Outlaws in the News: Bonnie & Clyde, Al Capone & My Ancestor

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how criminal records and old newspaper articles about your outlaw ancestors can help fill in important details on your family tree.

Everyone’s family tree has at least one or two “bad seeds”: outlaw ancestors, who ran on the wrong side of the law. While it is unfortunate that they chose the “dark side of the force,” it is lucky for us genealogists that newspapers love to report on these black sheep! Our outlaw ancestors might have been portrayed as “bad,” but we reap the benefits of the press coverage they generated—finding in those old newspaper articles many additional details for our genealogy, family history, and family trees.

To illustrate this point, I searched through GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives for old news articles about famous outlaws, to show how much family history information those articles contain.

Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow

Take a look at Bonnie and Clyde for example. While we all know the basic story, there is far more that can be found in the newspapers of the day, such as this 1934 article from an Illinois newspaper. This particular news article alone contains many juicy genealogy facts about the Clyde’s funeral, such as where Clyde was buried, that Bonnie’s sister was in jail at the time facing two counts of murder in the deaths of two policemen, and the name of Bonnie’s mother.

And what about that intriguing last paragraph? Who was the anonymous friend who flew an airplane over the gravesite as Clyde was being buried and dropped a wreath of flowers onto the grave? Now there’s a mysterious puzzle that would be fun to try and unravel!

Clyde Barrow Buried in Texas, Morning Star newspaper article 26 May 1934

Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 May 1934, page 7

Al Capone a.k.a. Scarface

While we all recognize the name “Scarface” Al Capone, this 1926 article from a Massachusetts newspaper reports that Mafia legend Al had a brother, Ralph, who had just been arrested and charged with the slaying of Illinois Assistant State’s Attorney William McSwiggin and two “beer gangsters”: “Red” Duffy and James Doherty.

article about Ralph Capone, Springfield Republican newspaper article 30 April 1926

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 30 April 1926, page 11

And of course it is almost impossible to say “Al Capone” without thinking of, or saying, Eliot Ness! I enjoyed this 1931 article from a California newspaper not only because it talks about Eliot Ness and his crew of agents—it also gives us the name of Steve Svoboda, who was among those arrested. Since Svoboda had been arrested in another Capone-owned brewery just two weeks earlier, he may well have been a member of Scarface’s gang!

Stage Raid on (Al) Capone Brewery, Evening Tribune newspaper article 11 April 1931

Evening Tribune (San Diego, California), 11 April 1931, page 19

My Outlaw Ancestor: Herman Vicha

But it is not only the infamous that we can read about and learn from for our family trees.

In my own family tree is information from a small newspaper clipping that a cousin once gave me. Yellowed with age, brittle, and tattered about its edges, this small article was dated in its margin simply “1916” and consisted of a single sentence. That sentence was: “Herman Vicha was convicted in common pleas court of stealing brass from the Lorain Sand and Gravel Company.” That one sentence led me to some amazing discoveries about this ancestor.

First I contacted the Lorain County, Ohio, courts and—thanks to a wonderfully helpful staff member—I soon received five pages of court documents from the 1916 case of “State of Ohio vs. Herman Vicha.” The case was for grand larceny because my ancestor was accused of stealing $37.25 worth of brass from the Lorain Sand and Gravel Company. He was convicted and sentenced to 1 to 7 years!

Following up on this case, I contacted the Ohio State Historical Society and, after filing the appropriate paperwork, received over a dozen pages of the prison files for this ancestor. This paperwork path initially took me to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. If the name of this prison isn’t familiar, perhaps you have seen the movies Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One? If so, this was the prison used in those movies.

photto of the Ohio State Reformatory

Photo: Ohio State Reformatory. Credit: from the author’s collection.

One of the more amazing historical documents I received was the “Bertillon Card” for my ancestor. This was a great genealogical find since it has our only photograph of Herman Vicha, plus gives a wealth of physical description about him as well as the year and location of his birth.

photo of the Bertillon card for Herman Vicha, 1916

Photo: Bertillon card for Herman Vicha, 1916. Credit: from the author’s collection.

I admit that I had to take a moment and learn exactly what a Bertillon Card was. The full-page obituary for Alphonse Bertillon that I found in a 1914 Colorado newspaper gave me all the information I needed to understand the details listed on my ancestor’s card.

obituary for Alphonse Bertillon, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article 15 March 1914

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 15 March 1914, page 31

My ancestry research path moved from this prison, across the state of Ohio, to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where Herman was kept. My concern for what my ancestor went through increased when I read this 1971 article from a Virginia newspaper with this opening sentence:

“The fortress-like state hospital for the criminal insane here has been described by inmates, staff members, state officials and Ohio’s governors as a chamber of horrors.”

Ohio Hospital Has Sordid Image, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 28 November 1971

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 28 November 1971, page 34

Herman Vicha’s sentence actually lasted for 7 years, 3 months, and 8 days plus an additional 1 year, 3 months, and 12 days in the Cleveland State Hospital after being released from Lima.

Note that all of this detective work to track down my outlaw ancestor began with one small old newspaper clipping!

Herman died in a boarding house in Danville, Kentucky, while working as a trucker and having assumed the new name of “Henry Miller”—but how I found him under his new name is a whole different genealogy detective story that will have to wait for another day!

What information have you found for your family tree from the criminal records and newspaper clippings about your outlaw ancestors? Share your family stories with us in the comments.

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Valentine’s Day History Facts & My Sweet Genealogy Karma

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott turns to old newspapers to research the history of St. Valentine’s Day—and shares a personal Valentine’s Day story.

Nothing much beats holidays as a way to get everyone talking about family, memories, stories, and family history. Certainly Valentine’s Day is no exception! I’ve been blessed to have my “Valentine” with me now for over 38 years and I sure am glad she said that she would be my valentine all those years ago.

In the case of my wonderful wife, each year about this time I would go out to find one of those fancy satin hearts filled with chocolates. Why? Well, when we were dating she told me, very early in our relationship, “I’ll know the man who really loves me because he will buy me one of those fancy hearts filled with chocolates for Valentine’s Day.” Needless to say I bought one for her every year after that.

Every year, that is, until recently when she said to me: “OK honey, I know you love me so you can stop now.” So now I have to be creative and come up with something new and different each Valentine’s Day. That got me to thinking this year about what the history of Valentine’s Day was, what gifts might have been like in the past, etc. I admit I never really knew much about this holiday, so I gave GenealogyBank.com a look for some information about this romantic day and maybe even find some potential ideas for my wife’s gift.

Historical Origins of Valentine’s Day

My first hit helped explain the history of the Valentine’s Day holiday. There in a 1925 newspaper was an intriguing, full-page article describing the origins of Valentine’s Day. The first thing I learned was that it is actually St. Valentine’s Day, named after the long-ago martyred Saint Valentine.

Why We Call It St. Valentine's Day, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 8 February 1925

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 February 1925, page 1

I certainly appreciated one of the cartoons that accompanied the old news article, even if I have been lucky enough to never have to visit a pawnshop prior to my shopping trips for chocolate-filled hearts.

Valentine's Day cartoon, Dallas Morning News newspaper 8 February 1925

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 8 February 1925, page 1

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

My next hit was closer to my adopted hometown when I saw the byline of Chicago, but alas this 1929 newspaper article was about the infamous St. Valentine’s Day gangster massacre.

Link Capone with Chicago Massacre, Boston Herald newspaper article 15 February 1929

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 15 February 1929, page 1

Ugh…not romantic in the least, although it is a very interesting event in our national history. So I was off in search of more newspaper articles about Valentine’s Day.

My Sweet Genealogy Karma

Then I found it! At least, to me as a genealogist, I found it. It was in a 1910 newspaper: there was an advertisement entitled “For Your Valentine: Candy Hearts and Heart Shaped Boxes.”

Valentine's Day candy ad, Plain Dealer newspaper 11 February 1910

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 February 1910, page 14

I smiled when I saw that the price of satin heart boxes ran from 20 cents to $4, but it was the name of the company that ran the advertisement, The Chandler & Rudd Company, that actually caught my eye. You see back in 1910 my great grandfather, Frederick George Evenden, was a Master Tea Blender for none other than The Chandler & Rudd Company. Yep, the very same company as the one in the advertisement—and during the time that he worked there.

So for all these years my buying chocolate-filled hearts was simply karma! Karma sent from my great grandfather to my wife, giving her vibes to instruct me to go for what he personally knew was the really good stuff for Valentine’s Day! Sadly, Chandler & Rudd closed just two years ago, but if they were still open I’d be on the phone with them right now to buy her a sweet bit of the past.

So with a tip o’ my hat to my great grandfather Evenden, this year I am going back to getting my Sweetie some of those fancy chocolate candies in a heart-shaped box this Valentine’s Day for sure.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day to you and your family!