How the 5 Ws & FAV(orites) in Newspapers Can Help Genealogists

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains how he adds his own personal touch to the “5 Ws” (Who, What, When, Where & Why) of newspaper journalism to enliven his family history research.

Recently I wrote here on the GenealogyBank.com blog about how much I love the 5 Ws (Who, What, When, Where & Why) of good, high-quality newspaper reporting for my genealogy and family history work. There is little better than finding an interesting article in one of the thousands of GenealogyBank.com newspapers that contains your ancestor’s name, and then topping that off by finding that the reporter adhered to the newspaperwoman/man’s mantra of the 5 Ws. Most decidedly, to me, it just doesn’t get much better than this! However, since none of us genealogy-crazy folks ever leave something well enough alone, I like to add my own FAVs to the 5 Ws. Now, while I know this won’t win me a Pulitzer or anything, my FAVs do help my family search efforts.

My FAV(orites) are this: Fun, Adventure, and Value.

First, FUN: One of my key precepts as a genealogist is that we must always keep the fun in our work. If we hope to attract the interest of others to genealogy and family history, one of the easiest ways to do this is by making it fun! Whenever I am doing genealogy research in newspapers I am reminded that my father always began his day, every day, with the funny pages of the newspaper. Although a businessman through-and-through, he said the news and business of the day could wait while he started his day with a smile and a chuckle. I have wonderful memories of my dad in his crisp white shirt and tie, coffee mug in hand, and seeing his eyes sparkling as he laughed at the funnies. So it is from these vivid memories that I keep the fun in my genealogy in a variety of ways. One of which is that whenever I am searching old newspapers I make sure to check the funnies.

If nothing else I enjoy seeing how some of my favorites have changed over the years, like good old Dagwood Bumstead of the “Blondie” comic; I found this example in a 1938 newspaper. That day’s comic featured a coal-fired furnace (like my grandparents’ home had), old-fashioned telephone switchboard (which I recall from my old hometown), and much more all in one comic. Times like this give me what I call “a minute vacation” and the fun refreshes me for the work ahead.

"Blondie" comic strip, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper 11 December 1938

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 11 December 1938, page 115

Second, ADVENTURE: I also love discovering in old newspaper articles the adventures that our ancestors had. As a matter of fact, just two days ago I was beginning my genealogy research on the Fortelka family branch in our family tree when I discovered Frank Fortelka aka “The Bohemian Cyclone”!

Pugilism: The Cyclone Will Fight, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 April 1895

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 April 1895, page 3

Not only did I get to follow The Cyclone’s career as a boxer, but also his career after that when he became a member of the “thin blue line” as a police officer for the city of Cleveland, Ohio. I also learned that The Cyclone was known to use his fisticuffs abilities against ne’re-do-wells in that city, often being reported to take on groups of twenty or more, successfully subdue them, and bring them to justice—with only his fists! Wow, talk about a real-life adventure and superhero! Then I got treated to his photograph, along with his wife’s picture for good measure, in a 1947 newspaper article about the golden wedding anniversary of The Bohemian Cyclone and his wife.

Ex-Boxer and Wife Married 50 Years, Plain Dealer  newspaper article 26 October 1947

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1947, page 16

Third, VALUE: Another of my mantras in my genealogy work is to capture the persona, not just the data, of my ancestors. I believe that nothing adds more value to my family tree quite like the insight into the real persona of my ancestors that I gain from newspaper articles. I find great value in newspapers’ photographs, in-depth information, stories, and articles on the times my ancestors lived, and much, much more. The last time I looked at my family tree I found that I have more than 320 newspaper articles attached to the profiles of my family members and ancestors! Now that is what I call adding value. Of course, while I love the value these impart to me, I am even more thrilled when their value is realized by others.

For instance, whenever I get to share a newly discovered newspaper account about one of our ancestors with my 93-year-old Mother I get to see the happiness in her eyes and hear the excitement in her voice. Now that, my friends, is adding real value!

photo of Scott Phillips' mother

From the author’s collection

So tell me—what do you add to the 5 Ws in newspaper journalism as you work on your family tree?

N.H.’s Old Man of the Mountain Collapsed 10 Years Ago Today

The “Old Man of the Mountain” was a granite rock formation in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that looked like the rugged profile of a man’s face. First discovered in 1805, the 40-foot-high face had been N.H.’s state emblem since 1945. But centuries of freezing and thawing eventually did the Old Man in.

News of the collapse of Old Man of the Mountain rock formation—ten years ago today—spread with shock throughout the U.S. on Saturday morning, 3 May 2003.

newspaper article and stamp illustration of New Hampshire's "Old Man of the Mountain"

Newspaper article: Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 4 May 2003, page 4. Stamp illustration: Wikipedia.

It was like hearing that your aged father or grandfather had died. We thought the Old Man of the Mountain would live forever. Yes, we knew about the rehabilitation efforts the state had been doing on the rock formation—the therapy to keep him going. It felt like every new approach would “work” and keep him going well into the new millennium.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

The Old Man of the Mountain lost his fight with age and time and passed with a great, earth shattering crash. The news of the collapse stunned everyone for days—even now hearing of it brings back the old memories.

The news of the demise of the great stone face was reported in the newspapers, and on radio and TV. Family members called one another to share the news, speaking in quiet reverence—still shocked by the fact that the “Old Man” had died.
Whether it is the recent loss of a beloved member of the family or an obituary from 300 years ago, you will find over 220 million obituaries and death records in GenealogyBank.

Gather your family’s stories, save them, and pass them down.

Don’t let your story be lost.

Genealogy Is Family Stories & Newspapers Are Full of Them

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott hears some interesting family stories from his 93-year-old mother and digs into old newspapers to learn more.

If you were at RootsTech 2013 or followed much of that genealogy conference online as I did, you know that speaker after speaker reminded us that stories are what make our genealogy come alive. I am sure you will agree with this sentiment. Few things in our family history work surpasses the impact and enjoyment of stories.

So it was natural that I got to thinking again about the multitude of stories that adorn my family tree. It is probably the item I ask for most often from people for our tree, right after I hound them for a photograph. Family stories can tell us so much about the lives and times of our ancestors. They offer us snapshots of life that are often filled with amazing tidbits and personal details.

photo of Scott Phillips and his 93-year-old mother

Photo: Scott Phillips’s mother sharing her stories with him. Credit: from the author’s collection.

When I am working on my genealogy early in the morning and it is too early to bother family members for a new story over the phone, I scan the newspaper for new information and stories that might be of interest. Since I am also a GOG—a Grizzled Old Genealogist—I still like my newspaper the old-fashioned way, delivered to my stoop each morning.

I begin my day, every day, the same way my father always began his day. That would be with the comics section of the newspaper! My Dad, God rest his soul, always said “The headlines and business news can wait. It’s more important to start your day off with a smile.” Then he would first open the paper to the funny pages.

Still to this day, I start my day the same way! Two things happen: I do indeed start my day with a smile and a chuckle; and in my mind’s eye I can see and hear my dad chuckle over his favorite comic, “Pogo” by Walt Kelly. My dad even had his favorite quote, uttered by Pogo himself, taped on his desk: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Pogo cartoon for Earth Day 1971, Anchorage Daily News newspaper 18 April 1971

Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska), 18 April 1971, page 4

Not long ago I was visiting with my 93-year-old Mother about all things family and asking her about stories from her youth in the Czech community of Cleveland, Ohio. One of the stories she shared gave me gooseflesh. She told me about living in fear at the time of the “Torso Murders” in Cleveland that instilled dread throughout her neighborhood and the entire city.

This story was new to me, so it didn’t take me long to pull up some articles on GenealogyBank.com and begin to research this story from the 1930s involving a set of serial murders which remain unsolved to this day. I dug into this story and was fascinated to learn that these murders greatly tarnished the career of one of America’s most famous “G-Men,” Elliot Ness.

The "Mad Butcher" Strikes Again, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 18 September 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 18 September 1938, page 37

While I was reading my fourth newspaper article about the “Torso Murders” I was thrilled to find that one of my ancestors, Gordon Shibley, was a Cleveland Police Detective working to try and solve these horrible crimes. It was amazing and quite interesting to follow this strange murder case and read, in a 1936 article, about my ancestor’s efforts trying to solve these heinous crimes.

story about the "Torso Murders" in Cleveland in the 1930s, Plain Dealer newspaper article 12 September 1936

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 12 September 1936, page 1

As I was following this story as it unfolded in the newspapers of the day through GenealogyBank.com it was easy for me to check out, and add to, my family tree with additional items I uncovered. For example, I found other stories covering Detective Shibley’s experiences as a member of Cleveland’s “Thin Blue Line,” some family obituaries, wedding announcements, and many more family-related newspaper articles. I was able to more fully populate our family tree as I read and learned about some of Detective Shibley’s parents and siblings.

I have now become so intrigued with this historical murder case that I ordered a copy of the book In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland’s Torso Murders written by James Jessen Badal (Kent State University Press, 2001) for even more in-depth information on this family-linked story. I am excited to get this book—especially since I have been told there are multiple references to my detective ancestor in it.

My Mom finished her recollections by telling how her mother would admonish her and her brother each day, when they went to school or out to play, to be very careful. She said this warning continued for many years even when she and her brother headed just down the street to their highly-loved corner candy shop…the one operated by an uncle, which was half beer parlor and half candy store. Wow, did my ears perk up at hearing that! Here is yet another new family story I will get to investigate!

What is your favorite family story that you have been able to add to your family tree?

What Counties & Towns in Ireland Did Our Ancestors Come From?

Genealogists know the frustration of tracking down your Irish immigrant ancestor’s birth, marriage or death certificate, hoping that it will be the document that finally tells you where in Ireland your family came from—only to be disappointed once again.

Irish American death certificates

Irish American death certificates

So many census registrars simply wrote “Ireland” on the form, giving no additional clues about the town or county. This practice can present a challenge to those of us seeking to locate the towns or counties in Ireland where our Irish immigrant ancestors came from.

You can see this problem in the 1892 New York state census, which is online. Here is a typical entry, for the Scully family. The census tells us that the family members were born in “Ireland” and now live in Albany, New York.

1892 New York Census: Scully

1892 New York Census: Scully

Credit: “New York, State Census, 1892,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/X366-VPR. Accessed 21 Mar 2013, Kate Scully, 1892.

How are we going to find out exactly where in Ireland the Irish family members were born? Irish American Newspapers!

It has been my experience that Irish American newspapers are the genealogist’s most reliable source for finding information about our Irish ancestors’ birthplaces. Will every Irish obituary or marriage record give these details? No—but many of these old Irish American newspaper records do.

Let’s turn to historical Irish American newspapers to try and find the birth place of the first Scully member listed in the NY census.

Searching GenealogyBank for references to Catherine Scully of Albany, I found her obituary published in the Irish World News (New York City, New York), 2 December 1893, page 5.

Catherine Scully obituary, Irish World News newspaper article 2 December 1893

Irish World News (New York City, New York), 2 December 1893, page 5

Bingo. This old newspaper obituary tells us that she was born in Ballingarry, which is in County Tipperary, Ireland.

And there are more genealogical clues…It tells us that:

  • She died 3 November 1893 at her home in Albany, New York
  • She was a widow—her husband was Andrew Scully
  • Her maiden name was Hayde
  • She was a Catholic, and was buried at St. Agnes’ Cemetery
  • Her four surviving children were: Ellen, John, Lawrence and Patrick
  • She was a member of the Ladies’ Catholic Benevolent Association, Branch 25

Now that we know she was born in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1846, we can look for images of the Irish town from 150 years ago.

The search for images of Ballingarry was easy: Wikipedia has an engraving of a street scene from the town in 1848.

What a treasure to have an image of this Irish town from the time when she was born!

illustration of Ballingarry, Ireland

Illustration: Ballingarry in 1848. Credit: Wikipedia.

Hey—could that be her on the right side of this image standing with her father?

Every genealogist wants to know exactly where in Ireland—or any country—their family came from.

Newspapers are a great resource for finding those family facts. Dig into GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives online and find the details and stories of your ancestors’ lives.

How to Find Georgia Marriage Records

It is easy to find copies of your Georgia ancestors’ marriage certificates and records using two basic online genealogy tools: GenealogyBank.com and FamilySearch.org. If your ancestors lived in Georgia, let’s see how we can find information about them.

marriage certificate for Walter B. Dense and Mamie T. Thornton found using FamilySearch's Georgia marriage records

Marriage certificate for Walter B. Dense and Mamie T. Thornton found using FamilySearch’s Georgia marriage records. Credit: FamilySearch.

FamilySearch.org has put Georgia marriage records from 1785 to 1950 online.

You may search for these old marriage records online here: https://familysearch.org/search/collection/1927197

A typical search will produce a marriage certificate like this one for Walter B. Dense and Mamie T. Thornton.

marriage certificate for Walter B. Dense and Mamie T. Thornton

Marriage certificate for Walter B. Dense and Mamie T. Thornton. Credit: FamilySearch.

Image Credit: “Georgia, County Marriages, 1785-1950,” index and images, FamilySearch: https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/KXVC-7NK Accessed 19 March 2013, Walter B. Dense and Mamie T. Thornton, 1879.

This historical marriage certificate tells us that they were married by the Rev. Walker Lewis on 10 September 1879 in Bibb County, Georgia.

Marriage certificates can be brief and to the point. As genealogists we are thrilled to have them and to look at them—but we want to know more about the couple and their wedding.

Newspapers can give us even more details on the lives of our ancestors.

Let’s start searching the marriage records that were published in Georgia newspapers.

Let’s strategize this search.

In this case the groom’s surname, Dense, is a common word—but the surname itself is not very common. The word “dense” could possibly appear in a marriage announcement, but it is not likely to come up except as a surname.

By searching on the “Georgia Marriage Records” page in GenealogyBank I can focus my search results to bring up just marriage announcements that were printed in Georgia newspapers.

GenealogyBank search page for Georgia Marriage Records & Engagement Announcements

GenealogyBank search page for Georgia Marriage Records & Engagement Announcements

Search Georgia marriage records at GenealogyBank here: http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/explore/USA/Georgia/?type=marriage_engagement

GenealogyBank search box and search results page for Dense wedding

GenealogyBank search box and search results page for Dense wedding

That worked: their wedding announcement was the first of ten search results.

Marriage in First Street Methodist Church, Macon Daily Telegraph newspaper article 16 September 1879

Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 16 September 1879, page 4

The historical newspaper article is giving us a lot more detail about the wedding then the basic facts recorded on the marriage certificate—so many details that we can almost picture the wedding in our minds.

Marriage in First Street Methodist Church, Macon Daily Telegraph newspaper article 16 September 1879, page 4

Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 16 September 1879, page 4

  • For example, we learn that the couple was married at the First Methodist Church in Macon, Georgia.
  • The church, “crowded to its utmost capacity,” was “tastefully decorated with evergreens” at half past eight in the evening when the wedding began.
  • The old newspaper article named the members of the wedding party and chief guests.
  • The Rev. Walker Lewis performed the wedding ceremony “in a clear and distinct manner.”
  • At the end of the ceremony “Professor Coley played the wedding march.”

Think about it—the details, the setting…picture the wedding scene in your mind.

The end of the old newspaper marriage announcement gives us even more details about the family and their occupations, and describes the reception and supper that followed at the bride’s father’s (Reuben Thornton) home on Second Street.

Marriage in First Street Methodist Church, Macon Daily Telegraph newspaper article 16 September 1879, page 4

Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 16 September 1879, page 4

Details about special life events like this are only found in historical newspapers.

These are two great genealogy resources for finding your Georgia marriage records: the certificates on FamilySearch, and the newspaper marriage announcements in GenealogyBank with the details about the couple and the wedding.

Oh, the newspaper editor added one more comment about this wedding.

Marriage in First Street Methodist Church, Macon Daily Telegraph newspaper article 16 September 1879, page 4

Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 16 September 1879, page 4

The editor had described the packed church and the beautiful wedding and added “At the close Professor Coley played the wedding march, and the dense audience dispersed.”

It’s great to not only learn about the details of our ancestors’ lives and weddings— it’s also fun to see the wry humor of the times.

It’s a great day for genealogy!

Help Solve a Genealogy Mystery: Who Is Uncle L in My Old Photo?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott asks our readers for help in deciphering the writing on the back of an old photo identifying his “Uncle L.”

As I would imagine many of you do, I have some intriguing old photographs that unfortunately don’t have any identification on them. However, the one I have in my family history stash that makes me the craziest actually does have writing on it. The old black and white picture has a wonderfully clear full sentence on the back, which identifies my father around the age of 2 or 3 and—here is the kicker—a second, older fellow identified as Uncle L. Uncle L?

photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle

From the author’s collection

Yep! The old family photo is as clear as a bell (as you can see here), except for the name of this mysterious uncle!

back of photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle, showing inscription

From the author’s collection

Every so often I pull that old photo out and try again to identify this mysterious member of my family that I know nothing about. As my family tree continues to grow, becoming more refined and better documented, I keep hoping for a breakthrough. So far though, I have had no luck in identifying this Uncle L. I brought that old family photo out the other day and decided to try some lateral thinking via GenealogyBank.com and its newspaper archives.

To me the handwriting on the back of the photo might be read as Uncle “Lew” or “Len.” Unfortunately there is no Lew or Len in any of my Dad’s immediate family, nor his father’s family. So I branched out to look at some relations of my grandmother’s who lived nearby.

I began my genealogy research with the knowledge that the passenger list from Ellis Island shows my grandmother coming to America to live with her brother-in-law Thomas Martin. He happened to be living on the same street as she and my grandfather would later live on for decades. I still have many warm and wonderful memories of that home from my youth.

My new search began with this brother-in-law and fellow traveler, Thomas Martin. I learned many interesting facts about him from GenealogyBank’s newspapers, such as his job as a lamplighter—which conjured up many images of a great job, until I thought of winter and rainy evenings—and his later job as a street car motorman. However, nothing I found about Thomas helped me identify my mystery uncle.

So I broadened my search on the Martin surname and it wasn’t long before I discovered that a descendant had married a Starr family member related to Floyd Starr, the founder of the amazing Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Albion, Michigan.

Starr Commonwealth--the Miracle Home--Is Rebuilding Many Boys, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 16 November 1919

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 16 November 1919, page 14

While I truly enjoyed reading this old news article, which provides a great history of the charitable youth program, it still offered me no one with a given name that comes close to my mystery uncle’s name.

I branched my researching out some more and soon found another family member farther down the street, the Newell family. The Newell family matriarch, Marjorie, was another sister of my grandmother’s, so the search was back on. I discovered lots of interesting information about Marjorie in the newspaper archives, such as her old marriage announcement.

Marjorie Cottle Becomes Wife of T. J. Newell, jr., Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 May 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 May 1944, page 47

While offering good genealogical information on Marjorie, this historical marriage announcement also led me to another interesting story about her soon-to-be brother-in-law being awarded the Purple Heart after an air raid in WWII.

Hero, Minus Foot, Is Glad He Did Bit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 July 1943

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 July 1943, page 1

However, once again I had nothing that solved my mystery about Uncle L.

I moved on to the last family member who lived in the States. This was my grandmother’s brother Thomas Cottle who lived just a couple of blocks away. I searched his family, his wife’s family the Morrells, his wife’s brother Wilbert, and his brother-in-law’s wife’s family the Ricks. Again I gained much useful information for my family tree, but my mystery uncle remains just that.

While I refuse to call this treasured family photograph a brick wall, I am back to staring closely at the photo and analyzing the name. Does it begin with an L, a T, or possibly even a script Q?

What do YOU think? Take a good look yourself, post a comment and let me know…PLEASE!

The Disappearance—and Mysterious Reappearance—of Matthew Brayton

Here’s a 19th century mystery concerning a certain Matthew Brayton, who disappeared as a small boy, was held an Indian captive for 34 years, then one day reappeared.

But, was it really him?

An Indian Captive Reclaimed after Thirty-five Years’ Absence, Evening Post newspaper article 3 December 1859

Evening Post (New York City, New York), 3 December 1859, page 1

This is a gripping story about a young boy being kidnapped and then returning home as an adult. You will want to read all of An Indian Captive Reclaimed after Thirty-five Years’ Absence – Incidents of his Life in the Evening Post (New York City, New York), 3 December 1859, page 1.

On 20 September 1825 Matthew Brayton set off from home to gather the family’s cows. He was about eight years old—and wouldn’t be heard from again for 34 years. Kidnapped by the Indians, he was one of thousands of Indian captives in America from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Imagine his family’s joy when he finally turned up again!

A great, heartwarming story of a missing boy finally returned home, except—it apparently isn’t true.

Digging deeper into genealogy records we find Matthew Brayton’s obituary and even his photograph—and the true story comes to light.

Mathew Brayton obituary, Salem Register newspaper article 23 February 1863

Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 23 February 1863, page 2

Matthew Brayton’s old obituary, printed in the Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 23 February 1863, page 2, gives us the rest of the story.

After returning from his long Indian captivity, Matthew Brayton lived with his supposed father, Elijah Brayton, for the next nine months. Then in June 1860 he told his “father” that he really wasn’t Matthew Brayton at all. Was this a 19th century scam? Perhaps—but Matthew Brayton didn’t give any further details of why he had lied about who he was.

Perhaps he simply didn’t want to “manage the farm that Mr. Brayton had promised to give him.” After telling the Braytons the truth, Matthew left their farm and joined the 4th Michigan Cavalry as “Matthew Brayton.” He died a few years later in 1863 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Here is a photograph of him in uniform.

photo of Mathew Brayton in Civil War uniform

Credit: Find-A-Grave

Genealogy Search Tip: Just because something is in print doesn’t make it true.

Don’t stop at the first story you find about your ancestor. Keep digging and make sure you uncover all of the facts.

Find the stories of your family’s history. Document them, preserve them and pass them down.

Solve the Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley Ancestry Brick Wall

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about two discoveries she made relating to Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley, and invites readers to join her in breaking through a brick wall in Ripley’s family history.

There is a wealth of discovery waiting to be found in historic newspapers. For one thing, old newspapers provide the stories that help you understand your ancestors and get to know them as real people.

For another thing, while researching your family history in a newspaper archive you occasionally stumble across interesting discoveries that have nothing to do with your family, things you never knew before—like what I found out about Robert L. Ripley and the origins of his “Believe It or Not!” publishing/radio/television/museum empire, and his involvement with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In this article I want to talk about my Ripley discoveries, and then ask for your help in breaking through a brick wall I’ve hit in exploring his genealogy.

photo of Robert L. Ripley, Dallas Morning News newspaper article, 28 May 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 May 1949, page 1

Ripley’s First “Believe It or Not” Newspaper Cartoon

One day while looking through old newspapers I was fortunate enough to stumble upon this tantalizing treasure, explaining how Robert L. Ripley drew his first “Believe It or Not” cartoon.

On 19 December 1918, Ripley—a 27-year-old cartoonist for the New York Globe newspaper—was sitting in front of his drawing board with no new ideas. He was under deadline pressure to produce a cartoon for the next day’s paper, so “in desperation” he put together an assortment of odd sports occurrences to make a cartoon. He published it under the caption, “Believe It or Not.” He was interviewed on the subject of the cartoon’s origin years later, and his recollection was published in the New York Daily Mirror.

When Robert Ripley died in 1949 at the age of 58, his obituary reprinted that first cartoon recollection:

obituary for Robert L. Ripley, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 28 May 1949

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 28 May 1949, page 1

Here is one of Robert Ripley’s early “Believe It or Not” cartoons with a sports theme:

Ripley's "Believe It or Not," State newspaper cartoon 22 October 1919

State (Columbia, South Carolina), 22 October 1919, page 8

How astonishing it is, that from a single case of writer’s block developed an empire of over 90 world-wide attractions, including wondrous museums and amazing aquariums!

Robert Ripley & “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Here’s another Ripley tidbit I uncovered while browsing through old newspapers, of historical importance: Ripley had a role in making “The Star-Spangled Banner” our official national anthem.

The lyrics come from a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, entitled “Defence of Fort McHenry.” Key wrote his poem after witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812. Key’s poem was set to the tune of a popular British song, “The Anacreontic Song” (or “To Anacreon in Heaven”) and the resulting song came to be known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Although officially used by the Navy in the late 1800s, it wasn’t the country’s national anthem at that time. Nonetheless, crowds caught up in patriotic fever would rise and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

"The Star-Spangled Banner," Daily Register-Gazette newspaper article 2 January 1930

Daily Register-Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), 2 January 1930, page 2

And then one day, Robert L. Ripley started a national conversation about its use with this comment, noting that the U.S. “has no official national anthem”:

Ripley at Music Box, Oregonian newspaper article 5 November 1930

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 5 November 1930, page 10

The discussion about the country’s lack of a national anthem gained momentum. Several months later, President Herbert Hoover signed the act that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem, on 3 March 1931.

"Star Spangled Banner" Is Now National Anthem though Pacifists Object, Springfield Republican newspaper article 5 March 1931

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 5 March 1931, page 1

And for you curiosity-seekers, you can read the first publication of Francis Scott Key’s poem by searching the newspapers in GenealogyBank. It was published in the Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, Maryland) on 20 September 1814. No, I’m not going to republish it in this blog—you can have the joy of looking up this amazing discovery yourself.

But readers, I need some help with Robert Ripley, whose ancestry is as elusive as spotting a shooting star on a cloudy night.

Help Me Uncover Robert Ripley’s Family Tree!

I can’t seem to crack the brick wall in his genealogy. He left no descendants and was only married briefly to actress Beatrice Roberts. I can’t discover his family history any further back than his maternal grandmother.

Here are the clues I’ve been able to find, if any of you determined genealogists want to take up the challenge and break through the Ripley genealogy brick wall:

  • See one of Findagrave.com’s earliest memorials, #1399, from Odd Fellows Lawn Cemetery in Santa Rosa, California
  • His parents, Isaac Davis Ripley (1854-1904) and Lillie Belle Yocka or Yocke (1868-1915), are also buried there; they married on 3 October 1889 in Sonoma, CA (California, County Marriages, 1850-1952 Database at familysearch.org)
  • Isaac was a carpenter born in Ohio (various California directories)
  • In 1870, a census reports that Isaac was possibly residing in the household of Jason and Phelia A. Stubs or Stutes in Belpre, Washington, OH, and attending school, age 16 (see http://ohgen.net/ohwashin/OMP-2.htm — Ohio Historical Society, Newspaper Microfilm Reel # 38487 — marriage license for Jason Stubbs and Phelia A. Hunter of Belpre on 8 May 1865)
  • Lillie was the daughter of Nancy Yocke (1828-?) and an unknown father from Germany (1880 Analy, Sonoma, CA, census)
  • Ripley’s siblings were Douglas and Ethel or Effie Ripley (obituary); it is unclear if they ever married, but are seen on a passenger list traveling together

We look forward to seeing who can crack this ancestry brick wall first, and promise to publish your results in the GenealogyBank blog! Please post your Ripley genealogy finds on GenealogyBank’s Facebook or blog pages as comments, or email us using our blog contact form at: http://blog.genealogybank.com/contact.

Genealogy Tip: Research Every Clue in Newspapers, Including the Social Columns

When using newspapers to find family history information, look at the entire paper—don’t stop with just the obvious articles such as obituaries and marriage notices. Look at all of the articles.

Genealogy is everywhere in a newspaper: even in the social columns, as in the following example.

social column, Times Picayune newspaper article 28 August 1917

Times Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 28 August 1917, page 4

Briefs, Locals, Chatter—social columns have different headings in newspapers around the country.

They often are just quick notes—passing comments, really, giving locals an update on the activities of their friends and neighbors in the community.

Although brief, these social updates can provide a surprising amount of family history. Look at the genealogical clues in the above newspaper article example from the Times Picayune social column:

  • Names: Marion Monroe, along with the name of her sister’s husband, her father and her brother.
  • Places: Biloxi, Mississippi, where Marion’s sister lived; New Orleans, Louisiana, where Marion and her parents lived; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Corpus Christi, Texas, where her brother had been stationed.
  • Details: Marion’s father was a judge in New Orleans; her brother was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Engineering Corps; the Monroe family lived on Philip Street in New Orleans.

Genealogists, like any detective, gather clues and track down all possible leads to learn everything they can about the target person.

Search newspapers thoroughly for your ancestor: read every clue.

Newspaper Genealogy Research: Finding the Hames Family Stories

So few family stories are passed down and preserved by folks today. People are busy earning a living and dealing with the demands of 21st century lives. In addition, many families now find themselves spread across the country. It can be difficult for the rising generation to hear the old family stories from their grandparents.

Fortunately newspapers published many of these interesting family stories from yesteryear, and they can be found online today.

Here’s a great story preserved in an old newspaper: the trip the Hames brothers made in 1910 to visit for the first time the grave of their 2nd great-grandfather John Hames.

brothers find grave of ancestor John Hames, Marietta Journal newspaper article 29 July 1910

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 29 July 1910, page 2

After a train ride, the two brothers took “a buggy across the country to Sardis” where they saw the grave where their ancestor was buried in 1860.

Today, a gravestone marks the spot where John Hames was buried. The 1910 newspaper article stated that “his grave will be properly marked” by the visiting brothers to honor their ancestor. What’s there now is a standard military gravestone supplied by the government. Did the two brothers arrange for it to be placed in the cemetery?

photo of the gravestone of John Hames, buried in 1860

Photo: gravestone of John Hames. Credit: Waymarking.com.

Reading further into the old newspaper article about the brother’s gravesite visit, we find that when John Hames died he was known as the oldest man in the country: 108 years old.

Look at all the family history we learn from this one newspaper article:

  • W.J.M. Hames and D.C. Hames were brothers living in Marietta, Georgia
  • Their 2nd great-grandfather, John Hames, served in the Revolutionary War and was buried in Sardis, Georgia
  • John married Charity Jasper, the sister of Sergeant (William) Jasper—another hero of the Revolutionary War. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Jasper
  • The brothers took the Western & Atlantic train to Tilton, Georgia, then went by buggy to the cemetery at Sardis, Georgia
  • There they saw their ancestor’s grave and met John Beemer (who helped to bury the old soldier) and John Shannon (who made his coffin)
  • In 1860 when he died, John Hames, at 108, was considered to be the oldest man in America
  • The brother’s father was Hamlet C. Hames
  • Their grandfather was William Hames
  • Their great-grandfather was Charles Hames, the son of their Revolutionary War ancestor
  • They enjoyed their trip and spent time fishing in the Connasauga River
  • They visited Fort DeSoto
  • They visited the jail where John Howard Payne was imprisoned. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Howard_Payne
  • They also visited the home of Chief James Vann, the Cherokee Indian leader
photo of Cherokee Chief James Vann’s house

Photo: Cherokee Chief James Vann’s house. Credit: Georgia State Parks: http://www.gastateparks.org/ChiefVannHouse.

As this one historical newspaper article shows, newspapers provide information about your ancestors you can’t find anywhere else. More than just the names and dates you can get from other genealogy records, newspapers tell stories about the experiences your ancestors had, the people they met, and the times they lived in—these family stories help you get to know them as real people.