How to Find the Black Sheep of Your Family in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena writes about one of the more interesting aspects of genealogy: uncovering the stories of your “black sheep” ancestors.

It’s no secret that I love researching black sheep ancestors when tracing my family tree. Why? They leave behind the best paper trails! And if there’s one place to learn more about your black sheep ancestor, it’s in old newspapers – like those in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. I could literally spend days finding examples of articles memorializing those ancestors who didn’t walk the straight and narrow. To get you started on your own family black sheep research quest, here are a few examples of articles I’ve discovered in the old newspaper archives.

Police Blotters

Police blotter articles are short listings documenting arrests and police activities. They can provide a lot of information, including the name of the party arrested, their crime, the address where the crime occurred, and even the name of the victim – as in these examples from May 1900.

police blotter, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 10 May 1900

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 10 May 1900, page 9

A few days later the same Philadelphia police blotter gives additional information about one criminal, as it reports:

Henry Haig, alias Kendig, who has only been out of jail two weeks, was sent to prison pending trail [sic] on the charge of having stolen bicycles belonging to Thomas Magee, of 2247 Dickinson street, and William H. Urner, of 22 South Nineteenth street.

What a great find for someone unaware that their kin used more than one surname.

police blotter, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 12 May 1900

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 May 1900, page 9

From the Jail to the Courthouse

The nice thing about reading your ancestor’s court case in the newspaper is that you can follow it up with the actual official court records. In this list from the Lexington Herald of police court cases, some are violent crimes like murder and assault – but many are less serious, such as drunkenness, loitering, and disorderly conduct. My favorite in this list is the last entry for Mrs. A. B. Lancaster, charged with reckless driving – in 1913!

Twenty-Seven Cases Up in Police Court, Lexington Herald newspaper article 6 July 1913

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 6 July 1913, page 6

Affairs of the Heart

Your black sheep ancestor might not have committed what we would define as a crime today – but they may have acted in a manner that was criminal at the time (and most people would continue to disapprove of). In today’s world we get our fill of the private lives of celebrities, but don’t forget that the unwise choices of normal, everyday people can also be found in the newspaper.

Enter Last Name

Consider the California case back in 1921 of Wallace Van Winkle Alexander, his wife Mary, and his alleged mistress Edith Prudhomme (sometimes misspelled as Prudhammer). Mrs. Alexander first became suspicious of the relationship between her husband and family friend Mrs. Prudhomme after finding a classified ad about a lost canary. Coupled with her husband’s absence, Mrs. Alexander suspected that her husband was with Mrs. Prudhomme in her apartment. Mary Alexander contacted the police and they raided Mrs. Prudhomme’s apartment, finding Mr. Alexander hiding in a closet wearing pajamas.

article about the Alexander scandal, Evening News newspaper article 18 July 1921

Evening News (San Jose, California), 18 July 1921, page 1

Probably even better than the initial story of catching her husband red-handed is a follow-up news story that shows a photo of Mary Alexander swearing out a complaint against her husband. It just goes to show that you never know what kind of photos you’ll find in the newspaper.

In this follow-up article, the journalist seems surprised by Mr. Alexander’s choice in a mistress. He writes:

The heart of Wallace Van Winkle Alexander, wealthy Los Gatos broker, was won not by a blue-eyed baby doll or a dashing young widow, but one who would least be suspected – a family friend of years of standing, a woman 50 years old and ten years the senior of his wife.

(It appears from census records that the age difference between the two women is slightly exaggerated in this account.) While Mrs. Alexander had already sworn a formal complaint on the lovebirds, Mr. Alexander tried to file one on his wife for cruelty. Mrs. Alexander’s brother chalked up the tryst to the greed of both husband and mistress – he is quoted as saying:

She thought he had money and he thought she had it, is the way I sum the matter up…

Broker Vamped by Woman of 50, Says Wife [Mary Alexander], San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 19 July 1921

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 19 July 1921, page 3

A newspaper article that appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune reports the flimsiest excuse from an accused husband that was ever uttered:

Alexander explained his presence in Mrs. Prudhammer’s apartment in his pajamas by saying that the hot water at his own apartment was seldom very hot. He said he went to the apartment of Mrs. Prudhammer, an old family friend, and told her that he wanted to use her tub. He had just undressed, he said, when the door bell rang, and he hastily rushed into a closet and donned a pair of pajamas.

The story goes on to say that Mrs. Prudhammer verified Mr. Alexander’s story but added that she protested when he said he wanted to use her tub.

Broker's Wife Sends Police after Hubby, Salt Lake Telegram newspaper article 19 July 1921

Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 19 July 1921, page 1

Don’t Forget Those Images

We’ve talked about the richness of images in the newspaper in previous blog articles. One of my favorite sections of early 20th century newspapers is the photographs page where images are accompanied with a sentence or two about their significance. This feature acted as an image wrap-up of current news stories from around the globe. This 1922 example from Trenton, New Jersey, has several examples of nefarious dealings – including two photos dealing with a husband’s abandonment, and another about a wife’s inclination to steal furs.

Page of Photographs, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 27 March 1922

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 27 March 1922, page 8

The Times They Are a-Changing

As time went by, activities that once earned the black sheep label seemed sedate to later generations. Old newspapers allow us to get to know the sensibilities and moirés of an earlier time.

Black sheep ancestors include those who pushed the boundaries of current convention. Consider your 1920s grandmother who dared to bare just a little too much leg and received a monetary fine for doing so.

While the example in the next newspaper article is from Germany, I’m sure evidence of such practices can be found for the United States. These two police officers have the most dreadful task of measuring young women’s skirts and issuing fines for their lack of length. I have to admit that I would absolutely love to find one of my female ancestors in a police record for wearing a short skirt!

Berlin Police and Short Skirts, Cobb County Times newspaper article 16 August 1921

Cobb County Times (Marietta, Georgia), 16 August 1921, page 8

It’s possible that, if your grandmother was wearing her skirts too short when she was young, she was also going to dances, smoking cigarettes, and drinking. The more I read old newspapers the more I realize that teenagers haven’t changed much in 100 years.

Watch Dancers, Not the Dances, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 October 1921

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 October 1921, page 13

GenealogyTip: Black sheep ancestors may have left other records. Follow up what you find in newspaper articles with other documents like court records.

Who’s the Black Sheep in Your Family?

Your ancestor may have been the black sheep of the family for any number of reasons, ranging from committing crimes to engaging in adultery, or perhaps an activity that is commonplace now but considered scandalous back in the day. Embrace your black sheep ancestors and look for their stories in the newspaper – and if you know of any black sheep in your family tree and are willing to share the stories, tell us in the comments section.

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List of 50+ Mississippi Newspapers Online

Mississippi is in the heart of the Old South. Today there are three million Mississippians living in the Magnolia State—and millions more have lived in the Delta area since its first settlement over 300 years ago.

With more than 50 Mississippi newspapers currently online and growing, GenealogyBank’s historical archives are your starting place for researching your family tree—dating back to the American Colonial period up to modern times—in this old Southern state.

photo of Meridian, Mississippi

Photo: Meridian, Mississippi. Credit: Wikipedia.

Here is the list of the Mississippi newspapers currently available in our online archives:

City Title Date Range*

Collection

Biloxi Biloxi Herald 1/14/1888 – 11/26/1898

Newspaper Archives

Biloxi Daily Herald 3/31/1888 – 12/31/1909

Newspaper Archives

Biloxi Sun Herald 2/12/1994 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Brandon Free State 1/20/1900 – 1/20/1900

Newspaper Archives

Clarksdale Clarksdale Press Register 4/20/2005 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Cleveland Bolivar Commercial 10/2/2009 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Columbia Columbian-Progress 11/3/2008 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Columbus Columbus Packet 12/12/2010 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Columbus Commercial Dispatch 5/7/2002 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Corinth Daily Corinthian 6/12/2011 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Eupora Webster Progress-Times 3/25/2003 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Forest Scott County Times 8/5/2003 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Gautier Mississippi Press 8/15/2006 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Gautier Mississippi Press, The: Web Edition Articles 10/18/2012 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Greenville Delta Democrat Times 1/8/2002 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Greenwood Greenwood Commonwealth 5/29/2000 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Gulfport Daily Herald 1/1/1910 – 12/30/1922

Newspaper Archives

Hattiesburg Lamar Times 4/21/2011 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Hattiesburg Petal News 4/21/2011 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Indianola Indianola Enterprise-Tocsin 9/16/2010 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Jackson Clarion 1/6/1886 – 1/11/1888

Newspaper Archives

Jackson Clarion Ledger 1/19/1888 – 3/6/1890

Newspaper Archives

Jackson Jackson Advocate 2/23/2011 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Jackson Mississippi Free Press 12/16/1961 – 8/1/1964

Newspaper Archives

Jackson Mississippi Link 2/17/2011 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Jackson Mississippi Weekly 5/18/1935 – 5/18/1935

Newspaper Archives

Jackson Northside Sun 7/1/2007 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Kosciusko Star Herald 1/7/2008 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Laurel Laurel Leader-Call 5/2/2006 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Louisville Choctaw Plaindealer 11/10/2005 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Louisville Winston County Journal 3/25/2003 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Magee Magee Courier, The & Simpson County News 1/3/2008 – Current

Recent Obituaries

McComb Enterprise-Journal 12/24/1999 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Meridian Meridian Star 2/17/2006 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Mound Bayou Mound Bayou News-Digest 5/13/1950 – 5/13/1950

Newspaper Archives

Natchez Ariel 7/20/1825 – 7/19/1828

Newspaper Archives

Natchez Mississippi Free Trader 11/20/1844 – 3/28/1854

Newspaper Archives

Natchez Mississippi State Gazette 3/6/1818 – 5/14/1825

Newspaper Archives

Natchez Southern Clarion 5/13/1831 – 11/18/1831

Newspaper Archives

Natchez Southern Galaxy 5/22/1828 – 3/18/1830

Newspaper Archives

Natchez Statesman and Gazette 5/18/1825 – 10/24/1832

Newspaper Archives

New Albany New Albany Gazette 11/20/2008 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Olive Branch DeSoto Times-Tribune 3/25/2005 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Oxford Oxford Eagle 2/9/2012 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Picayune Picayune Item 2/5/2008 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Starkville Starkville Daily News 3/9/2008 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Vicksburg Daily Commercial 3/21/1877 – 12/28/1882

Newspaper Archives

Vicksburg Golden Rule 1/27/1900 – 1/27/1900

Newspaper Archives

Vicksburg Light 1/18/1900 – 1/18/1900

Newspaper Archives

West Point Daily Times Leader 3/27/2008 – Current

Recent Obituaries

Winona Winona Times & Conservative 4/2/2009 – Current

Recent Obituaries