A Fascinating Genealogy Success Story: Mystery of Missing Ancestors Solved

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells the story of how a fellow genealogists used old newspapers to finally break through her family history brick wall.

Here on the GenealogyBank blog, I recently wrote an article titled Ah-Ha! Moment: GenealogyBank Member’s Favorite Family Find. At the end of my article I asked readers to please share their own “Ah-Ha!” moments from their genealogy and family history work. I then learned about “Cowfordlady’s” genealogy “Ah-Ha!” moment, which had occurred earlier that same day.

GenealogyBank member Cowfordlady kindly shared her genealogy success story with us so that we could share it with all of you. It is a story about breaking through a genealogy brick wall similar to those we each encounter in our own family history work.

It is a great story and if I may use a quote from Paul Harvey, there is a lot to “the rest of the story.”

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Cowfordlady had been searching for some clues to two of her ancestors who were missing from the 1940 U.S. Census, so she turned to GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives in the hope of perhaps finding an obituary. What she found was indeed an “Ah-Ha!” moment of epic proportions. She overcame the challenges of assumed names, misspellings, cross-country movements, 15 missing years, murder, and more!

She had been unable to find information about her ancestors Flossie Sula (mother) and Louise (daughter) Cothern. Cowfordlady knew that Flossie Sula had married David William Cothern, and Louise was their only child. He died in 1930.

Cowfordlady knew only a few details about her ancestors’ lives after David died. As she tells it:

Flossie was a widow and about age 33 when she and Louise left West Green (Coffee County), Georgia, in/about 1931; Louise was about age 9 then.

After that, her ancestors’ trail turned cold, and they were not listed in the 1940 Census.

Not able to find any information about her ancestors in government records, Cowfordlady turned to GenealogyBank’s newspapers. She tried several searches using variations of her ancestors’ surname—and one such variation (“Cothren”) turned up an article that was the key to unlocking this genealogy puzzle.

It was a front-page story from a 1946 Louisiana newspaper that began to unravel the mystery. The discovery was a chilling one.

Father, Son (Emmett and Leroy Bennett) Face Murder Charges in Razor Slaying, Times-Picayune newspaper article 19 November 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 19 November 1946, page 1

The key was this paragraph, revealing that the unfortunate “Mrs. Henderson” involved in this tragic murder story was in reality Cowfordlady’s missing ancestor, Flossie Sula Cothern (spelled “Cothren” in the article).

article about Flossie Sula Cothern, Times-Picayune newspaper article 19 November 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 19 November 1946, page 9

Along with finally solving the mystery of her missing ancestors, this newspaper article had the added bonus of providing a photograph of Flossie Sula Cothern.

photo of Flossie Sula Cothern, Times-Picayune newspaper article 19 November 1946

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 19 November 1946, page 9

Flossie Sula and Louise Cothern had left Georgia with a father and son who lived near them: Emmett Bennett and his son Leroy. The four of them lived as a family for 15 years under the assumed name of Henderson until Emmett (in the company of Leroy) murdered Louise in 1946 in New Orleans while Flossie was at work.

Cowfordlady’s discoveries continued when she found another 1946 Louisiana newspaper article. It seems that while on the lam from the law, the apparent murderer of Louise possibly committed suicide by allowing himself to be hit by an express train.

Find Body of Man (Emmett Bennett) Wanted in Slaying of Orleans Girl, Advocate newspaper article 22 November 1946

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 22 November 1946, page 1

But that was not the end of this story!

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There is a follow-up in this 1946 Georgia newspaper article. It seems that the second suspect in this murder case, Leroy Bennett ( “Henderson”) had changed his mind about accepting extradition to Louisiana from Georgia—and his family then swore out a warrant against the detectives for kidnapping!

Kidnap Warrant Is Served on New Orleans Detectives Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 23 November 1946

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 23 November 1946, page 1

While the kidnapping charge was dismissed, the case carried on—as reported in this 1946 Louisiana newspaper article. While much of this article details the legal haggling over extradition and habeas corpus, there was this interesting sentence that reads:

Coffee County Sheriff R. C. Relihan said today that a mental health hearing for the young Bennett this week disclosed him to be mentally incompetent. He was placed in the custody of an uncle and attorneys.

N. O. Extradition Case Pondered, State Times Advocate newspaper article 27 November 1946

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 27 November 1946, page 6

As you can see, Cowfordlady went from near-zero information to uncovering an amazing story about her missing ancestors. Her experience shows the value of newspapers for family history research; they provide the stories that vital statistics, with all their names and dates, don’t tell.

And her technique of searching on variations of her ancestors’ name—and her dogged persistence—provide good lessons for us all!

There may be nothing finer in genealogy than when we see success such as Cowfordlady’s. What has your best genealogy success story been?

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‘Ah-Ha!’ Moment: GenealogyBank Member’s Favorite Family Find

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells an incredible story of a brother and sister who bumped into each other—after an absence of 42 years—and as each began telling stories about their childhood, it dawned on each other that the “stranger” they were talking to was actually their sibling!

All of you that follow me here on the GenealogyBank blog, on my website at Onward To Our Past®, or on the Onward To Our Past® Facebook page, know how much I love all the genealogy information found in the massive newspaper database of GenealogyBank.com. Over and over these newspapers have been the source of a wide variety of truly amazing “Ah-Ha!” genealogy moments for me, such as the time I discovered a newspaper article that revealed the occupation of my great grandfather. Another time, again thanks to an old newspaper article, I was thrilled to find a photo of an ancestor that is the only known photograph we have of him.

I recently asked the good folks at GenealogyBank.com what they heard from their subscribers using their service—did other family historians have similar genealogy research success stories?

In just a few minutes I received the following testimonial from a member of the GenealogyBank.com support team. This was written by M. F. of New Hampshire:

I use GenealogyBank to search out additional “color” to add to the family tree, so that there is more than just names, dates, and places. I love looking at the anniversary stories, the wedding announcements, and the gossip columns. When I found this story involving some members of the family tree, I just had to share with you.

A Serendipitous Family Reunion

When I checked out the article M. F. had found, I could plainly see why this GenealogyBank.com subscriber was so excited.

Brother (Simard) and Sister (Marquis) Meet after 42 Years, Boston Herald newspaper article 9 August 1939

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 August 1939, page 26

Not only was this story extremely moving about a brother and sister serendipitously meeting, after 42 years, but also there was a marvelous family photograph of both the brother and sister in the article.

photo of siblings August Simard and Adele Marquis reuniting, Boston Herald newspaper article 9 August 1939

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 9 August 1939, page 26

Talk about an “Ah-Ha!” moment! Not only a great family reunion story, but also a photo of the siblings, details about the lives of both individuals, and the fact that there was another brother living, at that time, in Green Island, Canada. It must have been amazing when the brothers and their sister got together after more than 40 years! I hope they had a nice big pot of tea and plenty of scones on hand, because I am thinking they had an incredible amount to share.

The touching family story shared by M. F. is a wonderful example of just one of the hidden treasures that await all of us who love genealogy and family history in the more than 6,500 historical newspapers of GenealogyBank.com that stretch from 1690 to Today and cover all 50 of our United States. Perhaps the best part of all is the newspaper reporter’s adherence to those wonderful 5 W’s of good newspaper reporting that give us genealogy fans answers to those always crucial questions of Who, What, Where, When, and Why!

Members: Share Your Favorite “Ah-Ha!” Moments

So let me know in the comments section below: what has been your favorite “Ah-Ha!” moment from GenealogyBank.com? Thanks! I bet you have some great family discoveries!