Filling In My Family Tree with Stories in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott shares some of the family stories he’s learned by searching through old newspapers—stories that help him get to know his ancestors better than just the names and dates on a family tree.

Everyone who enjoys working on their family history knows that nothing enhances your family tree and attracts more family to your work than the stories you weave together in your research! My family tree is full of interesting stories—and I am always on the lookout for more of them to add to our family history every opportunity I get. One of the best places I have found for discovering these stories is in historical newspapers—and GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are my “go to” source for those newspapers.

GenealogyBank’s newspapers have given me some of the biggest leads in my genealogy work, as well as having added real sparkle to, and interest in, our family tree.

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My Great Grandfather the Union Man

It was a newspaper discovery that really helped me break down the brick wall that was my maternal great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. My breakthrough genealogical find was this 1896 newspaper article that stated: “J. K. Vicha of the Clothing Salesmen’s union was nominated and elected by acclamation.” With this tidbit of knowledge that my great grandfather had been the president of the Central Labor Union, I was able to begin following his career through the years.

article about Joseph Vicha being elected president of the Central Labor Union, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 January 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 January 1896, page 3

It was then with particular interest that I read an article from the same date but published in a different Cleveland newspaper, titled “Peanut Reform. How the Central Labor Union Regards the School Bank.” It seems that with my great grandfather as president, the Central Labor Union was protesting the establishment of savings accounts at public schools…something that I well remember from my own younger school days. I guess he must not have been successful in his protest on this matter!

article about the Central Labor Union protesting the establishment of savings accounts at public schools, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 9 January 1896

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 January 1896, page 8

My Mother’s First Engagement

Another fascinating fact I found concerned my own mother. While I was looking for any possible newspaper articles regarding her marriage to my dad, I happened to find this 1942 article. It was a brief story regarding an engagement announcement made by my grandmother for my mother, Laverne Evenden. However, I quickly noticed it was to a man she never ended up marrying. What a fun family find! Plus it brought a great opportunity for me to hear the whole story of what happened from my mom later on.

engagement notice for Laverne Evenden and Lincoln Christensen, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 January 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 January 1942, page 50

My Cousin & Minnie

Of course one of my all-time favorite story finds in the newspaper for my family tree—as regular readers of this blog have heard me talk about before—was the story of one of my cousins, Joseph Kapl, who as a zookeeper was almost trampled to death by the “loveable” Minnie the elephant!

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

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

The West Side “Dean”

In one instance I was able to find, in an obituary, wonderful details about the life of another of my ancestors, Dr. J. J. Kotershall. While I am accustomed to finding worthwhile genealogical information in obituaries, Dr. Kotershall’s held some real gems. His 1945 obituary explained that he was “instrumental in bringing to Cleveland the city’s first X-ray units in 1903.” It also reported: “Born in Cleveland of Bohemian parentage, Dr. Kotershall had spent the major part of his practice among the Bohemian, Slavic, Polish, and German groups on the West Side.” The old news article even listed where he attended college and conducted his internship. It was a real gold mine.

obituary for Dr. Joseph Kotershall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 December 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

Pictures of the Pretty Twins

On another occasion I was working on a branch of our family tree that included two sisters, Josephine and Florence. I had the feeling they might be twins since their births were listed as the same on the 1920 U.S. Census. Then I discovered a 1937 article with the headline “Twins Choose Dissimilar Careers.” This old newspaper article confirmed my suspicion that the sisters were indeed twins, plus it featured photographs of the twins as well—and provided a very complete review of their formative years. The best, however, might have been the fact that it also listed their parents and home address.

article about the twins Florence and Josephine Kotershall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 7 June 1937

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 7 June 1937, page 3

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A Genuine Country Fair

In addition to our ancestors’ stories that we can find in newspapers, there are also those stories we can discover that add to our understanding of places and events in our own lives. For instance, as a youngster I remember when the week of the county fair was something that my buddies and I looked forward to all year long. The rides, the midway, the games, the booths, the animals, and naturally the food! In just a few minutes of searching in the newspapers I found an 1896 article showing that the fair began as the “West Cuyahoga County Fair” and was advertised in the newspaper back then as “a genuine country fair.”

article about the West Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper article 16 September 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 16 September 1896, page 10

As this 1927 newspaper advertisement shows, it is evident that the fair had become “the” fair since it was billed as simply the “Cuyahoga County Fair” complete with horse racing and the King’s Rodeo.

ad for the Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 28 August 1927

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 August 1927, page 10

It was even more fun when I came across a 1967 news article. Oh, how that one brought back memories! My best boyhood friend Matt and I would marvel at the sideshow barkers while we tried to make up our minds as to which show we would spend some of our hard-earned paper route money to see! Those were the days!

article about the sideshow barkers at the Cuyahoga County Fair in Ohio, Plain Dealer newspaper article 18 August 1967

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 August 1967, page 8

Over and over, newspapers provide us with key leads, great stories, and many details about the times of both our own lives and our ancestors.

What are some of your favorite stories you have found in the newspapers as you work on your genealogy and family history? I’d love to hear them so please leave a comment!

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Divorce Records in Newspapers: Genealogy Research Tips

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott describes how divorce announcements in old newspapers helped him fill in his family tree.

Early on in my work as a genealogist I made the decision to subscribe to GenealogyBank.com to see what they might have in their online Historical Newspaper Archives that could help me with my family history research. I subscribed as a member well over four years ago now and it is still one of the genealogy databases I use most often for my research, and continually tops my annual review of my best genealogy investments. The wide range and the natural diversity of what those newspapers report often hold significant clues to helping me break down my genealogy brick walls.

While all of the marriage and wedding newspaper articles are of course helpful in tracing my family lines, so are the news articles that cover the other end of the spectrum: divorce notices and court proceedings.

It seems that today there is a lot of talk about the prevalence of divorce in our modern society, and that this is a recent development. However, when we look at a few historical newspaper articles we can see that divorce is not a new phenomenon at all—it has been the situation for some time.

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Old News Shows Divorce Isn’t New

As I began my genealogy research on this topic one of my first discoveries was an 1890 Ohio newspaper article that began with these lines:

Never before in the history of the state courts in this county has the divorce branch of the court been so busy. It must be that the tie binding the marriage relation to society is growing more and more frail.

Sounds like a comment that might be made today—but it was another line in the article’s headline that really captured my attention. It said: “Mrs. Vicha, Who Had a Husband Living.” Mrs. Vicha is on my family tree; it seems a couple of my own ancestors were adding to this growing trend of divorce, but I will talk more about this a bit later.

More and More Divorce Cases Begun and Decrees Granted, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 October 1890

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 October 1890, page 6

Three years later, this 1893 article lamented: “The divorce business is on the increase in the Cuyahoga county courts, new cases being filed faster than the old ones are disposed of.”

Divorce Grind, Plain Dealer newspaper article 20 May 1893

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 20 May 1893, page 4

A few years later, this 1905 Georgia newspaper published an article titled “Record Breaking Divorce Session. Thirty Divorce Suits Acted Upon in Three Hours Time Yesterday by Superior Court.” As you might expect this was not welcome news, and the article included the following statement: “It would seem as if there was a divorce epidemic in the city.”

Record Breaking Divorce Session, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 29 October 1905

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 29 October 1905, page 6

Ten years later, a 1915 Washington newspaper published this article headlined “Olympia’s Divorce Record. During Year [There] Has Been One Divorce For Every Four Marriages in Thurston County.” One of the items of note in this article is the final sentence which reads:

But for each divorce granted it is estimated that the average will run close to one minor child left without the double protection of both parents, showing that divorce is responsible in a way for the rapidly increasing populations of children’s homes.

Olympia's Divorce Record, Olympia Daily Recorder newspaper article 27 December 1915

Olympia Daily Recorder (Olympia, Washington), 27 December 1915, page 1

I make this introduction to illustrate the fact that divorce has been fairly common for generations and as such we, as genealogists, need to be aware of that and always on the lookout for it as a possibility in our family trees. Plus, oftentimes you can find some very good information from a divorce proceeding that has been reported in the newspaper.

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A Double Marriage, Divorce & Attempted Murder

Let me go back to the case of Mrs. Vicha mentioned above, who apparently was not exactly single at the time she married Mr. Vicha. He was one of my ancestors, Frantisek (later Frank) Vicha. The Mrs. in the case was Katie Slamsidlova. Reading this historic news article whet my genealogy appetite to take a look and see whether I might find a reported prior marriage for Katie. The divorce article reported that Frank testified: “He solemnly avers that when he married Mrs. Vicha she already had a husband whose name was Krejci.”

It didn’t take long before I was able to find out that, while Katie married my ancestor Frank Vicha in 1883, in 1877 she had also married a Frank. The only problem was the first Frank had the surname of Krejci. So it would appear that Frank Vicha’s testimony in the divorce case had been correct, at least as far as Katie’s prior marriage. However there was another small matter I discovered in that 1890 newspaper article. It was this line: “Again Vicha says that after the marriage his wife favored another man and gave birth to a child whom he disowned, but which is now dead.”

This time the records said something quite different. Yes, there was a child, born in 1885, and it was a boy with the given name of Charles. The birth record lists Katherine Slamsidlova Vicha and Frank Vicha as parents. Oh, and this child happened to live to 1971. To add to the mysterious ways of this case, I also found that in 1917 Frank applied for a military pension based on his service fighting the Northern Cheyenne during the “Indian Wars” and listed Charles as one of his sons. To add one more oddity, Katherine continued to live with members of the extended Vicha family and continued to use the Vicha surname up to and including it being on her death record.

I don’t want to forget to add one more item of interest. I found this 1895 article that contained this line:

Frank Vicha is on trial in the criminal court for attempting to shoot his divorced wife, Kate Slamincha [sic].

article about Frank Vicha's trial for attempted murder, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 December 1895

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 December 1895, page 5

Great-Grandpa Vicha

Here is another example of learning family history from divorce proceedings reported in newspapers. In the earliest days of my genealogy work I was understandably pleased when I came across this 1887 article that was simply titled “Licensed to Marry.” This article reported that a marriage license was issued at the Probate Court Office the day before for Joseph K. Vicha and Anna Knechtl. Joseph and Anna are my maternal great-grandparents.

marriage license announcement for Joseph Vicha and Anna Knechtl, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 29 April 1887

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 April 1887, page 5

Unfortunately, according to family lore, this marriage ended in divorce—but as can often happen, this unfortunate fact provided me with continued good information for my genealogy.

This great grandfather of mine is my “brick wall.” He disappeared from any United States Census after 1900 and his last listing in the City Directories of Cleveland is in 1907. It wasn’t until I discovered the divorce proceedings in the archives of the Court of Common Pleas for Cuyahoga County, Ohio, that I learned a divorce had been granted to my great grandmother Anna on 22 June 1911 “after an absence of 3 years” by Joseph. These files, as you can see from the excerpt included here, have many details of interest to a genealogist.

photo of the divorce record for Anna Knechtl and Joseph K. Vicha

Photo: divorce record for Anna Knechtl and Joseph K. Vicha. Credit: Scott Phillips.

To add an interesting twist, this divorce proceeding was after Joseph had quitclaimed his half-interest in the family home to his wife for only $1, according to the online records of the Recorders Office for Cuyahoga County.

I was about to call it a day when I made one more discovery: an article from a 1901 Ohio newspaper. Listed under “New Cases” for the Cleveland courts was this: “76192 – D. H. Tolman vs. J. K. Vicha. Appeal.”

article about a court case involving Joseph Vicha and D. H. Tolman, Plain Dealer newspaper article 19 October 1901

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 19 October 1901, page 9

This simple listing rang two bells in my memory. The first memory was from an old Ohio history book I had read that had mentioned the name of D. H. Tolman in very negative terms.

This was borne out when I read an article from a 1913 Georgia newspaper that began with this sentence: “Daniel H. Tolman, ‘King of the Loan Sharks,’ must serve six months in the penitentiary for usury.”

article about D. H. Tolman being sentenced for loan sharking, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 30 November 1913

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 30 November 1913, section: Holiday Number, page 9

The second memory was of my mother’s voice telling me a story long ago of her missing grandfather. She had asked her Uncle Ed why he never went looking for his father, Joseph Vicha. His response to my mother was: “Why would I? What if I found him and he owed someone a lot of money?” I wonder if Uncle Ed knew something he wasn’t telling?

So don’t keep secrets!

I’d enjoy reading any comments you have about what genealogy information and clues you have found from old divorce records in newspapers.

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My Ancestors’ Life Stories as Told in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott shares some of the family stories he’s learned about his ancestors by searching old newspapers.

Stories are what make our family trees and all the work we do in our genealogy truly come alive! If you are like me, the stories about your ancestors were the initial spark that ignited your interest in conducting your genealogy research and discovering the amazing stories of your family’s history. The old family stories you discover and preserve also spark the interest of others to begin their own genealogy work, or perhaps to carry on your family history work.

The stories of the lives of our ancestors can come to us from a variety of sources. Many come firsthand from our elders and other members of our extended family, often aunts, uncles, and cousins who enjoy sharing all kinds of memories. Another great place to find the stories of our ancestors is in old newspapers, which is a big reason why I keep on subscribing to GenealogyBank.com. Let me tell you some of the family stories I have found in newspapers.

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The Charvat Family Tragedy

Of course there are the sensational stories that capture the attention of the reporters. I happened to come across one of these while working on a branch of my family tree recently: the Charvat family. After going through the more mundane aspects of genealogy such as census records, I moved on to newspapers and found this 1951 article. It was a true tragedy.

Not only did this unfortunate little girl of 14 lose her mother to murder and her father to suicide, but the story related that she “tiptoed to her door and opened it when she heard her father and mother arguing. She saw them struggling over a shotgun. She saw shooting.” The article goes on to say that the mother and father had argued previously over the husband’s desire for his wife to “follow the European way by staying home.”

From a genealogy perspective, this article not only provided quite a bit of information on the deaths of the parents, but also informed me of the jobs of those parents, that they only had the one child, gave the name of the grandmother, and the home address that matched their listing in the 1940 U.S. Census.

Girl (Corrine Charvat), Orphaned by Murder, Suicide, Is Shock Victim, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 July 1951

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 July 1951, page 4

Joseph Kapl & Minnie the Elephant

There are also the extremely humorous stories you find occasionally. One of my all-time favorite funny stories that I discovered in the newspapers was this 1915 article titled “I Fed Her; I Petted Her; I Trusted Her; But Never Again!” This story detailed how my ancestor, Joseph Kapl, was a zookeeper who was entrusted with the care of Minnie the elephant at the old Brookfield Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio. It seems that Joseph was attacked and almost trampled by this elephant! Now there is a story you don’t read every day in your genealogy! You can read more about this humorous family story in my previous blog post “Family Search Uncovers Circus Elephant Story.”

article about zookeeper Joseph Kapl, Plain Dealer newspaper article 23 March 1915

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

From Banking to WWII

There are also some wonderful articles that I have found in newspapers’ Business Section that are filled with valuable family history information. One example I found is this 1943 article, which continued my work on my Kapl family line. This old news article provided me with some very nice details regarding the career of Joseph H. Kapl, who was the son of the zookeeper. It seems that Joseph must have decided that banking would be safer than dealing with elephants!

Kapl Is Head of Branch, Plain Dealer newspaper article 8 January 1943

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 January 1943, page 9

Going back further in time, I learned about another ancestor from this 1896 newspaper article. In this historical news article I discovered that my great grandfather, Joseph Vicha, was an officer of the Central Labor Union—and he not only addressed a crowd of striking garment workers in Cleveland, but he did it in “Bohemian.” All key pieces of information for our family tree.

article about Joseph Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 April 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 April 1896, page 10

Even an apparently mundane newspaper article can hold genealogy treasures for us as well. This 1942 article about registration for WWII included a list of inductees from the previous week, which included one of my cousins, Allan R. Evenden. This tidbit of information allowed me to begin researching his military records for our family tree.

article about WWII registration of soldiers, Plain Dealer newspaper article 5 April 1942

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 5 April 1942, page 33

Grandma’s Letter in the Cleaning Column

Another article I discovered even caused me to chuckle a bit. This 1961 article came with the pretty bland title of “Bleach Ineffective on Cement Spots.” It just goes to show you never know where in the newspaper your ancestor might turn up!

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It turns out that my grandmother, “Nana,” had written in to the cleaning column in the newspaper asking how to remove dark spots in her new cement breezeway. She said in her letter “I thought it needed a good sweeping, but I have scrubbed with soap and swept, but it is no different.” I actually laughed out loud when I read that since my mind went back to my many visits to my grandmother’s home, at her request, to apply yet another of her home remedies combined with lots of elbow grease to try and get those spots out of her new cement. I guess Nana was using the equivalent of the Royal “we” when she said “she” scrubbed and swept those spots.

Bleach Ineffective on Cement Spots, Plain Dealer newspaper article 2 September 1961

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 2 September 1961, page 41

I could continue on and on with many more family stories I’ve discovered in the newspaper archives through the years, but instead I’ll ask you: what are some of the best stories you have uncovered in newspapers that now bring your family tree to life?

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How to Uncover Vital Record Clues in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this blog post, Scott starts off searching old newspapers for clues to help him find his ancestor’s birth record—and finds so much information that he ends up filling out a new branch of his family tree!

We all know the frustration we feel when, in working on our genealogy, we can’t find an elusive—but important—vital record for one of our ancestors. I suggest that one good approach is to search for genealogical clues in the historical newspapers from your ancestor’s era.

The good news is that, at times, these clues are waiting to be found in all kinds of locations throughout the newspapers. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean, based on searches I’ve done in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Clues about the Birth of My Cousin

While I have a wealth of information on one of my first cousins twice removed, Joseph Vicha, I have been unable to find his actual birth document to verify the year he was born. So I set out to see what clues to his birth I might find in the newspapers. My first discovery was this divorce notice in an 1899 Cleveland newspaper, which provided me with two very useful genealogy clues. It seems that Mrs. Barbara Vicha was seeking a legal separation, divorce, and alimony from Joseph Vicha. This old news article not only lists their wedding date as 13 June 1896, it also notes that Barbara was seeking the return of her maiden name of Vomasta.

divorce notice for Joseph and Barbara Vicha, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 8 August 1899

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 8 August 1899, page 10

These two clues—her maiden name and their wedding date—enabled me to do a follow-up search at Ancestry.com, where I found the marriage license for their marriage—which in turn gave me the additional information of the year of his birth!

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Investigating More of My Family Tree

As is so often the case in genealogy, I then became interested in finding out more about not only Joseph, but his wife, Barbara (Vomasta) Vicha. One thing led to another and, several hours later, I had learned a substantial amount about this interesting family. It was like opening a picture window to life in the early Czech community of Cleveland, all through one family.

As I continued my genealogy research I discovered that Barbara remarried after her divorce from Joseph. Not surprisingly it was to another Czech, with the surname of Vlk. I then did a search on Barbara Vlk and found this helpful obituary in a 1936 Cleveland newspaper. It is for a man named John Vonasta [Vomasta], and mentions that he was the “beloved brother of Barbara Vlk.” This obituary also lists two nieces, complete with their married names: Edna Carroll and Gladys Baldy [Baldi].

obituary for John Vomasta, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 October 1936

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 October 1936, page 23

I followed up these clues with a search of one of the City Directories for Cleveland, Ohio, dated 1891. In it I read that while the head of the household, Vaclav (later James) Vomasta, was a laborer, his son John Vomasta was listed as a cigar maker. Both were reported as living on Rock Street, which was deep in the heart of one of the largest Czech neighborhoods in Cleveland. It must have been a hardscrabble life for Vaclav since in the 1910 U.S. Census he is listed as a “(street) shovel” at the age of 65.

Discovering More Genealogy Clues…

There was another clue in John Vomasta’s obituary. Did you notice that last line? It reads: “New Haven (Conn.) papers please copy.” This was the Cleveland editors’ way of letting the New Haven editors know this obituary would be of interest to their own readers. Why would a Cleveland cigar maker’s death be of interest to readers in New Haven, Connecticut? This led me to additional searches, in which I discovered that John Vomasta was listed as a tenant in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Censuses.

I wondered why a cigar maker might be drawn to New Haven, Connecticut—and so I did a bit of searching on the cigar industry there. GenealogyBank’s newspapers did not disappoint me as there were literally hundreds of search results on this topic. It seems that there was quite a flourishing cigar industry in New Haven in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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One example is this article from an 1899 New Haven newspaper. This article features F. D. Grave and his “Judge’s Cave” Cigar company. The occasion was the imminent move of his “well known cigar factory” to a “magnificent four-story building at Nos. 204 to 210 State Street,” and the “excellent dinner and musical entertainment” he gave for his 285 employees to celebrate the move. Could this have been where John Vomasta worked? After all, the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census returns for him list his address as 440 State Street, just up the street from F. D. Grave’s cigar factory.

article about F. D. Grave and his "Judge's Cave" cigar company, New Haven Register newspaper article 6 January 1899

New Haven Register (New Haven, Connecticut), 6 January 1899, page 7

As I continued researching this family, I discovered a variety of life’s occurrences. One of the daughters, who was once Gladys Baldi, had remarried—only to have this husband tragically die in an automobile accident slightly less than 14 months after they were married. Wanting to be complete in my genealogy research, but not expecting to find much from a marriage of less than 1 ½ years, I was interested when I found this 2001 obituary for Gladys K. Glaser in a Kansas City newspaper. This obituary provided me with the fact that, in spite of the short duration of her second marriage, their union produced a daughter, in addition to the son she had from her first marriage. I also learned that at the time of her passing she had seven grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, a nephew—and her sister Edna was still alive.

obituary for Gladys Glaser, Kansas City Star newspaper article 19 February 2001

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 19 February 2001

With this helpful obituary providing me with Gladys’s survivors’ full names and places of residence, I now had many more clues to follow up on:

  • Sister Edna Carroll in Kelley Island, Ohio
  • Son (from Gladys’s first marriage) Bill Baldi in Shawnee, Kansas
  • Married Daughter (from Gladys’s second marriage) Bonnie Edwards in Kent, Ohio
  • Nephew Roger Carroll (Edna’s son) in Ravenna, Ohio
  • Plus those seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren to track down!

Just think: I began this search looking for one simple vital statistic that I found to be elusive: the birth year for my relative Joseph Vicha—but came away with a whole new branch of our family tree growing right before me, and many more clues for additional family history research.

Now before I get back to looking for Joseph Vicha’s birth document—which is what I started off trying to find and would still like to track down—let me ask: what have been some of the best clues in historical newspapers that you have found for your genealogy and family history?

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Records to Research Your Ancestor’s Age with GenealogyBank

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows how various kinds of genealogical records can help determine your ancestor’s age.

One of the most important—but often quite challenging—pieces of information we need in our genealogy and family history work is discovering the age of the members of our family trees. All too often, finding a birth record for some of our earliest ancestors is not always possible, so we need to work through additional family history records and information to see what we can determine as to the age of a particular ancestor.

Fortunately for us there are a number of genealogical resources we can use to find the age of our ancestors, or to verify an unnamed record that we may have come across in our ancestry research.

Birth Records

I am sure you all are familiar with some of the genealogical records that can help us determine our ancestors’ age. Certainly number one on the list is the actual birth record. However, these records are not always available, especially within certain timeframes and family situations.

SSDI

Fortunately on GenealogyBank.com there are not only newspapers containing birth records, but also such invaluable resources as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), covering the years from 1936 to 2011 and containing over 89 million death records. Many of these SSDI entries contain, if not an actual birthday, an estimated age that can be an invaluable lead in our efforts to find out the birth range of an ancestor.

Military Records

Add to the SSDI all the military records in GenealogyBank’s various collections, such as casualty lists, pension requests for Revolutionary and Civil War veterans, and widows’ claims—there are a phenomenal number of resources to help you determine the age of your ancestor.

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Newspaper Articles

But to me, the real genealogy gems are GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. With newspapers from all 50 states, covering the years 1690 to Today, containing more than one billion articles, this huge online database features birth notices, obituaries, news articles, engagement and marriage announcements, social columns, and more. And best of all, every one of these types of articles can offer us opportunities to find age-related leads for our family history and genealogy efforts.

Newspaper Casualty Reports

One article-type that has proven quite useful in my own family history research has been newspaper casualty reports from World War II. For example, I had been struggling with one of the branches of our family tree when I came across this article from a 1945 Ohio newspaper. It contains a casualty list for servicemen from the greater Cleveland area.

WWII casualty list, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 May 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 May 1945, page 11

This historical news article reports that Robert G. Vicha was wounded. It also gives his home address (4779 Osborn Road, Garfield Heights), his mother (Mae Vicha), and his age (20). This small item gave me several leads that helped me locate more information, enabling me to add this ancestor to my family tree.

WWII casualty list mentioning Robert Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 May 1945

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 May 1945, page 11

Newspaper Obituaries

The next item I discovered was again in the Plain Dealer: the obituary for Mae (nee Gottfried) Vicha. This obituary provides confirmation of the home address as reported in the earlier 1945 casualty list article, her husband, three children, a grandchild, and siblings. It wasn’t long before I was able to match up census records and other genealogical records to add a fuller picture to this branch of my family.

obituary for Mae Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 March 1966

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 March 1966, page 44

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Historical News Articles

And of course there are some news articles that, while not the most pleasant of topics, offer us many clues for our genealogy work. This was the case with an article I found in an 1897 Ohio newspaper. This old news article, while explaining in some rather gruesome detail the suicide of James Knechtel, also gives us his approximate age, his home address, and the facts that he was married and had three children. These genealogical clues were crucial given the fact that James was baptized as Vaclav and took the Americanized version of “James” at some point after his family settled in Cleveland. This article’s information was enough for me to find James and his family in the U.S. Census records and City Directories to identify this ancestor and record him in our family tree.

article about James Knechtel's suicide, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 25 August 1897

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 August 1897, page 5

Newspapers hold a wealth of detailed personal information to help determine ages and other important data about our ancestors for our genealogy and family history work.
What types of records have you used in your family research to discover the ages of your ancestors? Please share your most frequently-used resources, biggest research challenges and genealogy discoveries.

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Researching Old Military Records & War Stories in Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers for articles about his ancestors’ military service and records—just in time to help you research your military ancestors during this Memorial Day weekend.

As we commemorate Memorial Day this weekend, honoring the men and women who have died while in military service, you might feel inspired to research your veteran ancestors.

In our genealogy work, we frequently find ourselves having to use a wide variety of techniques to ferret out an obscure clue when we are working on our family histories. Often, this is especially true when we are working on the military service history of our ancestors.

One technique I have found to be especially valuable is searching GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for articles that relate to my military ancestors. It can be a very successful genealogy strategy, as well as introducing you to some valuable history and stories.

Researching My Civil War Ancestor

painting of the Civil War Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, showing a charge led by Union General Philip Sheridan, by Kurz & Allison

Painting: Civil War Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, showing a charge led by Union General Philip Sheridan. The author’s ancestor was killed during this battle. Credit: Kurz & Allison; Library of Congress.

Recently I was researching one of my ancestors, Captain James Ham. I decided that rather than simply search on his name, I would search on the military unit he had enlisted in during the United States Civil War: the Pennsylvania 17th Cavalry. My first newspaper archive search on the “Seventeenth Pennsylvania” returned some very interesting results, such as this 1862 article from a Pennsylvania newspaper.

The newspaper article is headlined: “The Camps at Harrisburg. A Visit to Camp McClellan.” Initially, the reporter gives us a detailed, firsthand account of what conditions were like at Camp McClellan, such as: “Mud and slush seem to be the main characteristics…”; and, “These are cavalry men. But few of them have yet received their horses. They are but novices in the art and science of soldiery; but yet the men of Camp McClellan are remarkably well-disciplined.”

Enter Last Name










List of Calvary Regiments

Then the news article continues on to list the three new Cavalry regiments, one of which was the 17th. I was delighted to find this newspaper article contained every officer of the regiment—and listed as a first lieutenant was my ancestor James Ham.

article about the roster of the Seventeenth Pennsylvania Cavalry during the Civil War, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 21 November 1862

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 21 November 1862, page 2

The next news article I came across was published after the war, from an 1880 New York newspaper. This report particularly caught my eye since it was at the Battle of Five Forks in Virginia that James lost his life to enemy fire. This newspaper article, though short, was firsthand testimony by Colonel Henry C. Durland, the commander of the PA 17th, and it reported for the first time the losses by my ancestor’s regiment of “seven officers and thirty privates.”

Losses at Five Forks, New York Herald newspaper article 15 October 1880

New York Herald (New York, New York), 15 October 1880, page 9

War Stories Abound

As I continued my newspaper research, I discovered dozens of news articles that reported on the military battles and movements of the PA 17th, which included more famous Civil War battle locations including Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg, and several others—and often included fascinating first-person accounts of those battles.

Researching My Indian Fighter Ancestor

photo of Chiricahua Apache Chief Victorio, c.1875

Photo: Chiricahua Apache Chief Victorio, c.1875. The author’s ancestor fought against the Apaches. Credit: Wikipedia.

Here is another example of the value in using newspaper articles to fill in your genealogy and learn about an ancestor’s military service. One of my great, great uncles, Frantisek Vicha, served in the U.S. Army in Company “D” of the 16th Infantry while fighting in what we know as the “Indian Wars.” From previous research, I knew that he enlisted in 1878 and was discharged due to disability in 1881. However, I knew little about the Indian Wars and practically nothing about my ancestor’s military service.

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My first research finding in GenealogyBank’s newspapers was an old article from a 1919 New Jersey newspaper. This historical newspaper article listed the (unfortunate) multitude of Indian Wars and gave me a good overview of these conflicts and the time period when my ancestor fought.

article about all the wars and battles in U.S. history, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 5 January 1919

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 5 January 1919, page 6

The next article I located was from an 1880 Pennsylvania newspaper. This historical news article reported that “Company D, Sixteenth Infantry”—my ancestor’s company—was one of those sent in relief of General Hatch, who was pursuing “Victorio’s band of Apaches in New Mexico.”

article about the Apache War in New Mexico, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 2 June 1880

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 June 1880, page 1

Now I had a location that I could work from, with even more focus. I then began to search on Victorio’s Apaches and found this article from an 1880 Texas newspaper.

Victorio's Apaches, Galveston Weekly News newspaper article 8 July 1880

Galveston Weekly News (Galveston, Texas), 8 July 1880, page 3

I found dozens more newspaper articles detailing several battles and the movements of Victorio and his fellow Apaches. An interesting and helpful article was published much later, in a 1921 Arizona newspaper. This detailed article covers the time in Apache history when Victorio was the “accredited war chief” of the Ojo Caliente Apaches, including his death in 1880.

Apache, Past and Present, Tucson Daily Citizen newspaper article 22 May 1921

Tucson Daily Citizen (Tucson, Arizona), 22 May 1921, section: second, page 8

Then of course there was another old article I discovered about my Indian fighter ancestor, from an 1889 Ohio newspaper. This article reported an entirely different fight Frank Vicha had on his hands—but that one took place in a courtroom, and will have to be a story all its own for another time!

article about Frank Vicha filing for divorce, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 March 1889

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 March 1889, page 6

Historical newspapers are a great way to weave together the story of your veteran ancestor’s military service, and find more military records. Have you had success in finding your ancestors’ military records using newspapers? Tell us what you’ve discovered in the archives about your ancestor’s military service in the comments section below.

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Genealogy Resource Partners: Newspapers & the Census

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott shows that combining research in old newspapers with records from the U.S. Census is a good strategy, leading to genealogy discoveries about your ancestors you might otherwise have missed.

All of us who love genealogy know we must check and double-check our data as we create or fill in our family trees. Our double-checking can be accomplished in any number of ways. One of the ways I really enjoy is discovering how complementary and helpful newspaper articles and obituaries from the databases of GenealogyBank are to each other. This is especially true when we take this a step further: when we compare and contrast newspaper articles with return information from the U.S. Census. When paired together, you will find that newspapers and the Census are great genealogy resource partners.

Here’s an example of that complementary partnership. I was working on my maternal grandmother, Mae Anne Vicha, and tracing where she lived, etc. It wasn’t long before I came across information about her in an Ohio newspaper’s Society Pages. The column was titled “Social News of the Week” and featured as one of the tidbits the fact that the “B.C.B. Club” (a literary and social club) would be entertained next, on June 21st, at the home of Miss Mae Vicha, 3800 Warren Ave. I then checked the United States Census for 1910 and sure enough, there was my grandmother, now married, but living with her Mother, brother and sisters all at 3800 Warren Ave.

article about Mae Vicha, Plain Dealer newspaper article 10 June 1906

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 June 1906, page 29

Another interesting example I encountered of how newspaper articles and Census records can work together in tandem, leading you to great family history discoveries, occurred during some early genealogy research I was conducting on my Vicha ancestors. I was working through the Census returns on Teresa Vicha when I came upon the 1920 return. Not only did I find Teresa married to John Sluka, but I also found one of their daughters, Carolyn, living with them. Carolyn had married, taken the surname of Bidlingmaier, and had two children. Plus there was another treat: I found yet a second daughter, Teresa, also married and having taken the surname of Rehor. As I worked to corroborate this information about the Vicha family, the first item I found in the newspapers offered multiple benefits—just like the Census.

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This historical article is from an 1896 Ohio newspaper. While I was enjoying reading “In the athletic events the fat tailors’ race and the lean tailors’ race were the most amusing,” I found that John Sluka won one of the races (for the lean tailors, and he won a suit of clothes). Imagine my surprise when elsewhere in the same article it stated that my great grandfather, J. K. Vicha, was “the orator of the day” and was the national representative of the United Garment Workers and past president of the Central Labor Union of Cleveland.

Tailor's Picnic, Plain Dealer newspaper article 21 September 1896

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 21 September 1896, page 5

As I continued to work this branch of my family tree I came upon a 1907 article, again in the Plain Dealer. It was a sad story about an attempted suicide because the “Mother of Murdered Policeman Is Weary of Existence.”

article about Barbara Sluka, Plain Dealer newspaper article 22 September 1907

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 22 September 1907, page 5

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I knew from my earlier ancestry research that my first cousin (twice removed), Albert Sluka, had been a special policeman who was stabbed to death outside a dance hall. But his mother was Teresa, not Barbara as reported in this article!

photo of Albert Sluka from his tombstone in Woodland Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio

Photo: picture of Albert Sluka from his tombstone in Woodland Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: from the author’s collection.

This was indeed an interesting, but perplexing, old news article that required some additional and very enjoyable genealogy detective work. I’m glad to say I was able to straighten out the story. Barbara was actually the grandmother, not the mother, of Albert. Plus she did recover from her attempted suicide and lived for an additional 12 years. Perhaps it was Barbara’s thick Bohemian accent combined with her advanced age that caused the newspaper reporter to get the details just a bit mixed up.

Do you work with Census records and newspapers in tandem? If so, what have you found that has helped you the most in using these resources to research your genealogy?

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How to Find Ancestors’ Graves: Cemetery Research with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains the five steps he takes to add an important and emotional aspect to his genealogy research: visiting the cemeteries and recording the gravesites of his ancestors.

As fans of genealogy and family history, there are some wonderful opportunities we can use to follow up on those tidbits of information we discover in newspaper obituaries.

As a personal example, I had been struggling with the family of one of my ancestors, Elijah Poad. It wasn’t until I found his obituary published in a 1910 Montana newspaper that I was able to move forward with my genealogy research, thanks to the listing of his family members and their hometowns. This obituary reported the locations of three brothers, a sister, and a son—five avenues of future research for me to explore.

Elijah Poad Dead, Anaconda Standard newspaper obituary 16 September 1910

Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), 16 September 1910, page 9

Certainly the names, dates of the deceased, hometowns, and family members listed in an obituary are important family history clues.  There is another important research path that I urge all genealogists to consider after finding their ancestor’s obituary: what we can do when we discover that often-elusive name of the cemetery where their grave is located.

Many obituaries state the cemetery where the deceased was buried. In the example above, Elijah Poad’s obituary didn’t report the name of his cemetery—but the family clues it provided led me to additional research, and eventually I did discover the location of his final resting place.

Whether you find the name of your ancestor’s cemetery in an obituary or through other ancestry research, the question remains: what do you do next?

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The following are my top five steps for cemetery follow-up from newspaper obituaries:

1) Have a plan to share what you discover. Before you even begin to work on family information from the obituaries you find, I suggest you have a plan for how to make the best use of these genealogy research discoveries. Sharing is always a nice way to multiply your efforts, so have a plan in place for how you want to do this. For me this means sharing my findings on the BillionGraves.com website. Through their partnership with MyHeritage.com, they have a goal to document every cemetery in the world!

2) Visit the cemetery if you can. While we certainly cannot get to every cemetery that holds the memorials for every one of our ancestors, I suggest that you plan a cemetery trip to each of them that you can—it’s well worth the time and effort. There is something very moving about standing at the gravesite of an ancestor when your genealogy research has discovered their history.

3) Document the location of the graves with maps of the cemetery. Fewer and fewer cemeteries have onsite staff, so you’ll probably have to explore for your ancestor’s gravesite on your own. I store our family tree electronically, and one of the things I always do is scan and attach cemetery maps that I have for each ancestor. I scan a map of the full cemetery as well as section maps and sometimes I add explicit instructions for how to find the grave itself.

I discovered how important this can be from personal grave-hunting experience. It had been several years since I had attended the funeral for a grandparent, but finding myself in that town on business, I decided to stop by the cemetery and pay my respects. I was sure I remembered where the graves were, but I found them only after walking around in the rain for a good hour, making several cell phone calls to other relatives to see if they remembered. So now on our family tree are very specific directions on how to locate these graves.

4) Photograph the gravesites of your ancestors and others. We all know the perils that are aligned against cemeteries everywhere. Time, weather, acid rain and, sadly (all-too-often) vandalism are taking their toll on headstones everywhere. You can see from the following examples why photographs are so important. The first photo is the headstone of Vaclav Knechtl, my great-great grandfather. You can see it is in Czech and, unfortunately, the years of acid rains in Cleveland, Ohio, are taking a terrible toll.

photo of the headstone for Vaclav Knechtl

Photo: headstone for Vaclav Knechtl. Credit: Scott Phillips.

This next photograph shows the headstone of my great-great grandmother Karolina Vicha, which is in remarkably good condition.

photo of the headstone for Karolina Vicha

Photo: headstone for Karolina Vicha. Credit: Scott Phillips.

Sadly, the tombstone for her husband Josef has been almost totally destroyed by time, weather, and possibly vandals.

photo of the headstone for Josef Vicha

Photo: headstone for Josef Vicha. Credit: Scott Phillips.

Now whenever I am in a cemetery, I not only take photos of my ancestors’ graves, but I also spend a few extra minutes snapping photos of adjacent graves for the BillionGraves project.

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5) Get involved and help with cemetery restoration and clean-up. My final step is to get involved and help where and how you can with the local cemeteries. It might be through the local nonprofit that supports the cemetery (you can see an example of this at http://www.wcfcle.org), it might be by joining one of the excellent nonprofits that support cemetery history and preservation such as the Association for Gravestone Studies, or it might be by volunteering for clean up, etc., when needed. You can also report any necessary maintenance issues to the owners of the cemetery.

As you can see from the following two photos, your involvement can make a difference. When I went to visit my father’s sister’s grave, this is what I found.

photo of the neglected gravesite of Scott Phillip's ancestor Peggy Phillips

Photo: neglected gravesite of author’s ancestor Peggy Phillips. Credit: Scott Phillips.

This is what the gravesite looks like now after the maintenance folks did their magic. Quite a difference!

photo of the restored gravesite of Scott Phillips' ancestor Peggy Phillips

Photo: restored gravesite of author’s ancestor Peggy Phillips. Credit: Scott Phillips.

From a newspaper obituary or other family history documents, you can enhance your genealogy experiences many fold simply by locating your ancestor’s gravesite, having a follow-up plan, and helping out those who came before us!
Do you visit any of your ancestors’ cemeteries? I’d enjoy reading about your ancestor grave-hunting experiences through your comments here.

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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?