Harry in the United States. He may have been named Hirsch Moses or vice versa, when he was born, and the ages of Moses "Urnsal" and Harry Warner were the same. "Rifke," more correctly spelled "Rivke," is clearly Yiddish and translates to Rebecca, but she was the same age as Anna Warner. Perhaps her second name was Rebecca or vice versa. Abraham "Urnsal" was the same age as Abraham/Albert Warner. "Schmul," more correctly spelled "Schmuel," was usually changed to its translation "Samuel," and "Schmul's" age is the same as Samuel Warner. Reisel was 10 months old in October of 1889. Her age matches Rose Warner. "Rose" was often chosen as an alternative for "Reisel." "Pere," the name of their supposed father, is not a known Jewish name, but Perel is. This is a variation of the English "Pearl." The age of 37 doesn't match that of Pearl (Eichelbaum) Warner, but if the 7 in 37 was somehow confused at some point with a 1, which is possible given some handwriting, that would match Pearl's age. That and the name misspelling would suggest transcription errors, but when that may have occurred isn't known. It is possible that Pearl became a peddler after her husband left to help provide for the family.
Nineteenth-century passenger lists found in the various customs offices in the United States and now available for research were made at the time of embarkation. They were then used by the American customs officers when checking passengers in person, in the case of the Warners, at Castle Garden. No new lists were made and no new names were forced on immigrants at customs. Reviewing publications and online webpages, it is generally accepted that Benjamin Warner chose that 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 included Krasnoshiltz.(9)
Summary of proposed corrections to the accepted early history of the Benjamin Warner family
Benjamin "Wonsal" immigrated from Hamburg to Liverpool on the ship 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 ship 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, perhaps in combination with Rebecca. Moses, whom the Warner family also calls Hirsch, became Harry Morris. Abraham became Albert in his adulthood. Schmul, who may also have been known as Levy,(9) 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 Warner brothers of the motion picture industry
Harry Morris Warner, original name perhaps Hirsch Moses Wonsal, born in the Russian Empire, probably in the town of Krasnoshiltz, 12 December 1881.(11)
Albert Warner, original names perhaps Abraham Wonsal, born in the Russian Empire, probably in the town of Krasnoshiltz, 23 July 1883.(12)
Samuel Louis Warner, original name perhaps Schmuel Levy Wonsal, born in the Russian Empire, probably in the town of Krasnoshiltz, 10 August 1885.(13)
Jack Leonard Warner, original first name was Jacob, born in London, Ontario.