Family Digs Up Old Grave to Find Family Bible and Claim Fortune

Over the past 50 years I have heard of many ways to source and document our ancestors.

Genealogists will “dig up” all types of sources but the solution that the Phillips family used has to be the most unusual.

I recently came across this, the most unusual genealogy sourcing story I have ever heard of. I found it in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 April 1891, page 1.

Records Found in a Tomb newspaper article from the Plain Dealer 15 April 1891

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 April 1891, page 1

In 1891 the Phillips literally dug up their Family Bible that had been buried in the grave of a niece 25 years earlier.

This unusual story begins with Isaac Phillips (1766-1834), who was born in Easton, Massachusetts. He left his hometown in 1813 and moved to the South where he was “engaged in the slave trade and accumulated an enormous fortune.”  He kept his money—over $5 million at the time—at the Manhattan Bank of New York.

Isaac died in 1834, “his wife and only child having previously died.” For the next 70 years his relatives tried to prove their right to the fortune Isaac left behind. They had a lot of difficulty in tracking and documenting their genealogy and finally determined that the Family Bible had the answers.

But there was a problem: the Family Bible was buried in a cemetery. It seems that it was buried in the casket along with Isaac’s niece Susana Phillips, who died 4 June 1866.

The money was still safely in the bank, accumulating interest all the while. It was now worth more than $6 million—so the family secured permission to exhume Susana’s body and remove the Family Bible.

When they opened the grave the Family Bible was found and, although a little decayed, the family history “record [was] still perfectly legible” and gave them the information they needed to prove their genealogical connection and claim the family fortune.

Moral of the story: Keep an accurate and complete family history and preserve your documentation, like Family Bibles, that prove the record.

Genealogy Boot Camp: Getting Started

OK Team – it’s time to get down to basics and make sure we haven’t missed clues and information that would help us to accurately document our family tree.

Welcome to Genealogy Boot Camp: Core training

Day 1. Home Sources
OK recruits – you will need the basic equipment.

First – get that old laundry basket and let’s put it to good use.
Put this laundry basket where you will see it every day – but where it will be safe. Perhaps a room you don’t use everyday – like the dining room – that should be a good place – or perhaps on the bed in the spare bedroom.

Now, here is your first assignment:
Begin gathering the family history information that you have in your own home.

“But – I don’t have any information about my family!”

OK recruit: put your laundry basket in a visible, safe place and let’s see what we can find in your house.

Step One: Go from room to room in your home looking for items that have clues about your family. As you see something of value – take it and put it in the laundry basket. You should expect to spend one week on this task – do NOT try to do it all at once.

- Photo albums
- Family mementos
- School yearbooks
- Family Bible
- The envelope with family clippings
- Grammie’s recipe book
- The old wooden spoon
- Dad’s World War I medal
- The box with the old family letters and photos
- Baby books
- Old family cups, plates
- History of Gilmanton, NH – Why do we have that?

“I have an old cedar chest with some old clothes & a comforter made by my great-grandmother – I don’t want to move them.

If some of your family treasures are too large or fragile to move – write down a quick description on a 3×5 card and put that in the laundry basket.

Tips

Why should this take one week?

You’re busy. Don’t burn yourself out. During this week as you go around the house in your normal daily routine – be thinking about clues. What do I have in my home that would tell me more about the family? Pick it up and put it in the laundry basket. By the end of the week you’ll have plenty of clues.

Back in the early 1960s I drove over to White Plains, NY to visit my cousins: Genevieve and Burt Shaw (Genevieve M. (Smith) Shaw 1871-1967) – Burton C. Shaw 1866-).

When I arrived Burt was off getting a haircut – Cousin Gen said that he would be right back. We spoke about the family and got caught up on current events.

But, still – no Burt.

As I asked about the family history – Cousin Gen was so apologetic that she didn’t know more about the family history. But as we waited I asked her about the things in the living room. There were framed pictures and photos on most of the shelves and tables. Who were they? She was a steady stream of detail about the family.

And what about the old piano; the old rocking chair; the painting in the corner. Everything had a story and a family connection.

I had written down pages of notes – all the while she repeated that she could no longer remember the details of the family history.

Cousin Burt never did come home that day – but she was a goldmine of information.

So - Step One – Gather Your Home Sources. Once you have them – in hand start to write down the facts and clues and document your family history.

Tracking down Family Bibles ….

Family Bibles have been treasured by families for generations, but finding them today can be difficult.

It was common for families to have a family Bible – a large bound book that was prominently displayed in the family parlor – “…a large octavo volume, with a more or less ornate binding, with blank pages inserted on which to record births, marriages and deaths, and sometimes the near-slaying of Isaac, Moses in the bulrushes, the infernal regions and other interesting dramatic and historic incidents narrated in the [Bible]“. (Boston Journal 13 May 1908).
(Image from Antique Holy Bible Item #330235937204 – Ebay.com)
I spotted quite a few newspaper articles that cited the old family Bibles and who their current owners were.

For example – Henry Peters of Trenton, NJ used his family Bible to prove that he was “sixteen years old and two months older than that” so that he could get in to the show at the Trent theater. (Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram. Nov 4, 1909).
An article in the Columbus (GA) Enquirer (2 Sep 1898) tells us that “Mrs. Billard, the daughter of the late Rev. Edward Oldrin, who lives on Bank Street [Stamford, CT]” … and that she got it “by inheritance from her father. … The book is in the original binding and well preserved, the Old Testament part having been printed in 1597 and the New Testament in 1596. The covers are of wood.”

This is an important point. Always check the dates that each of the Testaments was printed. Printers often printed them separately and then joined them together when they published the Bible. This is a way to date a family Bible.

“Inscribed on the yellow fly-leat are the words: Edward Oulldron owns this book and after his death to his son Edward Oulldron, given by his grandfather – 1651.” Elsewhere it states “Edward Oldrin’s [note the change in spelling] book, given by his father on is deathbed in the 1827, July 28, to be kept in the family.”

Mrs. Jennie Fairbanks Milligan of Springfield, Ohio brought the family Bible when she was called to testify in a case trying to break the will of the late Delavan Smith of Lake Forest, IL. (Dallas Morning News. 1 October 1921).

John M. Butler of Ocean Grove, NJ found out by double checking his family Bible that he was 101 and not 100 years old when he went to celebrate his birthday. He said it was a “pretty tough job trying to keep track of so many birthdays.” He said with a smile … “I must have lived two years in Brooklyn [NY, the] one year that I was there. That’s the only way I can account for the discrepancy.” (Evening Times – Pawtucket, RI – 17 jan 1901).

But you won’t find the Belin family Bible. It seems that in November 1908, Joseph Belin of Wilkes-Barre, PA “came home intoxicated and threatened [his mother] and then burned the family Bible.” There were 7 prisoners in court that day for “being drunk”. Six of them were fined $1.00 but Joseph Belin was fined $5.00. (Wilkes-Barre (PA) Times Leader – 18 Nov 1908).

Historical newspapers are packed with family history information. Research more than 3,400 newspapers and document your heritage on GenealogyBank.
Give it a try right now.