Tombstone Tuesday: John Elam Whitehead, a case study for finding elusive ancestors (On a Wing and a Hunch)

It’s been awhile since I posted an article.  I’ve been busy with other projects — writing and research.  From my latest ancestry research project I’d like to share a case study for finding elusive ancestors.  If you’re searching for some of those, perhaps it will encourage you to keep digging. When I begin a research project I never know what I’ll find (don’t we all know that!)  My client had begun her search awhile back and recently received her Ancestry DNA results, yet still didn’t know a whole lot about her family history.  In her possession are two books representing significant research published several years ago on two lines:  Belshe and Minear. Those types of books can certainly be helpful, but if you don’t understand how to interpret the research what good are they.  Still, once I found the names of the ancestors I knew were part of her line, it rolled out quickly. That was great to get a line or two started and begin exploring more in-depth research (and verification), but there were still many mysteries to be solved.  One in particular was my client’s great grandfather John Elam Whitehead, a Methodist Episcopal minister. John Elam Whitehead:  Who Were His Parents? I like to start out with census records, particularly for anyone born in 1835 and after because they usually begin to show up with their parents in the 1850 census.  I had an approximate date for John’s birth (around 1852) and soon found his grave stone at Find-A-Grave.  The inscription only contained birth year and death year (1852-1937). Of course, I first began searching, not only...

Book Review Thursday: Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour

So much has been written about Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.  One might assume there couldn’t possibly be one more book written about one of America’s most beloved characters.  Author Richard Zacks, however, has managed to do just that in his latest book. Zacks brought the story to life through Twain’s never published notebooks and correspondence, bringing a unique perspective to a somewhat “dark period” in the author’s life.  Mark Twain was a highly successful humorist and author, but as a businessman he failed in 1894 after investing in an ill-conceived invention which never quite lived up to its potential. As a result his publishing company went under; buried in debt, he declared bankruptcy.  His wife Olivia (Livy), a coal heiress, was heartsick at the possibility of their good name being sullied.  Twain promised Livy he would pay back every penny despite the fact there was no legal responsibility to do so once he filed for bankruptcy.  But, how to do that? Twain, at this point in his life, really hated the idea of performing, yet it seemed the only way to make headway against the mountains of debt.  He was fifty-nine years of age but set out to make good on his word by embarking on an around-the-world comedy tour.  After traveling throughout the American West he and Livy and daughter Clara set sail for places like Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa where he entertained sold-out audiences. The book tells the story of their travels and adventures (and let’s face it with Mark Twain, some misadventures), including a wild ride down a Himalayan mountain, while interspersing...

Far-Out Friday: The Curiosities of Julia, the Misnomered Bear Woman (it was a Victorian thing)

Let’s face it – the Victorians had an insatiable curiosity for all things freakish.  Such was the case of a woman who was variously referred to as  “Bear Woman”, “Ape Woman”, “Baboon Lady” or more perhaps aptly and succinctly, but nonetheless cruelly, the “world’s ugliest woman”.  After she died following childbirth in 1860, her body was mummified (at the request of her entpreneurially-minded husband, Theodore Lent) and put on display as the “The Embalmed Nondescript”. Julia Pastrana was an indigenous Mexican believed to have been born in the early l830’s in the state of Sinoloa.  Born with two genetic conditions, hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia (the former a condition exhibiting abnormal amounts of body hair and the latter a condition marked by an exaggerated and overgrown jaw resulting from excessive fibrous connective tissue), she was purported to have been discovered by a woman who had lost her way after she and her friends hiked up into the mountains to bathe in 1829. As explained in a newspaper account in 1855 (which may or may not have been factually accurate, given that era and its penchant for sensationalism): In 1829 several women went up from Copala (a little town just at the edge of the mountains) to a small pond above, on the side of the mountain, to bathe, after their custom; on their returning home they missed Mrs. Espinosa, one of their companions; all endeavors to find her proved fruitless, and it was believed that she was drowned, until six years afterwards a Ranchero, who was hunting for his cattle on this mountain, heard a voice in a cave, which...

Book Review Thursday: Two World War II Spy Stories

I’ve been lax of late in writing here at Digging History as I’ve undertaken some ancestry and book research projects.  I’ve also been inundated with trying to keep up with library books I’ve had on hold all coming my way at the same time it seems.  In the last two weeks I’ve read two somewhat-related books about World War II spies – one about a woman who to many in the world of MI6 and OSS during the war was known only as “Cynthia” and the other about an American family living in Paris who joined the Resistance and paid a dear price. The Last Goodnight I am a fan of Howard Blum.  I eagerly wait for his new books to be released and make sure I’m in line to check it out as soon as I can from the library.  After seeing initial reviews of his latest book, I wasn’t so sure I’d like it or not. Truth be told I had mixed feelings about the book – it was hard to decide if Betty Pack (a.k.a. “Cynthia”) was a true patriot or perhaps just a nymphomaniac whom the British and Americans exploited.  One reviewer suggested she may have been possessed of narcissistic personality disorder.  I’m not sure about that, but Ms. Pack seemed to have little or no compunction about “putting herself out there” as a temptress. As a young woman she married an older man, a British diplomat, and almost immediately began cheating on him and did so throughout their marriage.  She seemed to fall in and out of love with men other than her husband...

Book Review Thursday: The Secrets of the Notebook: A Woman’s Quest to Uncover Her Royal Family Secret

Even after the author’s family fled Nazi Germany to take refuge in London, they still faced danger as Hitler’s blitzkrieg pounded England.  On the day Eve Haas (nee Jaretzki) turned sixteen her father showed her a piece of family history, a notebook, which contained secrets about her family’s history.  Years later after both of her parents had passed away Eve finally came into possession of the notebook.  Although her family had warned against researching the secrets lodged in the notebook, Eve decided to pursue it nonetheless.  The notebook’s opening inscription alone was intriguing enough to propel her forward, ignoring her family’s warnings. By this time she had a family of her own, having been raised as a non-orthodox, secular Jew.  Her grandmother had been left behind and more than likely suffered death at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime.  The details which began to unfold revealed one startling revelation after another, but in order to get the complete story Eve and her husband had to find a way to access records which at this time were stored in Communist East Germany. The process of discovering her family’s secret history took years of patience and research and Ms. Haas gives a thorough account of  both triumphs and disappointments.  At the heart of what she discovered was a touching love story and the identities of her great-great grandparents, one of which was Prussian royalty (and a distant relative of England’s Queen Victoria).  Due to the treachery of his own family and attempts on his young wife Emilie’s life, Prince August was forced to take extraordinary measures to protect their only...