In Which I Am Accosted By A Skeleton At 3 a.m.

In Which I Am Accosted By A Skeleton At 3 a.m.

by Kerry Scott on 9 August 2011

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I couldn’t sleep.  I had a cold (yes, in August) and I needed more Sudafed.  So that’s how it started.

I came downstairs at 3 a.m. and took my medicine.  Then I decided to get on my computer and pass the time waiting for the drugs to kick in, so that I didn’t wake up my husband with my coughing and sneezing.  I fooled around a bit on Facebook, and then I remembered that Leslie Brinkley Lawson had posted a link to the Library of Congress’ Historic American Newspapers database on the Clue Wagon Facebook page.  I figured I’d fool around with that for a bit until the Sudafed knocked me out.

Yes, this is the kind of aimless goofing around that leads to large piles of printouts that don’t related to any sort of research plan.  Kids, don’t do stuff like this, okay?

One of the surnames I regularly work on is fairly uncommon, and I’ve done enough research on it to have a pretty good sense of the people who had that name in the upper Midwest in the early 1900s.  Because of this, it’s the surname I typically use when I try out a new database and want to get a very general sense of how it works.  I plugged my go-to surname into the Historic American Newspapers database, and got more than 100 results.  Great, I thought.  That’ll last me until the Sudafed kicks in, and then I can go to bed.

You can guess what happened:  I never went back to bed.

I found a bunch of stuff, but the thing that really rocked my world was the article I found on a young man who had escaped from prison, just one month before he was supposed to be released early for good behavior.  He was captured, and had to serve out the rest of his (long) sentence.

This guy has the same (rare) name as a relative I’ll call My Guy.

My Guy never went to prison, as far as I knew.  So this was a bit of a shock.

My Guy was the second of 10 children, eight of whom lived into adulthood.  I know a lot about this family, but My Guy is one of the kids I know the least about, because he moved out west sometime in his mid-20s.  He’s the one that sticks out in my photo collection, because while I have tons of pictures of the rest of the family, the only pictures I have of this guy are from when he was an old man.  There are other clues to indicate that the family wasn’t in touch with him much during his early and middle adulthood, but I had attributed that to geography and the politics of this particular family.

It turns out that the guy who escaped from prison had done so in a town in South Dakota.  The time frame in which he would have been in prison matches that of the time frame when this family abruptly left St. Paul, where they had finally settled down after years of moving around.  The family moved from St. Paul to the same town in South Dakota which this guy was in prison.  Right around the time this guy had been let out of prison, they abruptly left South Dakota and moved to Minneapolis (not St. Paul, which was more familiar to them).  I always wondered what the deal was with that move, because the parents were old enough that their wandering days were pretty much over.

Then I read on.  It turns out this guy was convicted of embezzling, and it wasn’t his first offense.  He’d been convicted of passing bad checks at least twice before, in St. Paul, where I know My Guy and his family lived at that time.  On the second conviction, this guy got sent to prison in Stillwater, Minnesota.  The (awesome) Minnesota Historical Society has records from Stillwater State Prison, including an index online.  I checked.  The information is incomplete for this guy, but the place of birth matches, and the age is close enough to be him.

So My Guy might have been a criminal in his youth.  This is completely out of left field.  There was never a hint of this anywhere, in any family story or other record.  My guy seems to have had a respectable life in his later years (in fact, his only son was judge).  It’s way too soon to tell whether this guy is My Guy, and I have lots of work to do before I’ll know one way or another.  But I don’t think I’ve ever had a potential skeleton jump out of a closet so dramatically.

So I’m curious.  Have you found skeletons in your closet?  Were they ones you sort of expected to find, or complete surprises like this one?  How did your living relatives react, and how did you balance the need to keep the piece among your own family with your desire to find out what the story was?

Photo by sanberdoo

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Katie O. August 9, 2011 at 11:20 am

The most comparable experience I have (which I’m still looking into) involves an unmarried woman whose name was the same as my g-g-grandmother’s married name. I had come across her story many times in papers – it was a sad, scandalous story involving bastardy and at most rape and at least false pretenses, and it was all over the local papers in the 1880s. Because she clearly wasn’t my g.g.grandmother, I never looked into it any further. Upon further investigation of my g-g-grandfather’s family, though, it appears she may have been his cousin – coincidence that she and g.g.grandma share a first name, but there might be a good reason they share a last name. I had no idea that this might be in our past, but it wasn’t shocking to realize it might be, mostly because I had known of this woman and her story for years before I realized we might be related.

I haven’t shared the story widely, because I’m trying to figure out a) whether she’s actually a relative and b) whether I can out more about the story than what was reported in the papers, but I did have an older relative who had come across the story independently. Her reaction was along the lines of “I’m glad we’re not related to HER. We wouldn’t want to be related to a woman like THAT, would we?” I’m not really sure exactly where she got that – the news stories aren’t as explicit as they’d be today, but they’re still very sympathetic to the woman and incredibly damning towards the man involved. I told her that I have no problem being related to her, and I’m pretty sure HE’S the bad guy.


Debi August 9, 2011 at 11:35 am

Well you know I had my own guy (2nd great grandafther) in Illinois in the mid/late 1800′s who was arrested for assaulting his son with a chair and throwing a tumbler and tomatoes at him. His bail was set at $100, which I’m sure he paid, and then my story goes cold.

I wish it hadn’t happened but it did and it’s part of my story. Because if he weren’t in my family tree I wouldn’t be here today. As far as my living relatives, the only one in the older generation left is my mother and this is her great grandfather. Her reaction when I told her was “hmmmmm”.


Linda M August 9, 2011 at 11:50 am

Oh, I have one that will take a book (someday) to tell. Let’s just say everyone thought there was some kind of story that led to our guy not talking much about his past or having any contact with his family but no one had a clue that the song leader at the little country church had escaped from prison many years earlier in MS, changed his name and started a new life in KY. Reactions from family members ranged from being as excited as I was (and still am after 2 years) to “I don’t want to talk about it” to complete denial. As for keeping the peace, I haven’t blogged about it or added the details to my website but I also haven’t stopped researching.


Mary August 9, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Great site, been wasting time there all morning. Didn’t find anything surprising yet so I’ll have to continue my research.

As far as skeletons and surprises go, sadly found 2 cases of murder-suicide, a bunch of shotgun weddings and a lot of alcoholism. One relative even sued the bar owners for serving her husband, claiming they let him drink away the house and the business. My mother told me a few tidbits, but nothing I can get a handle on. The rest of the family doesn’t care


Liz August 9, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Only a possible victim of domestic violence, whom I’ve blogged about. But I think I’d classify her as more sad than skeleton-like.

I do have a local-history booklet of a relative’s rural hometown, with hilarious, uncensored annotations in my relative’s handwriting about the various worthy individuals mentioned. VERY uncensored. I would love to do something with this somehow, but cannot imagine what.


Susan Tiner August 9, 2011 at 1:09 pm

What an amazing story! I would have stayed up all night too.

As for skeletons, you know all about mine :-). It’s so much easier when you’re in a position to give up on keeping the peace, which is what I’ve done. But if I were worried about it, I’d keep the story to myself and still try and get to the bottom of it.


Nick M. Gombash August 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm

My great-grandfather had a previous wife and two kids that no one knew about. He then married my great-grandmother and had ten more kids. I only found out about this a few years ago because of a newspaper article I stumbled upon, stating the previous wife was divorcing my great-grandfather. I’ve since been able to make contact with the children of those two kids (one died in infancy), and I talk with them regularly.


Julie August 9, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I was accosted by a skeleton in the middle of the night, too! Like you, I was playing around with a newspaper database, and found that someone I’d thought had probably died of consumption (there was a wide-spread epidemic of it in this family) had actually slit his own throat with a razor blade as the sheriff showed up to arrest him! I had a hard time falling asleep after that. Some of these skeletons are LOUD!


Marilynn August 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I, too, have my own “Guy.”
My g-g-grandfather fought in the Civil War, then re-joined the army after the war, deserted the army, changed his name, and his family never saw him again. He then headed west on a search for fortune, almost certainly married a young woman who he sent a picture of to his family. No one knows what became of her.
Then he married my g-g-grandmother and they had five children. He left when the children were still very young to join the gold rush in Alaska. They never saw him (alive) again.
He spent many years traveling up and down the west coast, changing his name back and forth, then finally ended up in Los Angeles, where he moved into the VA soldier’s home. He changed his name back to what it originally was and applied for his pension. This opened up a whole investigation (the records of this investigation is where I got most of my information).
He got kicked out of the soldier’s home after beating someone up and ended up in the hospital with (I think) syphilis. Meanwhile, my g-g-grandmother and her daughter had moved to Los Angeles, not knowing he was there (they in fact thought he was long dead). They were also brought into the investigation but didn’t want to have anything to do with him.
Before they were able to conclude the investigation, he and seven other patients in the hospital were given an experimental drug containing arsenic, and within a few days all eight of them were dead. A couple weeks after he died, my g-g-grandmother had him exhumed (for a $10 fee, this was in 1914) so that she could see for herself that this was, in fact, her long-missing husband. Not knowing herself before all this happened that he had even fought in the war, she filed for her widow’s pension and received the payments until her death in the 1940′s.
No one in my family knew anything about this. All I had to go on was that my grandma once told me that her grandfather had been “poisoned by the railroad” and that no one was supposed to talk about it. I got most of my information from the pension file, which contains depositions of various family members, including the man himself, all in their own words. There are also a couple of pictures of my g-g-grandfather in there, which they showed to various people asking, “Do you recognize this man?”
I’m now writing a book about the whole debacle. Look for it on bookshelves sometime in the future! :0)


Yvonne August 9, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Uhhhh, I have so many that they’ve intermarried and created their very own skeleton lineage. Glad to be in good company, Kerry! Call me if you stay up all night again…I’m usually up.


Barbara August 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Skeletons in my family? I could populate an entire graveyard with ‘em. Two are particularly memorable. The first was my gg-grandfather who was, according to family tradition, “Shot in the back.” But when I went to see if the records showed up at Fort Smith, as I hoped to find the trial of the men who killed him, I didn’t. But I did find My Own Guy on trial two years earlier for murder. Interestingly he got off using a genealogical defense. He said, “I’m Choctaw. The man I killed was Choctaw.” Then he dragged in cousin after cousin to attest to his family relationships. The case was thrown out for lack of jurisdiction and very neatly explains why in my family we celebrated our “Indianness” when lots of mixed blood Oklahomans were hiding theirs.

The second I stumbled onto more recently when, at the request of a rather distant cousin, I looked for her grandfather’s birthplace. I found him living with relatives in the 1880 census and thought I’d see where his parents were. Never could find mom, but Dad was in the state penitentiary. The old newspapers turned up a snarls of amazing tales of poison, embezzlement, prostitution, murder, double jeopardy, that spanned four states and three decades. I passed on her grandfather’s birthplace and kept the rest to myself. She didn’t ask for that information and I’m not at all sure she would want to know it. If she ever evinced more interest, I could see sharing it. Otherwise I won’t. I learned from sharing the first story with my sister, who said, “Would you take up some less volatile hobby, please? I could have gone to my grave without knowing that!”


Diane B August 9, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Thanks, loved your post. My most surprising skeleton was when I discovered that my g-grandfather lived at the Butler Hospital for the Insane for about 7 years before his death in 1926. He died before my mother was born but she did remember talk of my grandfather taking him out fishing, or going to visit him and they would discuss some gardening that the g-grandfather was doing at the hospital. But he was definitely, according to the census, a patient. I asked, of course, why he was there, but I guess she really doesn’t know, and no one else does (the family is very small). My g-grandfather had a very wealthy sister. I’m guessing that something happened and she chose to pay for his care there rather than be called constantly by the police at 2:00 a.m. Just to speculate, I’m thinking dementia, alcoholism, or – this is my best guess – syphillis. Since it was NEVER explained to my mom as a girl, that seems about right. I think I have no chance of getting at those records, but if anyone thinks differently, please holler.


Rondina Muncy August 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm

A few years back I was in Austin visiting a distant cousin. She started running on about “the trial.” What trial? “My grandfather’s.” She liked to type and didn’t have money for photocopying. She had pages of typewritten transcriptions of newspaper accounts for a trial that took place in the early 1880s in Austin. It was apparently the biggest deal in Texas judicial history at that time. The defendant was my great-grandfather. I went to the Austin Historical Society and copied all the newspaper articles about the trial. I went to the courthouse and copied all the microfilmed images from the trial ($75, cha-ching). By the time I got home I had learned that there was a serial killer in Austin that killed nine Austinites. The murders were pretty nasty. All done with axes to the head. The last murders included my great-grandfather’s wife and Mrs. Hancock a few streets over. They were both murdered on the same night, Christmas Eve, within an hour of each other. The thing that made the trial such a big deal was that my great-grandfather’s wife (I’m descended from the second wife) was fooling around with a guy that the couple had worked for up in Williamson County. They brought the ladies that owned the houses of “assignation” in and they cited ALL the politicians that used their services. Great headlines. So … about a week goes by and I get a call one day from Skip Hollingsworth. Some Texans wouldn’t know who he is, but as an avid reader of Texas Monthly magazine, he just happened to be one of my favorite writers. This entitled me to act like getting call from him was no big deal. For some reason, even before the words came out of his mouth, I knew exactly why he was calling. I asked him if he would like the trial papers. A few months later a story appeared about this entire serial killer thing complete with a picture of my great-grandfather’s murdered wife. A book was written about the whole affair, but it was “historical fiction” and had my great-grandfather’s wife having an affair with O’Henry. This was total nonsense, as were many things included in the book, but the Austin Genealogical Society likes to use it for a history reference anyway. This wouldn’t make a good case study for the “Q,” but it sure does come close to Colletta’s Rolling Fork tragedy. All great fun.


Judy August 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm

One of my guys was one of the first non-native settlers of Picatauquis County, Maine. He later left town “under cover of darkness.” There are a bunch of court cases involving a pair of oxen. He was later sighted somewhere out west. It was noted that “he had not reformed his ways.
This stuff is lots of fun as long as it’s 4 or 5 generations distant.


Greta Koehl August 9, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Didja ever notice that it’s when you’re not seriously looking for anything when these amazing discoveries usually pop up? And prison research – yeah, I’ve done a lot of that. My father’s paternal line (= my maiden name): gg-grandfather and brother tried for multiple counts of murder in Republic of Texas days, 2 of great-grandfather’s brothers tried for murder and the above-mentioned gg-grandfather almost went broke paying for lawyers, a sheriff found guilty of murder, and do a search on “Bristow bomber” – brings up some kind of good-for-nothing hoodlum cousin. Then there’s the family that engaged in vicious suits against one another for entertainment. People in mental hospitals, and on and on. Certainly explains why I’ve always sensed that my family is kind of crazy….


Leslie Lawson August 10, 2011 at 10:21 am

I’m so glad you got time to play at that site! I LOVE old newspapers! I will only admit to being very distracted by them on a number of occasions! Hope you find out more about your guy.


Laura Prescott August 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Did you know that Sudafed is a stimulant? Maybe that’s why you lucked into being wide awake for these terrific discoveries.


Daniel Hoffman August 10, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I’ll keep this short, though I could go on and on. My grandfather Harold Edwin Adle’s (1899-1983) had a brother, George William Adle, who left home in Maryville MO in 1907. In Billings, MT he wrote home that his hands were freezing. And that was the last that he was heard from . . . OR, the family being sort of Victorian secretive, heard more and preferred to shut up.

So, that was the last they heard from him until I did an Ancestry military records search and, lo and behold, up comes multiple muster records showing that he was first with the Navy and then with the US Marines. Alongside these records were numerous disciplinary and court martial records–to put it frankly, George W. was a real hell raiser! Finally, in the Marines he went off to Mexico on the USS West Virginia in 1914. While on that vessel, he spent some time gambling and when he got to San Diego in July 1914, he took his $200, jumped ship and disappeared into the vast North American continent.

I received his compiled military records and the most interesting item was his arrest notice offering a reward of $50 if he was turned in. But the story stops there. I can’t find him on any subsequent census.

So that is a skeleton. But I kind of got a thrill knowing that in this very proper family, some bad guys were present . . . makes the narrative more interesting. Now I want to find others . . . my notion is that I won’t have to look too far.


Rondina Muncy August 10, 2011 at 6:54 pm

So pharmacists must now be on the watch for genealogists. : )


Dee August 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm

My Burrises are constantly surprising me…beginning with g-g-gramps’ “other family” 1/2 mile down the road…

They were amters of keeping secrets, until g-g-granddaughter got hold of the internet and a few helpful paid subscriptions.

All the secret keepers are dead, and yes, I reveal.


KathyN August 11, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I have a potential skeleton but I haven’t been able to find out just what it was he did. My husband’s great-great grandfather was the schoolmaster for some 30 years in a small village in Scotland. I received copies of school board minutes from 1879 in which there was discussion about the kirk (church) session laying a “charge of immorality” against him. The board asked whether or not he admitted or denied the charges and he wrote a letter stating the proceedings by the kirk session were “wrongfull and irregular.” He also offered to retire due to failing energies and advanced years. The board ultimately decided on a pension amount and he retired. He passed away a little over a year later at the age of 65. The kirk session minutes, which would have detailed the charges, have apparently not survived. There are session minutes for other years, but not for 1879/1880! I can only hope that perhaps the local paper might have run a story, given that this upstanding citizen and long-term schoolmaster had been charged with immorality. Mystery!


Rondina Muncy August 11, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Maybe he’s the reason for the missing session minutes. : )


Elyse Doerflinger August 14, 2011 at 2:37 pm

I got a ton of alcoholics in my family.


JL August 14, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Nope. My ancestors are perfect. I’m the only twisted one…mwhahaha.


Dana August 14, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I had a very similar experience, in fact. It wasn’t 3am, but I was also surfing a newspaper archive or another (I forget which now) and I have a couple of rare surnames I enter to get a general gist for what they might have. Also, I’m obsessed with the those surnames because they’re brick walls. So, in it goes.

*search thinking…*

Wait, what? That couldn’t possibly be my…OMG, IT IS.

I found that one of my g-g-gpas had been accused of incest with his own daughter and gone to jail for it. He was later released and the charges dropped after several years and appeals later, and the daughter said it had all been a big mistake. There’s lots of evidence he was framed, but it was…shocking! I had cousins that already had all the files, but hadn’t wanted to tell me, but after I asked about it, they sent me everything from the court case. For a change, I was the one people were trying to protect! It makes me squeamish, but it was my first big, important lesson in ‘we are not our ancestors’. And I moved forward.

I adore your blog, by the way. Your writing style makes me laugh and I have enjoyed reading your off-the-wall posts. So. Awesome!


Dee August 14, 2011 at 5:24 pm

I’ve ran into a couple skeletons so far. While searching vital records in one state, I found an ancestor that apparently had a habit of extramarital affairs. It does appear that he managed to stick with only one mistress per marriage though. Whenever his current wife passed, he’d marry his mistress and a few years later, history would repeat itself. My grandmother wasn’t surprised since, in her words, “the whole family had trouble keeping it in their pants.”

I also have an ancestor that may or may not have been a deserter during the Civil War.

i’m still trying to verify it, but there’s a story that an ancestor in the very distant past had an affair with a married colored woman, which resulted in an illegitimate child. The woman already had a child by her husband, which was taken away from her when he divorced her.


Travis LeMaster August 15, 2011 at 6:50 am

My recent blacksheep experience was discovering I was related to Harry PIERPONT, Indiana bankrobber who escaped from Michigan City prison, broke John Dillinger out of jail in Lima, OH, then proceeded to terrorize the midwest with Dillinger, et al. in late 1933 before being captured in 1934 in Tucson. He ended up being executed by the State of Ohio. I’ve had fun researching his early bank robberies in 1924-25 time period and posting on my blog.


Caroline Gurney August 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Many of my best genealogical discoveries have been made “goofing around” online and in libraries and archives. I am proud to say that I have never written a research plan in 26 years of genealogical research.

And I love black sheep ancestors. I’ve blogged about one of mine here: As I said in that post, “Black sheep embarrass the family whilst they are alive but they make wonderful ancestors. Brushes with the law, financial peccadilloes and sex scandals are the lifeblood of newspapers. Ancestors who got into serious trouble usually got plenty of column inches and those old newspaper articles are gold dust for the family historian.”

I happily share everything – good and bad – with my family. The only exception is what I found in my maternal grandfather’s WWI medical records. I am NOT sharing that with my elderly mother :-(


Diane B August 15, 2011 at 3:57 pm

So Caroline, how did you manage to get WWI medical records? My grandfather’s WWI military records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire. Is there any chance that medical records were separate?
thanks for any thoughts you can share on this …
Diane B


Caroline Gurney August 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Diane. My grandfather was in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during WW1. I obtained his file from Library and Archives Canada: The amount of information it contained was amazing. There were even details of a court martial! Thankfully it was a false accusation and he was acquitted. We don’t have anything like such detailed records here in the UK and it sounds like you don’t in the States either.


Diane B August 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Yes, here in the U.S. a 1973 fire destroyed many of those records. I don’t think many of my Canadian relatives served, but I am definitely checking out that link! Thank you so much!


KathyN August 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Oh my. I’ve seen a lot of records from men who served in India (pre- WWI) and without even looking at the files, I can guarantee what each man has picked up. Not just once, but many times!


Caroline Gurney August 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Boys will be boys, Kathy ;-)


Em B August 17, 2011 at 7:14 am

My skeleton involved a brother murdering his sister shortly after their immigration to the US in the mid-17th century, close to Pilgrim arrival. In that time context, it’s hard to imagine a “Pilgrim/Puritan” murder of one’s own sibling….


Joan Miller (Luxegen) October 5, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Oh yeah. No court cases or criminals – just an old fashioned scandal. My husband’s family has a love story that was hushed up. They were both married to other people and ran away together. One story said he went hunting one day and never came home. Another said she ran away with the door to door salesman. They went on to have a happy life and about 8 kids.


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