Archive for April, 2014

April 30th, 2014

DNA Used to Crack Eighty Year Old Crime in UK – Could Reunite Family with Ancestor

In 1930, in Northampton, England, a man was cracked over the head with a mallet and then burned to death. A man was subsequently sent to the gallows for the heinous murder, but took the name of his victim with him to the grave. Samples of the man’s tissue were taken and preserved during the autopsy, and those samples have provided scientists investigating the eighty year old crime with a complete male mtDNA profile. That DNA is now being compared to that of a family, one of whose members came across a possible connection with the victim and her family when tracing her ancestry.

Samantha Hall was investigating her family lineage when her grandmother revealed during an interview that she believed that her uncle was the murder victim who had been beaten to death and burned in a car. The uncle, William Thomas Briggs, left his London home for an appointment with his doctor in November 1930, but was never heard from or seen again. Thirty years later, after her chat with her grandmother, Samantha Hall and her family asked the Northamptonshire police to re-open the case.

The family believed that their uncle could have crossed paths with the convicted murderer, Alfred Rouse; a traveler who it was rumored wanted to fake his own death. It is known that Rouse suffered from a personality disorder caused by a head wound during the First World War. He was described by those who knew him as “a promiscuous rake with an enormous sexual appetite.” Rouse had fathered at least two illegitimate children, and child support was causing him serious financial difficulty.

Police believed at the time that Rouse had overpowered some homeless tramp who would not be missed if he disappeared. It was clear that Rouse’s intent was for himself to be identified as the victim, as he used his own car to burn the victim (the license plate was found intact), and he left some of his possessions in the car.

He staged the scene so that it would look as if he died in a crash, and counted on the body being completely burned so that it could not be positively identified. Rouse started the fire in the early hours of the morning so that no one would notice it, but two boys saw the flames and called the police. Rouse then fled to Cardiff, but he was eventually arrested, found guilty, and hanged for the murder.

Ms. Hall became intrigued with the case and contacted Northamptonshire Police in 2012, hoping that DNA analysis could prove the murder victim was her uncle. Because the case had been closed, as there was a conviction, it could not be re-opened, and ms. Hall and her family were put in touch with the University of Leicester, which had successfully identified the bones of King Richard III when they were discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012.

For months, the University of Leicester team worked with Northumbria University, The Royal London Hospital Museum, and Northamptonshire Police in solving the riddle. The key to finding an answer would be to get enough mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the sample to form a profile to compare with the Hall family’s mtDNA. “Fortunately, the scientists obtained a full single male mtDNA profile from the slide to compare to the family,” a spokeswoman for the team said.

A result has been reached, but the answer will only be revealed to Ms. Hall and her family on the BBC’s television program The One Show on a date yet to be announced. We are keen to find out the answer, but I think it is quite the clue that they have produced a television show around revealing it!

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April 23rd, 2014

Sifting Through City Directories to Find Your Urban Ancestor

The United States grew rapidly from a colonial society of farms and villages to a nation of massive urban centers. Many new immigrants congregated in seaports along the Atlantic coast, and the largest of those towns often became centers of commerce and government. The wealth of these cities attracted a constant influx of immigrants, as many became hubs of industry such as shipbuilding, manufacturing, or milling. If your ancestor went to where the money was, you might be able to find out about them in a city directory.

Placing an ancestor in a particular time or place is invaluable to a genealogist, and city directories can accomplish that. There is much more information they can provide however, and they shouldn’t be overlooked as a go-to genealogical resource. They can inform us of where our ancestor worked, where they worked, and sometimes even identify vital events like death or marriage, as well as migrations. City directories also give valuable insight into a community, sometimes providing information about the schools, hospitals, churches, cemeteries, associations, clubs, societies, and organizations in particular neighbourhoods.

Those of us conducting research in urban areas are fortunate to have such a valuable, extra resource, especially one that can be so forthcoming with genealogical data. Some of the particular information you can find in them are;

  • Name and occupation of head of household
  • Name of spouse (usually listed in parentheses after the name of husband)
  • Names of children, usually only those working outside the home
  • Street name and house number of residence
  • Occupation of head of household
  • Work address

Where to Locate City Directories

Most state archives and libraries have original directories as well as city directories on microfilm. State and local historical and genealogical societies are also an excellent place to look, especially those that have libraries and cover a particular location. National and major regional libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. also have large collections of city directories. The American Antiquarian Society also maintains vast collections of microfilmed city directories, for many locations across the United States.

More and more city directories are being digitized and made available online every day; the Library of Congress collection for instance now contains over 12,000 directories from across America. Two other website that are useful are Online Historical Directories which contains a listing of every available online historical directory in the United States as well as some international listings, and US City Directories which identifies printed, microfilmed, and online United States city directories and their repositories.

For city directories in the United Kingdom, the University of Leicester in England, offers an excellent collection of digitized local and trade directories for England and Wales for the period 1750–1919 on their website, the Historical Directories Searchable Library.

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April 16th, 2014

Shameful Staff Destroy Over 1,800 Military Records of Veterans

With all of the tireless volunteers around the world striving to find and preserve genealogical records, it is heartbreaking to discover that employees of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis consider genealogical records nothing more than trash to be discarded in order to receive an incentive bonus. That’s right, rather than making an effort to file the records quickly and efficiently to earn their bonus, several employees of the Center have admitted to destroying them instead.

The National Personnel Records Center is the repository for millions of health, medical, and personnel, records of deceased and discharged veterans of all service branches during the 20th century. The Center also houses and manages the records of dependents and others who have been treated at medical facilities operated by the US military.

It was discovered last year that two employees, Stanley Engram, 21, and Lonnie Halkmon, 28, were responsible for deliberately misfiling or destroying more than 1,800 records. The situation was discovered after an audit was conducted on the records filed by employees at the Center during 2011 and 2012. Most employees had an error rate of approximately 3%, however a half dozen had disproportionately high error levels, Engram and Halkmon the worst. An investigation by the state revealed that employees were destroying the records, or stashing them in order to increase their productivity levels in order to receive bonuses.

The audit and investigation began after 241 records were found in the woods near the Center. The Social Security numbers on the documents traced the records back to Engram who admitted he had disposed of the records in the forest, and had destroyed some at his home as well. In total he told investigators that he had destroyed or misfiling more than 1,000 of the valuable military documents himself. Both individuals pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of destruction of government records and on Thursday, January 30, 2014, Lonnie Halkmon was given a sentence of two years of probation and 40 hours of community service. Engram had pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.

Many feel the sentence handed down to Halkmon was too light, especially by those who are researching their ancestry. One reader on the website of Jonathan Hurley, a nationally recognized legal scholar, commented, “To read that someone would destroy and stash records that some families have been searching for is disturbing. I do think these defendants were undercharged. They may have wittingly or unwittingly robbed many families of a history of their loved ones that they may not be able to recover.”

It really is incredibly that someone could willfully destroy government properly and get a slap on the wrist. What do you think? Was the sentence handed down by U.S. Magistrate Judge Nanette Baker too lenient? Feel free to leave a comment below, and if you would like to see what others are saying, you can visit the Jonathan Hurley Blog.

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April 9th, 2014

Two Ways to Your Family History Online

Once you know how and where to find information online and to get in contact with other researchers, it’s time to take a more active role in genealogy by publishing your own information for other researchers to share. Some of the ways you can accomplish this are by using newsgroups, forums, or message boards, but those basic methods are limited and can only offer basic information. The alternative is to publish your family history online.

Your Publishing Options
The choice of how to publish your family history online really rests between two options; creating your own website, or submitting your pedigree to an online database. Each has its own benefits, and if you have the technical skills, creating your own website can be fun and fulfilling. But not everyone has the technical knowledge necessary or the aptitude to create their own website, for them submitting their pedigree to a database might be a better choice. Let’s have a quick look at the advantages and disadvantages of both options.

Submitting to an Online Pedigree Database
This is a very fast way of getting your pedigree published online, and will also gain your pedigree exposure to a wide audience. There is a constant flow of visitors to these websites and it is a great way to make genealogical contacts as well. On the other hand, because your data will be held in a database that is only searchable through the particular website hosting it, your information will not be available to anyone making a general search of the internet. Your data can only be searched on the website hosting it, and with their search facilities. Also, your ability to add any new material that you may obtain from sources outside your existing database will be limited or in some cases impossible.

There is also the possibility that you may need to give up some of the rights of ownership of your material, so make sure if submitting to a pedigree database that you thoroughly read their terms and conditions. For no reason should you allow the disadvantages of submitting to a pedigree database to dissuade you from using that method. As long as you are clear on the terms and conditions it is an effective way to publish your family tree. But, you may want to consider building your own website as well.

Your Own Website
This option may be a bit intimidating if you don’t have the technical knowledge or time to invest in it, but there are certain advantages to going this route. They are:

  • Submitting your data to your own site is almost as easy as submitting it to an online database
  • You are able to material from outside sources
  • You can add your own images and scanned documents
  • Your pedigree can be found by anybody searching the internet for information on your pedigree
  • You maintain complete ownership rights to your material

Building your own website is very muck akin to creating a picture of your life online. You can do it at as leisurely or as fast a pace as you want, and also make it as detailed as you desire. There are a few issues to be aware of however, when building and publishing your own site. The first is; if you build your website of free web space by one provider and later switch to another, you’ll have to inform all of the search engines and anyone who has linked to your site. This could get a bit messy and complicated, so consider your options carefully. You’ll also need to learn how to create web pages if you want to add additional information rather than just displaying your family tree. It’s worth the effort however, and once you’ve learned you can create a website that is both informative and attractive.

Building your own website is the way to go if you want to share your information with other genealogists. After all, that is how most of the information is displayed on the internet. Whichever option you decide to go with, one thing to be careful of is posting information about living people. Even though they are your relatives, privacy issues are involved and you’ll want to have permission in writing form any living relatives you share info on.

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April 2nd, 2014

Hitting on Those Hard to Find Clues in Obituaries

Obituaries are one of the first resources that budding genealogists consult when setting out on the journey to discover their ancestral roots. Most however limit themselves to the actual printed matter and don’t glean all of the possible information they could, or spot the hidden clues that an obituary contains. There is much more to an obituary than merely finding the names of ancestors that are written within it; there are genealogical stones to be turned over that can reveal much more than might be indicated on the surface!

How to Spot Genealogy Clues
The name of the deceased and their survivors, as well as name places and dates are the obvious genealogical data that you can get from an obituary. Within the accompanying data however, there are genealogical clues that can lead you further in tracing your family tree. Let’s take an example of an obituary for a woman who died in El Paso, Texas. In addition to her personal data, the obituary also contains information such as; she was single, her parents founded and operated a small city hotel, she was a school counsellor, she was stationed at El Paso High School, the names of five surviving relatives, the name of a special friend, and where the funeral will take place.

Can you spot any of the clues that might lead you to other ancestors? One would be the hotel founded by her parents. You could check business and employment records to check for other family members that may have been involved in what was most likely a family business. You would also want to check census records and city directories for the names of those surviving relatives mentioned; most likely some will have a spouse, children, or even grandchildren that aren’t mentioned. You might also want to look into the name of the special friend. Who were they, and why were they special to the deceased?

Obituaries – Much More Than Just Death Notices
The first thing we associate with an obituary is the death of someone. Many people even call them death notices. They are much more than that however, as many provide a mini-biographical sketch of the individual. Some obituaries can even be as long as an entire newspaper page, revealing almost a complete life’s history. Most newspaper obituaries are not that long, in fact, sometimes there is no obituary for a person. In such a case, you can check other sections in the newspaper that may document the death.

You might find information on your ancestor in an article; especially if they’re death was accidental, a funeral notice, a thank you note from the family, or even in the legal section. Notices of claims against a deceased person’s estate are printed in local newspapers so that creditors may claim against the estate if they were owed money at the time of death. In the case of accidental death, or if a person died in suspicious circumstances, a coroner’s report or court records may exist.

Expand Your Search
If you know the death date of the ancestor you are researching, that is a good place to begin. Don’t limit yourself to that date though, as obituaries are normally printed at least a day or two after the event. Even after finding the obituary, expand your research to a week or two on either side of the death date. In old newspapers, especially in small communities, they would sometimes print the names of those who were sick, and occasionally print the street addresses as well.

Obituaries are a good genealogical resource with which to “get your feet wet.” Don’t let their simplicity fool you though, look for those hidden clues that may take you further in your quest for other ancestors. As always, keep in mind that obituaries are secondary sources of genealogical data, and you will have to find primary source data to confirm any information you glean from them.

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