Ancestry Believe It or Not: Genealogy Scams, Fakes & Forgers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about genealogical fakes and frauds, and cautions readers to be careful in documenting their family history.

You can’t always believe what you read—or can you?

Genealogy, when done right, is a pursuit requiring patience, with family relationships being carefully established and well documented. But be wary when constructing your family tree; examine each piece of evidence with a critical eye.

Exaggerations abound in genealogy, many of which can be categorized under the “Believe It or Not” phrase made famous by Robert. L. Ripley (1890-1949).

In order to “prove” more impressive ancestry than they actually have, scoundrels and frauds sometimes doctor documents, create fictitious Bible records, and even sell services to unsuspecting family researchers.

Some of the more notorious genealogy fakes and forgers were Gustave Anjou, Harriet de Salis and Horatio Gates Somerby.

Gustave Anjou (1863-1942), a.k.a. Swedish native Gustaf Ludvig Jungberg

Anjou immigrated to America from Sweden, after being released from incarceration in 1886, reportedly on a forgery charge. He became active in genealogical societies in the New Jersey and New York areas, and proceeded to sell his services as a researcher to wealthy citizens. His specialty was fabricating descent from royal lineages.

Some of his more infamous works included supposed lineages for the families of Andrews, Dent, Duff, Grant, Houston, Hurd, Longyear, Shapleigh, Wyckoff, and many more genealogical frauds. He also published a reference on the Ulster Country, New York, Probate Records. For a more thorough list of his junk genealogies, conduct a search in WorldCat or Google Books.

Gustave Anjou’s passport photo (1924)

Gustave Anjou’s passport photo (1924)

Even Anjou’s name is a sham or half-truth. His passport application of 1924 reported his father as “Charles Gustave Marie Anjou” and that he was born in Paris, France. This fabrication was derived from his parents’ names, Carl Gustaf Jungberg and housekeeper, Maria Lovia Hapberg, along with the Anjou reference from his fiancée (later wife), Anna Maria Anjou. The passport application noted he was naturalized in 1918 and that he was following the occupation of genealogist.

Gustave Anjou’s passport application (1924)

Gustave Anjou’s passport application (1924)

References to Anjou’s association with genealogy can be found in New York City records:

  • The New York City Directory of 1910 reported: “British-Am Record Soc, 116 Nassau R [Residence] 1116—C. Percy Hurditch, Pres; Gustave Anjou, Sec.”
  • The New York City Directory of 1912 reported: “Am Genealogical Soc., 116 Nassau R 1117—Gustave Anjou, Sec.”

In the following historical newspaper article, we can see the ripple effect of Anjou’s fraudulent genealogy work. A New Orleans newspaper’s Genealogical Department ran a feature called “Who’s Who and Their Forbears,” and innocently quoted Anjou’s work assuming it was authentic.

Who’s Who and Their Forbears, Times-Picayune newspaper article 11 August 1912

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 11 August 1912, page 34

Mrs. Harriet de Salis, nee Bainbridge

De Salis was a noted cookbook author. The title of one of her publications, Tempting Dishes for Small Incomes published in 1903, seems to hold a “secret message” about her second career: junk genealogy. Her culinary skills apparently didn’t generate enough income, so she turned to providing a fraudulent genealogy service, much like Anjou.

Some of her noted counterfeits were submitted by her eager clients to the New England Historical and Genealogical Register (NEHGR) . Unfortunately for de Salis, NEHGR researchers typically investigate exuberant ancestral claims, as seen in this 1943 response pointedly remarking on de Salis’s “vivid imagination”:

“The wills of ‘Edward’ and ‘Valentine’ [Woodman] appear to have been the offspring of Harriet de Salis’ vivid imagination—at least no such wills can now be found. After this auspicious beginning she proceeded to construct a wondrous pedigree making Nicholas the ancestor of the two New England progenitors and deducing his descent from all the ancient and gentle family of Woodman of Surrey.”

The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 97, p. 282 (1943).

Little mention of de Salis appears in GenealogyBank. Her death date and obituary were not located in its vast historical newspaper archives. Interestingly, however, there is a mention of de Salis in GenealogyBank’s United States Congressional Serial Set archives, referring to her 1888 oyster cookbook.

mention of Harriet De Salis's 1888 oyster cookbook in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Part XVIII. Report of the Commissioner for the year ending June 30, 1892. Date: Monday, January 1, 1894. Publication: Serial Set Vol. No.3264; Report: H.Misc.Doc. 209.

Horatio Gates “H. G.” Somerby (1805-1872)

Somerby, a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, moved to England, where he fabricated genealogies for Americans wishing to establish English origins.

WorldCat and Google Books report a variety of publications on families that feature suspect genealogical work done by Somerby, such as The Blakes of Somerset, John Cotton of Boston, The Searstan Family of Colchester, Pedigree of Lawrence, A Sketch of the Family of Dumaresq, and Notices of the Sears Family.

GenealogyBank’s newspapers report that a man by the name of “Horatio B. Somerby” was a witness at a forgery trial. Although the middle initial is incorrect, it may be a typo. One has to wonder about the association with a noted forger, especially one with New England connections, and suspect this is really Horatio G. Somerby.

forgery trial report, Boston Herald newspaper article 13 October 1848

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 October 1848, page 2

GenealogyBank has a brief notice of his death in London, but this death notice makes no mention of his background in fraudulent genealogy.

Horatio Somerby death notice, Salem Register newspaper article 5 December 1872

Salem Register (Salem, Massachusetts), 5 December 1872, page 2

There are numerous examples of scammers, frauds, fakes and forgers in genealogical research, so remember the famous words of Ripley: “Believe It or Not,” and be careful documenting your family history to keep it real!

Old Newspapers Help Find Family’s ‘Lost’ Town

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches online newspapers to solve the mystery of why/how his ancestor’s hometown of North Hibbing, Minnesota, disappeared.

We all know how challenging it can be to find elusive ancestors for our family history and genealogy work. However, recently I had an almost opposite situation. I knew my ancestors and family members, but their hometown was gone! So I decided to give GenealogyBank.com a try to see if their newspaper archives might be of help to me.

I had often heard my father-in-law, Carlo (God rest his soul) talk about being born and raised in the town of North Hibbing, Minnesota. He spoke fondly of this community, what a close-knit place it was, and related wonderful stories of being a youth in what seemed like less complicated times. His stories would always end with the statement that the whole town was gone now. I was remiss in not asking how a whole town goes missing, but I never did ask.

GenealogyBank.com to the rescue!

I used GenealogyBank’s Advanced Search function and entered “North Hibbing.” I was thrilled when the search results page came back with 73 entries for the “missing” hometown.

As I scanned the newspaper articles, I was treated to snippets of life in North Hibbing. A billiard hall raid (complete with a signal system to alert the hall’s owners), meetings of The Sons of Italy Italian Lodge, the beginnings of the Greyhound Bus company—which started with a seven-passenger Hupmobile running in North Hibbing, and even a fellow who reportedly brought in his 49th and 50th wolf skins to collect the bounty.

I even learned about the North Hibbing lingerie thief!

Thief Steals Lingerie, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 7 November 1922

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 7 November 1922, page 4

Then I hit pay dirt with another article from the Duluth News Tribune. This article explained that some 40 residents of North Hibbing were suing to keep the city from moving the City Hall out of North Hibbing.

Hibbing City Hall Restraint Suit Opens, 2 Witnesses Testify, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 18 January 1922

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 18 January 1922, page 6

Odd, I thought—who moves a whole City Hall? So I searched further.

The next article told much more of the story. I learned that the residents’ lawsuit made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. This article, along with others, explained to me that the Oliver Mining Company owned the very valuable mineral rights under the city of North Hibbing. That was why the city agreed to move the City Hall, to make way for a mine.

In their lawsuit, the residents argued that it was unlawful for Hibbing to turn public property over to the mining company—but they lost their case, City Hall was moved, and the mining company got to work.

Hibbing, Mines Win Battle over Property Sale, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 19 October 1922

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 19 October 1922, page 5

The railroad then abandoned the North Hibbing line, and the city began to disappear. Quickly everyone had to sell their homes and relocate. Not long after, the city of North Hibbing vanished to become a new open-pit iron mine feeding the burgeoning steel mills of Cleveland, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then, as Carlo used to say, the entire town was simply gone.

So now I have a much more complete understanding of the missing town of North Hibbing and it has added greatly to our family history.

My next stop? Back to GenealogyBank.com so that I can try and find out what transpired in the old neighborhoods of my Czech ancestors in Cleveland, Ohio. All I know now is that those neighborhoods are six lanes of Interstate concrete. I wonder if my Czech ancestors fought the changes like the residents did in North Hibbing?

Obama & Romney Are Related! Genealogy Infographic

In time for the 2012 election countdown, I recently did some genealogy research to learn more about the background of both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, and guess what—they’re related!

What’s more: they’re also related to several former U.S. presidents, English kings, outlaws and celebrities. This is really huge! So huge in fact that our team at GenealogyBank decided to create this Infographic to show many of these surprising genealogical findings.

Click the image for the even bigger full-size Infographic version.

Obama & Romney - Who Knew? We're Related! Genealogy Infographic

Obama & Romney Are Related?

Yes. Obama and Romney are both direct descendants of King Edward I of England, who was the eldest son of King Henry III and himself a father to numerous children by his two wives, Queens Eleanor and Margaret. King Edward I was perhaps the most successful of the medieval English monarchs. Known as “Longshanks” due to his great height and stature, King Edward I stood head and shoulders above other men of his time, towering at a height of 6’2. Romney and Obama are chips off the old block, both over six feet tall. Romney measures in at 6’2 and Obama at 6’1.

Several U.S. Presidents as Cousins-in-Common

The 2012 presidential candidates not only share a royal ancestor, they also have many distant cousins-in-common. These distant relatives form the impressive lineup of United States presidents featured in the White House Family Reunion photo in the Infographic above.

Obama and Romney’s U.S. president distant cousins-in-common include:

  • James Madison – 4th President of the United States
  • William Harrison – 9th President of the United States
  • Zachary Taylor – 12th President of the United States
  • Ulysses S. Grant – 18th President of the United States
  • Benjamin Harrison – 23rd President of the United States
  • Grover Cleveland – 24th President of the United States
  • Warren G. Harding – 29th President of the United States
  • Calvin Coolidge – 30th President of the United States
  • Richard Nixon – 37th President of the United States
  • Gerald Ford – 38th President of the United States
  • Jimmy Carter – 39th President of the United States
  • George W. Bush – 43rd President of the United States
  • George H.W. Bush – 41st President of the United States

Early American Presidential Roots

Obama and Romney also have deep early American roots in their respective family trees. Mayflower passengers Edward and Samuel Fuller are both direct ancestors of Mitt Romney. They were part of the group of Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Romney is also a distant cousin to the early American President Thomas Jefferson, and Obama is a distant cousin to President George Washington.

Wild West Outlaw Kin

Another interesting ancestral find was that each of the presidential nominees is a distant relation to notorious American Wild West gunslingers. Wild Bill Hickok is a distant cousin to Obama, and William H. Bonney a.k.a. “Billy the Kid” is a distant cousin to Romney. Also noteworthy is that Romney is a relation to famous American actor Clint Eastwood, who has starred in many hit Western movies such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Star-Studded Family Trees

Both of the 2012 election candidates share their family trees with Hollywood megastars, as well as other celebrities ranging from renowned American artists to British royalty.

Obama is a distant cousin to the following celebrities:

  • Brad Pitt – Hollywood Megastar
  • Elvis Presley – King of Rock & Roll
  • Georgia O’Keeffe – Famous American Artist & Painter
  • Robert Duvall – Hollywood Actor

Romney’s family tree also has many movie stars and famous people. His distant cousins include:

  • Clint Eastwood – Hollywood Megastar
  • Alec Baldwin –Hollywood Actor
  • Princess Diana – Former Princess of Wales
  • Katherine Hepburn – Earlier Hollywood Megastar
  • Julia Child – Famous Chef, TV Personality and Author

Both Have Foreign-Born Fathers

President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to parents Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. The Infographic features an old photo of Barack Obama II as a child with his mother Ann.

President Obama’s father was born in 1936 in Kanyadhiang Village, Kenya. The Infographic features an old picture of President Obama’s dad Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., as an infant with the president’s paternal grandmother Habiba Akumu Obama.

Governor Romney was born in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, to parents Lenore and George W. Romney. The old family photograph in the Infographic shows the governor as a baby with his mom and dad.

Mitt Romney’s father George W. Romney, the former governor of Michigan, was born in 1907 in Colonia Dublán, Mexico. The old picture in the Infographic shows Romney’s father as a child with Mitt’s grandma Anna Amelia Pratt Romney.

Who knew the presidential candidates shared so many family connections? We’re continuing our ancestral exploration into the 2012 U.S. presidential candidates’ family trees. Make sure to stay tuned by following us here on the blog and on Facebook, Twitter or G+ to get more Obama and Romney family history.

It’s a great day for genealogy!

Thomas Hill—American Revolutionary War Minuteman Hero Gone

“Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.”

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In searching through early 19th Century newspapers, time and again we find historical obituaries about the passing of “Revolutionary Heroes,” as America’s newspapers recorded the honored service of those who fought to secure this country’s freedom from England.

This 1851 American Revolutionary War soldier’s obituary of Thomas Hill is a good example.

Thomas Hill Revolutionary War Hero Obituary - Massachusetts Spy Newspaper 1851

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 15 July 1851, page 3.

This soldier’s obituary says of Thomas Hill: “He was in the battle of Concord, and was on Bunker Hill, but not in the engagement.”

Wait—he was there at the battle but didn’t fight?

Why was he given a pension by the U.S. federal government and called a “Revolutionary Hero” in this historical obituary if he was there at the battle but not engaged in the fighting?

Digging deeper in GenealogyBank I found this old newspaper article profiling Thomas Hill when he was 89, one year before he died. It was published in the New Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 23 April 1850, page 2, giving more details about his military service.

Thomas Hill New Hampshire Gazette NewspaperSo he was at the Battle of Concord as a 14-year-old boy and also at the Battle of Bunker Hill “with his father and eldest brother Abraham.” They were part of “the volunteer minute men who fought.”

Thomas Hill went on to fight in “two campaigns in the Jerseys and New York.”

Thomas Hill was honored along with “four other survivors, being all that could be found in the country around who were active in the scenes of 1775.”

And honored he was—the historical newspaper article went on to say:

Thomas Hill New Hampshire Gazette Newspaper 1850We can picture the old Revolutionary War veteran being escorted by the grateful citizens of West Cambridge over the same route used by the British when they attacked Lexington and Concord.

It calls to mind the words of the poet Longfellow:

“Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.”

Longfellow’s immortal words were published in January 1861, 11 years after the 1850 tribute to Thomas Hill. Perhaps he was inspired by this celebration honoring Hill and the other four remaining men “who remembered that famous day and year.”

GenealogyBank gives us the key opportunity to dig in and find the details of the thousands who served as soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. Search GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives and document your ancestors—don’t let their stories be lost.

A Murder in the Family Tree: Policeman Stabbed to Death

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott reports a sad discovery when doing his family history research—finding a murder in his family tree.

Ever have one of those eerie experiences that make you just a little bit scared in your family history work? I did and it happened early in my genealogy research when I decided to visit the Woodland Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. I had been wanting to visit this cemetery for some time as I have faint memories of visiting there with my family when I was a very young boy. Additionally, in my genealogy research, I have discovered that our family has more than 160 deceased family members resting eternally in Woodland Cemetery.

On this particular cemetery visit I was planning on paying my respects to my great grandfather’s sister, Theresa Sluka. As I arrived at her grave I not only found her gravestone, but I found a substantial family burial plot. I was madly clicking photos and writing down notes as to location, directions, etc., when one of the Sluka family gravestones caught my attention.

Up until that visit, I had never seen a gravestone that held portraits captured in porcelain. The small obelisk in front of me held not one portrait, but two. As I came closer, I realized that for the first time I was gazing at the likenesses of my cousins, Albert and Frank Sluka. Both looked remarkably young and then I noticed that Albert died at just 29 (1877-1907) and his brother, Frank, wearing a uniform of some sort in his portrait, died at only 33 (1878-1912).

gravestone portrait of Albert Sluka (1877-1907)

Gravestone portrait of Albert Sluka (1877-1907)

It wasn’t an hour later that I was booting up my computer and digging into these two family members. Beginning with Albert, my first stop was at GenealogyBank.com and I was not disappointed. On the first page of search results there was an article from the front page of the Plain Dealer:

Policeman Dies in Street Fight, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 28 March 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 March 1907, page 1

I felt as if the headline was screaming at me. I couldn’t believe what I was reading: “Policeman Dies in Street Fight. Is Stabbed Just Once, but Life Ebbs Away in Short Time.”

Only three blocks from the very cemetery where I had been standing only an hour earlier, my cousin, wearing his badge and working as a “Special Policeman,” was stabbed to death by a man he had bounced from a dancehall! The old newspaper article explained the crime scene and reported that his brother was a member of the Cleveland Police Department. My curiosity, being fully piqued at this point, kept me looking further.

Amidst the tragedy of this police murder story, I discovered in another newspaper article that the Cleveland Police did indeed get their man, who was a fellow by the name of Harry Fertel:

Murder Charge Rests Lightly, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 29 March 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 March 1907, page 2

The news of Albert Sluka’s murder was carried in other newspapers in other states, such as this historical news article which appeared on the front page of an Indiana paper:

Policeman Stabbed to Death, Elkhart Truth newspaper article, 28 March 1907

Elkhart Truth (Elkhart, Indiana), 28 March 1907, page 1

GenealogyBank.com was finding, and I was reading, news stories that covered the initial reports of the assault and crime, and explanations of the impact of the murder on my ancestors including this: “The aged father and mother of the dead policeman are brokenhearted. All day long they sat sobbing beside the casket in the little front room of their home at 5311 McBride Av., S.E…”

I was even learning about my great aunt trying to get her son’s killer sentenced to serve his time in the Penitentiary rather than the Ohio State Reformatory—which itself was none too nice, as revealed in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption (the movie was filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory).

Mother Seeks Revenge, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 15 May 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 May 1907, page 3

Ever since that first day of those discoveries about my cousin Albert and his murder, I have been further augmenting my knowledge of this family tragedy with information available from the coroner’s autopsy report, trial transcripts, jail records, and more.

The one thing I can tell you for certain is that reading those early newspaper articles sure beats any TV courtroom drama I have ever seen, because, as they say, “This Is Family.”

 

Genealogist Chips Away at His Family History ‘Brick Wall’

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells how the discovery of a faded news clipping in the drawer of an old desk provided an important clue about his family history.

The most impenetrable brick wall in my personal genealogy quest began as, and continues to be, my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha.

When I was starting my genealogy the sum total of our family’s knowledge about my great grandfather Vicha was his name, his wife’s name (Anna Knechtl), and a penciled note of unknown date and author that simply stated “Joseph K. Vicha – Pisec (sic).” Nothing more.

Over the years of my searching, I can happily report that I have been successful in finding my great grandfather’s birth family, home village in Bohemia (Czech Republic now) of Milevsko, and have traced this family line back to the mid-1600s in Bohemia. However, he still disappears from view in 1911. But what wonderful things I am finding in the years between his birth in 1862 and his disappearance in 1911!

What I am discovering to be an extraordinarily useful method in my work is to expand the search terms I am using in GenealogyBank.com and other places.

A couple of examples might help me explain this best.

Quite by chance, my cousin was rummaging through an old family desk when he came across an envelope. It held a barely legible, torn, and undated newspaper clipping. This article showed me that my great grandfather was a labor union activist with something called the C.L.U. in Cleveland, Ohio.

old, faded newspaper clipping about J. K. Vicha, the author's ancestor

Old, faded newspaper clipping that provided the author his first clue in tracing his ancestor J. K. Vicha

Upon learning this I immediately started searching anew on GenalogyBank.com. I searched using terms such as C.L.U., Central Labor Union, and Joseph K. Vicha in the search boxes and I struck gold!

My first hit was an article from the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, dated 28 November 1896 and headlined “Vicha Will Resign. Will Retire From the Presidency of the C.L.U.” I still feel pleased when I think back on that discovery, and am thankful the newspaper articles in GenealogyBank.com are very carefully digitized and come complete with attribution of newspaper and date.

Vicha Will Resign, Plain Dealer newspaper clipping 28 November 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 November 1896, page 2

This early article held the new clue that my great grandfather was seeking an appointment from Ohio’s governor, Asa S. Bushnell, to become the superintendent of the Free Employment Bureau. On I went with new searches looking into the Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland and sure enough there was more to be learned! Soon I was discovering that my great grandfather was also a close political advisor to Robert E. McKisson, a two-term mayor of the City of Cleveland from 1895 to 1898.

Mayor McKisson Had His Picture Taken at a Bohemian Reunion, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 June 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 June 1898, page 5

I was fast learning to follow each seemingly unrelated, but actually related, clue in article after article. For instance, moving from Vicha I found myself searching on Central Labor Union, then moving to C.L.U., Mayor Robert McKisson, Labor Unrest, Cloakmakers’ Strike, Lumbermen’s Strike, Czech, Bohemian, and the name of each company where my great grandfather was reported to have been working. One especially nice aspect of GenealogyBank.com is that it not only contains papers from the major Cleveland daily, the Plain Dealer, but it also has issues from the Cleveland Gazette and the Cleveland Leader.

Real Condition Given by Superintendent Vicha of the Cleveland Free Employment Office, Cleveland Gazette newspaper article 15 December 1900

Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 December 1900, page 1

While searching each new term, it was exciting to find that while my great grandfather did start out as a tailor just like his father, he:

  • became a Union organizer
  • was active in some of the most contentious labor strikes in the history of Cleveland
  • was elected the president of the Central Labor Union
  • received a gubernatorial appointment as the superintendent of the State of Ohio Free Employment Bureau in Cleveland
  • fought against sweatshops and child labor in Cleveland
  • authored a bill for the Ohio State Legislature to provide for the teaching of Bohemian (Czech) in the public schools
  • worked as a political advisor to Mayor McKisson
  • was instrumental in the mayor’s campaigning in the Bohemian community of Cleveland
  • and, while making some of the most powerful enemies one could have (such as Mark Hanna, Max Hayes, and United States President William McKinley), great grandfather Vicha was also recognized as one of the most influential Bohemians in Cleveland at that time

Unfortunately, my great grandfather does simply disappear in 1911. Family legend has it that he was branded “persona non grata” by his political and business-community enemies in Cleveland and was forced to leave in order to find work and survive.

Undeterred, I am continuing my hunt—chipping away at the brick wall that is Joseph K. Vicha after 1911. I just have this feeling that the resources of GenealogyBank.com are going to hold the key for me!

Treasured Discovery: Only-Known Photos of Ancestors Found in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells about finding the only-known photos of two of his ancestors in old newspaper wedding announcements—and a surprising engagement notice that told him something he never knew about his own mother!

Summertime! The livin’ is easy and traditionally it is the time for weddings. My bride and I just celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary a short time ago and it got me to thinking about how much I have gained in my family history and genealogy work from searching for engagement notices and wedding announcements in GenealogyBank.com.

Mr. & Mrs. Scott Phillips Wedding Photo 1975

The author’s wedding photo from 1975.

As many of us go about developing and nurturing our family trees, I think you’ll agree that one of the best aspects of that work is discovering photographs of our ancestors. Let me tell you, few places that I have found beat newspaper engagement and wedding stories for personal photos—sometimes the only picture anyone in the family has of a particular ancestor. I have had terrific success in my family tree with these types of articles.

A great example was the newspaper article I recently found when researching my Havlic branch. I discovered the wedding announcement for Eleanor Anna Havlic as reported in the Plain Dealer on 30 September 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio. Not only was I thrilled that there was a picture of my ancestor, but it showed some lovely period dress for a 1928 wedding. Additionally, I was treated to the names of parents, spouse, in-laws, addresses of both, the new couple’s home address, bridal party members, wedding date, and the name of their church.

Mrs Louis J Beran Old Marriage Announcement

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 September 1928, page 50.

Another nice find for me was the wedding story of another cousin, Margaret Tager, again in the Plain Dealer (27 August 1961) in Cleveland. Once more I was excited to find an old wedding photo that illustrated the current fashion, this time of the early 1960s, plus addresses, parents’ and in-laws’ names, the name of the church where the ceremony was held—and there was even a mention of where both the bride and groom attended college. As an added treat, the newspaper article explained where the couple honeymooned.

Margaret Ann Tager Marriage Announcement

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 August 1961, page 108.

In the case of both of the above family members, the old newspaper articles provided me with the only photos I have of these particular ancestors, which make them all the more important to my work, my family, and our family tree.

Oh, and don’t forget that every so often you just might find one of those “ah-ha” moments we all enjoy so much in genealogy. I had one myself not long ago.

After working on one of my grandparent’s branches I was having some fun searching different family surnames to see what I could find. As I was running my grandmother’s married name lo and behold I found an engagement announcement! I clicked on the article to find…my mother had been engaged one time before becoming engaged to, and then marrying, the man who was to become my father. This was a fact that had not been a topic of discussion in my life ever before.

Thank goodness my mom made the choice she did or I wouldn’t be here writing this today!

That was a close call…and a really fun discovery.

Family Search Uncovers Circus Elephant Story

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott speaks of his love of genealogy, and shares some of the family history discoveries he’s made—including the tale of an ancestor, a zookeeper, who was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, in 1915!

Right off the bat I’ll admit it. I’m a genealogy nut! My wife calls my pursuit of family history “our shadow.” My favorite quote is “I used to have a life and then I started doing genealogy.” Plus, I am hoping for another grandchild, simply because I have a myriad of historic family names that I think need to be carried on. I wonder what my chances are for either Lovejoy Cinderella for a granddaughter or Sylvia Marathan for a grandson?

Well, maybe not.

Additionally, it is a matter of great personal satisfaction that I have been able to trace my family roots, with documentation, to the 1500s on my father’s side (Phillipps and Cottle) in Cornwall, United Kingdom; to the early 1600s on my mother’s side (Vicha and Knechtl) in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic; and to the 1700s with my wife’s families (D’Aquila and Casagrande) in the Molise district of Italy. My Cornish and Bohemian immigrant ancestors all happened to find their separate ways to Cleveland, Ohio, between 1852 and 1911. My wife’s ancestors made their way to the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota.

The “Chase-of-the-Trace”

While the thrill of what I have dubbed the “chase-of-the-trace” is always amazing, I have to admit that, for me, the best part is more often the “little things.” You know, those human interest stories or unexpected items that one discovers pursuing genealogy and/or family histories. Sure there is the rush of excitement when we chip a brick out of a longstanding wall by finding a birth, marriage, or death certificate we’ve long been looking for, but to see the real lives of our ancestors unfold is what gets me truly excited.

A personal goal in my family tree and website (which I keep on the genealogy/social network site MyHeritage.com) is to find, capture, and then weave the threads of the culture, times, and values of our ancestors into what I call the quilt of our family history. For instance, in my family I will be the last person who will have grown up hearing Czech spoken in our home. I don’t want that memory to be lost. Not ever!

Sister Marjorie: the Chase Begins

Recently I got a phone call from a Cleveland cousin. Since I use our genealogy website as our worldwide family social network, she wanted to inform me of the passing of another cousin, Sister Marjorie. In the family we knew Sister Marjorie, before her vows, as Florence Kotrsal, a member of our Knechtl family branch. Cousin Florence had always intrigued me, especially since she was a twin (rare in our family tree) and I had not done any significant amount of work on her. As so often happens, the loss of a family member caused me to be doing something a bit too late.

First, I began learning more about her life as a member of the Order of the Sisters of Holy Humility of Mary where she lived for 73 years in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania. Next, I began to work more on her family members. I knew Florence was the daughter of Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (later, as with so many Slavic names in my family, “Americanized” to Kottershall) and Florence Kapl, and that Florence was the twin sister of Josephine. I began to move back in time and soon discovered I was in my favorite element, which is the early Bohemian community of Cleveland, Ohio.

As always, one of my first stops during my family history search was at GenealogyBank.com. I love the site and the coverage in the Cuyahoga County/Cleveland/Northeast, Ohio, area through the Plain Dealer and the Leader is excellent and very deep. Plus, with bated breath, I am awaiting their forthcoming additions of some of the early Cleveland Czech-language newspapers they recently acquired from the Balch Museum in Pennsylvania.

Sister Marjorie’s Father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kottershall)

J.J. Kotershall, Physician, Is Dead, Plain Dealer 11 December 1945

Obituary for Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kotershall), Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

During my family search my first exciting discovery was that Florence’s father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal, was the same medical doctor whose name I had seen frequently on death certificates and other documents. As I searched farther, I found his obituary, always a terrific find. As I read, I was amazed to see that Dr. Kotrsal was instrumental in bringing the very first x-ray machine to Cleveland, Ohio. Now you might think this would have changed him as a person or his practice, but his obituary states that he continued to focus on providing medical care in the Bohemian community of Cleveland his entire life.

An additional precept in my personal family history work is that I want to be as inclusive as possible, so I study spouses and their families for equal inclusion in my family tree. In this case, I directed my searching to Florence’s maternal grandparents, Joseph F. and Louise Mary (Babicky) Kapl.

Circus Elephant Story

But Never Again! Says Keeper Kapl of Minnie, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 23 March 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 March 1915, page 4

The next item I found brought me to a stop. The first “hit” (of 31) in Historical Newspapers on Joseph Kapl, Florence’s grandfather, was a real keeper. Zookeeper that is! Not only was there a full newspaper article on this man, but there was a story, a terrific ink drawing of Joseph (so far the only picture anyone in the family has of him), and the unique story of how he was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, where Joseph happened to be Minnie’s keeper. Very kindly, the newspaper reporter even thought to list Joseph’s home address in the article, which matches spot-on with the 1920 United States Census listing for the Kottershall family.

Between the obituary for Dr. Kottershall and the wonderful circus elephant story with Joseph Kapl these newspaper articles gave me the exact threads I was seeking—ones that allow me to weave a bit of what the real lives of my ancestors were like into the quilt of our family history that I am still laboring over.

Ah, but what a labor of love it is!

Today in History: Bizarre Yet Brilliant Inventor Nikola Tesla Born

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla!

When most people think about an electrical genius who was a master inventor, they think of Thomas Edison. However, when Edison was working his magic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he had a rival who was every bit his equal in brains if not lasting fame: Nikola Tesla. Today marks the 156th anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s birth on July 10, 1856. In remembrance and celebration of Tesla’s legacy on his birthday we explore his uncommon life.

A Brief Biography of Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born in the village of Smiljan, present-day Croatia, but became an American citizen. In his eventful 86-year life Tesla proved to be a real wizard of electricity: he perfected alternating current (AC) electrical power; made breakthroughs in radar, X-rays and robotics; invented the Tesla coil; and made many important discoveries that justify calling him the “father of modern radio.”

Unquestionably a genius, Tesla spoke eight languages fluently. He experienced astonishing visions in which he saw inventions so clearly that every detail was already sharp in his mind before he ever set them down on paper. At the height of his fame the public marveled at his inventions and recognized him as the equal of fellow inventor Thomas Edison.

Sadly, that fame was not to last. As he aged he became increasingly strange, with ever-more bizarre behavior. He was obsessed by many things, including pigeons and a deathly fear of dirt. The number 3 haunted him: for example, he always walked around a block three times before entering any building. The public lost its fascination with him, and his life ended without acquiring the lasting fame that Thomas Edison enjoys to this day.

Nikola Tesla died broke and all alone in a New York City hotel room on Jan. 7, 1943. Despite making more than 700 inventions in his lifetime and many of science’s most important breakthroughs, he died deeply in debt, unnoticed and forgotten—perhaps the archetype of the “mad scientist.”

He may have been bizarre, but Tesla was not crazy—and many of the devices and procedures we use today sprang from the mind of this baffling, incredibly inventive man.

Tesla's Latest: The Electrician Illustrates Three New Discoveries, Plain Dealer, 9 April 1897

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1897, page 8

Published in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1897, page 8.

The above old newspaper article was written when Tesla enjoyed great renown.

The article begins: “After many months of silence, Nikola Tesla spoke night before last at the Academy of Science, and, as always happens on such occasions, the scientific knowledge of the world was the richer thereby. Mr. Tesla, without going deeply into the details of his methods, announced three discoveries he has made, and gave practical illustrations of them. One will revolutionize the present methods of electric lighting, will exert a tremendous influence upon a hundred different things, and will open to the investigator an infinite number of highways of research, and will end, Mr. Tesla says, in bringing about that sought-for end of all electricians: the transmission of information through space without the agency of wires now needed.”

A collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives, provides tremendous information to help with your family history research—and also contains stories about the times and leading figures that influenced your ancestors’ lives such as this remarkable inventor. You can explore thousands of articles to learn more about the curious life of Nikola Tesla in our online archives.

Old West Stories in Newspapers: Here Comes the Morning Stagecoach!

Maybe it was because of Father’s Day, but there were a lot of old western movies on TV this past weekend. Good ones, too, starring Gregory Peck, John Wayne, and more.

Daily Ohio Statesman -  Stagecoach Story Newspaper Article 1860

Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 10 May 1860, page 3

So, it was no surprise when I was combing through GenealogyBank today that I found this great newspaper article about an old western stagecoach, published in the Daily Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio), 10 May 1860, page 3.

It read like the plot of a TV western—only these stories of the old Wild West were real.

This historical newspaper article reports that the Overland Mail Coach arrived with passengers “Lieut. Cogswell, of the USA, Dr. J. P. Breck, and Mr. and Mrs. Arnold.”

They brought news from the Texas frontier and points west. “They report the Indians very troublesome in the vicinity of Mustang Pond [Nevada], and between Mountain Pass Station and Phantom Hill.”

The stagecoach passengers provided details of several attacks:

“A blacksmith in the employ of the Overland Mail Company, and three men living at Mountain Pass, were murdered by the Comanches the day before the stage passed there.

“Fifteen Indians stopped at Mustang Pond and committed sundry depredations upon the whites.

“The scout for this stage saw some bands of Indians at the latter place, looking with eager eyes towards the coach, and the passengers prepared themselves for a fight, but the red skins were too wary, and it did not become necessary to fire upon them.

“Col. Fountleroy had started on a tour to select a site for Fort Butler.

“Maj. Ruff had been ordered with five companies of rifles to take the field immediately against the Kiowa and Comanches. His depot was at Fort Butler.

“Several ranging companies were out in the vicinity of Jackborough.”

Clearly, riding a stagecoach in the Wild West was just as dangerous as western movies later portrayed it!

Every stop was an adventure. This old Pony Express Route, April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861 map (courtesy, Library of Congress) shows the overland route many travelers took from Missouri to California.

Historical Map of Pony Express Route that Stagecoaches Followed - 1860-1861

Pony Express Route, April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861

The strength of historical newspapers is that they provide a daily record of the past.

GenealogyBank has the largest online newspaper archive, full of details about our American heritage. You can find stagecoach passenger lists, information about the early American pioneers and Native Americans and so much more in GenealogyBank. Carefully review GenealogyBank’s 1.2 billion records for the details of your family’s history.

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