by Juliana Smith
Thanks to everyone who has sent in what they found on the missing son of Elva Zona Heaster, â€œthe Greenbrier Ghost.â€ For those of you who missed last weekâ€™s column, we took a look at an old ghost story about a woman who purportedly visited her mother after her death as a ghost to let her know sheâ€™d been murdered by her husband. Based on the ghostâ€™s appearance and the details she gave her mother, the local prosecutor was persuaded to exhume the body and reopen the case. Her husband was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Prior to her marriage, in November 1895, Elva had given birth to an illegitimate son and because he is not listed with her family in any subsequent censuses, I issued a challenge to anyone who could determine what became of her son. (See last weekâ€™s article for more details on the case.
I got a great response with quite a number of leads. As I browsed through the e-mails and did a little more research on the case myself, I found quite a few lessons that we can apply to our own research.
So You Searched It All?
Perhaps my biggest frustration with my initial searches was that I couldnâ€™t locate the Heaster family in the 1900 census. Several readers bested me when they located the family, who had been indexed as â€œHastie,â€ right there in Meadow Bluff.Â I had tried a number of variations and even browsed the entire Meadow Bluff district and still missed them.
My excuses? The handwriting was very faint. There were markings over the name, completely obliterating the head of household. The name was misspelled and indexed incorrectly. I was rushing to get the article into the newsletter so I could meet my deadline. The dog ate my laptop. . . .
Excuses or not, itâ€™s a reminder that some of our brick walls may be caused by rushing through and being impatient. When Iâ€™m in a hurry I find myself starting a comprehensive search and then Iâ€™ll get a brilliant idea for a new search and take off down that road, only to find it too a dead end. So itâ€™s back to the drawing board. Now where did I start?
Lesson learned: Take your time. Note what searches youâ€™ve performed, including all of the search criteria you used. If youâ€™re searching one particular census year, you can make a grid (either on paper or in a spreadsheet) of the all of the fields on that census search form. Note what criteria you include as you search. Then you can go back and check the form looking for possibilities you missed.
Another thing I noticed as I was dashing through the images page by page, the writing was faint and really hard to read although it was a respectable size. When I found the image, I enlarged it to an even larger size and it became much easier to read. In most cases Iâ€™ve found that once you enlarge an image, as you browse forward, Ancestry will retain the magnification size. Although you wonâ€™t see as many people on the page and will have to scroll down more to get to the bottom, youâ€™re much less likely to miss your ancestor.
Are We Relying Too Much on Secondary Sources?
Since I had no firsthand knowledge of the story of the Greenbrier Ghost, almost all of what we had to go on was secondary information, in the form of a websiteÂ detailing the case, and a listing for Elva Heaster in the Ancestry World Tree.
Other readers found an article on the West Virginia State Archives siteÂ on the subject, in which some of the details donâ€™t quite match up with other versions of the story. Since the only sources cited were two books, I thought Iâ€™d track down those publications and see if I could locate more information. I have ordered The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories (by Dennis Dietz), and I picked up a copy of The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives (by Katie Letcher Lyle) at my local library.
Since most of the articles online listed these publications as sources for more information but listed no direct sources of information, I thought that any source and bibliographic information in the books would be helpful. In looking at the Lyle book, I was correct. This book is a combination of facts pulled from records, and fiction that the writer inserted to fill out the story. What is helpful is that she notes the sections she created with little ornamental icons and â€œragged margins.â€ Factual information is listed with even margins and no ornamentation. At the end of each chapter, she lists sources by page and explains where she got information, both in fictional background passages and factual sections.
I noted several places online where fictional sections had been picked up in articles and passed on as fact. We may make similar mistakes in our own research. Are we including hearsay that hasnâ€™t been verified and presenting it as a fact? While we will sometimes have family stories that we just canâ€™t verify, we need to remember to clearly distinguish them as such. Otherwise they can be perpetuated and steer us and other researchers down the wrong path.
Look a Bit Closer
Several people noted that on the Ancestry World Tree entry George Woldridge is listed as Elvaâ€™s first husband, but upon closer examination, next to â€œMarriage Beginning Statusâ€ you can see that he is listed as â€œsingle.â€ Although, presumably, any marriage would begin with two single people, Iâ€™m guessing this was entered into the submitterâ€™s software deliberately to reflect that they were not married. If you have unmarried families in your family tree, look for a way to note their marital status.
In Family Tree Maker, on the family page of the parents, next to he marriage field, there is an edit icon (the pencil). Click on this icon and a pop-up box will appear with a field for â€œRelationship.â€ The drop-down box includes several options, including â€œsingle.â€
Write Out Your Problems
In the preface of The Man Who Wanted Seven Wives, the author reiterates something I have always found to be true when she says, â€œ. . . the best way to learn about something is to write about it.â€ Iâ€™ve run into this truism countless times over the course of my career as an editor of Ancestry newsletters. When you write something out, you find yourself really checking facts and choosing words that correctly convey a situation, and in doing so, find holes in your thinking that need to be filled and additional research that needs to be done.
Try it with one of your brick wall families. Whether itâ€™s a biographical sketch or a family outline, try to incorporate as much as you know and fill in gaps wherever possible with more research. As you work on the sketch, youâ€™ll find pieces falling into place and new avenues of research opening up.
As I mentioned, a number of readers have accepted the challenge and sent in leads. While no one has yet been able to prove the identity of the child, there are some interesting possibilities to be followed up on. Iâ€™ll be sharing more information as the search progresses on the blog and in the newsletter, and hopefully weâ€™ll have a solution and a winner soon. Best of luck to all of you in the hunt!
Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.
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