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The hidden past of Sammy Hagar’s family

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In the latest episode of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., rock legend Sammy Hagar, the lead vocalist of Van Halen, delved into his family's past. In doing so, he uncovered shocking details about his connections to Rochester, NY. The show, which aired January 23 on WXXI-TV, also included finding the roots of actor Ed O'Neill.

Hagar, who knew little about his mother's lineage, discovered through the show’s research that his great-grandfather, Giacomo Alessi, appeared in the 1900 Rochester census as a fruit dealer — a common occupation among Italian immigrants of the time.

Season 10, Episode 4 of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots," hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., featured actor Ed O'Neill and Van Halen lead vocalist Sammy Hagar. - PBS
  • PBS
  • Season 10, Episode 4 of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots," hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., featured actor Ed O'Neill and Van Halen lead vocalist Sammy Hagar.

But a deeper dive into his family history uncovered a far more tumultuous past.

In a dramatic reveal, Gates presented an 1899 Rochester newspaper article to Hagar, detailing how Joseph Alessi, Giacomo's brother, shot a man over a $13 debt. And in another chilling incident, Joseph’s son Antonio was found murdered in 1911, with his throat so viciously cut that his head was nearly severed.

“‘He has several brothers here,’” said Hagar, reading the article aloud. “Samuel, [...] who has a fruit store at Monroe Avenue, and Antonio, who has a fruit stand on Clinton Avenue.’ These guys were mobsters! I should have known!” he said.

The cycle of violence continued, with another of Joseph’s sons, Paul Ollis, being killed in a similarly brutal fashion.



“They got his son,” said Hagar. “Man, for $13! That's what just keeps going back in my head. It started with $13. $13. [...] And they tried to decapitate him! Oh, wow."


Visibly shaken on camera, Hagar reflected on the secretive nature of his grandparents and their constant need to move, indicating a possible awareness of their family's dark past. He also found out his real surname — instead of Hagar, it's Belcher.

Ultimately, the discovery shed light on why Hagar’s grandparents were so reticent about their past. His great-grandfather, Alessi, plagued by violence and criminal activities in Rochester, chose to move his family away, eventually relocating to California where Hagar was raised.

Watch the full episode online.

Jasmin Singer is the host of WXXI's "Weekend Edition." She can be reached at [email protected].

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