A couple of months ago, when I was editing an article criminal ancestors for the forthcoming November 2009 Family Tree Magazine, I asked Family Tree Magazine E-mail Update newsletter readers about murders and other crimes in their family history.
Dozens of you responded with storiessome are fascinating (in a can’t-look-away kind of way), some are amusing (in a gallows-humor kind of way) and some are sad. Here’s a sampling of them:
- Carol Clemens’ family legend was that her great-grandfather Martin Franchetti was accidentally shot and killed by a stray bullet from a saloon brawl in 1902.
After finding references to seven newspaper articles within a couple of months, she discovered her ancestor was shot during an argument with a former boarder whod developed a crush on Franchettis wife. Clemens says help from the Schenectady County Clerks office was invaluable in locating the perpetrator’s criminal trial records.
- Cheri Adams couldnt find anything about her the family of her great-great-grandmothers second husband. A Google search brought up a New York Times article stating that the husband, Elijah Godfrey, was killed while handling dynamite in his cabin. Another article revealed that the medical examiner thought it was murder. It seems Elijah had been speaking with authorities regarding stills in the area,” writes Adams, “and undoubtedly due to his loose lips, the owners of the stills took revenge.
- Tom Neel of the Ohio Genealogical Society found an account in a 1915 county history about John Gately, his fourth-great-grandfather from North Carolina. Sometime after the year 1793, Gatelys father-in-law, thinking the younger man had stolen his money, killed him.
Neel found corroboration in court records while at this years National Genealogical Society conference in Raleigh, NC. Turns out the aging father-in-law had misplaced his stash.
- Domenic Parenty, great-grandfather to Janice Gianotti-Zakis, was “gunned down in the street, defending a woman” in Chicago in 1894. In 2002, she confirmed the story in police records from microfiche at Northeastern Illinois University. Now, her ancestors case is chronicled on the site Homicide in Chicago: 1870-1930.
- Kathleen Anders wasnt interested in genealogy when she found a tombstone in a Nebraska cemetery with the names of two young people who died on the same day. On a return trip, the caretaker furnished a file of newspaper clippings: Anders’ great-grandfather had taken the lives of his brother and sister-in-law in 1903. Over the next two years, she found the trial transcript and interviewed people who remembered her family.
With the mystery solved, shes turned to ancestors whose less sensational lives still deserve to be known. I now focus on the other lines of the family that have, in their own right, great stories to be researched and written about.
- Carol Heaps grandfather Frederick Hirsch, a Nassau County, NY, police officer, was killed in the line of duty May 6, 1931, by a 19-year-old nicknamed “Two Gun Crowley.” Crowley was convicted and sent to Sing Sing prison in New York, where he was executed in the electric chair in 1932. Hirsch’s wife raised four young children alone; Heap remembers her father saying he really missed having a Dad.
- Connie Parott received a copy of a relative’s 1970s school essay detailing her third-great grandfather’s efforts to track down the murderer of his brother Thomas at a Sylamore, Ark., Christmas Eve dance in 1877.
She found several news articles, but to my amazement, she writes, the stories favored excessive details about the murderer, but nothing about the victim. The murderer had accidentally shot himself in the leg while hiding in the woods. His leg was amputated, so the newspapers had a field day describing a one-legged man hanging from the gallows.
Forum members also posted stories and tips for researching ancestral crimes here. You’ll also find advice in the previously mentioned November 2009 Family Tree Magazine, on newsstands Sept. 8.