Test Tube Tots: A 21st Century Moral Dilemma?

Since this is Father’s Day weekend I thought I’d share an article from a recent issue of Digging History Magazine (March-April 2019).  In the last few days I’ve noticed other articles along the lines of moral dilemmas regarding DNA tests which are now readily available (and heavily promoted).  Yes, it’s fun to find out “who you are” as in what are your ethnic origins, but what if you discover some deep, dark family secret?

This issue has featured a wide range of articles and this one is inspired by the book reviewed on page 23 (Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro). While reading the book I pondered Ms. Shapiro’s story and thought about how others had been unbeknownst-to-them conceived artificially as she was decades ago, and years before established ethical guidelines were in place. My question: does this present a potential 21st century moral (ethical) dilemma?

As DNA technology advances at an unprecedented pace I anticipate more stories like hers will come to light. For Shapiro, taking the DNA test was a casual afterthought, yet the results rocked her world – forcing her to adjust to new realities of who she really was in terms of heredity and heritage. Ponderous thoughts . . . and now a little history.

Knocked out, then knocked up (in a colloquial sort of way) is more or less how the first full-term American “test tube tot” was conceived. The year was 1884 when a 31-year-old Quaker woman visited Dr. William Pancoast, a physician at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College. She and her husband wished to have children but as yet had been unable to conceive.

While Pancoast originally assumed the inability to conceive was due to the woman’s infertility, a series of examinations revealed the more likely cause to have been her husband’s low sperm count. Her husband, a wealthy 41-year-old Philadelphia merchant, was healthy – save for a case of gonorrhea years earlier. A two-month course of treatment yielded no change – his sperm remained “absolutely void of spermatozoons”.1

Pancoast made the decision, without informed consent of either the woman or her husband (the moral dilemma part) to proceed with treatment as follows:

In front of six medical students, Pancoast knocked out his patient using chloroform, inseminated her with a rubber syringe, and then packed her cervix with gauze. The source of the semen was one of the medical students in the room, determined to be the most attractive of the bunch.2

Was Pancoast a scientist or some sort of quack, or as one 1965 article suggested, perhaps he submitted to pressure from his students.3  By all accounts William Pancoast was a reputable physician. He was born in Philadelphia in 1835, the son of Joseph Pancoast, a renowned surgeon. After graduating from Haverford College William entered Jefferson Medical College and graduated in 1856. Following extended studies abroad he returned to Philadelphia in 1858, cultivating his own well-regarded reputation as a surgeon.

During the Civil War he served as chief surgeon at a Philadelphia military hospital and in 1862 was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at Jefferson. In 1868 he became an adjunct professor and five years later replaced his father as Professor of Anatomy.

Upon retiring from Jefferson, William Pancoast took a new position as a professor at the Philadelphia Medico-Chirurgical College in 1886. His career had been steady, rather uneventful actually, as evidenced by a brief obituary published in The British Medical Journal in 1897:

He contributed largely to the literature of his profession, and his writings were always marked by width and accuracy of knowledge and soundness of judgment.4

It doesn’t sound like William Pancoast was a “roll-the-dice” kind of guy. As a professor of anatomy he perhaps possessed special knowledge about infertility, or perhaps he had read of earlier attempts by J. Marion Sims, founder of New York’s Women’s Hospital. After the hospital’s opening in 1855 Sims attempted fifty-five artificial inseminations on six different women, yet only one procedure resulted in pregnancy before ending in miscarriage.

Pancoast never told the woman the details of her last “examination” before conceiving, and only told the father following the child’s birth. Together, the two men decided it best to keep the circumstances a secret from the mother. Pancoast never wrote of this particular “accomplishment” even though he wrote extensively throughout his career.

The world only became aware of it after one of his students, Addison Davis Hard, present on that day, divulged details of the procedure in an April 1909 letter to the editor of The Medical World. It had been twenty-five years, Dr. Pancoast had died in 1897, and perhaps Dr. Hard decided it was time to unburden his soul. His opening remarks suggest he may have thought for some time regarding the procedure and its ethical implications:

Editor Medical World: – It has been twenty-five years since Professor Pancoast performed the first artificial impregnation of a woman, in the Sansom Street hospital of Jefferson Medical College, in Philadelphia. At that time the procedure was so novel, so peculiar in its human ethics, that the six young men of the senior class who witnest [sic] the operation were pledged to absolute secrecy.5

A.D. Hard described how treatment had progressed to the point where no one had a clue as to how to remedy the husband’s blocked seminal ducts. He continued:

A joking remark by one of the class, “the only solution of this problem is to call in the hired man,” was the probable incentive to the plan of action which followed. The woman was chloroformed, and with a hard rubber syringe some fresh semen from the best-looking member of the class was deposited in the uterus [swearing everyone to secrecy]. . . subsequently the Professor repented of his action, and explained the whole matter to the husband. Strange as it may seem, the man was delighted with the idea, and conspired with the Professor in keeping from the lady the actual way by which her impregnation was brought about. In due course of time the lady gave birth to a son, and he had characteristic features, not of the senior student, but of the willing but impossible father.6

Dr. Hard had recently met the boy who was by then a New York City businessman. His article took on a bolder tone after suggesting a society for propagating the practice of artificial insemination was in order. It sounded very much like eugenics which, at the time, was “all the rage”. Interestingly, the term “eugenics” had been coined in 1883, one year before Pancoast’s experimental procedure, by Francis Galton, a cousin to Charles Darwin. The word, derived from Greek, means “good in birth” or “noble in heredity.”7

Hard went on to expound regarding artificial impregnation, marriage and venereal disease:

Marriage is a proposition which is not submitted to good judgment or even common sense, as a rule . . . Artificial impregnation by carefully selected seed, alone will solve the problem. It may at first shock the delicate sensibilities of the sentimental who consider that the source of the seed indicates the true father, but when the scientific fact becomes known that the origin of the spermatozoa which generates the ovum is of no more importance than the personality of the finger which pulls the trigger of gun, then objections will lose their forcefulness, and artificial impregnation become recognized as a race-uplifting procedure.8

“Race-uplifting procedure” was no doubt a phrase lifted from the ethos of that era amidst growing interest in the “science” of eugenics. The more he wrote, the more he sounded like a hard-core eugenicist:

It is gradually becoming well establisht [sic] that the mother is the complete builder of the child. It is her blood that gives it material for its body, and her nerve energy which is divided to supply its vital force. It is her mental ideals which go to influence, to some extent at least, the features, the tendencies, and the mental caliber of the child. . . It is the predominating mental ideals prevailing with the mother that shapes the destiny of the child. . .

A scientific study of sex selection without regard to marriage conditions, might result in giving some men children of wonderful mental endowments, in place of half-witted, evil-inclined, disease-disposed offspring which they are ashamed to call their own…

The man who may think this idea shocking, probably has millions of gonnococci swarming in his seminal ducts, and probably is wife has had a laparotomy which nearly cost her life itself, as a result of his infecting her with the crop reaped from his last planting of “wild oats.” . . .

Go ask the blind children whose eyes were saturated with gonorrheal pus as they struggle thru the birth canal to emerge into this world of darkness to endure a living death; ask them what is the most shocking thing in this whole world. . . They will tell you it is the idea that man, wonderful man, is infecting 80 percent of all womankind with the satanic germs collected by him as his youthful steps wandered in the “bad lands.”9

A.D. Hard had unburdened his soul (rather ickily), “outed” Dr. Pancoast, sounded much like a male feminist, even more so a eugenicist (or so it seemed). However, in a July 1909 article published in the same journal, he brushed aside the original article’s bold assertions, implying “it had been embellished with radical personal assertions calculated to set men thinking.”10

He did in fact “set men thinking” as the next few issues published varying thoughts:

I greatly enjoyed his article and have given the idea much thought. I have personally used the impregnator with success o mares that were apparently steril [sic], and have read what I could find on the procedure in the human family. If, from a commercial standpoint, it be a paying process in the animal kingdom, why would not its influence be many times greater in the human family? Male colts that are not promising individuals are promptly castrated, and yet they are not diseased, and in this way the quality of horse flesh is looking forward; but we are standing idly by and witnessing thousands of infected young men of fine families select a pure, innocent young girl, perhaps your own, to deposit the deadly seed of his “prodigal” reaping, resulting in the train of symptoms in women so common to the surgeon today . . . Why not adopt the castration plan in the human family and save the state and Nation the responsibility of having the charge in the state institutions of these deaf, blind, insane, and criminals?11

Yikes! J. Morse Griffin of Sulfur Springs, Arkansas certainly didn’t mince words did he?

A doctor, writing to the editor in the same issue cited above, mistook Hard’s “hard-line” assertions, unable to believe the story of Dr. Pancoast was true at all:

Some notice, I think, should be taken of Dr. Hard’s dream (page 163). I wondered what he had eaten for supper, or what is his brand of drinking water. Dr. Pancoast was a gentleman, and would not countenance the raping of a patient under an anesthetic. . . The story of taking the gentleman’s seminal fluid to be examined by the students to see it it contained any “spermatozoons” is a flight of fancy worthy of Munchausen.12

Others opined:

“ridiculously criminal” (N.J. Hamilton, M.D., Buswell, Wisconsin);
“a ridiculous jumble of fact . . . I must admit that I do think this article shocking, not only to me but to any male or female who has a proper understanding of marital relations or the laws of God. . . Furthermore, I have as healthy and bright a child as one could wish for, and she was not begotten with a hard rubber syringe, either.” (C.L. Egbert, Glenville, Nebraska)13

Dr. Hard had to ‘fess up in the July issue, however, in answer to his many critics:

I cannot convey to you an idea of the amount of pleasure that the varied answers to my article on “Artificial Impregnation” have given me. In answer to all my critics and reviewers, I wish to say that while the article was based upon true facts, it was embellisht [sic] purposely with radical personal assertions calculated to set men to thinking on the subject of generativ [sic] influences and generativ [sic] evils. Bless my critics. I would not wish to own a child that was bred with a hard-rubber syringe. And I do not care to think that my child bears toward the millenium no traces of his father’s personality, humble tho it be. I am a firm disciple of impregnation in the good old orthodox manner, with all its esthetic features and risks of evil. Let us now pull the trigger of some other gun, and set free another explosion of cerebral action.14

Engendering “explosions of cerebral action” notwithstanding, the journal’s editor was not, it appears, amused by Hard’s repartee, adding “[And the editorial department will hereafter realize that you are not to be taken seriously, and act accordingly.–Ed.]”.

Dr. Hard, all kidding aside, had set off a firestorm of opinion, both for and against the practice of artificial impregnation – at least in regards to the human variety.

Actually, the term “artificial impregnation” had been around for quite some time. In terms of the proverbial “birds and bees” these references had been on the “bees” side, focused on creating hybrid seeds, various plants and flowers. By the late 1870s the subject of “artificial impregnation” of fish was openly discussed in newspapers.

When the original story was published in 1909, the world was still processing its exit from the prudish Victorian Era. Openly speaking of plants and fish in terms of artificial impregnation was one thing, the human variety quite another. Still, by the mid-twentieth century technology advanced and artificial insemination had taken place, just not openly. Dr. Edmond Farris, of the Institute for Parenthood on the campus of The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in Philadelphia, was operating (more or less) in a “legal no-man’s-land.”15

Farris, aware of widespread and historical religious thinking, nevertheless believed he was acting ethically:
I see nothing wrong in trying to bring children of fine quality into the world. We’re not in this for monetary gain.
We select a donor who matches the father in everything but blood. Color of hair and eye is the same. We even consider build and religion.

He described the donors in his institute as the “best material that Philadelphia medical schools can offer.”16
The practice of artificial insemination was an “open secret”, with little or no regulation through the 1970s, as Dr. Michael Glassner remembers from his medical school days: “The ob-gyn walks down the hall and says: ‘How tall are you? Are you healthy? How’d you like to make $100? Here’s a cup.’”17

In 1958 Dr. Farris saw nothing wrong with bringing “children of fine quality” into the world via artificial insemination. The practice, colloquially known as “test-tube baby” was, however, making headlines around the world – in many cases not in a good way, either. The public was already questioning such things as “test-tube baby” legal rights:

Q. Do “test tube” babies have the same legal rights as other children?
A. If the husband is the father there seems to be no special legal problems. When the husband is not the father, things get pretty involved. Laws always lag behind scientific discoveries. When our laws were made no on had any idea that “test tube” babies were possible. Lawyers will have to start from scratch and determine what legal right such children have.18

In Edinburgh, Scotland a judge has just ruled that a wife who had given birth to a test tube baby after separating from her husband was not in fact committing adultery. Indeed, her defense counsel had admitted the case was “unique in the annals of our law.”19

Ronald G. MacLennan of Glasgow was suing wife Margaret (who had since removed to Brooklyn, New York) for divorce on the grounds of adultery. The two had separated in March of 1954 and the following year on July 10 she gave birth to a girl. Without her husband’s consent or knowledge she had been artificially inseminated.

The ruling, in turn, set off a firestorm across Great Britain, despite “the traditional British reluctance to discuss sex in public.” The Archbishop of Canterbury vehemently denounced the practice as evil, demanding artificial insemination by anonymous donor (AID) be made a criminal offense!20

Was it “Blessing or Sin” as one British medical expert had gone on television to discuss? At the time of his interview, Dr. Alfred Byrne revealed there were already 1,000 to 1,500 so-called test-tube babies in Britain. Statistically speaking, Byrne revealed one in every eight marriages were unlikely to conceive without artificial means. In his opinion, however, the trouble (9 out of 10 times) lay with the woman.

One panel member, a lawyer, was of the opinion that AID rendered the child illegitimate. Public opinion was mixed in response to the television program:

I am the mother of a test-tube baby. He is now five, and his coming, with my husband’s full knowledge and consent, made all the difference to our marriage.  I say to the Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘If it is wrong to be happy, then we have done wrong’.
● A child conceived in this revolting way is a sin against all laws of nature. If, however, this method is right, it is not wrong for a child to be born out of wedlock.
● However evil artificial insemination may be, its result is to create children, rather than destroy them.21

And, for hundreds of families, the desire for children and the ability to produce them – whether naturally or artificially conceived – was the most salient point of all.

Following the uproar surrounding the Scottish case, reports of test tube babies, parental rights, as well as opinions both pro and con, erupted in newspapers. Test-tube baby court trials, often involving divorce proceedings, made for riveting headlines. Much like A.D. Hard’s provocative 1909 article, it “set men (and women) to think.”

An “ordinary” Australian housewife couldn’t understand (as the mother of four, trying to raise them with Christian training) “the medieval attitude of those who oppose artificial insemination on moral grounds.”22  Yes, clerics could argue if a woman was barren then it was surely God’s will. Then, again, God had also given man the knowledge and abilities to produce miracle-working medical procedures. Surely it was the right of every married woman, her primary right, to produce a child. If it was legal to place a child with a couple who weren’t its biological parents, then why was it wrong to conceive them artificially.

This ordinary Australian housewife had a point. Technology to help childless couples produce offspring was rapidly advancing, although one wonders how much thought (if any) these couples put into potentially ethically-challenging consequences decades into the future.

Modern DNA research rapidly advanced after Oswald Avery identified genes as discrete units of heredity in 1944. In 1959 Down’s syndrome was officially linked to the presence of an extra chromosome (21). Yet, DNA sequencing and mapping technology were still decades away in the 1950s.

Dani Shapiro was artificially conceived via AID in the early 1960s, her mother desperate to have a child of her own. As a child growing up with Jewish parents she would sneak down the hallway to the bathroom after her parents were asleep and stare into the mirror, searching for features which bore similarity to her parents.

Fast forward fifty-plus years and casually take a DNA test. Shapiro was at first merely confused by her results which showed only 52 percent Ashkenazi Jewish (Eastern European) ancestry. As far as she knew her parents were Jewish through-and-through. The rest of her DNA makeup was French, Irish, English and German.

Startlement set in, however, after discovering the person she always assumed to be a half-sister (her father’s daughter from a previous marriage) was not related biologically. DNA technology now makes it possible to pinpoint not only ancestral ethnicity, but the ability to link us to biological kin we never knew we had. That same technology also makes it possible to “un-link” them. A five-minute “spit test” can change a person’s perception of biological parentage – just like that.

If this had happened to me, how would I have responded? If it happened to you, would it turn your world upside down?

Ponderous thoughts, indeed.

The March-April 2019 issue featured several other articles which are summarized in this blog post.  The issue is available by single issue purchaseSubscriptions are the best way to enjoy Digging History Magazine, now published bi-monthly and averaging 75-85 pages (the current issue is 100+ pages).  No ads, just stories of interest to history buffs and genealogists.  Want to try a free issue?  If you’re not a subscriber to this blog, sign up today and receive a free issue to see what Digging History Magazine is all about.  Already a blog subscriber and haven’t yet received a free issue?  Email me:  seh@digging-history.com.  (You can even choose the issue you’d like to preview [current issue excluded] by perusing the list of magazine archives.)

Hope you enjoyed the article!  To all the fathers out there — Happy Father’s Day!

Sharon Hall, Publisher and Editor, Digging History Magazine

This Old Blog Just Ain’t What it Used to Be (and it’s a good thing)

Several years ago I found myself looking to pursue a long-time dream of writing and sharing my passion for history.  The easiest way to get started was to set up a blog and write regularly.  I did that and for two or so years wrote almost every day, amassing a portfolio of well over 600 articles.

Along the way I’ve had folks who love history as much as I do sign up to follow this blog.  Every time I posted an article a message was automatically sent reminding them to check out the latest blog article.  After I took on the job of editing my local genealogical society’s newsletter I gradually wrote less for the blog.  For four years I edited — actually wrote most of the articles — for the newsletter, South Plains Roots, and was proud to have it win accolades at the state level (2015-Third; 2016-First; 2017-Second and 2018-First).  The newsletter was runner-up in the National Genealogical Society newsletter contest in 2018 as well.

I reluctantly stepped down from editing the society newsletter after deciding I wanted to write something more substantial — a magazine.  And so, Digging History blog became Digging History Magazine.  I started out (ambitiously so) with monthly issues throughout 2018.  However, after taking on more responsibilities with the care of my parents, I’ve switched to bi-monthly.  The latest issue (May-June) is out this week and it’s the biggest issue yet – over 100 pages!

A magazine is a LOT more work to write, edit and publish than either a blog or a newsletter.  I’ve had people refer to it mistakenly as a “newsletter”.  I had a long-time friend express awe today when I told him how substantial the latest issue is — he too, thought it was “just a newsletter”.  No, it’s way more than that — WAY more.

I sometimes re-tool a blog article for the magazine because it fits with a particular theme — not to rehash an old story, but to refresh it with new research, perhaps putting a different spin on it, and provide complete documentation.  Such was the case with one article in the May-June issue (“Praise the Lord and Place Your Bets”).  In the article I even admitted to originally writing a mediocre article for the blog (Feisty Females: Poker Alice).  Why would I do that?  I dug around and found better sources and determined what sources I had used (the good old Internet!) had a lot of it wrong.  I took the lazy way out originally, but because I work diligently to become a better writer with each and every story I write, the “new” article is much more substantial in length, content and veracity.

I don’t write much for the blog any more simply because all my efforts are being expended in putting out a quality magazine — something I can be proud of and something I hope readers and subscribers find interesting and informative.  Most issues are now running between 75-85 pages — just stories, no ads and focusing on history and genealogy.  I do post blog articles about what’s coming up in the magazine, or to let folks know of contests they might want to check out.  By the way, the latest contest is a real gem — it will end on May 15 at 11:59 p.m.  The prize is substantial, worth from $300-350.  In exchange for a subscription of any length, new subscribers get a chance to win either a 10-hour block of genealogical research or a custom-designed family history chart (up to 7 generations).  Details here.

If you’re receiving these posts (or just stopping by to read an article or two) and would like to check out an issue to see if you might like to subscribe, just send me an email and say “free issue please“:  seh@digging-history.com.  If you tell me what kind of stories you’re interested in, I’ll try to pick an issue which I think you would enjoy.  Subscriptions are easy to purchase online (or by check if you prefer) and the best value.  I plan to have contests from time to time for subscribers as well — chart giveaways or research as a way to thank subscribers for their support.  As I always tell them — “you are a blessing to me!”

If you no longer wish to receive notices about magazine issues, occasional news or contest details, feel free to unsubscribe from this list.  I hope you don’t, but I wanted to be upfront with what Digging History is all about these days.  A blog was a great way to get started, but I detested the thought of monetizing it with annoying ads as a way to earn some money for my efforts (as many blog writers do these days). I instead chose to publish a magazine which requires a subscription to read new content (Note:  many of the original articles remain available on the blog).  Stay or go — either way I appreciate the support!


Sharon Hall, Editor and Publisher, Digging History Magazine

Five More Days

Just five more days to enter the Digging History giveaway with a chance to win a family history chart (up to seven generations) OR a 10-hour block of research for those who haven’t yet discovered their family history.  This subscription-building contest is scheduled to end on May 15.  Details are available here.

Entry is easy with a subscription purchase of as little as $8 every quarter.  It’s a prize package (whichever the winner prefers) worth up to $350.  The clock is ticking!


Currently (slowly but surely) Brewing: May-June Issue of Digging History Magazine (Crazy in Colorado)

Here’s a preview of the next issue of Digging History Magazine, “currently (slowly but surely) brewing”, with a focus on the great state of Colorado:

  • “Crazy in Colorado: Wheels in Their Heads and Other (Insane) Stories” is the lead-off article in the upcoming issue of Digging History Magazine (May-June) with a look at what it meant to be deemed insane (a “wheely citizen” as one newspaper called them) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • “Lightning Struck Twice: an en-lightning adventure in research” is one of my favorite kinds to write.  When I take off on what I call my “adventures in research” I never know what I’ll find.  This one started while researching my own family — just a little news item with an unusual (and incredulous) headline.  Before I knew it I had a long and winding story which also includes a generous dollop of history of Leadville’s early years (without one mention of Baby Doe Tabor, I might add!).
  • Praise the Lord and Place Your Bets:  No doubt about it — Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert was a one-of-a-kind character, better known as Poker Alice.  Google “Poker Alice” and you’ll find any number of articles about her, although many of them contain inaccuracies.  The best stories are the ones told in the first person.  This article, a total re-write of the original Digging History blog post a few years ago, sets the record straight through the actual words and recollections of Poker Alice herself (and a few things she didn’t or wouldn’t discuss!).
  • Colorado’s Glory Days:  Boom Town to Ghost Town:  A look at some of the towns which sprung up almost overnight in Colorado’s glory days of gold and silver rushes.
  • OK, I Give Up . . . What is It? (The Publick Hath Need of It):  With this column you never know what the topic will uncover.  By necessity the pest house was among the first institutions established in a town.  From Boston’s 1721 smallpox epidemic to San Francisco’s China Annie, the history of the pest house is an interesting (surprisingly so) one.
  • Ways to (Fashionably) Go (or Stay) in Days of Old:  This is an article I’ve wanted to write for some time.  Like “Lightning Struck Twice” it all started after stumbling across some unusual nineteenth century headlines.  “Saved by Her Corset” — what exactly did that mean?  What I uncovered is what I like to call “it was a Victorian thing” — oh the things they decided to fume, fuss, feud and fight over!
  • The Dash:  Doc Susie, Medicine Woman:  This article is another re-write of a popular article originally posted on the blog.  Dr. Susan Anderson, better known as “Doc Susie” (and the likely inspiration for television’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” series) was another of those one-of-a-kind characters.  A much beloved Colorado pioneer, she endured prejudice, her own health struggles, strained family relationships, broken engagements and more throughout her long and successful career as a mountain doctor.

Taking a little extra time to “brew” this issue will (hopefully) make for a more interesting and enlightening experience for readers!  Can’t wait to publish it (hopefully on or before May 15)!

Sharon Hall, Publisher and Editor, Digging History Magazine

P.S. Not yet a subscriber?  Now’s the time to sign up with the added bonus of a chance to win either a family history chart or a 10-hour block of research.  Details here:  https://digging-history.com/2019/04/13/digging-history-contest-win-a-10-hour-block-of-research-or-a-family-history-chart/


Digging History Contest: Win a 10-hour Block of Research OR a Family History Chart!

Digging History is conducting a giveaway with two prize options this month to boost subscriptions for Digging History Magazine.  The contest ends May 10 May 15 (extended for five days) and the rules are as follows:

Enter Online (by May 10 May 15)
Purchase a 3-month ($8), 6-month ($16) or 1-year ($32) subscription online by following these easy instructions:

Prefer to pay by check?  No problem.  Six-month and one-year subscriptions are available by check and will garner ONE entry in the contest.  Contact me and I’ll send you details about how to pay by check and get your subscription started.

Win a family history chart and redeem the prize whenever you’re ready to document your family history, OR . . .if you haven’t started your family history research, redeem the prize for a 10-hour block of genealogical research.  Either way, it’s a BIG WIN worth up to $350!

Good luck!


Digging History Magazine – March-April 2019 Issue

The March-April 2019 issue of Digging History Magazine features a variety of articles, although quite a few focus on the Civil War — one of them led to a little “adventure in research” for a family that appeared to have just disappeared after the 1860 census. Here is a summary:

  • Confederados:  Adios, Texas!  Ola, Brasil! – a look at a little-known piece of United States and Civil War history.  Do you have ancestors who seem to have vanished following the Civil War?  This article may provide some clues to finding them.
  • Elusive Ancestors?  Crack Open a History Book or Two (or Three) – The Confederados article led to an “adventure in research” and a lesson about not only looking for dates and records, but the history of the times your ancestors lived in.
  • In the Public Domain:  The Grandest of Re-openings – a look at the history of what we call the “public domain”, a concept enshrined originally in the United States Constitution.  This year all materials published in 1923 will be moved into the public domain, next year 1924 and so on.  What does it mean for finding digitized materials and gaining access?
  • Genealogically Speaking:  Curious Kin – The occasion of stumbling across some uniquely-named brothers inspired this story.  One thing leads to another — what about the “Ocean Sisters” or “Thomas Jefferson Roach and His Sister Wives”.  Bigger Head?  Somebody was really named that (there’s a story!)?
  • The “Texas Troubles”:  Blame it on a Match? – The story of a little-known incident which could very well have set off the Civil War months before April 1861.  The South was on edge already and a series of mysterious fires across Texas seemed rather suspicious.
  • Speaking of Matches – a companion story about another kind of match — one that morphed into nineteenth century political name-calling.  Sound familiar?
  • Ways to Go in Days of Old – a new column which will highlight some of the common and not so common ways our ancestors died.  This one is inspired by a Civil War Widow’s Pension Application.
  • OK, I give up . . what is it? – another new column which highlights archaic terminology which one might come across in historical and genealogical research.  For example, what is a hog reeve or “sessor” or pounder?  Each played a significant role in the community life of early American towns and settlements.
  • Test Tube Tots:  21st Century Moral Dilemma? – What if you took a DNA test and found out something rather shocking about who you were (and were not) related to?  What would you do if you found out, for instance, the man you always considered your father wasn’t your biological father because you’d been conceived artificially (unbeknownst to you)?  An interesting topic to explore in the world of rapidly advancing DNA technology.
  • The Dash: William Henry Sallada – Part I of an extended article about a man who lost his sight during the Civil War and went on to live a long, full and purposeful life.  Sometimes you run across stories that just beg to be old.  This is one of those.

On sale in the magazine store or better yet, start a subscription (three budget-minded options).

Brothers: His Name is Spelled G-e-a-r-l-d (for good reason)

When they were born over 83 years ago I’m not certain Hulon and Willie Hall knew my grandmother was carrying twins.  They had already conceived (and lost) a set of triplets.  It had been about seven years since my grandparents buried their first-born toddler son, Hulon Lamar, a tragic victim of an accidental shooting in a remote area of San Miguel County, New Mexico.  Life had been tough enough and then it got tougher still.

The nearest “town” was the Garita Post Office, so that’s where their birth certificates state they were born.  However, the place where they were born, a humble prairie dwelling, bespeaks the life and times they were born into — the hardscrabble life of a farm and ranch family trying to eke out a living during the Great Depression.

I’ve heard Aunt Joy tell the story many times of how my grandfather assigned names to the twins.  Hulon Hall pondered the situation thoughtfully and purposefully.  They weren’t identical twins, yet distinctly different, and came into the world about five minutes apart.  Although the first would always say he was the “big brother” he was the smallest.  After careful consideration it was decided the names would be assigned thusly:  the little one would be Earl D. and the bigger one Gearld E.  No middle names, just initials.  Not exactly unusual, but meaningful nonetheless.  Why is that?

My Dad (the bigger one) has always had issues with the spelling of his name — not him personally, but how the world thinks his name should be spelled.  Some record his name as “Gearld E.” (the legal one), but more often than not as “Gerald E.”  Granted, the second is how everyone thinks the name should be spelled — it is, after all, the most common spelling and pronounced “jeruh ld.  He signs his name based on the spelling on the document he’s signing, yet when saying his name pronounces:  beginning as a “J sound” followed by “earl” with a “d” at the end — Gearld.

Do you see it (can you hear it)?  Was my grandfather prescient?  Earl D. would irrevocably be part of Gearld E.  The two were meant to be part of one another, even their names. Prescient or not, so it has been.  As one cousin wrote, “Oh the love between the two and the adventures they shared!”

The picture of Gearld E. holding the hand of his brother is poignant for us all as Earl D. is nearing the end of his life’s journey.  My Dad has his own challenges and struggled with making the trip to see his brother.  I’m proud (and grateful) he nevertheless made the difficult choice because I know how much it means to Uncle Earl.  Tomorrow they will be joined by their “big sister”, our beloved 91 year-old Aunt Joy.  They are the remaining children of Hulon and Willie (Strickland) Hall.  Too soon we fear they will all be gone and we’ll be left with only memories, but what great ones they are!

The world may spell it “G-e-r-a-l-d” but for those of us who know and love them most it will always be “Earl D.” and “Gearld E.” (for a very good reason, you see).

Postscript:  On March 3, 2019 Earl D. fell into a coma and passed away peacefully on the evening of March 4.  R.I.P. Uncle Earl.  On March 17, 2022 Gearld E. went peacefully into the arms of  Jesus.  No more pain!  I love you Daddy!


Celebrating Family History

Believe it or not, summer will be here soon.  I know, I know.  Many of us have been dealing with polar vortexes, epic winter weather events and more.  Take heart — it will warm up soon!

Historically, one of many summertime traditions is the family reunion.  Some are small, while others bring together extended family members from far-flung places around the country (or the world).  If you’ve researched your family history and don’t yet have a chart which highlights your family’s unique history, Digging History is offering a great deal.

Digging History specializes in genealogical research and also provides custom-designed charts for its research clients or those who have done their own research and now want to preserve it in a unique way.  I recently designed a chart for someone who had been researching for forty years (begun as a high school project)!

I strive to make each chart unique because each family history is unique.  A chart will, of course, include pictures, names and dates.  What makes a chart unique, however, are things like ancestor signatures, cattle brands, news clippings, patents, historical records and more.  Each of these items is formatted to blend with the chart background and not merely pasted onto the chart.  Here are some samples:

Andrew Kent is this client’s sixth great grandfather.  Andrew Kent holds a special place in Texas history, giving his life at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.


A father’s permission for his daughter to be married.



My third great-grandmother’s cattle brand.






A special offer is running from now until June 30, 2019.  These charts, as you might imagine, take time to plan and design (various sizes, number of generations and designs available), so contact me sooner rather than later.  Once the chart is designed you own it and may have as many copies printed and distributed to family members as you like (splitting the cost among family members makes it very affordable!).  Charts can be printed affordably at places like Walgreens and Costco. Contact me: seh@digging-history.com or 806-317-8639 for more details.



Sprucing Up a Bit

The closer we get to Spring the more our thoughts (may) turn to a bit of “Spring cleaning”.  Some things just can’t wait that long, however.  I decided to do a little “sprucing up” around the Digging History web site this week.  The newly redesigned site is up and running, complete with a store for Digging History Magazine (and a budget-minded way to purchase a monthly genealogy research subscription, I might add).

I cleaned out some obsolete stuff and spiffed up the blog a bit by adding back some stories I had previously taken down.  From time to time articles will be taken down and undergo a complete re-write with new research, footnotes and sources, and be published in Digging History Magazine, a bi-monthly publication available by individual issue purchase or subscription.  A good example of a more extensive (and abundantly more interesting) story was that of Nellie Ross Cullens-Norwood.

The original article was one of the first “Tombstone Tuesday” articles I wrote back in 2013, and interesting enough after I decided to cast my search for a Find-A-Grave entry to the far reaches of Alaska, near the Arctic Circle.  I found an entry with a small metal plaque of a woman in her late 70s buried in a small cemetery in Circle, Alaska.  I figured there had to be a story — I was right.  I decided to do more research and include Nellie’s story in “The Dash” column (the magazine’s version of “Tombstone Tuesday”) for the August 2018 issue.  That issue highlighted characters and events of the Klondike and Alaskan gold rushes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The original article, admittedly, contained many “unknowns”.  The 2018 article was enhanced by new research and answers to many gaps in Nellie’s story.  More digging and a fair amount of newspaper research revealed more about the possible “why’s” of an aged Nellie living by herself, far away from family.  For a genealogist, these types of discoveries are pure gold.  Speaking of “genealogical gold”, that particular issue featured another article, entitled “Mining Genealogical Gold:  Bed and Board Notices (he said, she said)”, an entertaining article about the ways husbands and wives had it out in newspapers by posting “bed and board” notices.  Back and forth they went with what we today might call a “Tweetstorm”.

Speaking of sprucing up, every good genealogist should do a little house-cleaning or “leaf-raking” now and then.  The October 2018 issue features an article, entitled “Genealogically Speaking: It’s Time to Rake the Leaves”, which explains some of the rather dubious “leaf hints” we all see on Ancestry.com.  Some simply are not to be trusted, while others should be used with an abundance of caution.  That issue also included some previous blog articles cobbled together for an article, entitled “Are You One of Those Kind of People?” (referring to people who love to snoop around old cemeteries, bwahaha!).

Some might wonder why I now require payment for stories (via individual issue purchase or subscription) which I formerly wrote for free.  That’s a good question.  Many, many (many!) sites like this one appear to freely publish articles, but may utilize ad-targeting campaigns (unbeknownst to the reader) or include super-annoying ads on their sites in order to monetize the blog.  I, on the other hand, have a strong aversion to such tactics, especially the super-annoying ads (as I’m sure you’re aware, some of them are downright disgusting!).  I don’t like them and I don’t think readers like to be bothered with them either.  These types of tactics lead to an increase in your email spam, among other things.

I expend a lot of time and effort researching, writing, editing and publishing the magazine because I want to share my passion for history and genealogy.  I would also like to receive some remuneration for my efforts — the good old-fashioned way by earning it without all the machinations of Internet ad-targeting and such.  If you sign up to either follow this blog or become a magazine subscriber, you will never see anything in your inbox that isn’t related to this site (as in, I “sold” your information to someone else).  Ain’t gonna happen!

Back to “sprucing up”.  Wouldn’t you just know it, there’s a history of the phrase!  I’ve recently taken to pondering these types of things and introduced a new column: “Everything Has a History, Even …..”  According to one source the term “spruce up” may have first been used in the late sixteenth century with the express purpose of referring to tidying up a bit:  [You shall] spend a whole twelue month in spunging & sprucing.1

Sprucing up is done (maybe a little “spunging”)  . . . time to get back to work researching, writing, editing and publishing the March-April issue.  Stay tuned!

Sharon Hall, Genealogist & Publisher and Editor, Digging History Magazine

P.S.  A free issue (“try-before-you-consider-buying”) is available to all who sign up to follow the blog.  See the area in the upper right-hand corner of this page to do so.


January 16, 1919: Hell for Rent – A Nation Goes Dry

It finally happened on January 16, 1919. Church bells rang across America as the state of Nebraska voted to seal ratification of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The United States, the “first great nation to go dry” was about to enter a new era.

No Prohibitionist was more ecstatic than Evangelist William Ashley “Billy” Sunday.



Richmond, Va, Jan 16 – The rain of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory; we will turn our prisons into factories, our jails into storehouses, and corn cribs. Men will walk upright. Now women will smile, children will laugh, Hell will be for rent.

If any State fails to ratify the amendment, the star in the flag that represents it should be draped in mourning.

Uncle Sam’s knockout blow that sent the Kaiser and his Junker gang of cut-throats and John Barleycorn and all his cohorts to the mat for the count makes me more proud than ever that I am an American and have lived to see this day.1

So sermonized Billy Sunday in newspapers across America as “the last nail was driven into the coffin of King Alcohol.”2

Instead of “heaven on earth”, hell wouldn’t be “for rent” as Sunday proclaimed. Rather, all hell would break loose in the form of bootlegging, moonshine and a level of lawlessness never before seen in America.

The January-February issue of Digging History Magazine explores the lead-up to the history-making event which occurred on January 16, 1919 when Nebraska voted to ratify the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  It was the culmination of decades (and decades) — reaching back to the 1700s of colonial America — of prohibitionists advocating for a more temperate society.  One of the most famous prohibitionist was a saloon smasher (literally!)  What a character she was!

This year will feature several articles on the volatile year that was 1919.  In so many ways events of that year changed the face of America forever.  The January-February issue is on sale by individual issue purchase.  Better yet, a subscription (three options to choose from) is the best value.



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