Recently, I had the privilege of researching a distant cousins’ mysterious ancestor, a man we’ll call John Smith. The only records that have been found for our mysterious Mr. Smith, are a marriage record from 1931 in West Virginia, the 1920 Census for North Braddock, PA and the 1930 Census for Ellwood City, PA, and that is it! What I have gathered is that John was born in Pennsylvania around 1913 (marriage record indicates he was 21 years old in 1931, placing his YOB at 1910). The 1920 Census shows John, as a single child of his parents John (born in PA) and E.B. Smith (NEE Jones, born in Ill. – my nod to “Alias Smith and Jones”. If you are not familiar with that phrase, just do an internet search on it). The 1930 Census shows John Jr. living with his widowed mother, and I have found the death certificate for John’s father dated in 1927, as well as the death certificate for E.B., John’s mother, who died in 1942.
John Smith still remained somewhat of a mystery. I then began looking at the woman John married in West Virginia in 1931. We’ll call her A.L. Brown. So, from 1931 and on, there seemed to be no further sign of John or A.L., including the 1940 Census. It’s obvious something happened that kept John and his wife off the “radar”, and I was going to try to find out what did happen.
I scoured Ancestry and FamilySearch to no avail. I then went to my trusty backup, Newspapers.com. Newspapers has been such a reliable source of information for filling in the missing gaps in a lot of the research I have done in the past. So, I went to work on John Smith (of course, his real name was not Smith, but his real name was common enough that I thought I might encounter some problems…and I was right).
Nothing seemed to come up that matched the current information at hand or connected to the John I was looking for. I did the next best thing…I searched on his wife’s name, and BINGO!…I immediately found two articles that finally shed some light on the dark, mysterious life of John Smith.
The 1st article was from August of 1934. John’s wife had filed for a divorce in court, on the grounds of cruelty, and based on her statements in court, her husband was “currently at the State Reformatory”. He had been arrested in 1933 for larceny and was sentenced to 1-1/2 to 3 years.
The 2nd article was from December of 1934, in which the court granted A.L. Smith her divorce from John.
I then found on Ancestry, a family tree for A.L. Smith, with a 2nd marriage record.
In January of 1935, A.L. Smith (NEE Brown) was married to E.E. Johnson. Apparently, A.L. did not waste any time finding someone else. It’s pretty obvious that she probably met this other guy after her husband went to jail.
As for the rest of the story of John Smith, the trail seems to end here. There are prison records available for where John supposedly ended up, but a search of those records did not produce any further information.
For now, we can only ask those questions that most researchers would ask themselves at this point…
Was John actually where his wife stated he was? Did John get transferred to another prison? Did John pass away in prison? If and when he was released, did he make a new life for himself elsewhere? Did he move back to his “old stomping grounds”?
What we should take away from any mystery like this one is this; there are always answers to the mysterious events of our ancestors. It’s just knowing where to look and the proper resources to find those answers. There are times we may never discover the truth behind the mystery, but you just have to keep on looking.
So remember, use every possible source you can find online. A great place to start is Cyndi’s List. There’s a lot of great links there that can get you to where you want to go. Of course, if you are near the vicinity of where your ancestors lived, go visit your local historical society or library. You never know what you might uncover.
Brian S. Miller
As always, thanks to my wife for her love and support.