Most family trees feature a tall tale or two—stories that hold a kernel of truth, but were embellished with outlandish detail with each retelling. Such is the case for these readers, whose genealogical sleuthing revealed the reality behind family stories of hyperbolic proportions. For their efforts, each will receive our Family Tree Essentials CD.
My grandmother was the genealogist in our family for years. She thrived on embellishing colorful stories about our ancestors. One of her most outlandish tales included the television character Sheriff Matthew Dillon. She claimed the series “Gunsmoke” was based on Dillon’s life in the Wild West. I researched our “Matt Dillon”—and discovered he’d been the magistrate for Raleigh Township, Ontario. As the magistrate, he wore many different hats, including one for sheriff.
Colleen Wells » Ocala, Fla.
My cousin Lois seemed to have too many teeth. My mom and aunts gathered at Grandmom’s kitchen table and decided that Lois was growing a third set of teeth, like Grandpop Hand.
Grandpop had had upper and lower dentures. He complained for weeks of pain in his mouth. A visit to the dentist revealed a “tooth” (probably really a root tip) coming in under his denture—which 50 years later, became a “third set of teeth.”
When Lois had extractions to eliminate the crowding, the aunts were positive she’d also grown a third set of teeth. Orthodontic treatment produced a beautiful smile and that was all the proof they needed.
Patricia Newman » Whiting, NJ
Need for Speed
Able-bodied seaman Tom Donald of Scotland arrived home from a voyage to find his wife, Janet, packed to move. Janet’s father was immigrating to the United States, and Janet intended to take her 5-week-old daughter, also named Janet, and go with him. Tom protested, “Janet, you can’t leave me.”
But she did. And waiting on the dock in Boston to greet the arriving party was none other than Tom. Knowing ships, Tom had secured passage on a faster vessel. Tom and Janet settled in West Roxbury, Mass., and went on to have eight more children.
That’s been a family legend for more than a century. But thanks to Ancestry.com , we recently discovered that Tom actually arrived five weeks later.
Marla Mountz Vincent » Dennis, Mass.
Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
My husband’s ancestor John Henry Dobson supposedly died fighting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, after the nearby city of Joliet sent him with other firemen to help fight the fire.
What really happened: During the 1874 Chicago Fire, he and a friend were going to the docks to catch a boat home to Joliet. The wall of the St. James Hotel collapsed on them and they were both killed.
Debbie Leser » Freeport, Ill.
Shooting in the Dark
As a teenager, my grandmother often asked my sister and me to comb her hair or rub her feet. It seemed to be her way of making time to talk with us about things that happened long ago. But I was unaware of what she was doing and didn’t always pay attention.
One thing she told us about, possibly during one of these sessions, was how her brother George Shaffer, who lived in East Taylor Township, Pa., was fatally “shot by an Italian.” She never uttered the gunman’s name. She said George was in his wagon when he was shot, and the horses brought him home. She said that “probably drinking and gambling were involved.”
In 2007, three of us grandchildren of Grandma and her siblings—me, Margaret and Gladys (the victim’s granddaughter)—got together to find out more about our heritage.
When the shooting came up, Gladys said she was told George “was in the wagon with his father and two brothers when he was shot and killed by an Italian.” But none of us had ever read an account of the incident.
We tried to find something in the Johnstown, Pa., public library, but we didn’t have a date. Gladys thought her dad was about 3 years old when his father was gunned down. We checked newspapers for the year we guessed it to be, but found nothing.
In the fall of 2008, I found a person on a mailing list of George’s county. I hired her to look for a newspaper account of the shooting in the state archives in Harrisburg, Pa. I gave her a two year period to search. She found a long front-page article, and two shorter stories published a few days later.
George was driving his wagon home from Johnstown when it happened, according to the first article (he often sold produce from the wagon). Three other men were with him; one was an Italian man known only as “Barber” (that was one of his occupations). George and Barber got into some kind of argument and climbed down from the wagon, when Barber fired. The other men claimed they were “facing the other way” and didn’t see what happened. Perhaps they’d been drinking at a bar and fell asleep in the back of the wagon. Though the newspaper mentions a reward for information leading to Barber’s arrest and the follow-up stories mention two sightings of him, he apparently was never apprehended.
Wanda Barrett » Bedford, Pa.
From the July 2010 Family Tree Magazine