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