Got Criminal Ancestors? How to Investigate Their Crimes

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.

Cold Case investigate your ancestor criminals

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:

cold case search

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.

Google Drive and other tipsUse 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:
genealogybank initial search
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:
genealogybank refine search
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.
newspaper research at GenealogyBank

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.

 

Get inspired!

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.

Unclaimed Persons Project

Find Undiscovered Treasures at Ancestry.com: Expert Tips

Ancestry.com is packed with all kinds of mostly-undiscovered genealogical treasures, and some of them you’ll never find from a search box.

Here, expert Nancy Hendrickson shares some favorite treasures, tips for finding those treasures, and helpful reminders for improving your genealogy research.

how to find records at ancestry

(We provide links for your convenience to the various online resources and some may be affiliate links for which we receive compensation at no additional expense to you. Thank you for your support.) 

Ancestry.com is a “genealogy giant:” one of the four biggest global records resources. Whether you subscribe or have free access through your local library or Family History Center, you should not miss exploring this website for your family history.

Ancestry is also a financial investment. If you’ve been using the site for quite a while, you may be wondering if you are really getting all you can out of it’s vast genealogical record collections and many research tools.

Nancy Hendrickson, the author of The Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com and the Unofficial Ancestry.com Workbook: A How-To Manual for Tracing Your Family Tree on the #1 Genealogy Website knows the website inside and out. Today she’s sharing four great tips for taking your research to the next level. In addition, we’ve added in some examples and additional things to consider. So let’s get started using Ancestry more effectively.

nancy henrickson author of Ancestry.com workbook

Nancy Henrickson, author of the Unofficial Ancestry.com Workbook

4 Tips for Using Ancestry.com More Effectively

1. Verify what you learn.

Any single record can be wrong, incomplete, or misread by you or by the person how indexed it. Double check the assertions made in the record by looking for that same information in additional sources. Be careful to make sure your sources weren’t getting their information from the same person or place. Otherwise, they’ll naturally say the same thing!

Nobody wants to discover conflicting information, of course. But you do want to know if something is inaccurate before it leads you down a wrong research path.

The best thing about verifying facts in additional sources is that sometimes you find NEW or BETTER information such as:

  • parents’ names,
  • a middle name that proves key to someone’s identity,
  • or a burial place.

For example, let’s say you find an ancestor’s death date in the Social Security Death Index. While it’s a great source, don’t stop there!

Like any record, the SSDI is sometimes wrong and the information it contains is definitely limited. Use the Ancestry.com Card Catalog to see what records about death may be on the site for that time and place. You’ll find the Card Catalog under Search in the main menu. 

Ancestry Card Catalog

Ancestry Card Catalog

Use the filters on the left side to drill down to death records for the location you want. Remember that records collections have been created on a specific geographical level: try local, regional (such as state or province) as well as national levels.

Using the Card Catalog search filters

2. Don’t just repeat what other people’s trees say.

Seeing the same information over and over can provide a false sense of accuracy. Remember, just because seven different online trees name the same parents for one of your ancestors doesn’t mean those are the correct parents. Those Ancestry users may all be misquoting the same wrong source without actually verifying the information! 

You often come across likely matches in others’ trees when you review Ancestry’s automated “leaf” hints, or when you run a general search on a name. When you do, it’s simply an indication that the tree may be worth exploring. Here’s an example:

Exploring Ancestry Hints

Let’s take a closer look at this example.

The purple arrows: You can see that multiple pieces of very specific information are the same on your tree and another one.

The red arrow: You see sources attached to that person’s profile, such as the news article thumbnail image. (Note the difference with the record shown below, with just an empty profile image.) Yes, you will definitely want to review that news article!

The blue arrow: In addition to either of the above, you also see specific information that is unknown to you.

This tree profile looks promising enough you might naturally consider reviewing the tree hint and attaching it to yours. But then you wouldn’t be able to see the news article or other sources attached to that tree.

Instead, click the checkbox and then click the name of the tree to look at it and its attached sources:

Select the tree to review it more closely.

Then you’ll be able to check out the news article along with the other sources and records attached to this person’s profile. You won’t just see what that person thinks about your common ancestor – you’ll see evidence of why she thinks it.

3. Ancestry.com has more than indexed historical documents.

Nancy reminds us that “Ancestry.com is a fantastic resource for old maps, stories, photos, published county histories, and more. For example, looking at the old maps in their collections can reveal the true nature of an ancestor’s daily life, hardships, travels, and more. And your chance of finding early American ancestors is high in county histories: there were fewer people and early settlers were talked about, even if the family wasn’t wealthy or prominent.”

Here are some of Nancy’s favorite collections at Ancestry:

U.S., Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918

This collection includes nearly 7 million records extracted from about 1,200 county and land ownership maps from across the country. These are indexed by property owners’ names.

According to the collection description, “They also indicate township and county boundaries and can include photos of county officers, landholders, and some buildings and homes.”

Shenandoah Counties, Virginia - included in U.S., Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918

Example: Shenandoah Counties, Virginia – included in U.S., Indexed County Land Ownership Maps, 1860-1918

U.S., County and Regional Histories and Atlases, 1804-1984

This is a browse-only collection of “more than 2,200 volumes of county and regional histories from California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

An Illustrated Historical Atlas of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, 1878 in the U.S., County and Regional Histories and Atlases, 1804-1984 collection

An Illustrated Historical Atlas of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, 1878 in the U.S., County and Regional Histories and Atlases, 1804-1984 collection

In them you’ll find history, biographical sketches, maps, business notices, statistics and population numbers, pictures, descriptions of industry and business, stories of early settlement and pioneers, colleges and universities, military history, geography, and plenty of other details.”

Reminder: you can’t search this database by an ancestor’s name. Instead, look for places, and then start reading.

Historic Land Ownership and Reference Atlases, 1507-2000 

A collection of maps and atlases detailing land areas that comprise the present-day United States and Canada, as well as various other parts of the world. It contains a variety of maps and atlases created for different scopes and purposes, including land ownership atlases and bird’s-eye view maps.

Warrant Plan Records in the Historic Land Ownership and Reference Atlases, 1507-2000 Collection at Ancestry

Warrant Plan Records in the Historic Land Ownership and Reference Atlases, 1507-2000 Collection at Ancestry

Land ownership atlases usually show the names of contemporary owners or occupants of land and structures.

Some of the maps depict countries and wider geographical areas, while others depict counties, cities, towns, and smaller geographical areas.

4. Expand your search to the other Ancestry resources on the Web

Ancestry owns a lot of other web resources. Search these too! 

Nancy says, “They include Find A Grave, Fold3, and RootsWeb, one of the oldest online genealogy communities around. Don’t give up! Keep looking in other places for the information you want to find.”

Find A Grave

Search results from Ancestry.com do include Find A Grave entries. Many of these contain additional information about the deceased and links to their relatives. As always, be sure to confirm the information you find here.

Fold3

Fold3 is home to millions of U.S. military records. Ancestry.com subscribers can upgrade their subscription to include Fold3 access, or you can subscribe separately.

RootsWeb

RootsWeb is a free and long-lived family history web resource, now hosted by Ancestry.

“The primary purpose and function of RootsWeb.com is to connect people so that they can help each other and share genealogical research,” says the site. “Most resources on RootsWeb.com are designed to facilitate such connections.” You can use RootsWeb in a variety of ways: search it, contribute records, upload your family tree, post your family surnames on a board others can see, and more.

Ancestry has changed one of the ways RootsWeb users have traditionally connected: Mailing Lists. According to the website:

“Beginning March 2nd, 2020 the Mailing Lists functionality on RootsWeb will be discontinued. Users will no longer be able to send outgoing emails or accept incoming emails.  Additionally, administration tools will no longer be available to list administrators and mailing lists will be put into an archival state. Administrators may save the email addresses in their list prior to March 2nd. After that, mailing list archives will remain available and searchable on RootsWeb. As an alternative to RootsWeb Mailing Lists, Ancestry message boards are a great option to network with others in the genealogy community. Message boards are available for free with an Ancestry registered account.”

Learn More about Using Ancestry

Nancy Hendrickson’s Book

Nancy shares many more Ancestry tips and treasures in her Unofficial Ancestry.com Workbook. To get the most out of this book read the section on using the Ancestry.com Catalog. Nancy does 95% of her research in the catalog. The workbook is divided into topics, such as military records, so choose a chapter that fits your current goals. It’s also important to not just read the workbook, but also do the exercises. They teach you Nancy’s thought processes for how she finds specific answers or approaches certain types of problems. Then you can apply the same concepts to your own research. Don’t miss the chapter on social history. That’s where you’ll dig into everyday life. And finally, take advantage of the forms that are included. They will help you log your findings and analyze what you’ve learned.

Genealogy Gems Article

Browse-only collections at Ancestry and other genealogy websites are sometimes viewed as inaccessible, but they are actually a hidden treasure. Click here to read How to Find and Browse Unindexed Records at Ancestry – The Better Browsing Checklist. In this article you’ll learn how to access these browse-only collections at Ancestry and expand your family history research.

better browsing ancestry checklist

Read this article by Lisa Louise Cooke at Genealogy Gems

Help Curate Holocaust Newspaper Articles: Volunteers Needed

Looking for an easy way to make a big difference? Help collect Holocaust newspaper articles printed in your local newspapers for the History Unfolded project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Do it on your own, or with your local genealogical or historical society!

Jewish genealogy

The following article came to us via Newspapers.com:

What is History Unfolded? History Unfolded is a project that seeks to expand our knowledge of how American newspapers reported on Nazi persecution during the 1930s and ’40s so we can better understand what Americans knew about the Holocaust as it was happening.

To help achieve this, the History Unfolded project asks people like you to search local newspapers from the 1930s and ’40s for Holocaust-related news and opinions and then submit them online to the museum. The newspaper articles you submit will be used to help shape the museum’s 2018 exhibit on Americans and the Holocaust and related educational materials. The articles will also be made available to scholars, historians, and the public.

Who Can Contribute? Everyone! History buffs, students, teachers (with) an interest in the Holocaust and access to a newspaper from the 1930s or ’40s, either online (using Newspapers.com, for example) or through a physical archive, such as a library. Simply create an account with History Unfolded (to get started.)

How Do I Contribute? History Unfolded has created a list of more than 30 Holocaust-related events to focus on. Choose one of these events to research, then search for content related to that topic in an American newspaper of your choice from the 1930s or ’40s. After you find an article related to one of the events, submit it online to the museum through the project’s website.

History unfolded Holocaust ProjectNewspapers.com and History Unfolded You can contribute to this important project whether or not you use Newspapers.com to do so. But using Newspapers.com makes it even easier to submit the articles you find. Simply use Newspapers.com to create a clipping of an article you’ve found, then submit that clipping through the submission form on the History Unfolded website. The submission form has a special tool created specifically for Newspapers.com users that makes submitting your clipping a snap.

Your help with this project will help shape our understanding of the Holocaust and the lessons it holds for us today. For more information on how to get involved, visit the History Unfolded website.

Get involved! Click here to read about more ways to volunteer in our global genealogy community. Your efforts make a huge difference.

Thousands of Irish Genealogy Records New This Week!

 If you’re looking for Irish ancestors, you’ll be delighted by all the new Irish record collections added this week! Also in this week’s new and updated record collections are court records and newspapers for Australia, parish records and more for England, millions of new Dutch records, South African probate records, and digitized newspapers across the United States. 

Irish genealogy records

Irish Genealogy: Thousands of New Records

If you have ancestors from Ireland who received an army pension between 1724 and 1924, you’ll want to explore Fold3’s new collection of Royal Hospital Kilmainham Pensioner Discharge Documents. This collection is made up of certificates of pensioners of the Royal Kilmainham Hospital in Ireland. According to the collection: “For each record, details given include, where available: a brief description of the pensioner together with age, place of birth, particulars of service and the reason for discharge.”

New this week at Findmypast are Dublin Electoral Rolls. This new collection contains more than 427,000 transcripts and pertains to eligible voters located in the city of Dublin between 1908 and 1915. (FYI: You can also search Dublin City Electoral Lists 1908-1915 and other records for free from the Dublin City Council’s Civil Records webpage.)

Lastly, Irish records got a big update over at the Irish Genealogical Research Society (IGRS): 5,000 records have been added to IGRS’s Early Irish Birth, Marriage, and Death Indexes. This brings their total number of names to almost 260,000. From the announcement: “This particular update draws from a range material: surviving 19th century census records; marriage licence indexes; pre-1922 abstracts from exchequer and chancery court records; memorial inscriptions; biographical notices from newspapers; a large number of long forgotten published works on particular families and places; and memorials from Ireland’s Registry of Deeds.”

New Resources for Australia

A fascinating new free website, Tracing London Convicts in Britain & Australia, 1780-1925 allows “genealogists and family historians to discover the fate of ancestors convicted of crimes and transported overseas.” This new website allows you to search millions of records from around fifty data sets, relating to the lives of 90,000 convicts from the Old Bailey. Pictured right: Lydia Lloyd, a Victorian era convict. (Image: The National Archives UK ref. PCOM4/71/6 (image 00001))

From the State Library of New South Wales Australia: The Lone Hand (1907-1921) newspaper has been digitized and made available through Trove. “Modelled on the London Strand and founded by J.F. Archibald and Frank Fox, The Lone Hand was a monthly magazine of literature and poetry, with illustrations by significant Australian artists of the time.”

England: Parish & Court Records

Ancestry.com has two new collections this week for England. Staffordshire Extracted Church of England Parish Records, 1538-1839 includes records for baptisms/christenings, burials, marriages, tombstone inscriptions, obituaries, tax lists, wills, and other miscellaneous types of records for Staffordshire, England. Also included are some records from non-conformist churches. Extracted Parish and Court Records, 1399-1795 is a collection of historical parish registers throughout England.

Also new for England, TheGenealogist has added over 1.1 million individuals to its Sussex County parish record collection. This update includes 717,000 baptisms, 213,000 marriages, and 208,000 burials.

Over at Newspapers.com, The Atlas newspaper has now been digitized. The London area paper operated from 1826 to 1869, and comprised a mixture of national and international social and political news, along with literary, theater, and music reviews. Another new newspaper available online is The Worthington Herald, from 1920-1959 in Worthington, West Sussex, England.

Millions of Dutch Records

FamilySearch has recently published millions of Dutch records (51 million to be exact) from the Netherlands, making it easier than ever to trace your Dutch roots. These new records have increased FamilySearch’s collection of Dutch names from 4,074,736 to over 55 million. From the collection description: “Archives around the Netherlands have contributed indexes which cover many record sources, such as civil registration, church records, emigration lists, military registers, and land and tax records.” Click here to search the collection.

South Africa Probate Records

New at FamilySearch: South Africa, Cape Province, Probate Records of the Master of the High Court, 1834-1989. This impressive collection is comprised of over 155,000 indexed records and 1.1 million digitized images! The original records are located in the Cape Archives Depot, Cape Town.

United States Newspapers

California. The Cal Poly University student newspaper has been digitized in honor of their 100 year celebration. 75,000 pages from 7,138 issues are now fully searchable online, thanks to optical character recognition (OCR) technology. Click here to explore the database.

North Carolina. Saint Mary’s Student School NewspaperThe Belles, is now online. Dating back to 1936 through 1995, the paper gives a good look into the viewpoint of North Carolina teen women over a 60 year period.

New Mexico. Now available at Newspapers.com is the Albuquerque Journalwith issues dating back to 1882. Almost 2 million pages are available to browse by date.

How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers

There’s a wealth of information about your ancestors in newspapers! Lisa’s book, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, provides you with a foolproof research process for discovering them, and is stuffed with everything you need for genealogical success. Available in both print and ebook formats, you’ll get step-by-step instructions, worksheets, tons of free online resources, case studies, and more!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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