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Mysteries, Histories and Family Sagas: Get Lost in a New Book

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Summaries written by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, unless otherwise noted.

Need a break from your genealogy research and looking for a great new book to get lost in? You won’t want to miss these books that center on genealogy mystery, true crime and generations (both real and fictional) in a way that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Be sure to add these page-turners to your reading to-do list!

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Fictional genealogy mysteries

In the Blood by Steve Robinson (Thomas & Mercer): Two hundred years ago a loyalist family fled to England to escape the American War of Independence and seemingly vanished into thin air. American genealogist Jefferson Tayte is hired to find out what happened, but it soon becomes apparent that a calculated killer is out to stop him.

The Wicked Trade by Nathan Dylan Goodwin (independently published): In The Wicked Trade, book seven in Goodwin’s Forensic Genealogist series, a client’s 1827 letter from a criminal ancestor starts professional genealogist Morton Farrier’s quest to solve a 19th-century murder.

Family Tree Magazine Contributing Editor Sunny Jane Morton interviews Nathan Dylan Goodwin at RootsTech 2019 to learn more about the research methods behind Goodwin’s genealogical finds. You can learn more about Goodwin on his website.

The Irish Inheritance by M. J. Lee (CreateSpace): Police detective Jayne Sinclair uses genealogy research to identify the biological father of an adopted American billionaire in The Irish Inheritance.

Three Times Removed by M. K. Jones (Onion Custard Publishing Ltd): In Three Times Removed, Maggie Gilbert uncovers details about the disappearance of her ancestor in South Wales. The story draws on historical facts, but supernatural forces also come into play.

The Marriage Certificate by Stephen Molyneux (Sites To Suit Limited): Browsing an antique shop, amateur genealogist Peter Sefton buys a marriage certificate from 1900. About the same time, an elderly man dies without heirs in London. The two story lines intersect in The Marriage Certificate.

Rick Crume

Historical true crime murder mysteries

Genealogists love a good mystery. That’s one reason they’re drawn to family history—the need to solve the puzzle of who their ancestors were! Now you can combine your love for reading mysteries with history and genealogy. Here are some true-life, historical murder mysteries with a family history twist. To reconstruct these fascinating cases, the authors relied on the same sources genealogists use.

Blood Washes Blood: A True Story of Love, Murder, and Redemption Under the Sicilian Sun by Frank Vivano (Pocket Books): A legendary bandit known as “the Monk” wandered the hills of Sicily more than a century ago. By night, dressed in a priest-like robe, he robbed the wealthy and instilled fear in those who crossed his path—until one night, on a deserted country road, when the Monk met a hail of bullets that took his life. The Monk’s great-great grandson, author Frank Vivano, traveled to Sicily to find the truth that would break an 80-year code of silence. Blood Washes Blood is a story of the powerful relationship between an immigrant grandfather and his American-born grandson, and the unsolved murder of their namesake that haunted them. As a journalist who’s accustomed to searching out the facts, Vivano is careful to make clear what is fact and what is speculation.

The Cooper’s Wife is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary by Joan Hoff and Marian Yeates (Basic Books): On March 15, 1895, 28-year-old Bridget Cleary, a cooper’s wife, disappeared from her cottage in rural County Tipperary, Ireland. Rumors circulated that she ran off with the egg man, but the most widely held opinion was that Bridget had gone off with the fairies. When her body was discovered seven days later—bent, broken and badly burned in a shallow grave—the grisly truth came to light. For almost a week before her death, Bridget had been confined, ritually starved, threatened, abused, exorcised and finally burned to death by her husband and her father, who confused a case of bronchitis with possession by fairies. Although this is a fascinating account of the impact of fairy culture on the rural peasantry, the authors’ historical and political context goes to the extreme in some chapters and loses the reader, whose main interest is what happened to Bridget Cleary.

Award-winning author Cornelia Nixon crafted Jarrettsville (Counterpoint Press) based on a murder in her family history. In 1869, Martha Jane Cairnes shot her fiancé, Nicholas McComas, in front of 50 witnesses. Set in northern Maryland, Jarrettsville tells of a secret affair that ended tragically amid the high tensions of post-Civil War America.

Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell by Elaine Formal) Crane (Cornell University Press): In 1673, Rebecca Cornell (ancestor of Ezra Cornell, founder of Cornell University) was found dead — badly burned near her bedroom fireplace. Although the coroner’s report initially claimed that her death was an accident, the sinister events surrounding her death eventually came to light. This engrossing, well-documented narrative offers a view of Colonial life in Rhode island, and details some fascinating topics: domestic abuse, witchcraft, ghosts and matricide. The book is fully documented with sources familiar to genealogists.

The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York by Patricia Cline Cohen (Vintage Books): The murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country in 1836. From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. Jewett captivated her customers by writing them seductive letters. When Jewett was found dead, police arrested Richard Robinson, the son of an established Connecticut family, for her murder. Historian Patricia Cline Cohen meticulously researches the case, as well as both Jewett’s and Robinson’s family history, although some of this extensive background material seems as if it’s included to satisfy critiques of academic colleagues, rather than appeal to a popular audience.

Murdered by His Wife by Deborah Navas (University of Massachusetts Press): This story revolves around the murder of Joshua Spooner in 1778 Brookfield, Mass. The court convicted Spooner’s wife, Bathsheba, and her three accomplices, one of whom washer 17-year-old lover, Ezra Ross. Her pregnancy by Ross was the driving force behind the murder. All four convicts were hanged, although Bathsheba pleaded to postpone her execution until after her child’s birth. Since the murder, many tales have been written about this case, and Navas had to separate fact from fiction. Providing the full texts of newspaper accounts, trial records and other sources, her narrative is an excellent example of a documented family story.

The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers: Sex and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York by Amy Gilman Srebnick (Oxford University Press): Mary Rogers, a young woman known popularly as “The Beautiful Cigar Girl,” disappeared without a trace from her New York City boardinghouse in the summer of 1841. Three days later, her body, badly bruised and waterlogged, was found floating in the Hudson River, just a few feet from the New Jersey shore. This unsolved murder case received endless publicity at the time, causing Edgar Allan Poe to base one of his detective stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” around it. Historian Amy Gilman Srebnick thoroughly researches and documents information on Mary Rogers, some of her family history, events and people surrounding this interesting case. Like Cohen’s Helen Jewett, some of the extensive background material feels as if its sole purpose is to appease academic colleagues, rather than entice a popular reading audience.

Only a Few Bones: A True Account of the Rolling Fork Tragedy and Its Aftermath by John Philip Colletta (Direct Descent): Family lore claimed his ancestor was murdered in Mississippi. Newspapers and court records said the man and four other victims were killed and incinerated in his remote country store. But the case was never solved. Now, after 30 years of investigating, the great great grandson of the slain carpetbagger reveals what really happened. This is a case study for how to build historical context around an ancestral event. Depicting graphically how family history and history converge.

The Trials of Maria Barbella: The True Story of a 19th-Century Crime of Passion by Idanna Pucci (Random House). In New York in 1895, a 22-year-old Italian seamstress named Maria Barbella was accused of killing the man who’d raped her, promised to marry her and was about to abandon her. Barbella’s sensational trial was conducted in English—a language she didn’t understand—and she became the first woman sentenced to die in the newly invented electric chair. In this page-turning account, Pucci tells the story that’s part of her own family history: She’s the great-granddaughter of Cora Slocomb, the American-born Italian aristocrat whose advocacy saved Barbella’s life. The narrative is engagingly written—this is a book you’ll find hard to put down.

Unwise Passions: A True Story of a Remarkable Woman—and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America by Alan Pell Crawford (Simon & Schuster). The Virginia aristocracy comes to life in this well-documented narrative surrounding an illicit relationship and infanticide. Unwise Passions is the story of the beautiful 18-year-old Nancy Randolph, whose newborn child was killed in 1793. The father was rumored to be her sister Judith’s husband, Richard, and both he and Randolph were tried and acquitted for the child’s murder. After being banned from her sister and brother-in-law’s plantation, Randolph moved to New York, where she later married Gouverneur Morris—one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Randolph was a headstrong woman, and Crawford offers yet another excellent example of how to write a life story in an engaging and compelling manner.

Fictional family sagas

Commonwealth Avenue by Linda Nevins (St. Martin’s Press): This novel depicting the life and career of Hollywood production designer Zoe Hillyard gets off to a slow start. Once Zoe returns to her great-grandmother Augusta Hillyard’s house in Boston and discovers her diaries, however, the story picks up. Like The Ghost of Hannah Mendes and The Songcatcher, the stories of past and present are presented in alternating chapters until the two story lines merge at the end of the book. And like those two novels, Commonwealth Avenue shows how ancestors’ lives can have a powerful impact on their descendants. When Zoe returns to the house on “Comm Ave,” she feels only a moderate connection to it and her ancestors. But after reading Augusta’s diaries—getting to know her and how she fought to keep the house in the family—it becomes Zoe’s driving force, too. Genealogists will be envious of Zoe’s fictional find, wishing we all had a great-grandmother who left such a detailed cache of journals. I won’t give away the last entry in Augusta’s diary at the end of the book, but it will make you gasp.

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes by Naomi Ragen (St. Martin’s Griffin): What could be better than a good old-fashioned ghost story, sprinkled with romance and tied together with a search for one’s ancestor? Catherine da Costa, a wealthy Manhattan widow, doesn’t have long to live when she’s visited by the ghost of her ancestor, Hannah Mendes. Hannah, a 16th-century Sephardic Jewish businesswoman, had written a memoir, but over the centuries, pieces of it became scattered across Europe in archives and personal collections. Hannah’s ghost visits Catherine, encouraging her to find all the missing memoir pieces. Unable to travel across Europe herself, Catherine coerces her two granddaughters into making the journey. Along the way, they find not only the memoir, but also love and romance, of course. Genealogists will love the thrill of the hunt for the historical memoir, but will shake their heads in disbelief when they see where some of the pages ended up. How on earth will the granddaughters find pages “in a suitcase in the attic of a house in Grindlewald, Switzerland”? Ragen weaves all Hannah’s memoir pages into the story, so readers also learn about a fascinating Sephardic Jewish woman’s life during the Renaissance.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Penguin Books): This literary classic chronicles two generations of brothers living in California’s Salinas Valley from the time of the Civil War to the end of World War I. The novel’s packed with Biblical symbolism—you can readily identify the story of Cain and Abel. Although some critics feel the good-and-evil themes are overdone at the expense of characterization and plot, genealogists will enjoy this saga for its family history.

Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills (Ancestry): Written by a professional genealogist skilled in uncovering the tragedies and triumphs of people’s lives, this novel is the culmination of three decades of Southern research. In the author’s own words, “Isle of Canes is a story of multi-racial America and its historic struggle to make a place for itself in a world that has insisted one must be either black or white.” She has annotated her tale, which spans more than 150 years and four generations of a Louisiana family, with eight descendancy charts, illustrations and source citations.

The Madam by Julianna Baggott (Atria Books): Baggot bases her tale on the lives of her grandmother, who was raised in a house of prostitution, and her great-grandmother, who was the madam there. The story takes place in an industrial town in 1920s West Virginia. When the madam’s husband abandons her and their three children, she decides she can make more and toil less by quitting her factory job and running her own brothel. Although your ancestors might not have made similar choices, this novel reminds us of the lengths some women went to in order to survive and provide for their families.

Inspired by her Salem witch trial ancestors and her Ph.D. studies, Katherine Howe crafted The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (Voice). With the pacing of a thriller, the parallel stories of 1990s grad student Connie Goodwin and Deliverance Dane in the 1690s make a compelling read. Howe gives the trials a new spin, but you may have trouble believing the ending.

Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende (HarperCollins): Portrait in Sepia picks up where Allende’s Daughter of Fortune left off, but you don’t need to read that book to appreciate this one. This fictional family saga covers four generations of a multiethnic family (English, Chinese, Chilean) in San Francisco and Chile from 1862 to 1910. The family’s story unfolds through the eyes of Aurora del Valle, who narrates as though she’s writing a memoir. Since age 5, Aurora has suffered the same nightmare, triggered by a traumatic event she doesn’t remember. The need to stop that nightmare drives her to uncover her family history. The story is engrossing and the family secrets aren’t outrageous—they could be part of anyone’s family history. Still, casual readers may find it difficult to get beyond Allende’s long narrative paragraphs, each one sometimes spanning two and a half pages. Be prepared for a tear-jerking ending.

Tinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press): Written as a dying grandfather’s musings, the story traces the man’s life back to his childhood in Maine when his father was a tinker and traveling salesman. Family dynamics emerge against the backdrop of a 19th-century horse-and-carriage world.

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (Plume): In her first novel, the author of the best sellers Girl with a Pearl Earring and Falling Angels conjures up a fictional family history, tying together two women born centuries apart. The story alternates between the present and the past, detailing the main character’s modern quest for answers about her ancestry, as well as the lives of her French forebears. If you have French Huguenot ancestors, read The Virgin Blue for a glimpse into 16th-century village life.

Nonfiction generational narratives and memoirs

Fantastic memoirs about family history and culture abound and quite a few of them will spark your desire to put pen to paper. These narratives explore the relationship between generations as well as how their identities are formed by the culture they grew up in. The writers spin their own histories into compelling tales filled with humor and heartbreak, as well as plenty of insight. Every genealogist will be able to relate to their trials and triumphs.

An American Family: The Kennans, The First Three Generations by George F. Kennan (W.W. Norton & Co.). Kennan is the author of 20 books and has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Now in his late 90s, he captures his family history in print. He begins his narrative with the Kennan family’s life of poverty in late 17th-and early 18th-century Scotland. An American Family details the Kennans’ passage to America and the hardships they faced as early settlers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Woven into the multigeneration family memoir are major events in America’s history. At just 136 pages, this book can be read easily in a sitting or two. As in many commercially published family histories, you won’t find traditional genealogical documentation, but Kennan reveals his sources as part of the discussion within the text. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index—an element every family history should include.

A Community of Memory: My Days with George and Clara by Jeffrey Gundy (University of Illinois Press). This series of stories is about the author’s ancestors, each told in first person as if the ancestor were writing the narrative. (Genealogical purists may be bothered by its literary license.)

A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West by Gerald McFarland (Ivan R. Dee): Originally published in 1985 and re-released in 2000, this classic family history narrative transcends the author’s family. A Scattered People is also the tale of millions of ordinary people who participated in the westward movement.

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah: Comedian and host of “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah brings wit and wisdom to a distinctly unfunny subject: growing up as a mixed-race child in apartheid South Africa. Noah shares stories about his life with his mother in the slums, from eating caterpillars and sleeping on garage floors to bailing out of a moving car. For genealogists, the memoir holds touching recollections about familial love and sacrifice, plus the importance (and consequences) of learning about and identifying with your heritage.

Andrew Koch, Editor

A photo of an Irish family home triggered Patrick MacCulloch’s genealogical search and resulted in The Campbell Quest: A Saga of Family and Fortune (Missouri History Museum). MacCulloch unearthed all the drama that intrigues genealogists: family squabbles, children born out of wedlock, alcoholism, violence and a legal dispute over the family fortune.

Family by Ian Frazier: My favorite memoir is kind of a family history and memoir combined. It’s called Family, by Ian Frazier, and it does cover the range of family. He writes about his several-greats-grandparents who settled the Connecticut Western Reserve “Firelands” (now northern Ohio), his Civil War relatives, his parents’ long-distance relationship, his brother’s death from leukemia, and his own writing carer and family research. Three things I enjoy about Family in particular:

  • Being from Ohio, I’m familiar with many of the places Frazier mentions.
  • The book isn’t written chronologically. Frazier manages to move from past to present to further past in a way that makes sense and shows you how past and present are connected.
  • It has lots of detail about people in their everyday lives, which I asked Frazier about years ago when I got to interview him at a genealogy conference.

Diane Haddad, Former Editor

Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox (Touchstone Books). Fox tells the story of a family of extraordinary women—five sisters who lived at the highest levels of society and politics in America and England, leaving in their wakes rich husbands and international fame, tragedy and scandal. At the center of the narrative is Nancy Langhorne, who was the wife of Waldorf Astor and the first woman to take a seat in the British Parliament. Another sister, Irene, married Charles Dana Gibson and became the incarnation of the Gibson Girl. Fox, a grandson of one of the sisters, draws on journals and correspondence to create a family saga that stretches from the aftermath of the Civil War to the 1960s. His engaging narrative provides not only an account of the sisters’ lives, but also a picture of the tempestuous era in which they lived. Because this book relies so heavily upon correspondence and oral history interviews, genealogical purists won’t find the traditional method of citing sources.

The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White by Henry Wiencek (St. Martin’s Press). At a plantation in North Carolina, Wiencek met the heir to a family of slave owners; that same day he met the grandson of one of the slaves. Both men shared the last name Hairston. The Hairstons spans two centuries, from the American Revolution to the present.

Halfway Home: A Granddaughter’s Biography by Mary Logue (Minnesota Historical Society Press). Mystery writer Mary Logue takes you along on her search to learn more about her grandmother. In piecing together the past, she tells a larger story of intriguing genealogical research, community, a way of life and a woman’s struggle to survive.

The Hatch and Brood of Time: Five Phelps Families in the Atlantic World, 1720-1880 by Peter Haring Judd (Newbury Street Press): In this two-part history of five families, Judd crafts an illuminating and engaging family history narrative in the first half, followed by traditional genealogical summaries.

How Grand a Flame: A Chronicle of a Plantation Family, 1813-1947 by Clyde Bresee (Algonquin Books, $21.95). Covering three generations of the Lawton family in South Carolina, this story emphasizes the Civil War era. Bresee utilizes two main sources: a female ancestor’s diary and oral history.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson: I love memoirs, but rarely read any of them more than once. The exception to that rule is Bill Bryson’s I’m a stranger Here Myself, in which Bryson shares his observations upon returning to the US after two decades living in England. Having spent time living in London, I always find Bryson’s tales of reacquainting himself to his home country are relatable and hysterical. If you’ve ever traveled abroad or enjoy cultural observations, I’d highly recommend this fun read!

Ashlee Peck, Former Online Content Director

The Langhornes of Langhorne Park by D. Brenton Simons (Newbury Street Press): This extensively illustrated family history covers three generations—a Quaker immigrant, his children and grandchildren. The genealogical narrative offers traditional research analysis with an in-depth biographical section on immigrant Thomas Langhorne.

Curiosity over an old family legend drove Amin Maalouf to delve into the life of his paternal grandfather and his Lebanese family history. Using personal, political, historical and literary insight, Origins: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) tells the story of Maalouf’s genealogical quest.

Night by Elie Wiesel: Although this memoir was very difficult to read, it taught me how strong writing can teach you more about history than a textbook ever can. After reading Night in school, I not only understood the Holocaust from a historical standpoint, but from a personal, human standpoint as well.

Rachel Christian, New Media Editor

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming: When Alan Cumming agreed to be on the BBC version of “Who Do You Think You Are?” he thought it would resolve the mystery surrounding his maternal grandfather. He got more than he bargained for. This memoir combines the very things we family historians deal with on a regular basis: researching family history, breaking through myths and conflicting stories to resolve brick walls, and coming to terms with the good, bad and downright ugly that family brings. Cumming entertains with a storytelling style that is part biting wit, part brutal honesty and a good dose of mystery. It’s a combination that will keep you turning the pages to the end. Plus, genealogists will love seeing what it’s like being featured on the show.

Vanessa Wieland, Former Online Community Editor

Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist by Buzzy Jackson (Touchstone): Jackson navigates an ocean of genealogy seminars, societies and cruises to learn how seasoned genealogists find their ancestors. The research tactics won’t be new to most, but you’ll relate to the fun she has tromping through cemeteries and tracing her ancestry.

Rare Birds: An American Family by Dan Bessie (University Press of Kentucky). Bessie hails from an extraordinarily gifted and creative family. Through inherited journals and letters, he uncovers the history of the Bessie and Burnett families, beginning with his great-grandfather, a stowaway bound for America. Other relatives include a blacklisted member of the Hollywood 10 (a group of screenwriters, producers and directors who refused to address Congress’ questions about their believed Communist affiliations), the brains behind Tony the Tiger and the Marlboro Man, a trio of gay puppeteers and a convicted murderer. In uncovering their histories, Bessie shows how these “rare birds” tell an American story. Unfortunately, the only source details are cryptic references within the text: “I got around to the 1880 New York Census.” This implies a state census, when Bessie is more than likely referring to the federal census for the state of New York. Bessie tells a great story in his memoir, but serious researchers—whether family members, genealogists or historians—expecting to use his work as a springboard for further study will be disappointed by the lack of documentation and an index.

Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball (Random House). Gracefully weaving past and present, this national best-seller is one man’s story of discovering more about his slave-owning ancestors as he searches for their slaves’ descendants. In his journey to trace his family history, he reveals the blood ties between those slave descendants and his white family.

The Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb (Signet): The Songcatcher revolves around McCrumb’s fourth great-grandfather, Malcolm McCourry, who as a child was kidnapped near his home in Scotland and brought to America. The common thread connecting him to the other main character, the fictional present-day folk singer Lark McCourry, is a song passed down in the family—one Malcolm learned from a shipmate. Genealogists will devour the chapters on Malcolm and his life, and will be able to mentally identify the types of records McCrumb surely examined to get the facts of his apprenticeship, marriage, migration and military service. The real-life characters of the past are more enjoyable than the fictional present-day ones, but readers will appreciate McCrumb’s talent for bridging the past and the present.

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The Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History by Edward Ball (William Morrow). A passionate romance by written correspondence, a family feud that results in dueling businesses, a classical musician who introduces Negro spirituals to the London elite, a mistress who performs illegal abortions for women of all races in the kitchen of her cottage… The Sweet Hell Inside, by National Book Award winner Edward Ball, revolves around real-life characters who are more vivid than those in any novel. While Ball traces the South Carolina mixed-race Harleston family, the events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—from Reconstruction to World War I—provide a historical backdrop. A highly readable family history, the book’s only flaw is the way Ball cites his sources. Just as in his first book, Slaves in the Family, citations are grouped at the back of the book by chapter and text page. The text has no foot-or endnote numbers to guide the reader: Each time you’re curious whether a passage or paragraph has a corresponding reference, you have to flip to the back of the book. This method is incredibly frustrating and cumbersome to readers who want to learn where Ball gathered his facts.

Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s Story by Helen Epstein (Plume). Haunted by the tragic lives of three female ancestors—her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother—Epstein chronicles her Jewish ancestry, traveling to Czechoslovakia, Austria and Israel.

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