Sleuthing for Clues in the News to Solve Genealogy Mysteries

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how tiny clues in old newspapers can lead to big family history discoveries.

Every genealogist I have ever met seems to be a combination of Perry Mason, Jessica Fletcher, Columbo, Christine Cagney, Mary Beth Lacey, Thomas Magnum, and Sherlock Holmes—searching everywhere for clues, following each one (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant), and putting together the strongest case they can.

illustration of Sherlock Holmes in “The Five Orange Pips”

Illustration: Sherlock Holmes in “The Five Orange Pips.” Source: Wikimedia.org.

One of my favorite places to hunt for clues in my genealogy and family history is the online collection of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. There always seems to be some new discovery for me to delve into in order to make our family tree more complete.

Sleuthing for Clues in the News

Sometimes these genealogical clues are truly tiny—but when pursued, can lead to valuable information and additions to our family trees. Such was the case when I came across a small, three-sentence article in an 1897 newspaper.

article about Mary Lisy, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 May 1897

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 May 1897, page 13

Having already identified that I had a couple in our family tree of Joseph and Mary Lisy, I decided this was worth investigating further. It certainly seemed to have all the elements of a highly interesting genealogy story. So my work began.

Enter Last Name










Investigating Joseph & Mary Lisy

In another Ohio newspaper the very next day was an even shorter article, this one containing only one sentence.

article about Mary Lisy, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 17 May 1897

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 May 1897, page 6

Now I had some nice pieces of information to further my ancestry research. First I learned that the court that heard this case was the Probate Court, and, second, that this Mary Lisy was a patient in a facility named Cleveland State Hospital.
I began to look for Mary Lisy in the Census records of the time and sure enough, in the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 United States Census records is listed “Lisy, Mary, Inmate” at the Cleveland State Hospital for the Insane. I then continued to look in GenealogyBank’s newspapers to see if there might be something I could learn about the institution itself.

My initial archive search returned hundreds and hundreds of search results. Many, like this 1909 newspaper article, detail terrible conditions and chronic overcrowding in the Cleveland State Hospital.

Asylum Cramped, Governor Finds, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 August 1909

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 August 1909, page 1

Then in the 1940 United States Census returns I discovered Mary Lisy, who—while still listed as an “inmate”—was now at Hawthornden State Hospital (Insane) and had been at this facility at least since 1935. While I was not familiar with this facility from any of my prior research, it didn’t take me long to find this 1941 newspaper article, which contains a lot of good information on the system of insane asylums in Ohio, including Hawthornden.

Ohio Insane Asylums Slated for Repairs, Repository newspaper article 10 January 1941

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 10 January 1941, page 12

Genealogy Sleuthing Stumbling Block

Then I had one of those “uh-oh, I knew this was going too smoothly” moments in my genealogy research. As I continued researching Joseph and Mary Lisy, I discovered that there were at least two men in Cleveland named Joseph Lisy who had almost identical birth years. Both also happened to have married women with the given name of Mary, who also had similar birth years. To make this matter even more confusing, all these folks were Bohemian as well.

Enter Last Name










One of the couples seemed to have had a fairly “normal” life, but the other couple had a darker life together—including this Mary having been in an asylum for decades, as shown in this 1901 newspaper article. This article detailed a court case in which Joseph Lisy was found guilty of failing to provide for his four minor children and was sentenced to the workhouse.

article about Joseph Lisy, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 February 1901

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 February 1901, page 12

This complication of multiple Joseph and Mary Lisy couples was a great learning experience for me and a good example of the need to get as much definitive documentation as we can find to ensure that our family trees are true and accurate.

Expanding My Genealogy Search

I branched out my research to include records from Cuyahoga County, the Ohio Probate Court, the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services, several local genealogical and history organizations, the diocese of Cleveland, several cemeteries, and, much to my luck, a cousin who was also struggling with this same dilemma. As they say “two heads are better than one,” and we all know this is certainly at its truest when it comes to genealogy and family history research.

It took some time to sift through all of the death listing for each Mary Lisy that we could find, but that is what we did. As we winnowed them down, one was discovered from 1960 that placed her death at the “Millcreek Psych. Ctr” in Knox County, Ohio. Of all the death listings for women named Mary Lisy, after the 1940 Census, this was the only one with any hint of an institution as the location of her death. It was from 1960, which means Mary had lived in Ohio insane asylums for over 60 years of her life, which was a sobering thought all by itself. Both my cousin and I agreed this was the most promising lead we had, so it was picked to be our first to pursue.

Then almost all at once the genealogy research started falling into place like dominos.

Pieces of the Family Mystery Come Together

Our first break came when a very helpful priest in the diocese provided a copy of the parish register for the marriage of Joseph and Mary, which gave us her maiden name of Bolf (Wolf).

photo of the marriage registry for Joseph Lisy and Mary Bolf

Photo: marriage registry for Joseph Lisy and Mary Bolf

Second, the archivist from the Cuyahoga County Probate Court sent me the files on the insanity hearings for Mary Lisy. Pages and pages of information—then in about the middle, penciled in the margin of one of the records was this: “nee Wolf.”

My cousin called to say that when she was speaking to her husband about this mystery, he mused aloud about why Mary would have been transferred to Hawthornden—which was not in Cuyahoga County, but rather in Summit County, Ohio. She said this didn’t click right away, but then like a bolt of lightning it struck her.

She recalled that the only children of Mary Lisy who were still alive in 1960 had been listed as living in Cuyahoga County, according to the 1940 Census. However, there was a cemetery listing in one obituary for a cemetery in Summit County, Ohio. The obituary for Edward Votypka was in a 1944 newspaper and nicely mentioned the cemetery by name.

obituary for Edward Votypka, Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 March 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 March 1944, page 10

It was, as she said “a tenuous connection,” but she placed a call to the cemetery. There a wonderfully helpful staff member was able to verify that a family member had purchased 12 graves for a family plot. Not only were several of the children and other family members of Mary Lisy interred there, but one grave was the final resting place of Mary Lisy herself!

We are now tidying up the rest of our genealogy research on Mary and Joseph Lisy. And to think—this all came about from a three-sentence article in an 1897 newspaper!

What is the best and biggest genealogy and family history discovery you have made from a newspaper article? I’d love to learn about them so please leave your story in the comments here. Thanks for reading and Godspeed in your genealogy sleuthing!

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Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post Gena writes about how difficult it can be finding information about an ancestor who was committed to an asylum (i.e., state  hospital)—and how using old newspapers can help.

When I look at the latter years of one set of my paternal 2nd great-grandparents, I see a similarity. They both had divorced and later remarried, and their latter years were marked by the same outcome: they spent their final years in a state hospital, called an “asylum” in those days.

Asylums served the needs of more than just mentally disabled people: they also served as a place for the elderly who needed care. In an American era before rest homes and specialized elder care, asylums were available to care for elderly persons whose family could not—or would not—care for them. While we often associate the words “insane asylum” with mental illness, historically many different types of people were locked up in asylums who were anything but mentally ill. For example, besides the elderly, women who didn’t conform to society’s ideas of what a woman should be were sometimes locked up at the whim of their husbands or other male family members.

vintage postcard of the Arkansas Insane Asylum

Vintage postcard: Arkansas Insane Asylum. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Researching your ancestor who was committed to an asylum can be difficult due to the lack of sources, as well as privacy law restrictions. This is where social history sources can help your family history research.

In the case of my paternal 2nd great-grandmother, Malinda Randall Montgomery Bean, she spent less than a year in the Oregon State Hospital located in Salem, Oregon, in the 1940s. (To learn more about the Oregon State Hospital, visit their museum online at Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health.)

I knew a little bit about Malinda from interviewing family members but I wanted to know more. I was especially interested in her life between the years after her second husband died in 1935 and her own passing nine years later. I knew from family sources that she suffered dementia in her later years, which helped explain why she lived her last months in the state hospital.

To find out more about Malinda’s life I took a genealogy trip to Oregon, researched at the Oregon State Archives, visited the grounds of the hospital (still in existence), and found her burial place. Because I was limited in what I could learn about my ancestor’s life during her time at the state hospital, I researched old newspapers to understand the life of asylum patients during the early 1900s.

One gets a sense of the normalcy of sending the elderly to live out their final years at a state facility from this 1911 newspaper article, which is about the Oregon State Hospital asking families to not send their elderly to the hospital due to concerns about overcrowding, and instead take care of them at home or have the county care for them.

Asylum to Close to Many Insane, Oregonian  newspaper article 24 March 1911

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 24 March 1911, page 6

Reading a later newspaper article from 1940 lamenting the crowding of the facility gives me a sense of what my great-great-grandmother’s living conditions must have been like at the end of her life. One danger from the overcrowding is mentioned in the news article: fire. The old newspaper article states “The main building, built in 1883, is tinder dry, and its floors are soaked with the oil of many cleanings.” It goes on to say that the elderly are housed on the first floor just in case they need to escape during such a tragedy.

State Hospital Visit Reveals Crowded Conditions, Oregonian newspaper article 14 April 1940

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 14 April 1940, page 85

Besides problems with overcrowding in the asylums, there were other dangers for those living in institutionalized care. For example: right before my ancestor was a resident at the Oregon State Hospital, some cooks from the facility were charged in the deaths of 47 inmates. They served residents roach poison mixed in their food!

Asylum Cooks Provide Bail, Oregonian  newspaper article 25 November 1942

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 25 November 1942, page 27

Malinda “Lennie” Bean died on 19 March 1944 of bronchopneumonia and “senility” at the age of 79 years. Her family paid for her final arrangements and her subsequent burial in a nearby cemetery. According to her death certificate she had lived in the Oregon State Hospital for 9 months and 29 days.

Although doing genealogy research on an ancestor who spent time in an asylum can be difficult, don’t forget the power of incorporating social history—found in historical newspaper articles— to help you better understand their lives and the times in which they lived.