How to Uncover Vital Record Clues in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott starts off searching old newspapers for clues to help him find his ancestor’s birth record—and finds so much information that he ends up filling out a new branch of his family tree!

We all know the frustration we feel when, in working on our genealogy, we can’t find an elusive—but important—vital record for one of our ancestors. I suggest that one good approach is to search for genealogical clues in the historical newspapers from your ancestor’s era.

The good news is that, at times, these clues are waiting to be found in all kinds of locations throughout the newspapers. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean, based on searches I’ve done in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Clues about the Birth of My Cousin

While I have a wealth of information on one of my first cousins twice removed, Joseph Vicha, I have been unable to find his actual birth document to verify the year he was born. So I set out to see what clues to his birth I might find in the newspapers. My first discovery was this divorce notice in an 1899 Cleveland newspaper, which provided me with two very useful genealogy clues. It seems that Mrs. Barbara Vicha was seeking a legal separation, divorce, and alimony from Joseph Vicha. This old news article not only lists their wedding date as 13 June 1896, it also notes that Barbara was seeking the return of her maiden name of Vomasta.

divorce notice for Joseph and Barbara Vicha, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 8 August 1899

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 August 1899, page 10

These two clues—her maiden name and their wedding date—enabled me to do a follow-up search at Ancestry.com, where I found the marriage license for their marriage—which in turn gave me the additional information of the year of his birth!

Enter Last Name










Investigating More of My Family Tree

As is so often the case in genealogy, I then became interested in finding out more about not only Joseph, but his wife, Barbara (Vomasta) Vicha. One thing led to another and, several hours later, I had learned a substantial amount about this interesting family. It was like opening a picture window to life in the early Czech community of Cleveland, all through one family.

As I continued my genealogy research I discovered that Barbara remarried after her divorce from Joseph. Not surprisingly it was to another Czech, with the surname of Vlk. I then did a search on Barbara Vlk and found this helpful obituary in a 1936 Cleveland newspaper. It is for a man named John Vonasta [Vomasta], and mentions that he was the “beloved brother of Barbara Vlk.” This obituary also lists two nieces, complete with their married names: Edna Carroll and Gladys Baldy [Baldi].

obituary for John Vomasta, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 October 1936

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 October 1936, page 23

I followed up these clues with a search of one of the City Directories for Cleveland, Ohio, dated 1891. In it I read that while the head of the household, Vaclav (later James) Vomasta, was a laborer, his son John Vomasta was listed as a cigar maker. Both were reported as living on Rock Street, which was deep in the heart of one of the largest Czech neighborhoods in Cleveland. It must have been a hardscrabble life for Vaclav since in the 1910 U.S. Census he is listed as a “(street) shovel” at the age of 65.

Discovering More Genealogy Clues…

There was another clue in John Vomasta’s obituary. Did you notice that last line? It reads: “New Haven (Conn.) papers please copy.” This was the Cleveland editors’ way of letting the New Haven editors know this obituary would be of interest to their own readers. Why would a Cleveland cigar maker’s death be of interest to readers in New Haven, Connecticut? This led me to additional searches, in which I discovered that John Vomasta was listed as a tenant in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Censuses.

I wondered why a cigar maker might be drawn to New Haven, Connecticut—and so I did a bit of searching on the cigar industry there. GenealogyBank’s newspapers did not disappoint me as there were literally hundreds of search results on this topic. It seems that there was quite a flourishing cigar industry in New Haven in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Enter Last Name










One example is this article from an 1899 New Haven newspaper. This article features F. D. Grave and his “Judge’s Cave” Cigar company. The occasion was the imminent move of his “well known cigar factory” to a “magnificent four-story building at Nos. 204 to 210 State Street,” and the “excellent dinner and musical entertainment” he gave for his 285 employees to celebrate the move. Could this have been where John Vomasta worked? After all, the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census returns for him list his address as 440 State Street, just up the street from F. D. Grave’s cigar factory.

article about F. D. Grave and his "Judge's Cave" cigar company, New Haven Register newspaper article 6 January 1899

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 6 January 1899, page 7

As I continued researching this family, I discovered a variety of life’s occurrences. One of the daughters, who was once Gladys Baldi, had remarried—only to have this husband tragically die in an automobile accident slightly less than 14 months after they were married. Wanting to be complete in my genealogy research, but not expecting to find much from a marriage of less than 1 ½ years, I was interested when I found this 2001 obituary for Gladys K. Glaser in a Kansas City newspaper. This obituary provided me with the fact that, in spite of the short duration of her second marriage, their union produced a daughter, in addition to the son she had from her first marriage. I also learned that at the time of her passing she had seven grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, a nephew—and her sister Edna was still alive.

obituary for Gladys Glaser, Kansas City Star newspaper article 19 February 2001

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 19 February 2001

With this helpful obituary providing me with Gladys’s survivors’ full names and places of residence, I now had many more clues to follow up on:

  • Sister Edna Carroll in Kelley Island, Ohio
  • Son (from Gladys’s first marriage) Bill Baldi in Shawnee, Kansas
  • Married Daughter (from Gladys’s second marriage) Bonnie Edwards in Kent, Ohio
  • Nephew Roger Carroll (Edna’s son) in Ravenna, Ohio
  • Plus those seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren to track down!

Just think: I began this search looking for one simple vital statistic that I found to be elusive: the birth year for my relative Joseph Vicha—but came away with a whole new branch of our family tree growing right before me, and many more clues for additional family history research.

Now before I get back to looking for Joseph Vicha’s birth document—which is what I started off trying to find and would still like to track down—let me ask: what have been some of the best clues in historical newspapers that you have found for your genealogy and family history?

Related Genealogy Clues Articles:

ad for gift subscriptions to GenealogyBank

Angela Cavallo Saves Her Son’s Life with Her Supermom Strength

We are all grateful for our mothers—but Tony Cavallo of Lawrenceville, Georgia, has been especially grateful for his mom, Mrs. Angela Cavallo.

She Lifted a Car to Save Her Son, Springfield Union newspaper article 14 April 1982

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 14 April 1982, page 25

Friday 11 April 1982 was a day like any other. Tony Cavallo was in the driveway fixing his 1964 Chevy Impala. Suddenly the jack collapsed and he was knocked unconscious, pinned under the car.

His mother came to the rescue with superhuman strength: with a prayer in her heart she reached down and lifted the car while the neighbor boy, Johnny Edwards, ran calling for help. “I was kicking him, saying ‘Get out, get out,’” while waiting for help to arrive, she said in an interview. Quickly the neighbors rushed to help and pulled Tony to safety.

Wow—with her phenomenal supermom strength she picked up the car and kept it off her son until help arrived. Now that’s the power of a mom’s love!

Old Diseases & Early Medical Terms in Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another fun quiz to test your knowledge of terms used in old newspapers to describe our ancestors’ diseases and medical conditions—and then provides illustrated definitions of those terms.

Here is the 18th century folk ballad “O Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” from a 1794 newspaper.

"O Dear, What Can the Matter Be?" folk ballad, Weekly Museum newspaper article 22 February 1794

Weekly Museum (New York, New York), 22 February 1794, page 4

Although this old ballad doesn’t have anything to do with medical conditions, it describes my feelings precisely when I encounter accounts of diseases such as tetters, scurf and morphew in early newspapers like this 1736 advertisement.

To Be Sold, New-York Weekly Journal newspaper advertisement 29 March 1736

New-York Weekly Journal (New York, New York), 29 March 1736, page 4

“O Dear,” I think, “Are these strange diseases of yesteryear, or something we might contract today?”

The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Many of these early diseases are now sub-categorized into specific medical diagnoses, while others still exist but under new names. For example, in the 1736 newspaper advertisement above, Mrs. Edwards advertised products to cure tetters, a skin condition, which today describes the symptoms of eczema, herpes or ringworm.

What if you find an obituary or newspaper article about one of your ancestors that names a disease or medical condition using old terms you’re not familiar with? It’s important to understand the meanings of these early medical terms—otherwise you might miss an important piece of your family history.

Test your knowledge of these old diseases and medical conditions with this fun Early Medical Terms quiz. Match the old medical terms in the first column with the definitions on the right. The answers can be found at the bottom of the quiz. If you miss any, be sure to read the rest of the blog article—which provides definitions for these early medical terms as illustrated in historical newspapers.

early medical terms genealogy quiz

Acites or Ascites: In 1849, Sand’s Sarsaparilla was recommended as a permanent cure for a wide variety of illnesses, including acites, probably the same as ascites or abdominal swelling.

Sands' Sarsaparilla, Charleston Courier newspaper advertisement 19 February 1849

Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 19 February 1849, page 1

Ague: This is another term for malaria, a disease often spread by mosquitoes, as noted in this 1875 account by J. G. Truman.

The Ague--Its Cause and Cure, Progressive Communist newspaper article 1 October 1875

Progressive Communist (Cedar Vale, Kansas), 1 October 1875, page 6

Barber’s Itch: This is an inflammation of the hair follicles, typically affecting the area around a man’s beard. It may be caused by eczema or ringworm.

Health Talks--Barber's Itch, Evening News newspaper article 14 January 1922

Evening News (San Jose, California), 14 January 1922, page 6

Biliousness and Bilious Fever: This ailment described a variety of gastric illnesses, ranging from nausea to bile disorders of the gall bladder or liver, as seen in these two advertisements from 1920 and 1840.

Dr. Thacher's Liver and Blood Syrup, Marietta Journal newspaper advertisement 2 July 1920

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 2 July 1920, page 3

Peters' Pills, Wabash Courier  newspaper advertisement 17 October 1840

Wabash Courier (Terre Haute, Indiana), 17 October 1840, page 4

Dropsy: Dropsy is edema or excessive swelling, a common ailment, which afflicted former Texas Governor James S. Hogg in 1905. Another reference to edema was anasarca.

photo of James S. Hogg, Baltimore American newspaper photograph 19 October 1905

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 19 October 1905, page 4

Grippe or La Grippe: The grippe is another name for the flu or influenza. In 1843, opponents of President John Tyler coined a variation of the disease: “The Tyler Grippe.”

The Tyler Grippe, Constitution newspaper article 9 August 1843

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 9 August 1843, page 2

Jail Fever: This is an early term for typhus or typhoid fever, which often spread quickly in confined areas such as jails. In 1828 there was a report of jail fever at the Bellevue Penitentiary in New York, which also sickened the “keepers” and physicians.

Jail Fever in New York, Boston Traveler newspaper article 22 April 1828

Boston Traveler (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 April 1828, page 2

King’s Evil: In the above example for Acites, the advertisement referred to King’s Evil, which indicated tuberculosis, scrofula or glandular swelling.

Morphew: Morphew was a type of blisters, often associated with scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency. (See the 1736 Mrs. Edwards advertisement above.)

Pest and Pest Houses: Also known as the “Black Death,” the pest is another name for the plague, a highly contagious and fatal disease. In 1782, when smallpox was prevalent, a reference was made to pest houses, which were “situated as not to endanger travellers.” In this sense, a pest house was a type of isolation dwelling or hospital where a person with any contagious disease might be housed.

pest houses in Waterbury Connecticut, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 28 February 1782

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 28 February 1782, page 3

Scurf: This is another medical term for dandruff, or cradle cap when applied to babies.

Scurf in the Head, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper article 9 January 1875

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 9 January 1875, page 1

Tetters: This is a broad description of a variety of skin diseases, such as eczema, herpes or ringworm. (See the 1736 Mrs. Edwards advertisement above.)

Variola: This was another name for smallpox, and often describes a mild form of the affliction. In 1773, variolae patients from Nevis did not wish to be inoculated, as this was an “extraordinary infringement of their liberty.”

smallpox innoculation in Nevis, Connecticut Journal newspaper article 31 December 1773

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 31 December 1773, page 3