“WDYTYA?” Summer 2015 Premiere: Ginnifer Goodwin’s Mysterious Great-Grandparents

By Diane Haddad

For the summer 2015 season of TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?Family Tree Magazine contributor Shannon Combs Bennett will be watching and reporting on each episode. Here’s Shannon’s post on yesterday’s premiere episode:

The summer 2015 season premiere of “Who Do You Think You Are?” started with the mysterious family history of actor Ginnifer Goodwin, whom you may have seen on ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.”

Goodwin wanted to learn more about her paternal grandfather, John, who was abandoned at age 11 in Arkansas and rarely spoke of his parents. Little did she know it would take her (and us, in this intense “WDYTYA?” episode) on a tour of old prison records and the aftermath of prescription morphine addiction.

After picking her father’s brain for family history details, Goodwin travels to Arkansas, where she sees John’s SS-5 document—the application to participate in the Social Security program—which provides the maiden name of his mother, Nellie. This form can be a treasure trove for genealogists researching ancestors alive after the program began in 1935.

Learn more about requesting your ancestor’s SS-5 on the Social Security Administration website and from our guide Document Detective: Social Security Application Form (available in Family Tree Shop).

The maiden name helps Goodwin trace Nellie through moves and marriages. Court documents and prison records reveal that her second ex-husband, Al Goodwin, was sent to federal prison for bootlegging (Prohibition had not yet taken effect, but he was prosecuted for failing to pay federal taxes on the income). The records were remarkable not only because they included the first image Goodwin had ever seen of her great-grandfather, but also a letter Nellie wrote to the Warden asking about another woman who’d been visiting Al. This episode shows viewers the wealth of genealogical information available through the court system.

Nellie, like a surprising number of women in the South during the early 20th century, became addicted to medically prescribed morphine. The drug was prescribed to her, probably for syphilis (which was relatively common, and which her husband’s prison records revealed he also had).

According to the records of a Louisiana morphine clinic where she sought help in 1922, she’d been addicted for 11 years. (Find out more about the clinic from this book.) This part of the story, while sad to hear, shed light on the morphine addiction crisis of that time.

If you also have ancestors who could be in the court system, make sure you check out one of these resources from our store: