Genealogy Sleuthing: Looking for Clues

Introduction: In this blog post, Duncan Kuehn describes how she researched a crime that occurred over 100 years ago in a small town, even though all the original records had been destroyed. Duncan is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Recently, I spent some time researching a sensational crime that occurred over 100 years ago in a small town. In this case, a man shot and killed his wife’s paramour. She in turn shot and killed their children and herself. With such a sensational story, one would think there would be copious amounts of documentation created and preserved.

Illustration: Sherlock Holmes

Looking for Clues – Searching for Original Records

I went on location to try to locate original records relating to the event. My first stop was the county court house. I discovered that the court docket books still existed. However, the case files had all been microfilmed and destroyed after the microfilm was sent to the state archive. This was also the case with the minute books. None of the original transcripts still existed from the trial. None of the evidence had been preserved. Only one of the inquest records was preserved. The microfilm of the court case revealed that a significant number of subpoenas were issued and received, but little else. The minute book gave the briefest possible outline of who served on the jury, who gave evidence, and what rulings were made.

Since when has the lack of records in one location stopped a genealogist from progressing in her research? Realizing that the sheriff had made the arrest, held the prisoner, served the subpoenas, was called as witness to the trial and so forth, my next stop was the county sheriff’s office. Here I was told that old case files, evidence, etc., are routinely destroyed after 10 years unless the case remains active. Since my case had been dormant for over 100 years, there was no hope that any documentation remained.

What to Do When Original Records Are Gone?

What can be done to find out more about a case when most, if not all, the original records directly related to it have been destroyed? I started by looking for collateral documents such as original land records, tax lists, mortuary and cemetery records, and so on. I looked for any document the principal characters touched or were mentioned in. Unfortunately, the mortuary was no longer in existence and the records had been destroyed. And I was not able to track down the part-time sexton in the short amount of time I had.

However, land and tax records were plentiful and some still existed in their original forms. Why is this? Why would land and tax documents still exist when court documents don’t? The answer is simple: land equals money. Losing a deed can have a tremendous effect on the landowner. Historically, when natural disasters occurred, people didn’t go running to replace their marriage certificates or criminal records, but they did go reregister their rights to own the land.

In today’s world we must prove our identity with government-issued documents just to purchase common items like goldfish or cigarettes. So we are more likely to protect and replace the vital records that prove our identity. That was not the case historically. But land records were essential. No farmer would want the government or an unscrupulous neighbor claiming his hard-worked land due to the loss of a deed book.

One might wonder what value land and tax records might have in investigating a murder. There are several ways this information is valuable. It can show whom the principal characters associated with, what their financial state was at the time, and provide clues about other social situations that might have influenced them at the time. In this case, I found that the prosecutor had purchased land from the defendant just six months prior to the murder. Rather an interesting turn of events, if you ask me.

I used other sources to find information. I used derivative records like the FindAGrave website. I visited the local library and museum to search their special collections for local histories, photograph collections, oral histories recorded by the Works Project Administration in the late 1930s, memoirs, and such. I even found a few original records such as the sheriff’s arrest record book from the 1950s (too late for my case, sadly). I also spoke to as many of the locals as possible.

Local Newspaper to the Rescue!

However, the most valuable source I found was the local newspaper. At the time of the murder, the local paper was an eight-page weekly edition. I ended up reading the entire paper for the three months leading up to the murder and entire length of the trial. In it, I found detailed, daily accounts of the trial. The reporter outlined who said what and when and what the various counsels’ arguments entailed.

This account was far more detailed than the minute book from the courthouse. There were collateral articles about the principals involved. There were write-ups about the funerals, including verbatim quotes from several of the eulogies. There were society pieces about the secondary characters that helped to clarify their motives and whereabouts before, during, and after the trial. The old newspaper articles were so full of information and details that I thought I would drop by the newspaper’s office while in town, just to look around. This turned out to be a rewarding experience, even though I gathered no new information on the murder case. The small office was still a family affair and I had a delightful chat with the grandson of the man who wrote the original articles I found so beneficial.

While record loss is always a problem for the genealogist and historian, there are ways to get much of the desired information through utilizing records that may not seem to be the most likely candidates at first. Newspapers should always play a central role in our research. In this case, they were invaluable and have preserved a piece of history that would otherwise have been lost.

Be sure to include a collection of online newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, in your family history research. Stories and records about our ancestors are preserved in the pages of old newspapers – stories and records that might not be preserved anywhere else!

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