This is a true story. I’m telling you this even though it’s weird enough that now I probably won’t ever be able to run for office (except in Delaware).
About a month ago, I hired a psychic to help me find one of my impossible-to-find ancestors.
Here’s how it happened:
The ancestor was my great-grandmother’s half-brother (I’ll call him John Smith, which is not his real name, for reasons I’ll explain in another post). My great-grandmother was one of those people who clearly was close to her family. I have lots of pictures and postcards that indicate that she was in touch with, and often visited, her extended relatives all over the place. She was a family-oriented person.
So the fact that her records for John stopped in 1910 led me to believe that he had died not long after that. My great-grandmother was married in 1913, and I have the guest book pages and the photos…and John isn’t in them. I have her albums and other records from her visits after that to various cousins, aunts, uncles…she even visited her brother’s wife’s siblings. But there was never anything about John. The last thing I had was a postcard he’d sent her, postmarked 1910 in South Dakota, saying that it was “hotter than the dickens” and that he had just finished baking and was tired out. This suggested that he was a baker. He would have been about 19 at the time the postcard was sent.
After that—nothing. No one in my family also had any idea what had happened to him. They had information on the other brother, who died in 1921. But not John.
So I’ve been looking for what happened to John for most of the years I’ve been doing research. He was definitely on my most-wanted list. I was always working on the general assumption that he’d probably died not long after 1910 (and probably before June 1913, when my great-grandmother’s wedding took place without him). I never found even a hint of him. His fate was a complete mystery.
Meanwhile, a few months ago, I saw a mention of a genealogy psychic on a Rootsweb list. I rolled my eyes. Then I started writing a blog post about how dumb you’d have to be to hire a genealogy psychic to find your ancestor. I ran out of synonyms for “sucker” pretty quickly. Then I read it over…and realized I was being kind of a weenie. I mean, I don’t generally believe in psychics. If you do, though…well, whatever. It’s a free country. Who am I to say this psychic can’t help? It’s not really for me to judge, right?
So I deleted the post. That left me with no post for that week (because as I mentioned before, I’ve been a little writer’s-block-y lately). I started to wonder what exactly a genealogy psychic would tell you. It would have to be vague, right? I mean, they’d have to tell you something like, “I see John in the west” or “I see John with lots of dirt all around him” or something. The more I thought about it, the more curious I was.
So I went back and looked at the genealogy psychic’s website. A reading for one relative was $30. I decided to do it, thinking it would make a good blog post, if nothing else. I’m willing to spend $30 to entertain you, my dear readers. I thought about doing a relative whose fate I already knew, but decided that would be a weenie-esque thing to do. So I used John instead. I emailed her what I knew: his first and last name, the year and state he was born in, and the fact that his parents had died before he reached adulthood. I said I know he was living in South Dakota in 1910, but that was it. I included a photo that showed only his face.
She sent me my reading the following afternoon. This is the complete text of it (with only his first name changed):
John was a busy and adventurous guy. Although he was in South Dakota, he moved on to Wyoming, where he joined up with people running illegal alcohol products during Prohibition as this was a high-income opportunity. He died in a vehicle accident or explosion related to this occupation sometime between 1928 and 1932. This happened in the area now known as Carbon County, with the city name “Encampment” although I don’t know what the city was called in that time period.
He may not have had proper identification on him at the time of his death. I believe that there are newspaper accounts from that time period that may help you find confirmation of this, and there should be a death certificate somewhere in Carbon County because I have the impression that someone identified him, and his name is on an official death certificate somewhere in that area in county or city records.
This is all of the material about John that I was able to retrieve at this time. I hope it is helpful.
Now, see, that’s not vague at all. That’s pretty specific. And while I still didn’t (and don’t) believe in psychics, I think I got $30 worth of entertainment out of this…because it’s a great story. I’ve imagined all kinds of fates for John, but I’d never imagined him having lived long enough to be involved in Prohibition. I even looked up the history of Encampment, Wyoming. It’s fascinating. I didn’t find John, but I didn’t expect to.
But here’s where things got weird:
A couple of weeks later, I was working on the research for this post. I was looking on NewspaperArchive.com for newspapers in central Minnesota. While doing that, I noticed that they had a large collection from Albert Lea, which is where John was from. It was about 3am, and I had to keep to my deadline to finish the post in time…but I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a peek. So I pulled up the index for the Albert Lea newspaper for around 1910, and typed in his name. His real name is very common (especially in that area/timeframe), so I got a lot of results. I started going through them, and got up to about 1918 before I realized I’d probably gone too far, since he was probably dead by then. Also, I had this deadline. I knew I should get back to the work I was supposed to be doing.
But then I noticed further down the page that there was an article from 1929 about the trial of John…for illegally making and selling alcohol.
Now, John’s real name is very common. There were hundreds and hundreds of mentions of people in that paper with the same name from the 1920s alone. I never would have bothered to click on that article, or even go all the way through to 1929, if I hadn’t just read her theory as to what happened to him. It was the Prohibition thing that sucked me in, and that came directly from the psychic.
But I did. And what I found blew my mind. It cracked the case wide open. Come back later this week and I’ll tell you about it.
(See, it’s a cliffhanger, like on TV, because this post is already way too long, and because dammit, I mean to get my $30 worth).
Edited to add: The sort-of exciting conclusion is here.
Photo by benleto