My interest in tracing ne’re-do-wells goes back to my investigation of my grandfather’s family tree. He was famously close-lipped about his family, though he did let one intriguing detail out. He told my mom that his uncles, August (known as “Gussie”) and Willie, died in six inches of water; the inference being that both were so drunk that they fell into a puddle of water, couldn’t get up and drowned. I wanted to know if this story had any truth.
It turned out that it probably wasn’t true or at least it couldn’t be proven. One of my great granduncles died at age 67 of “creeping paralysis” from an illness was likely related to lead poisoning due to having been a house painter all his life. However his wife died of liver cirrhosis when she was only 38, so drinking to excess may have been a lifestyle choice in their household.
However I unearthed the fact that uncle Gussie did a stint at Leavenworth Penitentiary (when it was still a only military prison) in 1889 after he deserted from the army and was captured in Michigan. He was incarcerated there for about two years and was released early because his sister (my great grandmother) had died and their mother needed someone to support her.
I ordered the records of Gussie’s stay at Leavenworth from the National Archives. I found that he’d been a model prisoner and had beautiful handwriting. I was hoping for a photo but they weren’t taking prison photos that early.
The other great granduncle, Willie, was alive and well in June 1910, when he was counted for the federal census, but he was dead by mid-September 1910, leaving a wife and four small children. No death record has ever come to light for him. His granddaughter heard a story that his body was unidentified at first and was buried wherever it was found. Then somehow he was identified, dug up and reburied in the same family plot where Gussie would join him 23 years later. The story has a lot of holes, but it could be related to the “drowned in six inches of water” story. At any rate there’s a mystery about his death.
Delving further into the skeletons in my grandpa’s family closet I found two more great granduncles who got up to all sorts of roguery during their youth. Assault and battery, garroting, highway robbery, larceny, strong-arming saloon-keepers into supplying them with intoxicating beverages — they kept themselves and the St. Louis police busy in late nineteenth century. Eventually both men settled down, found honest employment and got married. One of them even raised a large family. Neither of them died by drowning.
By now I was hooked. If I hadn’t been able to do this kind of research, using newspaper archives and other genealogy tools, these ancestors would only have been names in my family tree. Knowing more about them, including finding out about their crimes, has helped me understand my family’s past. Plus I’ve discovered a lot of fascinating stories and learned a bit about history along the way.
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