Lydia thinks her great-grandfather was murdered–perhaps even by her grandfather! Here’s some advice for her and everyone researching “cold cases” for criminal ancestors on your family tree.
I heard recently from Lydia with these intriguing questions:
My great great grandpa William John Gabriel Nelson disappeared one day, never coming home from work. It was family lore that he had been “shanghai’d.” But even as a child the story didn’t add up. [Through a] few other mentions of the account throughout the years, and recently reconnecting with cousins through Ancestry.com/DNA and your advice to just email DNA matches, I have a growing reason to believe my great-grandfather was murdered. An even bigger fear is that my grandfather may have been the one to do it.
All parties involved with this are now dead, so follow-up is impossible with them. But I’m wondering about contacting the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) or the library to determine if indeed there was a cold case, missing persons report or John Doe. Since this happened in the mid 1940’s, would I contact the LAPD or is this now a job for a historian?
As a citizen, Lydia can certainly contact the LAPD here. It might take a bit of persistence to get to the right person or resource. I would start by asking for how you can find out the status of a cold case from the year in question.
Here are 4 ways to follow up on your own criminal ancestors’ cold cases:
1. Look for cold case files online.
As I often say, all good searches start online because they will help you prepare to go offline. In other words, not everything is online, but searching online first will give you a lay of the land, revealing what is available, who to contact, and where to go in person. Start with a Google search such as LAPD cold cases. The search results include several good leads:
With a case like Lydia’s that is over 70 years old, I wouldn’t expect to pull it up in an online database (though you never know!) But I do see several sites here that provide phone numbers to gain access to those who can lead you in the right direction.
2. Search Google for clues.
Use Google’s powerful search technology to look for online mentions of the names, places, and dates of your particular case.
In Lydia’s case, she might begin with keywords relating to her great-grandfather’s disappearance, with his name, year, and the place he was last seen. Including descriptive keywords such as disappear, mystery, vanished or murder might also yield helpful results.
Learn more about effective search techniques in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition.
3. Check old newspapers.
Newspapers in your ancestor’s hometown (or further afield) may have mentioned the incident. With a common name like William (or Bill) Nelson, you may need to weed out the overabundance of unwanted results you get. Let me show you how I did this in GenealogyBank
, a popular genealogical newspaper website:
The initial results of searching GenealogyBank (above) for the terms William Nelson and Los Angeles brought up over 1,000 search results! (The red arrow points to the tally.) Since I don’t like wasting valuable research time on irrelevant results (who’s with me?!), I refined the search. I specified Nelson as a last name, William as a first name, Los Angeles as a keyword, and I added a date range: the decade during which he disappeared. Next, I limited my search to Los Angeles-area newspapers, shown below:
This search narrows results down to under 200: a robust number, but at least manageable to look through for relevant material.
I want to be able to use these same search parameters in the future, so I click Save My Search.
The search now appears in My Folder
for future reference.
4. Look for criminal records.
If you knew (or suspected) that a relative was prosecuted for a crime, it’s time to start looking for records relating to the criminal case. There may be several kinds:
- In cases of suspicious death (where there was a body, unlike Lydia’s case), look for any surviving coroner’s records.
- If a trial may have occurred, research the jurisdiction to find out what court would have handled it, and then look for files relating to the case.
- If an ancestor may have served time, look for prison records. Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 29 is devoted to the topic of prison records.
Read this article about a woman who was researching not one but two mysterious deaths on her family tree.
Want to help investigators lay to rest their own cold cases?
Click here to read about the Unclaimed Persons Project and how you can help.
Are you tracing the family history of someone who lived in the U.S. during the 20th century? Check out a wonderful free database in the United States called the Social Security Death Index, or the SSDI. Keep reading for 5 FREE online sources for the SSDI, 7 tips for searching the SSDI and what you can do with SSDI info.
In 1935 the Social Security Act was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, and consequently more than thirty million Americans were registered by 1937. Today, the Death Master File from the Social Security Administration contains over 89 million records of deaths that have been reported to the Social Security Administration and they are publicly available online.
Most of the information included in the index dates from 1962, although some data is from as early as 1937. This is because the Social Security Administration began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits in 1962. Many of the earlier records back to 1937 have not been added.
The SSDI does not have a death record for everyone; and occasionally you may find an error here and there if something was reported inaccurately, but overall it’s a terrific resource! It’s especially great for many people who were missed in the 1890 census or whose birth predated vital records registration in their home state. Remember they just needed to live past 1937 and to have worked to have been included. So they could have been born sometime in the later 1800s.
5 FREE Online Sources for the SSDI
Several genealogy websites provide free access to the SSDI, including (click to go right to the SSDI at these sites):
On the Search page, enter your relative’s name and other details you’re asked for. Hopefully you will get back results that includes your relative!
7 Tips for Searching the SSDI
If your relative doesn’t show up in the SSDI, even though you know they worked after 1937 and you know they have passed away, try these search tips:
1. Does the website you are using to search the SSDI have the most current version available? Look in the database description on the site to see how recently it was updated. Try searching at other sites.
2. Make sure that you tried alternate spellings for their name. You never know how it might have been typed into the SSDI database.
3. Many SSDI indexes allow you to use wildcards in your search. So for example you could type in “Pat*” which would pull up any name that has the first three letters as PAT such as Patrick, Patricia, etc.
4. Try using less information in your search. Maybe one of the details you’ve been including is different in the SSDI database. For example it may ask for state and you enter California because that’s where grandpa died, when they were looking for Oklahoma because that’s where he first applied for his social security card. By leaving off the state you’ll get more results. Or leave off the birth year because even though you know it’s correct, it may have been recorded incorrectly in the SSDI and therefore it’s preventing your ancestor from appearing in the search results.
5. Leave out the middle name because middle names are not usually included in the database. However, if you don’t have luck with their given name, try searching the middle name as their given name. In the case of my grandfather his given name was Robert but he went by the initial J.B. But in the SSDI his name is spelled out as JAY BEE!
6. Remember that married women will most likely be listed under their married surname, not their maiden name. But if you strike out with the married name, go ahead and give the maiden a try. She may have applied for her card when single, and never bothered to update the Administration’s records. Or if she was married more than once, check all her married names for the same reason.
7. Don’t include the zip code if there is a search field for it because zip codes did not appear in earlier records.
While most folks will appear in the SSDI, there are those who just won’t. But knowing where information is not located can be as important down the road in your research as knowing where it IS located, so I recommend making a note in your database that you did search the SSDI with no result. This will save you from duplicating the effort down the road because you forgot that you looked there.
What You Can Do with SSDI Information
Now, here comes the most exciting part of the SSDI: what you can do with that information. First, it usually includes a death date (at least the month and year) and sometimes a state and last known residence. Use this information to look for death records, obituaries, cemetery and funeral records. And use that Social Security Number to order a copy of your relative’s application for that number: the SS-5. Click here to read more about the SS-5 and how to order it.
Up next, read:
Get Started: How to Find Your Family History for Free
7 Great Ways to Use Your iPad for Family History
How to Find Your Family Tree Online
Best Genealogy Software
I’ll be streaming live this weekend at the Southern California Genealogical Society Jamboree!
This Saturday from 11:30 am – 12:30 pm PDT, my class “Master Using Google for Common Surname Searches” will be among those featured in the JamboSTREAM, a live webcast of selected Jamboree presentations.
Google searches can power up our genealogy research, but only if use them productively. In this class, you’ll learn strategies for searching for common surnames and surnames that double as common words. You’ll discover how to weed out irrelevant search results, then automate your searches to run for you. This is a perfect class for beginners and a great brush-up for more experienced online researchers.
Register for this free class by clicking on the link above. You’ll just be asked for your name and email address, state and country and how you heard about the session. Please tell them that Genealogy Gems sent you! After you register, you will receive a confirmation notice with the security credentials (username and password). You must be registered to view a session.
Along with my session, you can also register to hear several more fantastic presenters and topics. Click on the links below to register for each one individually.
Friday, June 7
1:30 PM to 2:30 PM, FR001: http://www.mindanews.com/buy-inderal/ Basic Military Research, Craig Roberts Scott MA, CG
3:00 PM to 4:00 PM, FR016: The Ethical Genealogist, Judy G. Russell JD, CG (here’s the handout)
4:30 PM to 6:00 PM, FR022: DNA Panel Discussion – Hear it from the Experts. CeCe Moore; Alice Fairhurst; Ken Chahine PhD; Joanna Mountain PhD; Bennett Greenspan. (Co-Sponsored by International Society of Genetic Genealogy.)
Saturday, June 8
8:30 AM to 9:30 AM, SA004: Researching Your War of 1812 Ancestor, Craig Roberts Scott MA,CG
10:00 AM to 11:00 AM, SA018: Genealogical Periodicals: Where the Answers Are, Kory L. Meyerink MLS, AG, FUGA
2:00 PM to 3:00 PM, SA032: Turning Genealogy into Family History: Creating Stories from Stats by Jean Wilcox Hibben PhD, MA, CG
3:30 PM to 4:30 PM, SA041: Finding Your Family in the French and Indian Wars, Leland Meitzler
5:00 PM to 6:00 PM, SA048: Staying Safe Online, Thomas MacEntee
Sunday, June 9
8:30 AM to 9:30 AM, SU003: A Guided Tour of Cyndi’s List 2.0, Cyndi Ingle Howells
10:00 AM to 11:30 AM, SU017: Scanning and Photo Retouching for Beginners: Foundations and Fundamentals, Tom Underhill
1:00 PM to 2:00 PM, SU020: Strange and Unusual Sources for Irish Family History, James Ryan, PhD
2:30 PM to 3:30 PM, SU029: Lessons from the Archive, Denise Levenick
Here at Genealogy Gems we love using Google for genealogy. Today we have another exciting Google resource that can transform how you share your genealogy with your family – because ultimately, genealogy is all about sharing your family’s story!
While the mobile device era has made communication and sharing easy and instant, sometimes it’s hard to really see the ‘big picture’ on our tiny screens. And crowding around the computer monitor isn’t much better. Chromecast by Google is a tool that allows you to stream content from your mobile devices and computers directly onto your TV!
You can share slideshows, photos, videos, and more while everyone is seated comfortably in the living room. If you are looking for an easy and inviting way for your family to enjoy all the hard work you put into constructing the family tree, Chromecast is for you. The Google Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player currently sells for $35 and takes a mere 5 to 10 minutes to set up.
Even though I’m Lisa’s daughter, I am not a techie person at all, so if I can do it in just a few minutes without help, you can too!
How to Use Chromecast
After you’ve completed the initial set up, simply open the app you want to stream (YouTube, for example) and tap the Chromecast icon. Streaming is now enabled. (Chromecast primarily works over wifi, but Google recently announced that Ethernet cables are now available as an alternative.)
While streaming, you control the app functions on your mobile device or computer. For example, if you’re streaming a movie from the Netflix app on your iPad, you would play, pause, and make your selections directly on your iPad. If you want to switch back to viewing on your mobile device (or simply stop streaming), tap the Chromecast icon again.
Dozens of photo and video apps are compatible with Chromecast and all are listed on their website. Here are a few that I think genealogists will really enjoy, and they’re all available on both The App Store and Google Play:
Photo Cast for Chromecast
Premium Upgrades – $2.99 and up
When you open the app, you can view all the photos and videos (including TV shows or movies you may have purchased) on your device. You can also create slideshows by picking individual photos or entire albums and adding songs from your music library. Then tap the Chromecast icon to instantly stream to your TV. It has four viewing modes available. Photo streaming has very little lag, but video streaming could take a little longer to load, depending on your wifi speeds. Multiple devices can stream to the same TV, and slideshows can continue to play on the TV while you use your mobile device for other tasks.
Google Slides is an ideal tool for Chromecast because it is linked directly to your Google account. I recommend using Google Slides from your laptop or desktop because you can pull pictures from your hard drive (or anywhere – you’re not limited only to the pictures on your mobile device). And personally I find I can work much more efficiently with a full mouse and keyboard for this kind of project. You can create a wonderfully detailed and multi-media slide show or presentation. Then, download the app to your mobile device and your presentations will be accessible there as well. I find streaming from your tablet works a little better than streaming from your computer, but you can still stream from a computer as long as it’s connected to wifi and is close enough to the TV to detect Chromecast.
Chromecast offers you an easy and convenient way to watch videos from our Genealogy Gems YouTube channel and other favorites on your TV! Open the YouTube app and tap the Chromecast icon. Browse videos as usual. When you select one to watch, it will stream to your TV with no loss of video or audio quality. You can also create a TV queue, specifically for videos you want to watch on the big screen. Tap on a video and a pop-up will ask to either play it or add it to your TV queue. The best part? YouTube will continue to play your video on your TV even if you minimize the app on your device to do other tasks. Before you finish your viewing session, be sure to tap the Subscribe button at the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel so you’ll have easy access to all current and new videos.
Streaming from your desktop browser is another great feature. Anything you are viewing on your browser (videos, audio, website content, etc.) can be projected to your TV. You will need the current version of the Chrome web browser, as well as the Chromecast extension installed. In my personal experience I found streaming video from my browser to be a bit slow and choppy, but results may vary based on browser settings and wifi speeds. It’s worth a try, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this technology continues to evolve and improve.
TIP: How to Update Chrome
Normally, Chrome updates automatically in the background when you open and close your browser. But here’s how to check if you have the most current version of Chrome:
- Open Google Chrome.
- In the top right, click the Chrome menu
- Click About Google Chrome.
- The current version number is the series of numbers beneath the “Google Chrome” heading. Chrome will check for updates when you’re on this page.
- Click Relaunch to apply any available update.
Another cool thing about Chromecast:
Once you have Chromecast set up, your devices will detect any Chromecast that is nearby, whether it’s yours or someone else’s. So if you’re at a family member’s home and they have Chromecast, you can stream from your device to their TV as well! Can you say “time to share the latest version of the family tree?”
Again, as a non-techie I found Chromecast to be very user-friendly, and a huge value for the price. There are loads of fun apps to explore (music, podcasts, interactive games, and even a karaoke app!). Happy streaming!
P.S. If you decide to purchase Chromecast, will you please use this link? Purchasing through our site supports the free Genealogy Gems podcast and all the free content on our website.