You see it all the time in movie mysteries: the genius detective trying to solve a case that seems to have no answer. As the story progresses, however, we are transported into the detective’s mind. Random clues appear to glow in the detective’s vision, flashbacks to telling circumstances pop on the screen, and the audience watches as this genius pieces together seemingly unconnected observations to solve the unsolvable case. Plenty of research projects hit a point where it appears there is no answer, but we, as genealogists, can be that genius detective—not by having four doctorates, speaking 17 languages, and having a strange personality quirk, but by simply taking our time, being observant, and examining all possibilities.
Ginnifer Goodwin’s maternal great-grandmother, Nellie May Haynes, was this kind of a mystery. At the point of our brick wall, we had the following information:
- Court documents showed that she had divorced Ginnifer’s great-grandfather, John Albert “Al” Goodwin, in 1912 in Independence County, Arkansas.
- Nellie had retained custody of her two children, a daughter named Pearl and a son, John Barton, Ginnifer’s grandfather.
- John Barton left the family in his teens in the late 1910s, likely in Memphis, Tennessee.
- No Nellie, Pearl, or John Barton Goodwin appeared in the 1920 census in Tennessee or Arkansas.
- No match for Nellie or Pearl appeared in death indexes for Tennessee or Arkansas.
Where would a single woman with two young children go? As they do today, recently single parents with young children often went to their families for support. Interestingly, although Nellie’s family was originally from the town of Batesville in Independence County, Arkansas, research into her parents found that her father, Isaac Bart Haynes, died in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1917.
It was also likely that Nellie would have remarried at some point, so we first searched the database of Tennessee marriages on Ancestry to see if Nellie married there, but no good matches appeared.
One of the best resources for tracing a person in the early 20th century are city directories, which provide the names, occupations, and addresses for most of the adult population of a specific city every year. Ancestry has an extensive collection of these directories, including directories for Memphis spanning from 1855 to 1960. Nellie’s daughter, Pearl, would have been coming into adulthood in the later 1910s, so it was possible we could catch her in a directory living with her mother in the few years between when she became old enough to have her own entry but before she would have married and been living with her husband.
In order to find the right Nellie, we used the basic search function on Ancestry and compiled a list of every Nellie and Pearl who appeared in the Memphis city directories from 1913 to 1920. Then we examined each entry, looking for any Nellie and Pearl who shared a surname or address. Being meticulous and patient, we eventually found the match we were hoping for: in the 1918 Memphis directory, a Nellie Wyllie and a Pearl Wyllie each had her own entry but shared the same address. Also living at the same address was a Hugh Wyllie, who we thought could have been Nellie’s husband.
Of course this evidence was still circumstantial. Our next step was to find a way to prove that these were indeed our Nellie and Pearl and that Hugh was Nellie’s new husband. Returning to the index of Tennessee marriage and death records, this time with the surname “Wyllie,” once again turned up no results. Our survey of death record indexes for surrounding states, however, eventually uncovered the death record of a Nellie May Wyllie who had died in Minden, Louisiana. This appeared to be quite a leap, but further examination of this record showed that this Nellie Wyllie was born in Batesville, Independence County, Arkansas, to a father surnamed Haynes, just like the ancestral Nellie, and that her husband’s name was Hugh. Here was our proof. We had found out what happened to Nellie after her divorce.
In the end, taking our time to explore every possible match and remembering even the slightest clues allowed us to solve this seemingly impossible case. Although it may have looked like movie magic, it was actually just patience that allowed us to trace Nellie from her divorce in Arkansas to her residence in Memphis with Hugh Wyllie and finally to her death in Minden. The story of what happened between Memphis and Minden, however, is another story altogether.
Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists:
- Be patient and observant. It’s tempting to pass a record or collection by if it doesn’t immediately appear to hold the answer you’re looking for, but if you are patient and observant, you will often find a crucial clue where at first there was none. Researching your ancestor often means performing even more research into other people. In this research we spent time examining every single Nellie and Pearl in Memphis for eight years in order to find the single entry in one year that led to our proof.
- Information about spouses, children, and other relatives, along with neighbors and acquaintances, can often help you find the ancestor you’re looking for. Don’t get too tied up searching for one name. Triangulate your ancestor’s location by finding other people you know they associated with.
Learn more about Ginnifer’s journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.