Outlaws in the News: Bonnie & Clyde, Al Capone & My Ancestor

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how criminal records and old newspaper articles about your outlaw ancestors can help fill in important details on your family tree.

Everyone’s family tree has at least one or two “bad seeds”: outlaw ancestors, who ran on the wrong side of the law. While it is unfortunate that they chose the “dark side of the force,” it is lucky for us genealogists that newspapers love to report on these black sheep! Our outlaw ancestors might have been portrayed as “bad,” but we reap the benefits of the press coverage they generated—finding in those old newspaper articles many additional details for our genealogy, family history, and family trees.

To illustrate this point, I searched through GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives for old news articles about famous outlaws, to show how much family history information those articles contain.

Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow

Take a look at Bonnie and Clyde for example. While we all know the basic story, there is far more that can be found in the newspapers of the day, such as this 1934 article from an Illinois newspaper. This particular news article alone contains many juicy genealogy facts about the Clyde’s funeral, such as where Clyde was buried, that Bonnie’s sister was in jail at the time facing two counts of murder in the deaths of two policemen, and the name of Bonnie’s mother.

And what about that intriguing last paragraph? Who was the anonymous friend who flew an airplane over the gravesite as Clyde was being buried and dropped a wreath of flowers onto the grave? Now there’s a mysterious puzzle that would be fun to try and unravel!

Clyde Barrow Buried in Texas, Morning Star newspaper article 26 May 1934

Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), 26 May 1934, page 7

Al Capone a.k.a. Scarface

While we all recognize the name “Scarface” Al Capone, this 1926 article from a Massachusetts newspaper reports that Mafia legend Al had a brother, Ralph, who had just been arrested and charged with the slaying of Illinois Assistant State’s Attorney William McSwiggin and two “beer gangsters”: “Red” Duffy and James Doherty.

article about Ralph Capone, Springfield Republican newspaper article 30 April 1926

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 30 April 1926, page 11

And of course it is almost impossible to say “Al Capone” without thinking of, or saying, Eliot Ness! I enjoyed this 1931 article from a California newspaper not only because it talks about Eliot Ness and his crew of agents—it also gives us the name of Steve Svoboda, who was among those arrested. Since Svoboda had been arrested in another Capone-owned brewery just two weeks earlier, he may well have been a member of Scarface’s gang!

Stage Raid on (Al) Capone Brewery, Evening Tribune newspaper article 11 April 1931

Evening Tribune (San Diego, California), 11 April 1931, page 19

My Outlaw Ancestor: Herman Vicha

But it is not only the infamous that we can read about and learn from for our family trees.

In my own family tree is information from a small newspaper clipping that a cousin once gave me. Yellowed with age, brittle, and tattered about its edges, this small article was dated in its margin simply “1916” and consisted of a single sentence. That sentence was: “Herman Vicha was convicted in common pleas court of stealing brass from the Lorain Sand and Gravel Company.” That one sentence led me to some amazing discoveries about this ancestor.

First I contacted the Lorain County, Ohio, courts and—thanks to a wonderfully helpful staff member—I soon received five pages of court documents from the 1916 case of “State of Ohio vs. Herman Vicha.” The case was for grand larceny because my ancestor was accused of stealing $37.25 worth of brass from the Lorain Sand and Gravel Company. He was convicted and sentenced to 1 to 7 years!

Following up on this case, I contacted the Ohio State Historical Society and, after filing the appropriate paperwork, received over a dozen pages of the prison files for this ancestor. This paperwork path initially took me to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio. If the name of this prison isn’t familiar, perhaps you have seen the movies Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One? If so, this was the prison used in those movies.

photto of the Ohio State Reformatory

Photo: Ohio State Reformatory. Credit: from the author’s collection.

One of the more amazing historical documents I received was the “Bertillon Card” for my ancestor. This was a great genealogical find since it has our only photograph of Herman Vicha, plus gives a wealth of physical description about him as well as the year and location of his birth.

photo of the Bertillon card for Herman Vicha, 1916

Photo: Bertillon card for Herman Vicha, 1916. Credit: from the author’s collection.

I admit that I had to take a moment and learn exactly what a Bertillon Card was. The full-page obituary for Alphonse Bertillon that I found in a 1914 Colorado newspaper gave me all the information I needed to understand the details listed on my ancestor’s card.

obituary for Alphonse Bertillon, Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article 15 March 1914

Colorado Springs Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado), 15 March 1914, page 31

My ancestry research path moved from this prison, across the state of Ohio, to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where Herman was kept. My concern for what my ancestor went through increased when I read this 1971 article from a Virginia newspaper with this opening sentence:

“The fortress-like state hospital for the criminal insane here has been described by inmates, staff members, state officials and Ohio’s governors as a chamber of horrors.”

Ohio Hospital Has Sordid Image, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 28 November 1971

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 28 November 1971, page 34

Herman Vicha’s sentence actually lasted for 7 years, 3 months, and 8 days plus an additional 1 year, 3 months, and 12 days in the Cleveland State Hospital after being released from Lima.

Note that all of this detective work to track down my outlaw ancestor began with one small old newspaper clipping!

Herman died in a boarding house in Danville, Kentucky, while working as a trucker and having assumed the new name of “Henry Miller”—but how I found him under his new name is a whole different genealogy detective story that will have to wait for another day!

What information have you found for your family tree from the criminal records and newspaper clippings about your outlaw ancestors? Share your family stories with us in the comments.

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Breaking through Genealogy Brick Walls & Finding Family Tree Firsts

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how old newspapers helped him break through a genealogy brick wall that had stumped him for years—and led to an amazing find: the only known photograph of his great grandfather Vicha!

Several years ago I discovered GenealogyBank.com’s extensive historical newspaper archives through a referral by a wonderful newspaper reporter in Tennessee. While I don’t recall his name now, I thank him every time I am working on my genealogy and family history.

Subscribing to GenealogyBank has been one of the best decisions I have ever made for my ancestry and genealogy. Why? Let me give you a few examples of how GenealogyBank has helped me break through brick walls and discover a multitude of “firsts” for my family tree.

Incredible Family Tree Find: Only-Known Photograph of This Ancestor

This is the only known photograph my family has of my great grandfather Joseph K. Vicha.

photo of Joseph K. Vicha

Photo: Joseph K. Vicha. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Let me tell you how GenealogyBank’s old newspapers led to this amazing photo of my great grandfather.

Genealogy Brick Wall Busting: My Great Grandfather Vicha

When I began working in earnest on our family history, my Mother, God rest her soul, was fascinated by what I was finding and asked me for only one genealogy favor. That favor was to find out what I could about her grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. As a family, we knew nothing beyond his name, the name of his wife, and the fact that he was Bohemian. I struggled for the first years of my family history work trying to discover much of anything about my great grandfather Vicha—until that day when I was directed to GenealogyBank by that wonderful newspaperman (to look for an entirely different person, I might add).

When I searched on my great grandfather’s name in GenealogyBank’s online archives, I was astonished to find over 110 results returned! As I opened each article, it was as if I were back on the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1880s, right there with the ancestor I had been searching for.

I discovered his work as a union organizer in an 1896 newspaper article that told me he was the president of the Central Labor Union.

[Joseph K.] Vicha Will Resign; Will Retire from the Presidency of the C.L.U., Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 November 1896

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

In an 1897 newspaper article I discovered that my great grandfather Vicha was later appointed by the governor of Ohio as the superintendent of the Free Employment Bureau, where he pledged to “do everything in his power to do something for the good of the laboring people.”

His Commission: Joseph K. Vicha Receives It from the Governor and Expects to Assume the Duties of His Office Today, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 4 January 1897

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1897, page 10

I also made the sad discovery that there was a son, Joseph K. Vicha, Jr., who died at the age of two—and whom no one in the family had known about until I found his death notice in this 1890 newspaper.

death notice for Joseph K. Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 February 1890

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 February 1890, page 6

Then I even found a story about my great grandfather being held up at gunpoint in an 1898 newspaper article!

[Joseph K.] Vicha Held Up, Plain Dealer newspaper article 24 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 November 1898, page 3

The Genealogy Thrill of a Lifetime: Finding My GGF’s Photograph

But the best discovery of all was hidden in an 1891 newspaper article I found in the archives.

Ten Thousand Bohemians Celebrate the Anniversary of the Birth of Huss, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 6 July 1891

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 6 July 1891, page 8

I was thrilled at the mention of my great grandfather in this article: “The formation of the [parade] column was under the direction of the chief marshal of the day, Mr. Joseph K. Vicha.”

Most importantly, this old newspaper article provided the clue that led to one of my most exciting discoveries in all of my genealogy efforts. In the news article’s description of who was in the parade column, I saw a reference to the Knights of Pythias. Not being familiar with this group I began to do more research, eventually finding a book published in 1892 with the title History of the Knights of Pythias.

As I began reading this book, I heard genealogy bricks falling down everywhere. Then it happened—there on page 180 I found myself looking at my great grandfather! I had made an amazing genealogy discovery: the only known photograph of my great grandfather Vicha that anyone in my family alive today has ever seen!

It is hard to describe the overwhelming emotions and the great thrill I felt when I was finally “meeting” my great grandfather for the first time. My voice was still trembling when I phoned my Mother to tell her the news of such a great family tree find. What a happy day that was—and I owe it all to GenealogyBank!

Finding Fabulous Firsts for Family History

I have subscribed to GenealogyBank continually ever since my initial genealogy research successes with those early discoveries of my great grandfather. I am thrilled that I have remained a constant subscriber, since GenealogyBank continues to add new content to the online archives every day—and this has enabled me to add more and more first-time discoveries to our family tree.

Many of my earlier GenealogyBank Blog posts discuss in detail many of these fabulous family firsts that now add incredible value, texture, and meaning to what I like to call the tapestry of our family history. For example:

I’d sure enjoy hearing about your own genealogy research successes: what is the best brick wall buster that GenelaogyBank.com helped you to find?

GenealogyBank Made 2013 Best 101 Genealogy Websites List!

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott—sparked by an award announcement he read—reminisces about some of the great family history discoveries he’s found in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives.

Congratulations on the great news! I just read that GenealogyBank.com, one of my all-time favorite “Go To” genealogy and family history websites, has been selected one of the “101 Best Websites for Genealogy in 2013” by Family Tree Magazine again! You can find the list online on the “Best U.S. Genealogy Websites of 2013” page on the Family Tree Magazine website.

I was happy to see this selection for such a super genealogy website, especially when I know that Family Tree Magazine has the largest circulation of any genealogy/family history magazine in America. I’m going out now to get my copy—the new issue of the magazine went on sale at newsstands nationwide today—to read all about the inclusion of GenealogyBank.com in the “101 Best.” This is certainly well deserved recognition for a terrific genealogy website.

Personally, I access GenealogyBank.com on almost a daily basis. Not only do I look up articles of interest on my ancestors, but with the constant growth and daily additions to GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives, I am always finding new and exciting gems for my family tree.

As I think back, GenealogyBank.com has provided me with some of the most memorable discoveries for my ancestry and in my genealogy work.

I will never forget the excitement and feelings of wonder when I first subscribed to GenealogyBank.com and quickly discovered an article in an 1897 Ohio newspaper titled simply “His Commission.”

His Commission: Joseph K. Vicha Receives It from the Governor and Expects to Assume the Duties of His Office Today, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 4 January 1897

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1897, page 10

I had been working for years trying to find any clues that might lead to my great-grandfather, Joseph Vicha. This was especially meaningful since my then 90-year-old Mother had asked me to “find my grandfather” for her. This old newspaper article was the first lead I found, and it included such details as his work, approximate age, his activities in the Bohemian community, and even that he had received this position through an appointment by the governor of Ohio. It opened the doors to dozens more articles that have resulted in me gaining a much fuller picture of my great-grandfather. It was through a lead in one of these follow-up articles that I was able to locate an actual image of my great-grandfather. To this day it is the only known photograph of great-grandfather Vicha the family has ever seen.

photo of Joseph K. Vicha

Photo: Joseph K. Vicha. Credit: from the author’s collection.

I have used GenealogyBank.com to find the serious side of my ancestors’ lives, such as death notices, estate matters, divorces and more. I have also found the positive through births, marriages, anniversaries, and even stories of surviving when the ship they were on was torpedoed by a U-Boat!

I have even found stories that amazed me. One of my favorite family stories was this discovery in a 1915 Ohio newspaper titled “I Fed Her; I Petted Her; I Trusted Her; But Never Again!” This wonderful newspaper article that covered the story, complete with a pen and ink image of my ancestor, Joseph Kapl, (and “Minnie” the elephant too), related how he, as a zookeeper, was almost trampled to death by Minnie the circus elephant!

article about zookeeper Joseph Kapl and Minnie the elephant, Plain Dealer newspaper 23 March 1915

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

I constantly work to weave what I call the tapestry of our family history. I attempt to find and join the threads of our family’s cultures, values, and histories together into a tapestry that will represent all we are and all we have been, for the future generations. I couldn’t do that without the wonderful stories I find in newspapers thanks to GenealogyBank.com.

Congratulations again on being named one of the “101 Best Websites for Genealogy in 2013.” To me you will always be my #1!

Newspapers: A Brief History, the 5 Ws & Why I LOVE Them

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains why newspapers’ use of the “5 Ws” is tremendously helpful to genealogists.

A Brief History of Newspapers

Thank goodness the world of news reporting switched from hand-written Avvisi—which were some of the first hand-written newsletters that appeared in Europe—to the first printed newspaper, or Bao zhi—which was printed in Beijing, China, in about 1582 during the late Ming Dynasty. Ever since their mass production began, newspapers have been a staple of our lives and they are certainly one of the most valuable resources we as genealogists can access, learn from, and utilize in our genealogy research.

The Five Ws of Newspaper Journalism

However, the real reason newspapers are such wonderful and useful resources in genealogy, I believe, goes all the way back to Hermagoras of Temnos, a 1st century BC Greek rhetorician. According to my limited research, this fellow is credited with being the first person to propose the importance of what has now become the mantra of good newspaper reporting: the “5 Ws.” So let me here and now say: thank you, Hermagoras of Temnos, on a job well done!

Still taught today, the 5 Ws of “who, what, where, when and why” remain the gold standard of good journalism.

The more one thinks about it, the more obvious it may become that this mantra fits better than O. J.’s glove when it comes to our family history work. It is also why my family tree is chockablock with information and articles from GenalogyBank.com.

My Great Grandfather Was Robbed!

One particularly interesting example of the 5 Ws at work is the article I found on my great grandfather from an 1898 newspaper.

Vicha Held Up, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 24 November 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 November 1898, page 3

As you can see, the very first sentence offers me all 5 Ws by telling me my great grandfather (even giving me his employment for good measure) was robbed for a loss of $1.35 on Forest Street on Tuesday night. There you have all five: Who (Joseph Vicha), What (robbery), Where (on Forest Street), When (Tuesday night) and Why (for $1.35). I love that this old newspaper article has lots of great genealogical information and a nifty snapshot of a day in the life, albeit a bad one, of my great grandfather.

My Cousin’s Home Was Attacked during a Strike

Another example of the 5 Ws being clearly presented, although not in the first sentence of the article, is one I discovered about my cousin in a 1911 newspaper.

Woman Declares Life Is in Danger, Plain Dealer newspaper article 30 September 1911

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 September 1911, page 4

This historical newspaper article describes how my cousin Anna Tussel’s home was attacked during the confrontations over a garment workers’ strike (her house was sprayed with tar, “blackening the windows and doors”). This article provides another snapshot of an ancestor’s life and gives information on her home address at the time, and more.

The use of the 5 Ws can also be a huge help in ruling out similarly-named folks, through the reporting of addresses, middle initials, employment, and more.

My Sister’s Wedding

Plus every so often you can also get a little treat closer to home, as I did when I was working on a branch of my in-laws and a newer article caught my eye. This article from a 1967 newspaper treated me to a nice account of my own sister’s wedding. Given that my brother-in-law and his parents have now all passed away, it was especially nice to get all the information contained in this old newspaper article.

Karen Phillips Married to David Berry, Plain Dealer newspaper article 18 June 1967

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 June 1967, page 117

So dig into those newspaper archives and when you find your next great article join me in thanking Hermagoras of Temnos!

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!