Posted by Ancestry Team on July 26, 2015 in Website, Who Do You Think You Are?

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:

  1. Court documents showed that she had divorced Ginnifer’s great-grandfather, John Albert “Al” Goodwin, in 1912 in Independence County, Arkansas.
  2. Nellie had retained custody of her two children, a daughter named Pearl and a son, John Barton, Ginnifer’s grandfather.
  3. John Barton left the family in his teens in the late 1910s, likely in Memphis, Tennessee.
  4. No Nellie, Pearl, or John Barton Goodwin appeared in the 1920 census in Tennessee or Arkansas.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.


  1. Geoff Trowbridge

    “…research into [Nellie’s] parents found that her father, Isaac Bart Haynes, died in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1917.”

    I’m curious about this statement, since her death record stated that her father’s name was Will.

  2. becky

    whoever gave the info for death cert may not have known her fathers name, I have so many Haynes in my tree from Arkansas, I missed the name you have listed of Isaac when watching the show, what about Nellie’s mother name?

  3. Jay

    What happened to John Albert “Al” Goodwin? I am curious about how long he was in prison and when and where he died. He was the direct ancestor of Ginnifer Goodwin but no further information was given about him.

  4. I am curious also Jay what happened to John Albert Al Goodwin?? What happened to Hugh Wyllie??? and I would really like to know what happened to Pearl ?? Also how did Ginnifers grandfather survive? Did he live with relatives?? was he sent to a children’s home so many questions they need to do a follow up show

  5. Robin

    I’m sure they checked to see if Pearl or Nellie and Hugh’s son had any children to see if there might still be someone alive that might actually know the story. It just drives me crazy that they don’t tell us that they checked.

  6. Phillip Plotz

    I watched the episode. I was wondering how they got access to those prison records. I would think that would be private. Who holds those type of records? Thanks.

  7. Cindy Lee

    Loon up John B. Goodwin on for what should have been the ending to this story …

  8. Debbie

    Goodwin was a self-made man, a ward of Juvenile Court at age 11 who had worked his way through school selling newspapers. At 15, he enlisted in the Navy, and gradually built up a small fortune doing bookkeeping, carpentry and contracting work, and buying restaurants. Left without a car during the Depression, he walked to work carrying his tools. In 1939, using his own funds, he began building houses and quickly became one of the major developers of east Memphis, as well as the first developer of Whitehaven. As Goodwin began work on Plaza Gardens, he worked simultaneously on several of his other developments: Edwin Circle, High Point Terrace, and Poplar Glen among others.

  9. DIna

    This was the worst editing of WDYTYA to date. There was no real story told, just bits and pieces. Threads were left unravelled, people dropped and nothing was really solved or explained. I really wish the American producers would take lessons from the much more professional produced and compelling BBC versions of WDYTYA.

  10. Kenneth Rorie

    John Duffus “Duff” Williams (J. D. Williams, Nellie’s first husband)

    Birth 18 March 1880 in Independence, Arkansas, USA
    Death 24 December 1905 in Oil Trough, Independence, Arkansas, USA Story of Duff’s Demise: Jim Claxton: “Duff Williams is buried in Claxton Cemetery located on the old fair place off Claxton Loop, Cushman, Independence Co, AR. The story I heard was he was killed in an altercation with his double cousin Will Bob Williams. I have seen his gravestone and I think he was 23 (25) yrs of age.

    The altercation between them as told to me 50+ years ago by Coy Claxton, son of Bud Claxton, was that it occured at Oil Trough, Ar and gambling and alcohol was involved. A dispute arose between them and Duff was chasing after Will Bob and as Will Bob went by a wagon he picked up a singletree that was lying in the wagon bed and swung it over his back and struck Duff in the head fracturing his skull which resulted in his death. There was no “intent” to inflict a lethal blow and it is said he was devestated. True story or not? I have no idea.” Duff had just married Beulah Mae House 18 Sept 1905 before he was killed in December of that year.

  11. Kenneth Rorie

    Will or Willie Haynes was Nellie’s half brother from Bart Haynes’ second marriage following the death of his first wife, Nellie’s mother, Lillie Safley. Will or Willie’s mother was Mira Land. Nellie was from the Bethesda/Cushman area of Independence Co, AR.

  12. Ariel W

    This was an episode that should have been broken into 2 episodes. Too much was left unfinished from Duff Williams to Pearl to What happened to Al to even exploring the third child J Wyllie. I would have liked to see Jennifer’s fathers reaction to this new information.

    Although this episode was one of the best with the most twists, it was also the worst in which left us viewers wanting to know what happened.

    If anyone knows what happened Pearl please tell. I’d like to know!

  13. Ariel W

    I think Pearl Williams died in Caddo in 1941. I searched the Louisanna death records and that is the only one that came close.

  14. Ariel W

    Not sure if you like to add this but for anyone who watched Who Do You think people tried to track her but it is confusing with all the names. I thought the below sequence could help others and perhaps they will be able to track down the missing daughter Pearl. The records below are census and city directories, marriage dates and Births:

    10/4/1900 – AK – Independence – Nellie Haynes married J D Williams

    1900 – AK – Independence – Jefferson – Nellie M Haines
    (Lived with father Issac and siblings Sarah and Ruth

    1902-1903 – AK – Independence – Daughter Pearl Williams is born

    10/19/1903 – AK – Independence – Nellie Haynes divorces J D Williams

    1905 – AK – Independence – Son John Burton Goodwin is born

    4/2/1906 – AK – Hot Springs – Perla – May Haynes marries John Goodwin

    1910 – AK – Independence – Batesville Ward 1 – Nelle Goodwin
    (Lived with second husband John Goodwin, dtr Pearl Williams and son John Goodwin

    1912 – TN – Shelby – Memphis – Son James Patrick Wyllie is born

    1918 – City Directory – TN – Shelby – Memphis – Mrs Nellie Wyllie (373 S Front)
    Lived with daughter Miss Pearl Wyllie

    1926 – City Directory – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Mrs. Nellie Wyllie (227 Market)
    No Pearl Williams or Pearl Wyllie listed

    1928 – City Directory – AK – Caddo – Shreveport – Nellie Wyllie (933 Travis)
    Lives with third husband Hugh Wyllie

    1930 – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Nellie Wyllie (550 Logan)
    (lived with son James Wyllie)

    1938 – City Directory – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Nellie Wyllie (818 Travis)
    Lives with third husband Hugh Wyllie

    1940 – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Nellie Wiley (2242 Greenwood Road)
    (lived with son James and Dtr-in-law Edna)

  15. Beth Figuls

    What happened to Pearl??? Also, did the show explain how Ginnifer’s grandfather lived after being abandoned at age 11? Was he in an orphanage?

  16. netzband

    The big difference here in the US is that we have an hour filled with commercial breaks vs the BBC version where they have much more time. I am not wanting to watch the US version of Rowling coming up because I’m thinking it will be a truncated version of the BBC version which was already aired a while ago. How nice it would be if we had a longer program. Loose ends as in this episode could be tied up much more satisfactorily.

  17. vickie weber

    Jinnefer wasn’t even surprised about finding a 3rd child of Nellie at all. I would have been very surprised. Also, I agree that they left too many questions unanswered.

  18. Deborah Whitaker

    Please pay close attention to abbreviations used for states. AR is correct for ARKANSAS which is referenced several times in an above post. NOT AK, which is the abbreviation for ALASKA.

  19. Ariel W

    Ive corrected my my errors. 🙂
    10/4/1900 – AR – Independence – Nellie Haynes married J D Williams

    1900 – AR – Independence – Jefferson – Nellie M Haines
    (Lived with father Issac and siblings Sarah and Ruth

    1902-1903 – AR – Independence – Daughter Pearl Williams is born

    10/19/1903 – AR– Independence – Nellie Haynes divorces J D Williams

    1905 – AR – Independence – Son John Burton Goodwin is born

    4/2/1906 – AR – Hot Springs – Perla – May Haynes marries John Goodwin

    1910 – AR – Independence – Batesville Ward 1 – Nelle Goodwin
    (Lived with second husband John Goodwin, dtr Pearl Williams and son John Goodwin

    1912 – TN – Shelby – Memphis – Son James Patrick Wyllie is born

    1918 – City Directory – TN – Shelby – Memphis – Mrs Nellie Wyllie (373 S Front)
    Lived with daughter Miss Pearl Wyllie

    1926 – City Directory – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Mrs. Nellie Wyllie (227 Market)
    No Pearl Williams or Pearl Wyllie listed

    1928 – City Directory – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Nellie Wyllie (933 Travis)
    Lives with third husband Hugh Wyllie

    1930 – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Nellie Wyllie (550 Logan)
    (lived with son James Wyllie)

    1938 – City Directory – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Nellie Wyllie (818 Travis)
    Lives with third husband Hugh Wyllie

    1940 – LA – Caddo – Shreveport – Nellie Wiley (2242 Greenwood Road)
    (lived with son James and Dtr-in-law Edna)

  20. Phyllis

    This story should be made into a movie!! There is so many unanswered questions. I really wanted to know what happened to Ginnifer’s grandfather. The story of Nellie is so interesting but I kept waiting to hear why did John Barton Goodwin leave the family? Was he removed from the family because of drug/alcohol abuse? Did he run away on his own? At a minimum it would be nice to have a follow-up episode so we could know what happened to John Barton and Pearl.
    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this show but I feel I’ve been left hanging on this episode. PLEASE tell us more!
    Thanks to Debbie for filling in the blanks but I still want to know more.

  21. Darla

    This was a fascinating, troubling, tragic story. It is too bad that there was no way to really grasp all the threads along the way – Nellie being abandoned with a young child, having syphillis ( who gave it to whom), being sick and entering what was basically 1920’s rehab with her daughter. It seems that Nellie must have led a very sad life. RIP.

  22. Betty

    This was a wonderful story and yes, it should be made into a movie. However, I would love to know more about Pearl.

  23. Emily

    Yes please, I’m sure some more research could be done to find out what happened to Pearl. I was really hoping her gravestone would be next to her mother’s.

  24. Ariel W

    Found this on:

    “I have researched family lines in Arkansas and have run into these family lines in my research. John Barton Goodwin was named after his mother’s side of the family as the family lore goes. It wasn’t Nellie’s maiden name but rather Nellie’s father whose name was Isaac Barton Haynes. And John Albert Goodwin’s father was John Wilkinson Goodwin, a baptist minister. Several members of the family ended up in Memphis. While I am sure John Barton felt abandonded by his parents – he probably wasn’t on his “own” from the age of 11 like the highlights of the program states Though I cannot find him in the 1920 census but by 1930 he is married with children. Ironically John Barton’s 2nd son, John Edwin Goodwin dies at the age of 9 from an accidental lethal dose of morphine in 1935. The history of the abuse of morphone of that era continues to pleague this family.

  25. Ariel W

    According to Hugh Wyllie in Monroe Morning Sun (Monroe, LA), 23 Dec 1934, p. 5

    “Hugh Wyllie was given three years at Leavenworth on a plea of guilty to the charge of violating the narcotics act”.

  26. I’m looking into finding more of her Haynes ancestors, I am a Haynes by birth, most of my family hails from New England, so there may be a connection, I did find Nellie’s father’s birthday and death day on, her mother’s name was Lilley Safley.

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  28. Roberta

    #1: What happened to Pearl Williams? Did anyone find out if she died before Nellie?
    Who were the people in the picture of her elderly grandmother?

  29. Katherine

    A great episode–yet I felt like the historical context could have really improved her understanding of the hardships a woman like her ancestor faced as a single mother with little education, few resources, and fewer opportunities. She had few options in life.

  30. Kathy barakat

    cant get any other information, on annetta Helen horn, married alexander gray, then married mick haller. no info on children she may have had other than Robert joseph mataafe

  31. Pat

    I echo the request for a follow-up episode to tie up some of the loose ends. What happened to Pearl? Who are the women in Nellie’s photograph? Little John E. dying of an accidental morphine overdose? OMG!

  32. Paul

    The 1941 Caddo death mentioned in one post indicates that Pearl is nego. Nellie is listed along with her 2nd son in 1930 census (Hugh is in Caddo jail). Nellie with same son and his wife in 1940. So Pearl appears to probably have died or got married before 1930. There is a Pearlie Williams, age 26 who died in Tangiapaho Parish, but appears this is wife of Henry in 1920 census. Just a side question has anyone found where this family was in 1920 census? Found a possible clue – there is a Pearl McCoy, wife of WH McCoy at same address as the Wyllie’s in 1926 – 227 Market, Shreveport.

  33. Paul

    Did anyone look into what happened to Nellie’s mom? Listed with her dad and sisters in 1900 census?

  34. Paul

    Age and place of birth for Pearl McCoy in 1930 census appears to be her (28 b AR). Mr McCoy is much older (50). They were at 416 Douglas St.

    Nellie and son at 1222 Sprague.

    Did anyone also notice that per 1940 census, Nellie only had 4th grade education?

  35. Paul

    Mrs. Pearl Norwood – 1953 – 818-20 Travis, Shreveport. Nellie at this address at 818 Travis in 1938…..not close enough in time to be sure….but might be connection….

  36. Paul

    Name: William Harry McCoy
    SSN: 434201083
    Gender: Male
    Race: White
    Birth Date: 15 Jul 1880
    Birth Place: Washington C, Maine
    Father Name: Joseph A McCoy
    Mother Name: Mary J Lane
    Type of Claim: Original SSN.
    Notes: Jul 1940: Name listed as WILLIAM HARRY MCCOY

    Wm H McCoy at 1222 Sprague in 1932 and he is listed as a plumber, like Hugh Wyllie. Wm H was a paper hanger in 1930.

  37. Danielle McLaughlin

    My name is Danielle. I have always lived in Minden, Louisiana. I am the great granddaughter of the late Lee Goodwin. He lived in Minden as well. I would love to know more about this story.

  38. Jennifer

    The Louisiana, Statewide Death Index has listed a Pearl McCoy, born 1901. Died 1934 in Rapides Parish. Could this be her? Can someone pull the record to see what information is provided?

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