Posted by Ancestry Team on July 31, 2013 in Who Do You Think You Are?

Stage and screen star Christina Applegate’s father, Robert, has lived with a troubling mystery his entire life — just who was his mother? Raised by his paternal grandparents, Robert has only fleeting memories of his mother. Christina sets out to find her story.

She starts with one valuable piece of information: Robert’s birth certificate. She learns that his mother’s name was Lavina Shaw and she lived in Trenton, New Jersey.

A visit to the Trenton Public library yields a remarkable discovery: a picture of Lavina and her sister, Delilah, in the society pages when Lavina was about 13. But a search of the 1940 census on shows the family’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse just a few years later.

As Christina digs further she finds a 1941 marriage record for Lavina Shaw and her grandfather, Paul Applegate. But the marriage was troubled almost from the start. Court documents reveal the couple agreed to a separation in 1942, as each party made serious accusations against the other.

Ultimately, Lavina retained custody of Robert in a 1945 divorce. So how did Robert end up with his paternal grandmother?

The answer may lie in a death record. Court documents identified Lavina’s mother as another caretaker for Robert. But she died in 1946, shortly after her daughter’s divorce.

Then Christina finds a surprising clue — Lavina’s own 1955 death certificate, which states that she died from tuberculosis and cirrhosis due to chronic alcoholism. Is that the answer? After her mother died, did Lavina’s alcoholism leave her unable to care for Robert on her own?

It’s a painful past for Christina to offer her father, but a visit to Lavina’s grave provides an unexpected chance for a mother and son to exchange promises — and a gift.

Christina Applegate’s journey took her from birth records to the 1940 census to death records. You can find all of these on — and maybe the answers to your own family mysteries as well.

Learn more about Christina’s journey or watch the full episode on


Research Notes from our ProGenealogists team:

When you begin any family tree, you start with what you know and then work backwards in time. Christina Applegate didn’t want to go far, just back to her father, Bob’s, mother. Neither of them had known her, but Christina had her father’s birth certificate, which gave us information about his mother’s maiden name, date of birth, and where she was living when Bob was born. With this information, we were ready to check the 1940 and 1930 census records at


Here we found Lavina Shaw living with her parents in Trenton, New Jersey.

We learned that Lavina was named after her mother and that her father, Ovid, was working as a carpenter in 1930.


Looking at the family in 1940, they had fallen on hard times with both Ovid and 18-year-old Lavina out of work.

These census records provided the foundation we needed to start looking for birth, marriage and death records for all members of the family.





  1. Jeff Record

    This was quite possibly the best episode of WDYTYA that has come out so far. While the program was not genealogically intense, it was instructive and purposeful. Christina Applegate was not a typical celebrity out to find her royal ancestors, or to see if her ancestors had slept in a place next to George Washington. No, Ms. Applegate was on a truly serious mission to use genealogical tools to solve a very recent and painful family mystery. She did so with a great deal of dignity and bittersweet aplomb. I think sometimes we often forget that can be such a useful tool for us to identify and de-mystify those immediate stories or legends from a past that we are more than closely connected to – in this case Christina’s own father. All in all this was a well delivered program about real people solving real problems and their own coming to terms with them. Thank-you to Ms. Applegate for sharing your poignant and personal family history story with the rest of us. Ms. Applegate respectfully demonstrated another aspect of “family history,” and the value there can be in “uncovering” it for the people still living it. A great and bittersweet true story!!! Many kudos~ Sincerely, J. Record

  2. Patricia R. Flemming

    I have my lap near by and follow along with where they go on Ancestry.Com
    Which they had did more on the follow up on the Grand Parents and Aunt. What other story maybe there to be told?
    Thanks for a great show each week

  3. Cheryl Whittle

    I just want to commend Jeff Record for his post, so very well said. Christine Applegate’s search for information about her father was a wonderful, bittersweet story. I went from smiles as she sat and talked with her father, to tears when she found each piece of information; and oh my goodness, what an emotional moment when Christina was explaining everything to her father…and then the climax of both of them going to the cemetery to see their family’s graves, and without a marker….at that point I am crying like a baby…It was a beautiful ending when they showed the new stone, just beautiful! Absolutely, the very best “Who Do You Think You Are?” Blessings to Christine and her father. May he feel complete now, having learned of his mother’s story, completing his story as well; and now being able to visit her grave. Thank you for this show! I hope you will air more like this one. As Jeff Record stated, “Many Kudos!” AMEN!

  4. Tony White

    I loved this episode. I wish the show would have looked for other family that might have been able to flesh out the story of Lavina.

  5. Nancy Pletcher

    This was one of the more absorbing episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are” that I have seen to date. Christine Applegate’s compassion in detailing her findings to her father was heart-wrenching, but a necessary process in helping him to find strength and peace in his past, which I hope he did. Not all families are a fairy tale, and sometimes what we imagine can be worse than the truth. The final truth was he found his mother and it appears that is what he had been searching for all along.

  6. Sarah

    So agree with you all. It was a beautiful, touching story. I’ve been watching this show from the beginning and I’m so glad TLC picked it up.

  7. MsWinston

    I, too, enjoyed this episode. Christina Applegate was wonderful to watch. In my father’s family there have been many estrangements due to divorce. My grandfather never saw my father after dad was nine years old, even though my grandfather visited with my aunt and her husband everytime he came to Los Angeles. He knew my grandmother and my dad lived just a few miles from my aunt, but he never made the attempt to contact them. For years, I was determined to find out what happened to the grandfather I never knew, even after my dad died in 1974. With the release of the 1940 census I finally found him in Houston, Texas. He died in December of 1942 in that same city, a resident of an “old folk’s home,” where he had been for a few years. How he got there is still a mystery, and since the funeral home closed years ago, there is no record of who paid for his burial plot. I could really relate to Ms Applegate’s story. Thank you.

  8. Kathleen

    I love this show but I’m about this close away from canceling my subscription. I’ve had the account for close to 10 years and in that time I have never found anything to help me in my research. I have ended up paying researchers to help and yet my subscription is for both the US and world data. It’s there because they’ve found it… sadly Ancestry does not.

    Still love the show but just seethe when someone types in – just a first name – and poof! a lot of information comes forth. It does not happen that way in real life, or real Ancestry. com.

  9. Barbara

    I would have liked to see what happened to Livina’s daughter, a half sister of Christina’s father. I would also like to see what could be traced on Livina’s husband who is not buried with her. He may have relatives who know more about the life of Livina who died of TB and liver chirrosis. Livina may have died in a TB sanitorium. It is a sad story but there may be redeeming facts that Christina’s father could trace through Livina’s husband and her daughter.

  10. scwbcm

    Great show. I was concerned the show was moving toward being another silly reality show but this show was smart and deeply moving. Obviously, I am more a fan of mysteries than I am of reality shows or soap operas and this was a compelling mystery. I would have liked the show without any regard to the celebrity status of Christina. Christina was clearly involved and caught on quickly to what she was seeing. She started with a bewildering puzzle and then went to a brief period of judging. At the end she seemed to arrive at a place of compassion. It was hard to watch her dad have to go through this but I loved what he added to Livinia’s tombstone. It takes a great heart to forgive a tough childhood.

    I agree with the comments made by Barbara. Also, there may turn out to be more to this story. It would be interesting to know more about her earlier years and her family history. Keep in mind the treatments that may have been used. Even today alcohol may be used in cough syrups.

  11. Just now watched this episode. Lovely and moving.
    Also noticed Lisa Kudrow was one of the producers.

    Wanted to mention, i noticed on the cemetery record which names four people to be buried there, there is also the name Michael Constant* shown on the left side of the paper. Everyone will probably remember, that same name was mentioned in the earlier court records, in Paul Applegate’s court petition. There is much more for the Applegates to discover, in private. God blesses us all~

    *p.s. here is a screen shot of the image.

  12. Meghan

    I would also say this is one of the best episodes. Most episodes leave you with a discovery and a conclusion. This episode just left more questions. I would suggest a part 2 for this episode.
    Would really like to know what happened to Lavina’s sister, Deliliah, and half-brother Victor? Who was the Michael Constant character and was he the one that purchased the family plot (anyone else notice the owner name on the cemetery records?). Why wasn’t Lavina Weaver Shaw buried in the family plot?
    What was with Christina cutting her father off when he said he thought he was older than he was – or his reaction to finding out his mother died when he was 15 not when his paternal grandmother told him?
    I am curious to know more – this episode made me to research when the show was over.

  13. Just a little nit to pick in the OP. Robert could not have been raised by his paternal grandparents. His grandfather, Elmer Applegate, had died in 1925. Elmer is interred in Riverview Cemetery in Trenton. Robert was raised by his paternal grandmother alone or by his grandmother and a step-grandfather.

    In the 1940 Census, Robert’s father Paul and Paul’s sister Eleanor were enumerated with their mother Amy (Wigglesworth) Applegate, who is identified as a widow. So as late as 1940, she had not remarried. I have not been able to track down death or interment information for Amy yet.

  14. NCEnginerd

    Amy (Wigglesworth) Applegate died 30 Aug 1958 in Trenton (per the Trenton Evening Times) at the age of 72 at her home on Pennington-Harbourton Rd where she lived with her son Paul Applegate.

  15. Jeff Record

    Just a note – which no doubt does not belong on these posts for the show regarding Ms. Applegate’s search – but I have often heard it said, and often times said it myself how dull it can be to watch the rich, famous, or celebrity types review their genealogies, family histories, or solve a family legend or mystery. And yes, while it is true sometimes that it would be nice enough to see a common sort of person in the light of the same venue of discovery – it does occur to me how very, very, brave these people, the rich, the famous, the “celebrity types” are to let us into their lives – to see their “humanness”, that indeed they suffer the same mysteries and legends as the rest of us. They also suffer many of the same pains. I think Ms. Applegate’s program proved to me once and for all that yes, we might be looking at the life and family history of a celebrity, but in the end we are experiencing something that may be very familiar to us, and similar to our own lives and research. I appreciate and applaud these brave “famous people” who have invited us into their lives. Wow! How many of the rest of us would truly want the rest of the world to see our hurt, our family woes, or the things we are still trying to come to grips with so many years later? We are all not the sons and daughters of Kings – more often than not we are just the butcher, and the baker, and the saloon keeper – just like “they” are – Many thanks to “them” who care to share their very public lives in terms of family history with the rest of us! Best regards, JR

  16. Jeff Record


    Not that is matters, but do you find that the ‘famous’ individuals you have profiled in your WDYTYR programs read the comments written afterwards about their lives and family history research as portrayed in your shows? I know that however unflattering or patronizing any comments might be – heck are they even curious what the rest of us thought of their research? ~ It doesn’t matter I suppose – just wondered if they ever do.

  17. Nessa Burns Reifsnyder

    This episode riveted me, and I am grateful to Christina and her father for sharing such poignant moments with WDYTYA’s viewers. I, too, have sat at workaday archives tables with tears stinging my eyes…our discoveries really do answer so much emotionally after decades of family estrangements.

    Genealogy is healing–and in some ways, cleansing. This generation of researchers is fortunate indeed to have Internet archives to launch our findings and answer the questions in our hearts. Everyone’s experience differs, of course, but my subscription has been utterly invaluable to me over the course of 12 years’ membership. I could never have filled in my family’s elusive stories without it!

    BTW, I also noticed the almost-out-of-view “Michael Constant” citations on this ep–did a lot of freeze-framing!–because once a genealogist, always a genealogist (even if it’s not your own family :). I’m sure that the Applegates have many more discoveries to make off-screen, and I hope what they learn continues to bring them heartfelt closure. Perhaps they’ll meet a new generation of cousins, too…!

  18. Kristie Wells

    Thank you one and all for your comments on Christina’s story. It is safe to say, it moved most of us.

    There is still a lot of story for the Applegate’s to sort out – if they so wish.

  19. Kristie Wells

    @ Jeff Record: We are sharing the links to the blog posts with the celebrities we are featuring, and would love to – one day – get their feedback on how their story affected our community.

  20. Mary Ellis

    I have 36 articles, etc. that I found in the newspaper after the show. Is there any way to have these forwarded to Christina Applegate .

  21. Jeff Record

    Dear Kristie Wells – That is crazy cool, and I am so proud of you guys at for putting those blogs in place for the celebrities to participate in, observe, or ignore if they wish. – Job well done!
    Jeff Record

    PS: Hope you are able to help Mary Ellis – I don’t know the lady but it sure seems like her heart is in the right place.

  22. Amy

    I was bawling at the end of the episode. Still so many unanswered questions. I have some family mysteries, too. I’ve justified not further investigating because I can’t see what possible good of come of it, especially now,

  23. Amy

    I was bawling at the end of the episode. Still so many unanswered questions. I have some family mysteries, too. I’ve justified not further investigating because I can’t see what possible good of come of it, especially now, but after watching this episode, it’s made me reconsider.

  24. John Biggs

    I too was crying at the end of the episode.
    It was like the show was piling moments upon moments.
    Her dad saying he wanted some good news at that moment *sniffle*
    Seeing that his mother had bought him a plot and her dad going ‘she did love me’ *wipe eyes*
    Seeing his weeping at no headstone and promising to get one *crying now*
    Then final shot where the inscription read ‘mom, I found you’ *ok no stopping these tears now*

    My wife was calling me all sorts of name for my making her watch the show as she was bawling too.

  25. Malyso

    To answer the question about Lavina’s mother (Lavina Weaver Shaw), she too is buried in Riverview Cemetery, she is buried with her son, Columbus Shaw who was born July 7 1920 and died July 15 1920. So, Lavina and Delilah had an older brother who died at 8 days. The name Columbus comes from Ovid Shaw’s father who was
    William Columbus Shaw.

    Agree, this episode was the best. It reminded me of my previous favorite episode for Steve Buscemi, which also dealt with some unknown secrets of the family. These stories far and away are better
    than the ones trying to connect to a famous person or event in history.

  26. John H

    I second the motion on a Part Two for the Applegate Saga.

    Perhaps a 30-minute update?

    I know Miss Applegate has a new movie coming out later this year — I am sure TLC could produce something worthwhile in that amount of time?

  27. Steven James Beto

    I mailed a letter o the address in Orem, Utah and have not yet received a reply. Maybe one of you can help me.

    In beginning my maternal line research, said that my mother’s parents were different people than those I grew up believing were my grandparents. I asked relatives of mine and none of them agree with One relative suggested that this is how might try to suck you in to subscribing. If is resorting to this kind of tactic, then how can I trust any information I get from them? Have any of you had similar problems, or how can this mix-up be explained?

  28. Tamara

    I love every episode of WDYTYA, but this was by leaps and bounds my favorite. So many unanswered questions…..please consider a follow-up.

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