Sunday, 25 January 2015

Keep Clicking

When I first started blogging, I didn't give much thought to the type of blog I would create. Questions like am I a story teller or teacher didn't even enter my mind. As I started reading other blogs, I began to think I should provide tips and tricks. I'm computer literate. I've been designing business-to-business websites for as long as they've existed and understand the limits of databases and how to pull out the information contained in them. I also manage a research team and we know our way around government rules and regulations.

So I wrote a post about using census records in your research and taking full advantage of every bit of information contained in them. And I was one of the worst posts I've ever written and to this day I go back and forth when I think about deleting it. That experience taught me I am not a teacher. So I stuck with what I knew best -- telling stories.

But then I realized my stories sometimes contained research case studies -- not tutorials on how to do something in the abstract sense but rather how I did something to solve a specific research problem, using a tip or technique I learned from someone else. So today I'd like to present a case study, using a lesson gleaned from Hilary Gadsby's great post, Killing Them Off -- It Can Help Knock Down Those Brick Walls.

I have begun reviewing the beginning of my tree -- me -- working backwards and reviewing my research and what gaps I would like to fill in about each person (not quite a genealogy do-over, but sort of). As I got to the siblings of my paternal grandfather, I realized I did not have a death date for my grand uncle, Leo James Jennings. So that was my goal: to kill off Leo.

Effie Davis (Beard) Jennings; Leo James
Jennings' mother, who died in 1906; photograph
courtesy of Janie Darby

The first thing I did was write down what I already knew, how I knew it, and transcribed all the records I did have.

  • He was born on 29 October 1898 and that his parents were Charles Edward Jennings and Effie Davis Beard. I could surmise he was born in Roanoke, Virginia, as his parents were living there during the year of his birth.
  • In 1900 he was living with his parents, four half siblings and his older sister in Roanoke.
  • His mother died in 1906 when he was eight years old.
  • In 1910 he was living with his widowed father and three living siblings.
  • His father sent him to live with his half sister in Erwin, Tennessee by 1911, when his younger brother (my grandfather) was placed in an orphanage.
  • He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1916 at Big Gap, Virginia.
  • His father died in 1917.
  • He was discharged from the Army in 1919 and had served as a Sargent with the 104th Supply Train
  • He married Bonnie Sue Wolfe sometime before 1920.
  • In 1920 he and Bonnie Sue were living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and he worked as a mechanic at a tobacco factory
  • In 1922 he and Bonnie Sue were still living in Winston-Salem but he was now working as a machinist at South Royal.
  • In 1924 he and Bonnie Sue had a son they named James Wolfe Jennings; the son was born in Appalachia, Virginia.
  • On 10 August 1932 he was admitted to the U.S. Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Sawtelle, California, and suffered from myocardial degeneration, cardiac hypertrophy, conjunctivitis, and deviated nasal septum. His marital status was listed as divorced.

Sawtelle Veterans Home; photograph courtesy of the California
Historical Society Digital Collection

Frankly, I thought he was near death then, but couldn't find a death or burial record of any type for that general timeframe. So, I started researching his ex-wife, Bonnie Sue. I learned:

  • In 1930 Bonnie Sue was divorced and living in Appalachia, Virginia, and was the proprietor of a grocery store.
  • In 1940 Bonnie Sue was widowed and living with her father in Orlando, Florida.
  • Bonnie Sue died in 1969.

The 1940 federal census and 1940 Orlando city directory entries for Bonnie Sue seemed to confirm Leo's demise. Why no death record? After broadening my search and not concentrating on his death, I discovered a 1940 census record for Leo. He was alive!

  • In 1938 he was living in Los Angeles, California, and was working as an engineer for Econolite Corporation.
  • In 1940 he was living in Calabasas, California, working as a supervising inspector of traffic signals, and he was married to Kathleen G. Jennings, who worked as a secretary at a law office. They owned their own home and had a live-in housekeeper.

So I started trying to kill off Leo again with a different date for his possible death. I finally got a hit from Find a Grave worth pursuing. A Leo J. Jennings was buried at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. However, the date of birth and the date of death were listed as "unknown."


I clicked the cemetery link and discovered the cemetery had a website. So I clicked through to the cemetery site. On their home page, I discovered a burial search. I used it and lo and behold there was Leo's death date: 8 October 1973.  He certainly lived longer than I would have suspected with all the heart and respiratory issues he had in 1932.

Further research, included finding Leo's funeral notice in the Los Angeles Times, dated 5 October, which indicated he was buried on 8 October. His Department of Veterans' Affairs BILRS Death File listed his death date as 3 October 1973.

Screen shot of the burial search results for Green Hill Memorial Park,
Rancho Palos Verdes, California

Confusing with so many possible death dates, but I was successful in killing him off. The beautiful thing about this case study is that once I entered his death date in my tree, I started getting lots of hints about his second wife, Kathleen, who likely would have been a brick wall since I did not know her maiden name at the time.

So Hilary was right, killing them off can help break through those brick walls in your tree, but be sure  you explore each record and source thoroughly. Keep clicking your way through the information.

I'm signing off now to resume killing some more of my pesky brick wall ancestors.

The Irish Wife
Newly Discovered Photographs
The Mother Nobody Knew
A Lover Not a Fighter


  1. So pleased that someone else has been successful by following that oh so true advice. Be sure to kill them off.
    I am still struggling with a sibling who I have found no death, emigration or convincing census record. He either changed his name, lied about his birthplace or I have just not done a thorough enough search yet. Hopefully it is the latter and I will keep looking.
    Gadsby is not a common surname, but there are at least 2 Hilary Gadsby (both by marriage) doing genealogy research in the UK. The families intersect but we have not yet found the common link for the Gadsby surname.

    1. Using your advice, I found more success finding information about a person by killing off people who were close to them. Killing off Leo was great but discovering a thorough history of his second wife was even better as the only information I had from my father was "Kathleen G"

      Thank you again for the great tip!

  2. I have several I would love to find death dates and burial spots for. I keep looking and maybe one day...

  3. Great post! I've had success doing this with 'sideways' kin when searching for answers to direct ancestors. Thanks for the reminder to "kill them off"!

  4. I'd love to find my "most wanted" ancestor, James McSharry's death as then I have a chance of finding where he was born as our certificates (should) give that information.

  5. A great case study of reviewing research. I know when she died, but I am desperate to trace a birth certificate for my grandmother to discover her mother's name, as this is my major brick wall which I cannot seem to break through.

  6. This was a great post and I think puts things into context. It is not only about what we know about an ancestor, but what we don't know.

    Sometimes you need to research sideways in order to establish and confirm what you did not know.

    People have significant events in other places. Children are born in parishes not their own because their mother was visiting a sibling or cousin and went into labour. Elderly relatives were shared out amongst family members. My own Great Grandmother (APH) lived with her eldest daughter (in Guildford Surrey), but routinely went to other daughters who lived elsewhere - one in Hurtmore, about 8 miles away but in a different registration district and the other who lived in Essex. Now in my case I know where APH (my affectionate set of initials for her) died, but so easily she could have died elsewhere and had that been the case she would have been buried elsewhere to, because frankly it is expensive and depending on the time frame unheard of to move a dead body for burial some distances.

    Equally I found a unknown individual boarding with a family member. I was interested in the bride and I obviously knew the relevant names. In the house was an individual who was aged 80 and recorded as visitor. The visitor was the married and widowed Aunt of the husband, which was something I had not established.

    Each document provides a set of clues and each clue might be to a mystery that is not yet apparent.

  7. He certainly did LIVE longer than I expected to. That was some great research. Finding out what you didn't know and piecing it together. I'm glad you got some more hints and hopefully more detail about his Life. I enjoyed that. I'll have to use that type of timeline for a few of my Folks! I got a lot of holes I need to fill in!

  8. Thanks for the reminder - I must get into murder mode.

  9. Thanks for the reminder - I must get into murder mode.

  10. Thanks Pam! I have a similar experience with my great grandfather who was supposedly killed in a train related accident in Alabama. This was a family legend that was firmly ingrained in everyone's mind. After having no luck finding his records I re-looked at the last place the family was. Bingo! Found him remarried in Texas and his grave in Find a Grave.


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World Wide Genealogy Team