Sleuthing for Clues in the News to Solve Genealogy Mysteries

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how tiny clues in old newspapers can lead to big family history discoveries.

Every genealogist I have ever met seems to be a combination of Perry Mason, Jessica Fletcher, Columbo, Christine Cagney, Mary Beth Lacey, Thomas Magnum, and Sherlock Holmes—searching everywhere for clues, following each one (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant), and putting together the strongest case they can.

illustration of Sherlock Holmes in “The Five Orange Pips”

Illustration: Sherlock Holmes in “The Five Orange Pips.” Source: Wikimedia.org.

One of my favorite places to hunt for clues in my genealogy and family history is the online collection of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. There always seems to be some new discovery for me to delve into in order to make our family tree more complete.

Sleuthing for Clues in the News

Sometimes these genealogical clues are truly tiny—but when pursued, can lead to valuable information and additions to our family trees. Such was the case when I came across a small, three-sentence article in an 1897 newspaper.

article about Mary Lisy, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 May 1897

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 May 1897, page 13

Having already identified that I had a couple in our family tree of Joseph and Mary Lisy, I decided this was worth investigating further. It certainly seemed to have all the elements of a highly interesting genealogy story. So my work began.

Enter Last Name










Investigating Joseph & Mary Lisy

In another Ohio newspaper the very next day was an even shorter article, this one containing only one sentence.

article about Mary Lisy, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 17 May 1897

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 May 1897, page 6

Now I had some nice pieces of information to further my ancestry research. First I learned that the court that heard this case was the Probate Court, and, second, that this Mary Lisy was a patient in a facility named Cleveland State Hospital.
I began to look for Mary Lisy in the Census records of the time and sure enough, in the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 United States Census records is listed “Lisy, Mary, Inmate” at the Cleveland State Hospital for the Insane. I then continued to look in GenealogyBank’s newspapers to see if there might be something I could learn about the institution itself.

My initial archive search returned hundreds and hundreds of search results. Many, like this 1909 newspaper article, detail terrible conditions and chronic overcrowding in the Cleveland State Hospital.

Asylum Cramped, Governor Finds, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 August 1909

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 August 1909, page 1

Then in the 1940 United States Census returns I discovered Mary Lisy, who—while still listed as an “inmate”—was now at Hawthornden State Hospital (Insane) and had been at this facility at least since 1935. While I was not familiar with this facility from any of my prior research, it didn’t take me long to find this 1941 newspaper article, which contains a lot of good information on the system of insane asylums in Ohio, including Hawthornden.

Ohio Insane Asylums Slated for Repairs, Repository newspaper article 10 January 1941

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 10 January 1941, page 12

Genealogy Sleuthing Stumbling Block

Then I had one of those “uh-oh, I knew this was going too smoothly” moments in my genealogy research. As I continued researching Joseph and Mary Lisy, I discovered that there were at least two men in Cleveland named Joseph Lisy who had almost identical birth years. Both also happened to have married women with the given name of Mary, who also had similar birth years. To make this matter even more confusing, all these folks were Bohemian as well.

Enter Last Name










One of the couples seemed to have had a fairly “normal” life, but the other couple had a darker life together—including this Mary having been in an asylum for decades, as shown in this 1901 newspaper article. This article detailed a court case in which Joseph Lisy was found guilty of failing to provide for his four minor children and was sentenced to the workhouse.

article about Joseph Lisy, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 February 1901

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 February 1901, page 12

This complication of multiple Joseph and Mary Lisy couples was a great learning experience for me and a good example of the need to get as much definitive documentation as we can find to ensure that our family trees are true and accurate.

Expanding My Genealogy Search

I branched out my research to include records from Cuyahoga County, the Ohio Probate Court, the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, several local genealogical and history organizations, the diocese of Cleveland, several cemeteries, and, much to my luck, a cousin who was also struggling with this same dilemma. As they say “two heads are better than one,” and we all know this is certainly at its truest when it comes to genealogy and family history research.

It took some time to sift through all of the death listing for each Mary Lisy that we could find, but that is what we did. As we winnowed them down, one was discovered from 1960 that placed her death at the “Millcreek Psych. Ctr” in Knox County, Ohio. Of all the death listings for women named Mary Lisy, after the 1940 Census, this was the only one with any hint of an institution as the location of her death. It was from 1960, which means Mary had lived in Ohio insane asylums for over 60 years of her life, which was a sobering thought all by itself. Both my cousin and I agreed this was the most promising lead we had, so it was picked to be our first to pursue.

Then almost all at once the genealogy research started falling into place like dominos.

Pieces of the Family Mystery Come Together

Our first break came when a very helpful priest in the diocese provided a copy of the parish register for the marriage of Joseph and Mary, which gave us her maiden name of Bolf (Wolf).

photo of the marriage registry for Joseph Lisy and Mary Bolf

Photo: marriage registry for Joseph Lisy and Mary Bolf

Second, the archivist from the Cuyahoga County Probate Court sent me the files on the insanity hearings for Mary Lisy. Pages and pages of information—then in about the middle, penciled in the margin of one of the records was this: “nee Wolf.”

My cousin called to say that when she was speaking to her husband about this mystery, he mused aloud about why Mary would have been transferred to Hawthornden—which was not in Cuyahoga County, but rather in Summit County, Ohio. She said this didn’t click right away, but then like a bolt of lightning it struck her.

She recalled that the only children of Mary Lisy who were still alive in 1960 had been listed as living in Cuyahoga County, according to the 1940 Census. However, there was a cemetery listing in one obituary for a cemetery in Summit County, Ohio. The obituary for Edward Votypka was in a 1944 newspaper and nicely mentioned the cemetery by name.

obituary for Edward Votypka, Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 March 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 March 1944, page 10

It was, as she said “a tenuous connection,” but she placed a call to the cemetery. There a wonderfully helpful staff member was able to verify that a family member had purchased 12 graves for a family plot. Not only were several of the children and other family members of Mary Lisy interred there, but one grave was the final resting place of Mary Lisy herself!

We are now tidying up the rest of our genealogy research on Mary and Joseph Lisy. And to think—this all came about from a three-sentence article in an 1897 newspaper!

What is the best and biggest genealogy and family history discovery you have made from a newspaper article? I’d love to learn about them so please leave your story in the comments here. Thanks for reading and Godspeed in your genealogy sleuthing!

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Written by Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. Scott specializes in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In addition to GenealogyBank.com, Scott has been recently published by Ohio Genealogy Society, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, SaveEllisIsland.com, MyHeritage.com, and Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society. He was a presenter at the 2012 World Congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Slovakia. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page at OnwardToOurPast and on his website/blog at OnwardToOurPast.

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2 thoughts on “Sleuthing for Clues in the News to Solve Genealogy Mysteries

  1. My greatest find in newspapers at GenealogyBank was for my 2Ggrandfather. I had put his name in many times as Sherman Merrill with little or no results. On a chance one day I put in S M Merrill and Rev in the keywords as he was a minister. I got over 600 hits and more than 300 were for my man. Turns out he may have “run away” with a young woman (he was in his 40s and married with several children). Then he faked his own drowning and when he was discovered several states away, returned to upstate NY and stood trial with the Methodist Episcopal church for his unminister like behavior. Many other articles chronicled his many moves around the country at various other minister positions and church affiliations. As if this wasn’t skeleton enough, then I discovered on article that said a grand jury was unable to charge his with poisoning his wife because she had been buried to long to have an autopsy. Egad! I’m still trying to find additional information on that investigation, but nothing yet.
    So from being the hero of my tree – he was the highest ranking chaplain in the civil war and designed the emblem worn by chaplains on their uniforms. He became the biggest skeleton in the closet, a rake and a rogue, maybe a murderer! Wow.

    • Wow, Karen! What an amazing story and what a tremendous find for your family history. I guess it is a living example of one of my favorite movies, ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’. Thanks for sharing such an exciting journey of discovery and good luck on finding even more!

      Scott

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