If you haven’t read the previous post about the time I hired a genealogy psychic, you should. Otherwise this will make no sense.
I knew I should stop. I was on a deadline for a completely different project. Plus, the guy I was looking for had probably died between 1910 and 1913. But I’d seen mention of a John Smith (again, the names in this story have been changed) in an article from 1929 related to selling alcohol during Prohibition, and a genealogy psychic had told me that my guy had been involved in exactly that sort of activity.
Don’t get me wrong—I felt like an idiot. I don’t believe in psychics. I especially don’t believe in genealogy psychics. Plus, I really thought that this guy was dead by 1913.
But I clicked through anyway… and the article didn’t tell me enough to know if this John Smith was mine. I had to read the next article, and the next one, and the next one. I ended up all the way into the spring of 1930, where I found an article that mentioned this John Smith’s mother. My John Smith had lost both parents decades earlier.
This wasn’t my guy. It was just a wild goose chase. I felt like a fool for spending 20 minutes on something I’d heard from a psychic.
Then, just before I finished eating and went back to what I was supposed to be working on, I saw this:
Died in St. Louis—Mrs. W. L. Jorgenson has received the sad news of the death of her nephew, John Smith, at his home in St. Louis, Mo. Mr. Smith as a boy lived in Albert Lea for several years and made his home with his aunt, Mrs. Marie Holm of Ermina street, but has been living in St. Louis for some time, where he passed away Tuesday of last week.
And my Pop-Tart clattered to the floor.
I knew those names. Those were the names. Those were his aunts. He’d lived at that house on Ermina Street. This was him. I’d found him.
I sat there for a minute, stunned. I couldn’t believe it. Then I thought, “Death certificate. I have to get the death certificate. I have to get it RIGHT NOW.”
And it turns out that Missouri is the BEST place to find your dead relative. Missouri not only has a searchable death index for 1910-1959, but they have the actual death certificates online as well. For free. Instantly. Missouri is my new favorite state. Rock on, Show-Me State.
My heart pounded as I typed in his name. It pounded harder as I clicked on the link. While I waited for the image to load, it pounded so hard that I didn’t hear the wheels of my desk chair rolling over the remains of my dropped Pop-Tart (and it case you’re wondering, it’s really hard to get that stuff out of the wheels of your desk chair).
Then the death certificate appeared on my screen, for this man I’ve been looking for years, whose fate I’ve spent hours speculating on. My heart soared for a second…and then sank.
It was indeed my guy. YAY.
But he’d been in the hospital for seven days before he died. The cause of death was delirium tremens. The contributing cause was chronic alcoholism. He drank himself to death.
Now, I imagined lots of endings for him….but not that one. That one just sucks. The last photo I have of him is of a very good-looking 19-year-old with his whole life ahead of him. It’s hard to imagine that kid, even with the losses he’d endured as a child, ending up like this. But somehow, this is how his story ended. I wonder if that’s the reason my great-grandmother’s record of him stopped 20 years earlier.
And there was more. There was a wife, and a daughter born in 1908 in Kentucky (whether this daughter is his biological child, a stepchild from a previous marriage of the mother’s, an adopted child, or something else…I don’t know yet). The three of them lived together at the time of the census in 1920, but at the time of John’s death they seem to have been apart. John died just a few weeks after the census-taker came through his neighborhood in 1930, and I found him at the address on his death certificate, boarding in what appears to have been a poor neighborhood. He was unemployed. I haven’t yet found the wife and daughter in the 1930 census. The daughter had an even sadder ending; she died not long after John did, at age 24, after experiencing more than her fair share of difficulties for someone so young.
So, the psychic was right about a few things:
- She said John died between 1928-1932. He died in 1930. I was blinded by my belief that he had died before his sister’s wedding in 1913…but the psychic had no such handicap.
- She said that John was involved in running illegal alcohol. I don’t yet know whether this is true; I haven’t accounted for his life between 1910 and 1930, except for his appearance in the 1920 census. Clearly he was involved in drinking illegal alcohol, and that’s what led to his death.
- She said that John did not have proper ID at the time of his death. The information on the death certificate suggests that she may have been right about this (although I don’t know what constituted “proper ID” in 1930). The informant on the death certificate is “hospital records.” His place of birth is correct, but it doesn’t have his date of birth, and lists him as “about 40 years old.” It also lists him as widowed, but I’ve already determined that his wife/ex-wife was still alive. Whether he would have been in any condition to give information to the hospital himself when he came in, I don’t know…but there’s a lot of basic information that’s missing.
On the flip side, the location the psychic gave was completely wrong—he was in Missouri, not Wyoming (although it’s possible he lived in Wyoming at some point). He wasn’t killed in a car accident or explosion (although it’s possible one of those events preceded his admission to the hospital…I’m hoping to find out more when I can visit St. Louis and do some newspaper research there).
So did the psychic help me find John Smith? Was this worth the $30 I paid?
My feeling is this: I would have found this guy a whole lot sooner if I’d been able to get over my own assumptions about him. Because my great-grandmother’s records of him completely stopped in 1910, and he hadn’t attended her 1913 wedding, and I’d never found him in World War I draft registration records, I’d assumed he was dead by about 1913. That was dumb on my part. We all know we should never assume, and I’ve gotten much better at avoiding this as I’ve progressed in terms of my research skills…but I think that when it comes to the the people we’ve been researching from the very beginning, when we’re still cluefree, sometimes we don’t realize the extent to which those assumptions are hard-wired. I feel a little silly that I had to pay $30 to a stranger to open my brain to the possibility that he’d lived much longer than that. I don’t know whether she’s really psychic, but clearly she didn’t have my hang-ups. So good for her…and that $30 lesson was completely worth it for me. I’m approaching my old brick-wall problems very differently as a result.
And I can say for sure that it was the Prohibition story the psychic gave me that made me keep clicking through on those articles. I wouldn’t have found him (at least not that day) if it hadn’t been for that. I like to think I would have wised up eventually and looked that far out…but it wouldn’t have happened that night. Who can say how these things work? Whole books have been written about the weird coincidences genealogists encounter that just can’t be explained. Maybe this is one of them. I’m not planning to submit any more ancestors to a psychic…but I’m not sorry I went through this exercise.
Now, who among you dares me to email Elizabeth Shown Mills and ask her how to cite a psychic reading as a source? (I’m kidding. Don’t you DARE tell anyone about this. I’m already afraid I’m going to be The Goofy Chick Who Hired a Psychic at the next APG luncheon. This is our secret, okay?).
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