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?

Related Genealogy Clues Articles:

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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.

More Age-Related Posts

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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.”

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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?

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!