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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