Lydia thinks her great-grandfather was murdered–perhaps even by her grandfather! Here’s some advice for her and everyone researching “cold cases” for criminal ancestors on your family tree.
I heard recently from Lydia with these intriguing questions:
My great great grandpa William John Gabriel Nelson disappeared one day, never coming home from work. It was family lore that he had been “shanghai’d.” But even as a child the story didn’t add up. [Through a] few other mentions of the account throughout the years, and recently reconnecting with cousins through Ancestry.com/DNA and your advice to just email DNA matches, I have a growing reason to believe my great-grandfather was murdered. An even bigger fear is that my grandfather may have been the one to do it.
All parties involved with this are now dead, so follow-up is impossible with them. But I’m wondering about contacting the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) or the library to determine if indeed there was a cold case, missing persons report or John Doe. Since this happened in the mid 1940’s, would I contact the LAPD or is this now a job for a historian?
As a citizen, Lydia can certainly contact the LAPD here. It might take a bit of persistence to get to the right person or resource. I would start by asking for how you can find out the status of a cold case from the year in question.
Here are 4 ways to follow up on your own criminal ancestors’ cold cases:
1. Look for cold case files online.
As I often say, all good searches start online because they will help you prepare to go offline. In other words, not everything is online, but searching online first will give you a lay of the land, revealing what is available, who to contact, and where to go in person. Start with a Google search such as LAPD cold cases. The search results include several good leads:
With a case like Lydia’s that is over 70 years old, I wouldn’t expect to pull it up in an online database (though you never know!) But I do see several sites here that provide phone numbers to gain access to those who can lead you in the right direction.
2. Search Google for clues.
Use Google’s powerful search technology to look for online mentions of the names, places, and dates of your particular case.
In Lydia’s case, she might begin with keywords relating to her great-grandfather’s disappearance, with his name, year, and the place he was last seen. Including descriptive keywords such as disappear, mystery, vanished or murder might also yield helpful results.
Learn more about effective search techniques in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition.
3. Check old newspapers.
Newspapers in your ancestor’s hometown (or further afield) may have mentioned the incident. With a common name like William (or Bill) Nelson, you may need to weed out the overabundance of unwanted results you get. Let me show you how I did this in GenealogyBank
, a popular genealogical newspaper website:
The initial results of searching GenealogyBank (above) for the terms William Nelson and Los Angeles brought up over 1,000 search results! (The red arrow points to the tally.) Since I don’t like wasting valuable research time on irrelevant results (who’s with me?!), I refined the search. I specified Nelson as a last name, William as a first name, Los Angeles as a keyword, and I added a date range: the decade during which he disappeared. Next, I limited my search to Los Angeles-area newspapers, shown below:
This search narrows results down to under 200: a robust number, but at least manageable to look through for relevant material.
I want to be able to use these same search parameters in the future, so I click Save My Search.
The search now appears in My Folder
for future reference.
4. Look for criminal records.
If you knew (or suspected) that a relative was prosecuted for a crime, it’s time to start looking for records relating to the criminal case. There may be several kinds:
- In cases of suspicious death (where there was a body, unlike Lydia’s case), look for any surviving coroner’s records.
- If a trial may have occurred, research the jurisdiction to find out what court would have handled it, and then look for files relating to the case.
- If an ancestor may have served time, look for prison records. Genealogy Gems Premium podcast episode 29 is devoted to the topic of prison records.
Read this article about a woman who was researching not one but two mysterious deaths on her family tree.
Want to help investigators lay to rest their own cold cases?
Click here to read about the Unclaimed Persons Project and how you can help.
In the just-published, free Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 190, hear from a genealogist who helped lay to rest a 30-year old missing-person’s case–and so much more.
Don’t you love it when everyday heroes help the experts solve baffling mysteries? I especially love it when that hero is a genealogist who wields research skills with deftness, creativity and bulldog tenacity. Has Lisa Louise Cooke got a story for us!
Scott Fisher, Extreme Genes
In the new Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 190, Lisa interviews Extreme Genes radio host Scott Fisher about his now-famous role in helping to solve a 30-year old missing persons case. He’s told this story to People, FoxNews and CBS.com, but here Lisa gets Scott to really lay out the details of how he did it for fellow researchers.
There’s more to love in Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 190, such as:
- Lisa advises a listener on a pesky Gmail problem;
- A whirlwind world tour of new genealogy records online;
- Searching out military service details with Google Books;
- One RootsTech attendee’s Google search success story
- the new Genealogy Gems Book Club title, a brand-new, much-anticipated second novel by a breakout British novelist.
Click here to listen to the episode for FREE (no membership or login required).
Not sure what a podcast is or how to listen? Click here to learn more about these “online radio shows” that you can take with you on your mobile device. Listen while you commute, exercise, do your household chores or garden.
Cold Case files are as common in genealogy as they are in criminal investigations. So it seemed a no brainer to me that family historians could incorporate some of the same techniques that cold case investigators use. And that is how my presentation How to Reopen and Work a Genealogical Cold Case was born.
I recently brought this exciting hour to the folks at the Williamson County Texas Genealogical Society and they embraced it with open arms. Eyes were lighting up, and there was excitement in the air at the prospect of pulling some of those dusty old brick walls off their genealogical office shelves. I warned the group that they would be blaming for a sleepless night that night as they burned the midnight oil putting the tips to work. And as always, I encourage them to let me in on their successes by dropping me an email. I never cease to be amazed at what my wonderful audiences accomplishes!
An email from Teresa Hankins of Round Rock, TX landed in my inbox the very next morning, and her message was inspiring:
“I attended your lecture on Genealogical Cold Cases at the Williamson County Genealogical Society’s meeting just last night. It was late when I got home, but I wanted to check out some of your suggestions on cracking hard cases. I was particularly interested in Google Books, as I had just recently discovered it, but hadn’t used it much.
The Case: My 2nd great-grandfather, Joshua, was too young to serve in American Civil War, but he had nine brothers who did serve. These brothers are what first prompted my interest in genealogy, and I’ve spent untold hours reconstructing their movements and histories.
One of the most poignant stories is that of David, the youngest of the nine. He couldn’t have been more than 17 years old when he joined the Union regiment. He was wounded at the Battle of Lone Jack, discharged, and then married Margaret, a young lady from a neighboring farm. They had one child, named Thomas, and then David was murdered by bushwhackers. His young bride remarried and had two more children before she, too, passed away at a young age. My unsolvable case was with Thomas, son of David and Margaret, who seemed to vanish from history. He lost his father when he was an infant, his mother when he was about 12, and I wanted to know what happened to him!
Like all good genealogists, I was only going to research a little before going to bed. I wanted to play around on Google Books and see how the searches worked. I typed in a few key words that were unsuccessful before settling on a group of books based on Benton County, Missouri, which is where most of my ancestors in this line resided. I was just clicking on a book and searching for the surname, not looking for anything in particular. I only wanted to see what would come up and how the search engine worked. The next thing I know, I am looking at a record from the Supreme Court of Missouri, regarding some sort of land dispute. There are all the names involved, Thomas, his two half siblings, another family that I know are neighbors and relatives! I now know the month and year that Thomas died. I know that he sold some land one of his uncles. He was living there among family and friends, and though he, too, died young, at least I know what happened! This has opened up a cold case, and now it is on fire with new leads. I can’t wait to see what else I can dig up on Google Books!
Thank you for all the useful information you shared. I learned so much. I can’t wait to try out your other suggestions. You said to send you an email if we cracked a cold case, and that is what I’m doing. Have a blessed day!”
Well, I feel blessed every time I hear from my fabulous students / listeners / readers! I’m a lucky girl!
And I received one more blessing in Round Rock: At long last I finally got to meet my cousin Carolyn. You “met” Carolyn on the free Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast episodes about contacting living relatives (see below for links.) Carolyn and I have been collaborating online for nearly ten years on our family history (her mother is my Grandmother’s sister) but we never had the opportunity to meet in person until now. She’s as sweet and warm as she is on the phone – it’s not wonder she has such great success reaching out to family relations.
It’s wonderful to hear from folks about how they have benefited from something I’ve shared, but I could write volumes on the blessings I’ve received in this job that I love.
Heritage Quilts Video with Carolyn: featuring a quilt in our family. Each block features one of our female ancestors.
Episode 14: How to Contact Long-Lost Relatives
Connecting with someone who knows about our ancestors can really boost our research results—and even create new relationships among living kin. But it’s not always easy to send that first email or make that first call. In this episode, we chat with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has mastered the art of “genealogical cold calling” by conducting hundreds of telephone interviews. She has a knack for quickly connecting with folks she doesn’t know over the telephone in ways that put them at ease and bring to light the information that she’s looking for.
Episode 15: More Tips for Contacting Distant Relatives
In this episode we talk more about “genealogical cold calling” with my cousin, Carolyn Ender, who has conducted hundreds of telephone interviews. Relationships are key to genealogical success and by following 14 genealogical cold calling strategies you will find your research relationships multiplying.
A one hour video of Lisa’s class on Genealogical Cold Cases is part of Genealogy Gems Premium Membership. Click here to become a Member.
We’ve all got genealogy brick walls in our research: family mysteries we have so far found unsolvable. In the new issue of Family Tree Magazine (May/June 2014), Lisa’s got a great article packed with 14 strategies for SOLVING those perplexing questions.
The article is “Warming Up a Cold Case,” and it’s got a fun criminal investigator theme. I won’t give all 14 of her tips away, but some of my favorites include re-examining old evidence, finding new witnesses and going on a genealogical stakeout. And one that made me laugh out loud: “Post wanted posters.” And then I just had to put my ancestor’s face on a wanted poster (right).
How do you really create a wanted poster for your ancestor? Lisa shares these ideas in the article:
1. Post their names on genealogy online message boards (like at Ancestry.com). But fill in those “wanted” details. Instead of height, weight and hair color, add what you know about their births, marriages, deaths, family relationships and residences.
2. Post your family tree online at any number of sites for free. Sites organize their trees in one of two ways. Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com and others can i buy medication without insurance offer the individual tree model. You upload (or build on the site) and maintain your own tree. FamilySearch.org, WikiTree, Geni.com and WeRelate.org are community tree sites. You may work from a view of your own tree, but the site is merging your tree with others behind the scenes to create a single world family tree (each does this a slightly different way).
3. Start your own family history blog. Write keyword-rich blog posts that make it easy for Google searchers to find your ancestors there. Check out Lisa’s free four-part series on how to create a genealogy blog at the Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel. This link will take you to the 4 part video playlist.
Find the entire article in the May/June issue Family Tree Magazine. Even better: Genealogy Gems Premium Members can also watch Lisa’s one hour video class Brick Walls: Cold Case Investigative Techniques. Not a Premium Member yet? You’re missing out on 24/7 access for a year to some of her most popular classes on Google, Google Earth, organization, Evernote, newspaper research and more. Learn more about Genealogy Gems Premium Membership here.