Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

When bad news is good news for genealogists

Some of the saddest incidents and tragedies of life such as accidents, natural disasters, criminal acts, divorces, estate battles and a multitude of other bad news can be excellently good news for a genealogical researcher. This might occur when a formerly obscure relative suddenly makes the front page of the newspaper due to being arrested or when a family dispute ends up in court. The reason for the genealogists' glee in disaster is the existence of the records and the information about the family they might contain.

I have two rather interesting incidents in my own family. My Great-grandfather made the front page of the newspaper when he plead guilty to a polygamy charge. Here is a copy of the article in The Coconino sun. (Flagstaff, Ariz.), 18 Nov. 1905. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

You can click on the article to enlarge it. In another, more tragic newspaper article, I learned of the tragic death of a young relative to an apparent suicide and the huge attempts made to find and recover his body. 

Not only does the bad news add interest to a family narrative, the articles are important ways to establish a time line of family events or to explain otherwise mysterious behavior. But newspapers are not the only place bad news can help genealogical research. Information may be gained from court records, including claims for damages in a variety of courts. In the same vein, an otherwise very short and uninteresting probate file may turn into a wealth of information if the heirs decided to contest the proceedings. Laundering the family fight in public may just be the ticket the researcher needed to find the missing family members or resolve relationship issues. 

The real tragedy for the genealogist is when the researcher fails to make a complete search of these types of records and misses the entire opportunity to broaden the research. Obviously, one of the first places to look for trouble is in the newspaper, but court records, including criminal dockets, and other types of regulatory records help with the search also. For example, the category of Railway Accident Investigators in Wikipedia has a list of 32 different countries' investigation boards. Bad news certainly is not limited to the United States, although we do have our share. You might also want to do a search in the FamilySearch Research Wiki for accident or accidents and other similar words. You just might be pleasantly surprised at the results. 

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