Sunday, July 5, 2015

Were They Murdered?

Belvidere Apollo, March 27, 1885
I recently wrote about my discovery of the index to obituaries and other mentions of deaths in the Belvidere (New Jersey) Apollo/Intelligencer.  I now have all the copies, and while I am very excited to learn more about my ancestors, the most intriguing item was about a collateral line.

I was curious about this one when I found the names in the index.  The index entries for Joseph W. Sellers and Mrs. Joseph W. Sellers were on the same day.   I had wondered if maybe there had been a tragic accident and the two had died on the same day, or something similar.  But no, the story is even more interesting than that.

"Coroner Harry H. Davis, of Camden, said that the suspicious circumstances connected with the death of Joseph W. Sellers and his wife, and the fact that several other persons of his household have suffered with symptoms of poisoning, leaves but one course for the officials to pursue, and that is to make a thorough investigation.  The body of Mr. Sellers will be exhumed and possibly that of Mrs. Sellers also." (Belvidere Apollo, March 27, 1885, page 3, column 6, under "State Items"; image above)

When I checked my family tree for Joseph W. Sellers, I didn't find him.  I had to look for him in the 1880 census and work backward to determine that he was a great-grandson of Abraham Sellers, my 4th-great-grandfather; I had begun work on his father's line in the past but had not pursued it forward in time sufficiently to have learned about him and added him to my tree.  Joseph W. Sellers was the great-nephew of my 3rd-great-grandfather Franklin P. Sellers, and therefore the first cousin once removed of my 2nd-great-grandfather Cornelius G. Sellers, second cousin of my great-grandfather Elmer Sellers, and my second cousin three times removed.  (Not exactly a "close" relative.)

But he was a relative!  Now that I knew he was a relative, I couldn't leave that poisoning question alone, could I?  And down the curiosity rabbit hole I fell.  I jumped online and started searching for more information.  A couple of Google searches immediately found three more newspaper articles.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on March 20, 1885 that Joseph had died on February 15, supposedly from typhoid fever and fatigue contracted while taking care of his wife, who had died a short time before him.  The deaths were not considered to be suspicious until Mary Bowyer, a cook who had worked for the Sellers family, moved with the Sellers' son to another family, which apparently was going to adopt the boy.  Suddenly everyone in that family became ill, except the cook and the boy.  The doctor called in to take care of the family members stated that they were suffering from arsenic poisoning, which made people wonder about Joseph Sellers and his wife (Sallie, by the way, though she is identified by her own name in only one of the articles I found).

The next day, March 21, 1885, the Philadelphia Times carried more information on the developing story, on the front page!  The decision had been made to exhume Joseph.  More people, including a former housekeeper of the Sellers family, had come forward to say they had had bad reactions to food prepared by the cook, and a motive for the hypothetical poisonings was being bandied about.  Apparently Mary was very attached to the Sellers' son and wanted to have him for her own.

By March 22 the story had gained more traction and was being republished in other areas of the country.  The Indianapolis Sentinel ran a synopsis of the Times story and included commentary from the doctor who had attended Joseph, saying that he had observed no signs of poisoning and still believed Joseph had died of typhoid.

The next step was checking dedicated newspaper sites.  Searching for "joseph w sellers" and "joseph sellers" on,, and provided several more articles.  All told I found almost twenty articles, ranging from Philadelphia and New York City (including the New York Times!) to Boston and Indianapolis, covering the ongoing question of the possible poisoning of Joseph and Sallie Sellers.  The articles were published between March 20 and March 27, 1885.  One article, from the Philadelphia Times of March 24, 1885, even ended on the chilling note that "[i]t was semi-officially stated that they [the Coroner, County Physician and Dr. Snitcher] were satisfied that Mr. Sellers did not die of typhoid fever."  I noticed, however, that I hadn't found anything from New Jersey, where they had died, or about a resolution to the investigation.

Next I looked at New Jersey links on the Wikipedia newspaper archive page.  None of the pages had any hits for "joseph w sellers" or "joseph sellers."  I also checked the newspapers on Google News Archive and found a local paper, the Camden Democrat.  Unfortunately, the only issues online for the 1880's were for January 1880.  I was starting to wonder if perhaps the matter had been a tempest in a teapot and nothing had come of it—notwithstand the opinions of the coroner, county physician, and Dr. Snitcher—for otherwise surely there would have been more local coverage.

Then I remembered that has been adding many U.S. records to its site, including newspapers.  So I signed in to my account on that site and searched for "joseph sellers" in 1885 in the newspaper collection.  (I wrote in 2013 about how much I dislike the disastrously awful interface that brightsolid created for the site and then had the stupidity to port over to the site.  I originally planned to allow my subscription to expire, but when I learned that the Family History Library edition of the site allowed access to only the index for the newspapers and not the images, I decided I needed the newspaper access enough to keep up the subscription.  It pains me every time I have to use the site, though.)

The first thing I noticed is that I finally had some results for New Jersey papers!  I found articles from the New Brunswick Times and Trenton Times that pretty much rehashed the same information I had found before, during the same period.  But then I saw an article from April 9, 1885 in the New Brunswick Times:

"The jury in the Sellers poisoning case at Camden agreed that the deaths of both Joseph W. Sellers and his wife were due to natural causes."

New Brunswick Times, April 9, 1885
Well.  It's good to know they weren't poisoned, but I have to admit it was rather a bit of an anticlimax.  On the other hand, a few valuable lessons were illustrated by my search for the answer.

First, and it's something I say all the time (even in classes focused on online resources), not everything is online.  The Camden Democrat, being the local newspaper, probably would have had more detailed information about this case and been able to give me a direct answer more quickly, but the only site I could find with any issues didn't have them for the right period.

Second, never rely on only one source of information when you're doing your research.  I started with a short item from one newspaper and ended up looking for information from thirteen sources (and finding useful info in most of them) before getting a fuller picture of the situation and finding out what happened in the end.

Third, more than one finding aid (i.e., index) for the same records can be really helpful!  I mentioned that I had searched on early on.  I didn't have any New Jersey results from that search.  But when I used, all the significant results were noted as coming from NewspaperArchive.  So that search found items that NewspaperArchive's own search didn't.

The last lesson has to do with a fact that I haven't mentioned until now.  Most of the articles talking about the possible poisoning mentioned that Mary Bowyer was "colored."  Considering the time period, I have to wonder how much that affected people's opinions of the likelihood of a poisoning having occurred and of her being capable of doing it.  Depending on what kind of research you are doing, you might need to take into account perceptions of the time.

Spurred on by this little excursion, I have found a few more pieces of information about the Sellers family.  FamilySearch provided the death dates of Joseph and Sallie, and the number of the microfilm roll on which the records appear.  I also found their son, Robert, in an index entry for the 1885 New Jersey state census; he was living with the family that was said to have wanted to adopt him.  I have not been able to find Mary in 1885 in New Jersey, although she was with the family in the 1880 census.  I am curious what happened to her.  More than one article mentioned that she was still in Camden during the investigations, and even that her residence was being watched.  Taking into account that her name was spelled Bowyer (most common), Bower, and Bowers in the articles (and Boyer in the 1880 census), however, who knows how she might have been enumerated.  Or maybe she decided that leaving the state was her best move and didn't stay around long enough for the census.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Saturday Night Genealogy Fun: Fourth of July Memories

This week for Randy Seaver's Saturday Night Genealogy Fun, he asked everyone to share their favorite memories about Independence Day:

1. Think of the best Fourth of July you remember from your childhood.

2. Think of the best Fourth of July you remember from your adulthood.

3. What will, or did, you do today?

4. Write about one, or all, of them on your blog or in Comments to this post, or on Facebook or Google+.

1.  I'm surprised that I really don't remember any Fourth of July celebrations from when I was a child.  I have some vague recollections of playing with sparklers, but that's it.  I'm pretty sure we used to have firecrackers, but I just don't remember anything beyond that.

2.  Since I can't remember any great Fourth of July stuff from my childhood, I'm going to claim two best days from my adult life.  Both were performances while I was in the USC Marching Band (The Greatest Marching Band in the History of the Universe!).  The best one was in 1986, when we played a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and the conductor was Bill Conti (while Dr. Bartner, the band's real conductor, was with the Liberty Band for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty).  I remember it was a great concert and working with Conti was fun.

The second best Fourth of July was the year the band played at the Rose Bowl.  I don't remember what year that was, but it pretty much had to be 1985, 1987, or 1988.  Gary Owens was the announcer, but the event is not listed in his IMDB profile (though I think it was televised).  Not only did we give a great performance, but the fireworks weren't the everyday shoot-up-in-the-sky-and-explode-in-a-shower-of-sparks type.  One side of the stadium was blocked off, and fireworks were used to create images.  Probably the best fireworks show I've seen ever.  And I learned that Gary Owens was an egotistical ass.

3.  I have spent most of today working on genealogy.  I helped a friend with the book she's putting together for a big family reunion, I did some research, and then I spent far too many hours on citiations (bleah).  It's overcast this evening in the Oakland area, so I won't be able to see the fireworks being shot off in San Francisco.  And one of my cats is hiding in the back of the house because of the noise of firecrackers outside.

The "Spirit of Troy logo" by Source is licensed under fair use via Wikipedia,

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Freedmen's Bureau Records Events at Oakland FamilySearch Library

On June 19, 2015, the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth (when the Emancipation Proclamation was finally enforced in Texas), a major media event took place in Los Angeles to announce that all records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly called the Freedmen's Bureau) have been digitized and placed online at  The event also was used as a platform to encourage participation in FamilySearch's indexing (transcription) of the records to create a searchable database, which will make the records far more accessible than they have been in the past.  The digitization project was a joint effort of FamilySearch, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society, and the California African American Museum.

The records are extremely important in black family history research because they are the contemporary primary source that indicates the last slave owner of a formerly enslaved individual.  In many of the records created by the Freedmen's Bureau, one of the questions asked was "What was the name of your last owner?"  That owner's name is critical to finding more information about the individual prior to Emancipation.

The difficulties with using the Freedmen's Bureau records to date have been numerous.  Very, very few of the records had indices.  Though the complete collection is available on microfilm at every branch of the National Archives, the quality of many of the records was poor when they were microfilmed, and searching on microfilm was tedious and headache-inducing.  And that was after you figured out in which part of the collection you should start your search, an adventure in and of itself.  Some of the records had been digitized previously — some were on,, and the Internet Archive — but no one site had all of them, and not all of them were searchable.

I'm on staff at the Oakland FamilySearch Library.  The people putting together the June 19 event actually wanted our library to be part of that event, but our director thought we needed a little more lead time to make sure we would be prepared.  Well, we've gotten organized, and now we're going to have a media event.

On Thursday, July 16, 10:00 a.m.–12:00 noon, the Oakland FamilySearch Library, 4766 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland, California, will host the Northern California event to celebrate the completion of the digitization of the Freedmen's Bureau records on  All members of the genealogical community are welcome to attend the event.

In addition to the celebration event, the Oakland FamilySearch Library (OFSL) has scheduled five sessions to explain how to transcribe the digitized records to create searchable databases and to sign up volunteers to help with the transcription project.  This is the same class being offered five times; you only need to attend one.  Genealogists in particular are being encouraged to join in transcribing the records, though everyone can help.  You will have choices about the records you work on, and maybe you will discover your own ancestors in the process!  You will also be helping make it easier for other researchers to find their lost family members.

The scheduled sessions are:
Thursday, July 16, 11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. (same day as the celebration event)
Friday, July 17, 2:30–3:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 18, 10:00–11:00 a.m.
Wednesday, July 22, 7:00–8:00 p.m.
Tuesday, July 28, 7:00–8:00 p.m.

All sessions will be taught by Kim Miller, OFSL staff member.

Please help make these records searchable for everyone.  I cannot overstate the importance of the records for helping identify enslaved ancestors' former owners, a key piece of information needed to be able to trace those ancestors prior to Emancipation.  Tony Burroughs, the well known black genealogist and author of Black Roots, mentioned in a recent keynote presentation that in all the research he has done, only about 15% of emancipated slaves took their former owners' last names.  That means that 85% of us need the information that can be found in Freedmen's Bureau records.

You don't have to wait for the library event to help; you can actually start transcribing records today if you want to.  Information about the indexing project and how to contribute is available at

The purpose of the July 16 event is to help publicize the importance of the records and the effort to transcribe the records and create the index.  The transcription work itself is an ongoing effort.

If you want to watch a recording of the June 19 event, it is available on the Freedmen's Bureau Project Web site.

In addition to all the regular media coverage of the digitization and transcription projects, Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, explained how the records are important to everyone doing Southern research, not just those with formerly enslaved ancestors.  And Danica Southwick wrote a great article about the project for the Jackson Sun prior to the media launch.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Angel Island Family History/Reunion Day, Satuday, July 11, 2015

On Saturday, July 11, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and Angel Island State Park will hold a Family History/Reunion Day at the site of the former U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island.  The program will feature Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Jewish, Korean, and Russian researchers, either in person or via videotape, and an open house where people can learn about the former Immigration Station, which is a National Historic Landmark.  The open house will begin at 11:00 a.m., and the formal program will run from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.  Expert genealogists from the community and will be available to able to help people search for their roots until 3:00 p.m.

The Immigration Station was in use from 1910–1940 and processed one million immigrants from eighty countries, including Chinese immigrants who left poetry during their often long periods of detention as they sought to avoid the restrictions of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Japanese picture brides, Jews escaping the Holocaust in 1930 and 1940, Koreans escaping Japanese control of their country, Indians affected by additional anti-Asian laws in 1917 and 1924, Russians escaping the impact of the revolution, Filipinos suddenly affected by immigration restrictions after their country was on the road to independence, and many more.

Speakers will talk about their families’ experiences, and those attending in person will be available to help answer questions.  One story will be that of Rosa Ginsberg, who was profiled on AIISF’s Immigrant Voices Web site.  The article was about Ginsberg’s immigration file at the National Archives in San Bruno and how she fled Nazi-controlled Austria and hoped to reunite with her boyfriend, Herbert Klein, in New York.  AIISF noted that it did not know what happened to Rosa and Herbert and asked readers to contact them if they had additional information.  Rosa and Herbert did marry, and their son Jeffrey discovered the story online and contacted AIISF to give an update and much more, which he will present at the event on July 11.

In addition, experts from the community and will be present to show families how to use online resources and to give advice on where to find materials detailing ancestors’ immigration experiences.  Organizers recommend taking the 9:45 a.m. ferry from San Francisco’s Pier 41 or the 10:00 a.m. ferry from Tiburon to get to the island; after that they can take the 25-minute climbing walk or catch a shuttle for a fee.  Ferries from Oakland and Vallejo make connections to the Angel Island ferry.  The open house and program will cost only $5.00, $3.00 for ages 6–17, and free for ages 5 and under.

For more information, including ferry and shuttle prices and details, a list of speakers, and advance tickets, please visit AIISF or call (415) 348-9200 x11.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Two Genealogy Journals Finished and Sent to Members

I'm a little behind on announcing that the latest issues of ZichronNote and The Baobab Tree have been finished and distributed to members of the respective genealogical societies.  As usual, I think I found a good mix of topics for the journals, and I learned something from each article.

In the May 2015 issue of ZichronNote, two articles, by John Althouse and Jeff Lewy, address the problems and pitfalls of spelling as it relates to finding our relatives in indexed records.  Not only should we take into account the education levels, languages, and writing skills of both the people reporting the information and those recording that information, the talents of whoever creates the indices we use in our searches have a huge effect on our possibilities of success.  Daria Valkenburg wrote about displaced persons' camps in Europe after the end of World War II.  SFBAJGS member Rebecca Elliot contributed an article about how she discovered and met her half-brother; until recently, she had not even been sure he was still alive.  Krzysztof Bielawski, the man behind the Kirkuty Polish cemetery Web site, gave us a little bit of history on how the site came to be.  And I (the person who hates to write) was moved to write about my encounter with Leonard Nimoy (z''l) after his recent passing.

The Spring 2015 issue of The Baobab Tree has a fantastic lead story:  AAGSNC board member Nicka Smith discovered that her grandparents knew Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, during the short period the Kings lived in Chicago.  Following that is an excellent resource article from Eric Johnson on how to look for black soldiers in early U.S. Army records.  Angela Williams Brown, who has just recently started family history research, talks about some newbie lessons she has already learned.  Betsy Monroe enlightened us as to early black settlements in the Capay Valley area of California.  And Jackie Chauhan, the AAGSNC historian, wrote about the 10th anniversary of the Sacramento African American Family History Seminar, which was held this past March.

All you need to do to receive these journals when they are published is to be a member of the respective societies.  So if these articles sound interesting to you, visit the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society (for ZichronNote) and the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California (for The Baobab Tree) to join and you can be reading them soon.

The other way to receive the journals is to be a contributing author.  I could be promoting your article here!  Have you had a breakthrough in your family history, solved a family mystery through painstaking research, discovered a better way to use resource materials, or walked where your ancestors walked as part of a heritage trip?  Do you have an interesting story about your family history in the San Francisco area?  We would love to read about it in one of the journals.  Submission guidelines for The Baobab Tree, including deadlines, are available online, or you can send me a message regarding either journal, and we can talk about it!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day: Siblings and Children

This year for Father's Day I wanted to show a photograph of my father with his father, but I ran into a problem very quickly:  I don't have any.  I don't know if that was accidental or deliberate, but with all the photos I have, not a single one shows my father and grandfather together.  Admittedly, my grandfather was apparently the semiofficial photographer for the Sellers family, because he is in very few photos himself, maybe only half a dozen.  But it still seems a little odd.

What I do have, however, are photos of my father with his sister (half-sister, actually) from his mother, with all three sisters (half-sisters) from his father, and with all four of his children.

Lynn, sister Ruth, and niece Ruth Anne, Easter, circa 1942

Dottie, Carol, Lynn, and Mildred, 2009

Janice, Laurie, Lynn, Mark, and Stacy, 2011

Friday, June 19, 2015

Easy Custom Genealogy Maps beyond North America

A few weeks ago, for Saturday Night Genealogy Fun, Randy Seaver asked readers of his blog to create custom maps of U.S. states and Canadian provinces they had visited, and then to create maps of where their ancestors had lived in some given year.  This was a fun exercise, and it was interesting to see the results.  I was disappointed, however, that I was unable to map several of my ancestors, because they were not living in North America.

Surprisingly, Facebook came to my rescue.  One of my friends posted a link to MapLoco, a site that creates custom world maps of places you've visited.  They're not as detailed as the maps from the first site — you can only indicate visited or not, as opposed to the four levels of visits available on the other site.  The world map site also doesn't have an option to export a graphic file of your map.  Instead, you can generate a URL to a page that shows the countries you marked.  But the site does give me a quick, easy way to map the rest of my ancestors' locations!

For the SNGF exercise I used the locations of my ancestors in 1865, which I had generated the week before, and mapped those in the U.S.  For this new map I took those same locations, added the European ones (the only other continent where I had ancestors in 1865), and clicked those places on the world map site.  The site then automatically generated a URL for my custom map.  Instead of using the URL itself, you can do a screen capture of the map and use the image.  The map the site shows when you use the URL looks like this:

You can see that the title is "Countries I've Visited", and underneath that it lists the countries "I've been to."  There's no way to change the title, which for this map should be "Countries Where My Ancestors Lived in 1865."  The legend on the left indicates Not Visited and Visited.  If you're doing a screen capture, you could easily cut out the "Countries I've Visited" banner, but the text below that is helpful because it lists the countries, which might be difficult to recognize from the map alone.

You actually have two options for images, though.  While you're making the map, it looks like this:

The advantage here is that the Not Visited/Visited legend and "I" text aren't part of the map.  On the other hand, you don't get the list of countries spelled out.

Something I noticed when mapping my ancestors was that due to border changes, I had to fudge a little.  Many of my ancestors lived in the Russian Empire, but that no longer exists.  So I marked the modern countries (Belarus, Latvia, and Ukraine) that control the specific areas where they were.

You might think of that as being a problem relevant mostly to 19th- and early 20th-century research, but I even had the same situation when I created a map of the countries I have visited myself:

Quite a few border changes have occurred during the latter part of the 20th century.  Two of the countries I have visited are the USSR and the Panama Canal Zone.  Neither one exists today.  For the USSR I marked the countries corresponding to the Soviet republics I visited.  But the Canal Zone is just gone, incorporated into the country of Panama, which I visited separately from the Canal Zone.

Hey, wouldn't it be cool if there were a site that could generate maps for any given year, with the appropriate corresponding country borders?