Help Solve a Genealogy Mystery: Who Is Uncle L in My Old Photo?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott asks our readers for help in deciphering the writing on the back of an old photo identifying his “Uncle L.”

As I would imagine many of you do, I have some intriguing old photographs that unfortunately don’t have any identification on them. However, the one I have in my family history stash that makes me the craziest actually does have writing on it. The old black and white picture has a wonderfully clear full sentence on the back, which identifies my father around the age of 2 or 3 and—here is the kicker—a second, older fellow identified as Uncle L. Uncle L?

photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle
From the author’s collection

Yep! The old family photo is as clear as a bell (as you can see here), except for the name of this mysterious uncle!

back of photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle, showing inscription
From the author’s collection

Every so often I pull that old photo out and try again to identify this mysterious member of my family that I know nothing about. As my family tree continues to grow, becoming more refined and better documented, I keep hoping for a breakthrough. So far though, I have had no luck in identifying this Uncle L. I brought that old family photo out the other day and decided to try some lateral thinking via and its newspaper archives.

To me the handwriting on the back of the photo might be read as Uncle “Lew” or “Len.” Unfortunately there is no Lew or Len in any of my Dad’s immediate family, nor his father’s family. So I branched out to look at some relations of my grandmother’s who lived nearby.

I began my genealogy research with the knowledge that the passenger list from Ellis Island shows my grandmother coming to America to live with her brother-in-law Thomas Martin. He happened to be living on the same street as she and my grandfather would later live on for decades. I still have many warm and wonderful memories of that home from my youth.

My new search began with this brother-in-law and fellow traveler, Thomas Martin. I learned many interesting facts about him from GenealogyBank’s newspapers, such as his job as a lamplighter—which conjured up many images of a great job, until I thought of winter and rainy evenings—and his later job as a street car motorman. However, nothing I found about Thomas helped me identify my mystery uncle.

So I broadened my search on the Martin surname and it wasn’t long before I discovered that a descendant had married a Starr family member related to Floyd Starr, the founder of the amazing Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Albion, Michigan.

Starr Commonwealth--the Miracle Home--Is Rebuilding Many Boys, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 16 November 1919
Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 16 November 1919, page 14

While I truly enjoyed reading this old news article, which provides a great history of the charitable youth program, it still offered me no one with a given name that comes close to my mystery uncle’s name.

I branched my researching out some more and soon found another family member farther down the street, the Newell family. The Newell family matriarch, Marjorie, was another sister of my grandmother’s, so the search was back on. I discovered lots of interesting information about Marjorie in the newspaper archives, such as her old marriage announcement.

Marjorie Cottle Becomes Wife of T. J. Newell, jr., Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 May 1944
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 May 1944, page 47

While offering good genealogical information on Marjorie, this historical marriage announcement also led me to another interesting story about her soon-to-be brother-in-law being awarded the Purple Heart after an air raid in WWII.

Hero, Minus Foot, Is Glad He Did Bit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 July 1943
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 July 1943, page 1

However, once again I had nothing that solved my mystery about Uncle L.

I moved on to the last family member who lived in the States. This was my grandmother’s brother Thomas Cottle who lived just a couple of blocks away. I searched his family, his wife’s family the Morrells, his wife’s brother Wilbert, and his brother-in-law’s wife’s family the Ricks. Again I gained much useful information for my family tree, but my mystery uncle remains just that.

While I refuse to call this treasured family photograph a brick wall, I am back to staring closely at the photo and analyzing the name. Does it begin with an L, a T, or possibly even a script Q?

What do YOU think? Take a good look yourself, post a comment and let me know…PLEASE!

(Visited 99 times, 1 visits today)

52 thoughts on “Help Solve a Genealogy Mystery: Who Is Uncle L in My Old Photo?

  1. Uncle Levi? Definitely a relative, but you might check newspaper & see if they have a “mr & mrs smith were visted by their uncle L & family for the weekend.” Never know but it could hlep.

  2. It looks like Levi or a misspelling of Lary. I have a book ” READING EARLY AMERICAN HANDWRITTING” by Kip Sperry it is very helpful when I am trying to transcribe records.

  3. At first glance I read the name as Levi. Maybe he’s a neighbor or family friend, not a relative. Young children sometimes are told to call an adult aunt or uncle out of respect not because of being related. Maybe there’s a name on the census near the family that will be Uncle L.

  4. Thanks Becky and Loretta,

    No Levi and no Larry. Not in any family that I have found yet either in the States or who stayed home in Cornwall. I love your help!

    I appreciate and welcome every single idea!

    Cheers and thanks,


  5. Many of us have ‘honorary’ uncles who were not related at all but close to the family. Maybe try looking at the census to see if a Lew, Len or Levi lived nearby?

  6. Wow, these are some more awesome ideas! I love them! I did not think of a ‘J’ and now I’ll be thick into the ‘honorary’ Uncles too! I grew up with an “Aunt Betty” two doors down. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I finally figured out she wasn’t really related! Such great help!

    We may crack this case yet!

  7. I would start looking into neighbors and maybe your grandfather’s or grandmother’s good friend from school. I had an Aunt BB that when I started asking around, I found out there was no relation. She would have been a Great-Aunt to me, but my mother had always called her Aunt BB and didn’t know that she wasn’t related. My grandmother confirmed that she is not related, but last time I asked, she wouldn’t say why we called her ‘Aunt’. I am suspecting that she was a close family friend, though a good 20+ years older than my grandmother.

  8. “Smoking the pipe of peace with Uncle ‘Lon’ or ‘Tom’. The p’s and f look different, so maybe the writer didn’t pick up the pen after making the T, but dragged it across to make the o, and then made a weird m.
    Do you know of anyone in the family smoking a pipe?

  9. Thanks everyone! These are all super ideas! I will have to take a look into the ‘great’ category! I will check my Mom’s side, but they lived in a totally different part of the city and my folks didn’t meet until college. But I will follow any lead! Keep ’em comin’ and know that I LOVE IT! The help is awesome!

  10. I think it looks like Uncle Lew. Keep in mind that “Uncle” could be an honorary title. “Uncle” Lew may have been a family friend. Additionally, some cultures use the term “uncle” for some/all older males. Maybe “Uncle” Lew was a boarder. Don’t limit your search to blood relatives!

  11. Looks like “Lew” to me. I’d try looking for a Lewis (or since names were frequently mis-spelled then, maybe a Louis) .

  12. Looks like the last three letters are ern. Look at the “n” in the word “smoking” and you’ll see the last letter looks like an “n”. Capital letter looks like L, T, F, J or maybe even a Y. Is part of the name faded out? The “n” looks like it fades out some so could some of the name be so faded that it’s missing? Just a thought. Hope you find the mystery Uncle!!

  13. Looks like Len or Lou to me. However, are you considering it might be a middle name of someone for whom you only have an initial? I go by my middle name but officially I would show up by my first name. Or it could be a nickname someone was given that bears no relation to his actual name. My brother was “Butch” throughout his life though his real name was Jesse.

  14. Wow! I am so thrilled with the wonderful ideas here! I am off trying to research each suggestion! Now I know how the police must feel when they set up a tip line! This is so wonderful and I can’t thank everyone enough!

    Keep ’em coming and I’ll keep investigating with fingers crossed!


  15. It looks like an incomplete Leroy to me. There is no ‘r’ to compare to in the known words. The third letter looks a lot like the ‘i’ in ‘with’ the way it is strung together. I am assuming an incomplete or washed out word because all the other words end in a down stroke and this is ending with what seems to be an up stroke.
    Where did you get the picture from? Are you sure it is your relative and not someone else’s uncle and they just passed the photo on to someone in your family because of your father being in it? I would check the census records for neighbors and boarders.

  16. In addition to honorary uncles, it is possible that he was known by a name other than his first. My husband has an uncle who is known in the family as Bae although his real name is Sam.

  17. Looking at the individual letters in the name, I notice that the 2nd letter may be an “e” which looks similar to the “e” in the word “peace”. The 3rd letter may be a “w” as it very much looks like a smaller version of the “w” in the word “with”. This would lead me to the conclusion that I am looking for someone named Lew, Lewis, Louis or a mis-spelled Lou. What is the date or time frame and where is the family living? I’d like to check some of my sources. Appx. how old is the boy? What would you guess for the mans age range?

  18. When looking at the ending letter, it looks like and M the way it continues out. I would say it looks like Tom. Ls and Ts can be similarly constructed by someone who develops his or her own style of script. You should see if you can find anything else written by this person. Maybe it was your dad’s writing as he went through old photos, or one of his parents’ writing. I would do a comparison to nail down what the first letter is and go from there. If it is Tom, then look more closely at the Thomas you found to see if it could be him. If not, then look at neighbors as others have suggested.

  19. The age difference seems to indicate that the older person would be a sibling of your Dad’s grandfather. Have you gone back to that generation?

  20. I would make a database of all first names of relatives starting with L, J etc . Then add all first names of neighbors -for several streets around your ancestor and then look at those. See what could fit instead of looking for a certain name.

  21. Scott
    Just because it says “Uncle”, doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a family member. I know from my own family, I called many of my parents oldest and closest friends Uncle and Aunt; and they were not blood relations.
    This is not to say that he isn’t related.
    Also the inscription itself and the way it is written is also quite intriguing.
    Just a thought.
    Barry Sheldon
    Above The Branches Genealogy

  22. I agree with the “honorary” uncle status since my mother had a few who weren’t blood relatives but called uncle non the less. Also to further confuse you my grandmother’s given name was Teresa…..BUT when I interviewed people in her home town they knew her as Clara……I have no idea…..and they knew her given name was Teresa but said they always called her Clara.

  23. Thanks for all the terrific ideas! I am following up on so many of them I will be busy for a year!

    The handwriting was my grandmothers, that I know. Plus she was a terribly proper lady who wouldn’t be inclined to honor anyone as an ‘Uncle’ who wasn’t blood, but I’ll be striking out further with thanks to your ideas and suggestions!


  24. Hi Scott!
    I am seeing this as Uncle Lern. Reading the above comments about the L being an F – then Fern (F e r n)
    Hope you find your mystery Uncle!

  25. Hi Scott,
    Try comparing all of the letters in the sentence.
    The o in smoking does not match the o in the name. To me it looks like Leri.

  26. You readers are wonderful! I cannot thank you enough for these suggestions! Together we will crack this mystery, I just feel it in my bones!

    Keep the ideas coming and I will keep investigating!

  27. Like many have said and since you have researched the records, I would bet he was an honorary Uncle and not actually a relative. He probably was a neighbor or maybe the relative of a neighbor who was staying for a short time in town. There are so many many scenarios. the thing that sticks out to me is that they were smoking a “peace” pipe which says that maybe there was some tension with the adult in the photo (amateur psychology) Good luck and great photo!

  28. My first thought was Larry but spelled differently. As we know spelling can be a challenge on documents. Also being a nurse I learned to look long and hard at hand writing. I sure hope you find your answer.
    Could it be a neighbor non family member??

  29. Wonder if it could be Lem for Lemuel. And in addition to a great uncle, he could even have been from a generation before, by blood or by marriage, making a lot more people to research If it’s an honorific, you’re probably sunk. But at least you have a wonderful photo of your father.

  30. Could he be the father in law of your parents’ sibling? Having followed this track in my own family it’s worth a look.

  31. Looks like Lew to me. The “e” matches the one in “peace” and the middle bump in the “w” is similar to the one in “with” even though the “w” is at different ends of the words. Looks as if the writer brought the “e” line up in order to start the “w”. Do not think it is “Lem” because it looks too different than the “m” in “smoking”. I have many Lewis names in my long ago family tree so have seen this name written many times in old documents. Do the back of other old photos look to have the same handwriting? If so you could compare the individual letters in those with this photo to see if there is a pattern in this person’s handwriting to help you make a clear decision.

  32. At first I saw ‘Lem’, but that’s antiquated for the time. I really suspect this may be ‘Tom’. With all the other flourishes in the upper parts of letters, it was unusual, flowery script. This first letter could really be a T. And if the top of the ‘o’ wasn’t quite closed, and the final piece of the ‘m’ had faded (still a bit visible)…. I suspect this may read ‘Uncle Tom”.

  33. Hi. Question for you about an article you have on the web about your great grandfather from Rataje. Have you ever seen that town referred to as “Radavy” or “Radawy” in Czech records? Thanks, Kevin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *