Violence is certainly not something our generation invented. Murder is not new.
There have been many surprises for me over the years of my genealogy research. One is how many instances I discovered that involved murder.
Strange, odd and sad, but true. I’m going to try my best not to read anything too deep into this (!). But the genealogy part of it is worthy of discussion, nevertheless.
For most of these, no oral history passed down in the family about the murders. I can imagine why.
Death Certificates and Newspaper Articles
Most death certificates indicate whether or not the person met an untimely death at the hands of someone else.
In those cases, usually the coroner filed a report. You should always try to discover whether the coroner’s reports still survive.
If you find individuals who were killed, try to find a newspaper article about the event. You will already have the date, from the death certificate.
More and more online newspaper database are available nowadays. Depending upon the place and time, you may be able to find an article at one of these websites.
My great-grandmother Vannie married a man named Elroy Roberson. I was stunned when I finally received his death certificate. He was shot to death.
This was an unknown piece of information to me and my family. Look how young he was when he died:
A newspaper article revealed the sad details:
Newspaper articles can provide crucial details about the event. However, we must always remember that we usually don’t know who provided the details in the article. Which means we can’t assume its accuracy.
If the article mentions a trial, we should try to find the records of the court case.
At other times in my research, I found the newspaper article first. The newspapers reported finding the body of Pearl McDaniel, my grandmother’s half–sister, on a street in Talbot County, Maryland:
Using this date, I found her death certificate:
The death certificate of another collateral relative on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Edward Cottman, hinted at yet another grisly story:
His death made the front page. It appears that he was murdered by his nephew. This tragic story certainly wasn’t passed down in the family.
In a different family line, the family did pass down the circumstances of the death of Charles Hale in Nashville:
His then wife, Nella, lived to be 101 and she shared much of her family history. The police arrested the two men:
The obituary below, as usual for this type of source, does not hint at the cause of death for Mary:
But her descendants shared yet another sad and strange story, confirmed by newspaper accounts:
I suspect her husband Nish, who married to one of my collateral ancestors, had an undiagnosed mental illness.
Papers across the country carried the story, I’m sure because of its salacious headline.
So how do we handle writing these kinds of situations when we tell our story? As gently and gracefully as we can.
My readers, tell me, have you discovered any unsavory deaths during your research? Were they surprising or did they confirm oral history you already had?
Also please share if you were able to find any newspaper articles or any other kind of documentation?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.