Monday, June 15, 2015

Mystery Monday: Otis

I recently completed an ancestry binder for a co-worker—we’ll call her “Binny.”  She was my youngest client ever, and she wanted to know more about her paternal ancestry.  Binny knew only a few facts, and one of them was that her father’s father was a man named Otis Coleman.  Grandpa Otis soon became my favorite person on Binny’s tree.

Otis Coleman was born on February 9, 1918, according to various public records.  His obituary in the La Salle (Illinois) News Tribune (9-24-2001) corroborates this, saying, “He was born February 9, 1918, in Buchanan [Henry County], Tenn., to Richard and Ristie (Green) Coleman.”

So, I concluded that Otis’ parents—and therefore my client’s great-grandparents—were Richard and Ristie Coleman.  Or were they?

According to the Henry County, Tennessee marriage register that I found online, Richard Coleman and Miss Rista Green were married by a Justice of the Peace on January 3, 1920.  If Otis was really their child, it would have been more typical for them to marry before their child was born in 1918, not two years later—but it’s possible they weren’t.  

Moving ahead ten years, in the 1930 census for Henry County, Tennessee, Richard and Risty are listed with four children including Otis, and Otis is 12 years old.  His relationship to Richard is listed as “son.”  And they have been married for 16 years (since ages 21 and 19), which would be 1914—not correct...  They've extended their marriage back to encompass Otis' birth!

However—things got squidgy when I went back to the 1920 census.  Here are Richard, age 25, and Rista, age 16, married and living in Henry County, Tennessee, just where I expected them.  But—no child named Otis is listed!  No children at all…  So—where was Otis in 1920?

And wait a minute!…  If the 1920 census gives the correct age for Rista, then she was just 14 years old in 1918, the year that Otis was born.  Could Rista really have been his mother at such a young age?  I know it’s medically possible—but is it likely?

I took a closer look at Rista’s age.  According to the 1910 census record, listing her as age 6, she would have been born around 1904.  Her 1920 census with Richard, listing her as age 16, would also put her birth at around 1904.  Unfortunately, no ages are given on the 1920 marriage register. 

In 1930 she is listed as 35—very doubtful... wasn’t very helpful either, giving her birth as 1908—but no grave marker or other proof.  So the best evidence still points to Rista being born around 1904, and being no more than 14 when baby Otis was born in 1918.  

Binny and I want to know…  Who were Otis’ parents, really?  I did some digging online, and made a few phone calls, and although Henry County didn’t have birth certificates that old, I was glad to find out that the State of Tennessee began keeping them in 1916—just in time to have one for Otis’ birth in 1918—at least I hope so.  Compliance wasn’t 100% in those early days, as any genealogist knows.  Nevertheless, Binny and I ordered Otis’ birth certificate a couple of weeks ago—and now, all we can do is wait, and hope for some answers.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Thank you, Harold!

Working on an ancestry binder for a client, and came across this 1930 census record for Aurora, Illinois...  Census taker was Harold Forsyth.  Look at the wonderful rows of neat printing!  What if all census records looked like this!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Sibling Saturday: Captain Jack

Recently I found another great story from the vast riches of my latest client’s family tree.  This one crosses two centuries and four states.  It’s the story of his 5th great grandfather, John “Captain Jack” Hurst, and his two wives and many children.  For the details of this story, I draw from the work of many researchers before me, who left notes on several trees on rootsweb.

John Hurst was born in 1732 in Virginia; his father William had come from England in 1715.  He was married to Lydia Ann Smith around 1760, and they had ten children.  (One daughter, Nancy, was most likely an orphaned niece of Lydia’s whom they adopted.)  But Lydia died in 1786, not long after having her last child.  This left John, who by now was a Revolutionary War veteran and a prosperous landowner in Virginia, a widower at age 54—but not for long.

John was called “Captain John” or “Captain Jack” during his lifetime, but this was a nickname.  His rank in the military was Lieutenant, according to what scant records exist, and that’s what the military grave marker issued in 1955 says (application pictured).  His large family was often referred to as an “army,” so perhaps that’s where the nickname came from.  

Researchers John & Cindy McCachern relate this story about John’s second marriage: 

“John heard of Mary [Lindsey], a widow in Georgia, and hitched up his 4-horse team and, taking several of his slaves and provisions for the journey, went to see her.  Immediately on his arrival, he proposed and gave her until the next morning to think about it.  Next morning after breakfast he pushed back [the table] and said (he had a deep commanding voice), “Well, what do you say about it?” and she said “Yes.” He gave orders to his slaves and promptly loaded up her household effects and along with her children, took them to his Virginia home.” 

Descendant Benjamin Franklin Hurst gives these details about their life afterwards:

“John [Jack] Hurst was raising an army of his own which was destined to fight battles west of the Cumberland Mountains, as we shall see...  He chose his first move to Green County, Tennessee about 1790 and remained there ten years…  He then gathered his large family of sons and daughters and many grandchildren, and moved north-eastward through Kentucky, stopping at Beargrass Creek in what is now Bullitt County, Kentucky.  

John Hurst, now 71 years of age, marshaled his forces and crossed the Ohio River in 1803.  John settled his “army” twenty miles west of New Albany, Indiana…  John Hurst had now found his Paradise in a new land far from the grand old dominion of his nativity.  He now had all of his family with him, with the exception of one, son, John, who broke ranks and strayed off to Kentucky…  In 1806 this John Hurst and his family drifted across the Ohio River and renewed his place in the hitherto unbroken ranks. It was a second lucky twist of fate that his son William 14, was not drowned in crossing the Ohio River, or else you would not be reading this story.”

John and Mary each had around ten children from their first marriages.  But this is one “blended family” that truly got along!  They stayed together as they moved westward from Virginia, and two of John’s children from his first marriage ended up marrying two of Mary’s children from her first marriage.  Yes, indeed—two different pairs of stepsiblings ended up marrying.  Elijah Hurst married Mary Lindsey, and Leah Hurst married Jesse Lindsey.  And thus, Leah and Jesse became my client’s 4th great grandparents.

John became quite the leader in Hursttown, Indiana.  According to a history of the area written by Mrs. Victor MacIntosh, John deeded land for a school house, a Methodist church, and a cemetery.  Other families came and settled near them, and Hursttown became a community center with a post office, shoe shop, and blacksmith’s shop.  John served as sheriff of Harrison County from 1812 to 1816.  Whitten Chapel, the church he founded, was the first church built in Jackson Township.  One researcher claims that John bought eighteen quarter sections of land and gave one to each of his eighteen sons and stepsons, so that they would settle there. 

Captain Jack died in 1825 at the ripe old age of 93 and is buried at Hursttown Cemetery in Harrison County, Indiana.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Military Monday: Levi Newton Scott, In War and in Peace

I found another great story on my latest client’s tree…  This one concerns one of his 3rd great grandfathers, Levi Newton Scott. 

Levi was born in Tennessee in 1841, fourth son of Anthony “Hanty” and Lucinda Barnes Scott.  (Family tradition has it that Lucinda was Cherokee Indian, but that remains to be proven.)  He grew up in a large farm family that moved from Wayne County, Tennessee to Dallas County, Missouri in 1854.
Levi served in the Union forces during the Civil War (as did his father). turned up three different service records for Levi.  The first shows him in Company G of the Dallas County Regiment of the Missouri Home Guard, where he served from June to September 1861.  The Missouri History Museum website ( tells us this about the Missouri Home Guards:

Created in the summer of 1861 by General Nathaniel Lyon, the Home Guard were to stay at home and go into action only to defend their neighborhoods. Around 15,000 Home Guard were enlisted.  They were armed by the Union government but received no pay unless on active duty.  They wore no uniforms, and only 10,000 troops actually received weapons—the rest used their own.  Camp gear and food were supplied for some when on active duty.  Approximately 241 Home Guard companies were formed, but they were disbanded in late 1861. 

By 1862 Levi was married for the first time, to Elizabeth Ann Box.  They had at least three children in the next six years. 

In the meantime, Levi ended up back in the military—pressure must have been strong for volunteers, even married men.  This time, he was in Company M of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, Missouri State Militia.  The regiment saw action all over Arkansas and Missouri—scouting, attacking trains, capturing a fort, and other operations.  He also spent some time in Company H of the 14th Cavalry Regiment in April 1862 to March 1863.  The 1890 veteran’s census tells us that  he served three years (1862-65) during the “war of the rebellion” and that he was injured—but at least he survived. tells us that the 8th Cavalry Regiment lost 77 enlisted men to war injuries and 131 enlisted men to disease during the course of the war. 

A few years after the war, Elizabeth died at age 25.  Levi found himself a widower at age 27 with three young children—Sarah, Melissa Ann, and Henry.  As was often the case in those days, within a year the young father had found a new mother for his children.  His second wife, Mary Catherine Hoover, helped him raise his three children, and they had two more—James and Cora.  By the 1870 census they had settled down to spend the rest of their lives farming in Dallas County, Missouri. 

The Veteran’s Schedule of the 1890 Census lists Levi as a Civil War veteran with an invalid pension.  His disabilities included catarrh (chronic sinus problems) and “injured with powder, right leg.”  Pension index cards indicate that he received a pension starting in 1880, and it was increased in 1912.

 Mary Catherine died in 1904, but Levi was a widower for only a few years, marrying a third time in 1907, to Caladonia Russell Engle, who outlived him.

Levi and his family must have been proud of his wartime service to his country; his gravestone proudly displays the details.  He died in 1915 at age 74 and was buried at Reynolds Cemetery, next to his second wife.

Photos:   Connie Chrisman Hatch on findagrave;; Amanda424 on findagrave.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Black Sheep Sunday: Falling Off the Wagon

Lately I’ve been working with a distant cousin to explore my Erickson roots.  (My mother was an Erickson.)  Recently I told the story of Great Grandpa Karl Erickson’s farm that became a church; this story is about Karl’s father, John Erickson.  He fell off the wagon—both figuratively and, at the end of his life, literally.

John Erickson was born Johann Erichson in Mecklenburg, Germany in 1838.  He came to America in 1868 with his wife Caroline and their two sons, Johann and Karl, on the clipper ship “Electric.”  I’ve seen a drawing of the ship, and it looks so romantic in the picture!  But in reality, crossing the sea in a sailing ship in steerage class was more like a nightmare.  I should write about that some other time.

The 1870 census finds John and Caroline living in Will County, Illinois with their two young sons and Mary Erickson, 73 (likely John’s mother).  John is a farmer with a couple of cows, according to the agricultural schedule.  He doesn’t own land and he is not yet a citizen, but he was naturalized in 1876—almost as soon as he could have been, since the waiting period was five years at the time.

John’s wife Caroline died in 1872, when the boys were thirteen and eleven.  Could that be when John’s life started to unravel?  By the 1880 census, both boys were working as farmhands on other farms, and John is nowhere to be found in the census.  He remarried around 1882, to the longsuffering Sophia Schultz, ten years his junior.  By the 1900 census John and Sophia are living in a rented house and he is a day laborer—tough work for a man in his sixties! 

By 1908, when John was 70, things had gotten bad.  The Joliet Herald News ran a short article on October 26 entitled “Sons Cited to Give Support to Father.”  Apparently John Jr. and Karl were called before a judge and asked why their homeless father was about to be declared a pauper by the courts, when he had two perfectly healthy adult sons who could support him.  The October 27 edition reported that “John Erickson Sr… for whom a petition was filed to have him declared a pauper, will be given a home with his son John, and another son will contribute to his support.”  The end of the story?  Not by a long shot.

The very next day, the October 28 Joliet Weekly News fed the flames by publishing a shocking exposé about “John Erickson, the aged Romeoville resident who with his wife were alleged to have had to sleep on the island at Romeo, driven forth into the cold by an unnatural son.”  The story went on to indicate that “the elder Erickson was a hard-working man, deserving of success, and his sons, though wealthy, denied him financial assistance.”

Two weeks later on November 9, the Joliet Weekly News was singing a different tune.  This time the headline said this:  “Aged Romeo Man Booze Victim – John Erickson’s Sons Not Heartless as Reported.” 

The story went on to say, “The father, it appears, is a victim of drink and had been living in a house belonging to the Romeo saloonkeeper.  He had worked a little garden and this, together with his earnings as an occasional worker in the neighborhood, and the efforts of his wife at washing, had supported them.  For twenty years, however, the old man’s surplus had gone for drink and in the evening of life when [his] earning capacity had been… ruined by alcohol, he became a dependent.”

John Jr. and Karl were exonerated.  “The old man’s sons were cast adrift at 15 to shift for themselves, never seeing their father except when in liquor…   When the old gentleman was without a home, he was taken care of on the farm [of one son] several miles west of Romeo.  The farm was so far from the saloons, though, that it was not satisfactory to the old gentleman… The rest of the story is known.  He was found on the island with his aged wife and all parties suffered the humiliation that booze had brought, not only to the old man, but to the family.”

Two years later at the 1910 census John and Sophia are living in a rented house and he is a “garden laborer.”   Perhaps the saloonkeeper allowed him to move back into his little house.

John managed to live to the age of eighty, but his luck ran out in November 1918.  I wondered if he died in the influenza epidemic—but when I ordered his death certificate, it told a different story.  John died of “shock and injuries” resulting from “falling from a wagon.”  He was buried at Lace Cemetery in Lemont, Illinois, in an unmarked grave.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sibling Saturday: Name That Child

I was digging around in a client’s tree last week, and I came across a couple who were very creative in naming their children.  When I come across one unusual name it amuses me, but when I come across a handful, that’s even better.

John Brittain was born in 1796 in South Carolina.  He took Sarah Lindsey as his bride in 1825, when he was twenty-seven and she was just seventeen.  Over the next 30 years they had at least twelve children, most of whom lived to adulthood and beyond.  Findagrave was a wealth of information on the children and their families, most of whom spent their entire lives in Indiana.

First was William Brittain, born in 1826, named after his paternal grandfather, nothing fancy there.  But then things got more creative. 

Jamima America Brittain was born in 1828.  She went by “America” so she must not have minded her unusual name.  She had nine children, all with quite typical names.

John Columbus Brittain – Named after his father John and Christopher Columbus, perhaps?  John named his son born in 1861 “Abraham” and his son born in 1865 “Ulysses,” perhaps after the Civil War heroes of the North.  (This was Indiana, after all.)

Mary Indiana Brittain went by “Indiana” all her life—her tombstone even gives that name.  So being named after the state of her birth must not have bothered her too much.  (I’m glad my parents didn’t name me “Illinois”!)  Her eight children all had common names.

Virginia Brittain – another state name.  Her mother’s parents came from Virginia, so perhaps that’s the connection.  She named one of her sons “Washington,” but the other seven children have more typical names.

Marquis (Marion) Lafayette Brittain – I wonder what caused John and Sarah to name their child after this famous French aristocrat and military officer who fought for the United States in the Revolutionary War?  Was it because the war hero had died two years earlier, in 1834?  At any rate, this Lafayette had eleven children with two wives, and although some of the girls had unusual first names (Phelda, Lola, Orpha), none of the names had political or geographical overtones.

Leah Frances and Sarah Catherine Brittain came next.  Both had ordinary names and as far as I could tell, ordinary lives.  I think Sarah might have died young, possibly after having daughters named Dora and Flora, but the records aren’t clear.

Theodore Hyson Brittain was a Civil War veteran.  His seven children had fairly typical names.  The youngest was a daughter named “Tillie Belle,” which I think is very cute.

Sidney Smith Brittain was married twice.  He and his second wife (pictured here) named their sons Simon Sidney, Orville Lee, and Orbra Ivan, and their daughters were named Bessie, Eutha, Lura, and Lenore.  Perhaps these were popular children’s names in Oklahoma, where they lived.

Taylor Adolphus Brittain had the dubious distinction of dying of scurvy at a time when that was rare.  He was unemployed at age 52 in the 1900 census; perhaps he was already sick.

Queen Victoria Brittain – What a name!  She was born in 1851, at the height of the reign of England’s queen (pictured)—before her beloved Prince Albert had died and turned her into a perpetual mourner.  Our Victoria had nine children, according to the 1900 census, but only two survived—daughters Artemesia and Estie May.  One son was named Algain.

Lovina Brittain died at age 24, perhaps in childbirth.  No children are recorded.

I love finding a collection of names like this, all in one family!  What's your favorite name in your family tree?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Black Sheep Sunday: The Greedy Priest


Well, now—it seems that my latest client is not the only one with a black sheep in the family!   After I posted “Inlaws and Outlaws” recently, blog reader Arlene sent in the story of her great-uncle, a priest who apparently didn’t take a vow of poverty.

Father Peter Gaborski (name changed to protect a certain elderly relative who might have a stroke if she knew about this) was a priest in a Lithuanian Catholic church in Chicago, Illinois.  The story opens in 1935, when an elderly man within Father Peter’s sphere of influence died.  The elderly man lived in a local flophouse—but as it turned out, he was no pauper.  He had sixteen bank accounts initially estimated at upwards of $90,000—which in today’s dollars would be equal to something like $1.5 million.  Later estimates more than doubled that number.

The man had a shady past, and according to a newspaper account (Alton Evening Telegraph, 3-7-1935), “Although he possessed a fortune, the ex-convict, James Thomas Kelly, 62, preferred to live in a west side flophouse at 25 cents a day.”  The proprietor of the flophouse, a Mrs. Butnam, figured out that her tenant was not the pauper he appeared to be.  She moved him from his 25-cent room (a price he had negotiated down from 35 cents) to her own home after she discovered that he was wealthy.  She then teamed up with an attorney and several others to draft a phony will.  In it, Mrs. Butnam became Mr. Kelly’s common-law wife, to whom he left nearly all his considerable worldly goods. 

Witnesses were needed—and that’s where Father Peter comes into the picture. The article goes on to say that there were two “witnesses” to the phony will—“Peter Gaborski, 48, who described himself as a priest and is a painter by profession, and John Dallyde, 54. The witnesses, police said, confessed participation in the plot, admitting that they signed the purported will after the death of Kelly.  They were to receive $100 each for their signatures.”

The undertaker also got in on the action, apparently to make sure his bill (an inflated $4,500 for a $98 coffin) was paid…  Altogether six people conspired to relieve Mr. Kelly of his estate.  But the forgery must not have been a good one; as the will worked its way through probate court, suspicion of foul play was strong enough that poor Mr. Kelly’s body was exhumed!  The Decatur Herald (3-9-1935) says that “Dr. Jerome Kearns, who examined the exhumed body, reported that Kelly did not die of cancer as the death certificate stated, but further examination will be necessary to establish the death cause.”  I’m not sure what came of that—but another article (Decatur Herald, 3-11-1935) said that Mr. Kelly—known in various newspaper headlines as the “Mysterious Miser,” the “Wealthy Hobo”, and the “Flophouse Midas of Madison Street”—was not the first lodger to die suspiciously under Mrs. Butnam’s care, and that toxicology tests were being run to see if Mr. Kelly had poison in his system.

Other beneficiaries included the attorney who drafted the will, who was to receive 6% of the estate, and the undertaker’s assistant, who was left 4%.  So, let’s review:  The landlady, the attorney, the undertaker, and the undertaker’s assistant, all beneficiaries of this man’s will…  Imagine that not raising red flags to a probate judge!

The two witnesses were the first to crack and confess to police, and after that, the plot unraveled quickly.  By May of 1935, all six were convicted on forgery and conspiracy charges.  According to the Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger (5-9-1935), the landlady, the attorney, the undertaker, the undertaker’s assistant, and the two witnesses to the phony will each received a sentence of one year in jail.

So here’s hoping that Father Peter learned his lesson…  I’m guessing he did a lot more painting, and a lot less preaching, after this affair.