Genealogy Blog

Aaron the Ripper? DNA Identifies Most Infamous Murderer

10 Sep 2014

Two things that love to capture the public’s eye are conspiracy theories and unsolved mysteries. 126 years ago, terror reigned in Whitechapel, London, as a murder spree went on. At least five women were murdered in a very grisly fashion. Police investigators at the time were unable to identify the murderer. In September 1888 a letter was sent to the Central News agency, claiming to be from the murderer. It was signed “Jack the Ripper,” giving notoriety to the murders that has lasted for more than a century.

Over the years, conspiracy theorists have come up with many candidates for Jack the Ripper.  They run a wide range of possibilities. One man, Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, was actually in Newgate Prison at the time the murders occurred: an unlikely candidate at best. Others accused include the noted author Lewis Carroll (who penned Alice in Wonderland among others) and even Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria, who was not even in London when the murders occurred, as well as many other unlikely candidates. Forty-eight-year-old Russell Edwards of London became fascinated with the mystery, and has spent fourteen years looking at the evidence. And he believes that he has finally solved the mystery forever.

Back in 2007, Edwards saw a shawl going up for auction. It was being sold by descendants of acting Sergeant Amos Simpson, one of the policemen who dealt with the murder of Catherine Eddowes. He took the shawl for his wife, but the wife, horrified at its origins, never wore it. It was placed in storage and handed down through the generations, until it was placed on display in a Scotland Yard museum. It went to auction in 2007.


Jack the Ripper


Edwards purchased the scarf, and brought it to Jari Louhelainen for testing. Louhelainen is a biology professor at LIverpool John Moores University. He conducted DNA testing on the shawl, and found a match with the mitochondrial DNA of a living family member of an original suspect.

Aaron Kosminski had immigrated to England in 1881, fleeing Poland’s Russian overlords. Police at the time of the Ripper murders never gathered sufficient evidence to prosecute Kosminski. He was eventually committed to a number of lunatic asylums. He died in an asylum in 1899 from gangrene.

Edwards is now writing a book about his investigation and solution to the crime. There are, of course, many detractors and skeptics. While a healthy amount of skepticism is good, I am a bit bewildered by some of it. In an article in USA today, an American professor, Dan Krane, says “That piece of specific DNA profiling is not the kind of test the general public is familiar with. . .” and “the statistics for that time of test are much less reliable. There’s a greater chance that somebody other than the victim might coincidentally have the same markers.” Granted, testing has improved greatly over the last few years, but many genealogists will be happy to have a conversation with the good professor about what lay people do and do not know about mtDNA testing. And, quite frankly, he seems to be confusing the victim’s DNA with the murderer’s DNA.

In the end, we need to know exactly when the testing was done and how many markers were tested in order to determine how accurate the identification is. And, most likely, that information will come to light in Edwards’ new book. Until then, criticism is useless and likely to make the critic look more foolish in the end.

You can read more about this fascinating story in the Guardian and in USA Today.

Clothing Yourself in Sources

09 Sep 2014

One of the biggest things we have to teach and reinforce with beginning genealogists is the concept of citing your sources. Many think that this is some sort of high-brow, scholarly concept that they don’t need to do because they are “only doing this for the family.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

There are many reasons for citing your sources, including allowing others to retrace your path, and to determine the accuracy of your sources. But the most important reason for keep track of where you find every bit of information is to benefit yourself and your own research. At some point in your research, you will discover conflicting information about an ancestor. And you will need to go back to the original sources to try to resolve the conflict. If you haven’t written down where you got the information in the first place, you may have a heck of a quandary on your hands. I have one friend who is still looking for the source of the information she has about her great-grandfather’s date and place of death, because she didn’t write it down. More than 30 years after she first started researching, she still has not been able to find that source, nor has she been able to find any source at all!

One of the challenges about citing the sources of your information is the many difference variations there can be for a single source. For example, one can find:

  • The original document.
  • A microfilmed version of the original document.
  • A digitized version of the microfilmed version.
  • A digitized version of the original document.
  • A published book of information extracted from an original document.
  • An electronic database of information extracted from on original document.
  • An electronic database of a published book of information extracted from an original document.
  • An electronic database of information extracted from a microfilm version of an original document.
  • An electronic database of information extracted from a digital version of an original document.
  • An electronic database of information extracted from a digital version of an microfilm version of an original document.

It is important to note exactly what version of a record you are examining and that provided the information to you. It can get confusing, especially since you also want to make note of the original source as well. This is especially important when you are using digital versions online. Companies often reorganize their websites, or they can even go out of business. Referencing the original record allows you to be able to find another copy elsewhere if necessary.


ESM Citations and Clothing


These multiple notations are called “layered citations.”  Elizabeth Shown Mills provides some guidance for sifting through this maze. In her recent QuickLesson 19 on the Evidence Explained website, she uses the metaphor of clothing to explain how it works. Check it out in QuickLesson 19: Layered Citations Work Like Layered Clothing.

What’s in a Name? Searching for Surnames

06 Sep 2014

When we get involved in family history, it is because of our desire to know more about our family history. Where did we come from? Who were our people? What did they do? Often we wonder “What does my name mean?”


A great deal of study has gone into the origins of surnames. For the most part, surnames started developing in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. Prior to that time, people lived in small villages. Because the population was so small, every individual was known and family names were unnecessary.

Surnames developed differently in the various parts of Europe, however. In some places, such as Scandinavia, surnames developed as a system of patronymics. Thus Jan, the son of Erik, would be known as Jan Erikson. But Jan’s son Heinrich would be known as Heinrich Janson.

In England, surnames developed from a variety of different sources. They could devise from physical traits, locations, occupations, or more. A man who worked with metals, for example, would become John Smith. One who lived by the water might become Charles Rivers. Surnames were passed down from parent to child.

In Spain, surnames developed from similar sources. But another tradition was added to it. Children carried the surnames of both parents. When a female married, she dropped her mother’s name in favor of her new husband’s name, which was then attached to her father’s name. This tradition continues today. My friend Chris Child’s wife, for example, is Arlene Ovalle-Child.

Surnames also developed in a similar fashion in France. Jean Brunette would be a man with brown hair, while François Lamontaine would be a man who lived on a hill. But a tradition developed in the French military of giving individuals nicknames. This was an easy way to differentiate between individuals of the same name. Jean Brunette dit Jolicoeur, for example, would be a man who was always in a good mood.

This tradition of “dit” names was carried by colonists to New France. The number of colonists there was very small, and it made it easy to differentiate between different individuals of the same name. From generation to generation, however, this caused surnames to change. Individuals might drop the original surname in favor of the dit name, or they might drop the dit name altogether. My own surname, for example, is a well-known surname in France. However, in my family, my great-grandfather was the first to be born a Leclerc. His father was baptized as Abraham Houde dit Clair, married as Abraham Clair, and died as Abraham Leclerc. Abraham’s ancestor Gervais Houde married a woman named Jeanne Petitclerc. Their descendants carried the name Houde dit Clerc or Houde dit Clair. Some reverted to using Houde, while others became Clair, Leclair, LeClair, Clerc, LeClerc, Leclerc, and more.

It is important when trying to research your family to not jump to conclusions. Even Englishmen changed their names on occasion. Don’t assume that your family name has always stayed the same. It is entirely possible that it has changed through the centuries. Only by going back as far as possible can you know for certain what the family name was, and where it originated.

When did your family immigrate to the United States?

06 Sep 2014

This week we would like to know a little bit more about your family’s immigration history. Check back next week to see how you compare with the rest of the genealogy community.

We asked and you answered!

06 Sep 2014

Last week we asked what you were planning to do with your personal library once you no longer needed it. Here is what you said!

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Follow the Footsteps of Your Ancestors in Millions of Land Records

05 Sep 2014

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Land records can be very helpful when you are trying to pinpoint the location of an ancestor at a particular point in time. You can use these records to trace the migration patterns of your ancestors as well as identify familial relationships. As a Mocavo Basic member, you can individually search each database to your heart’s content for free. Piece together the mystery of your family’s puzzle today with free access to more than 3.25 million land records.

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Three Tips for Self-Publishing Your Family History

05 Sep 2014


One of the great benefits of today’s technology age is how much easier it is to share our genealogical research. Self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. Here are three tips for taking advantage of the wide variety of services for taking control of publishing your family stories.

1. Get editorial assistance.

It is a well-known truism that one cannot edit or proofread one’s own work. Our minds already know what we wanted to say, so when we try to edit or proofread ourselves, we miss many of the mistakes we have made. If you have a friend with editorial experience, you might be able to convince them to help you. But, if not, there are other options available to you. Editor World is one option. They can provide you with editorial assistance for a fee, with reasonable turnaround time.

2.  Pay for a designer.

Part of being creating a good publication is paying attention to the design. And I’m not referring to the cover design (which is the first thing everyone thinks of). I am talking about the interior layout of the book. This includes font, type size, margins, justifications, headers, footers, chapter breaks, and much more. Each and every one of these may sound inconsequential, but can have a major impact. What happens if you make the margins too small? Part of the text will be illegible because it will be in the gutter (where the pages attach to the binding), and part will be unreadable because the reader’s fingers will be blocking the text. A professional can put this together for you and you will have a fantastic product at the end. For more hints, read How Much Attention Should You Pay to Book Design.

3. Don’t violate copyright.

This may be the most difficult one to adhere to. You must be careful where you take information from, and how you use it. While facts (such as dates and places of birth, marriage, and death) are not copyrightable, the words used to convey that information are. Do not directly copy text but use your own words. Even more important are images. Remember that copyright currently lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator. All those family photographs in your possession? Copyright belongs to the person who took the photograph, and to his/her heirs. The key date at the moment is 1944.

Researching Your Pennsylvania Ancestors

04 Sep 2014

Having just returned from a week at the FGS conference in San Antonio, I’m taking a short holiday this week. I’m in the City of Brotherly Love for a few days with a friend. And what else would two genealogists do on their holiday but research? I am working on my Franklin project, while my friend Aaron works on his own family. Philadelphia is home to a number of valuable repositories, but we will likely be focusing on three since we are here for just a few days.

1. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

One of the oldest in the nation, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania was formed in Philadelphia in 1824. The holdings now include more than 600,000 published works, and more than 21 million manuscript and graphic items. Over the last few years, HSP has moved to focus itself as a research institution. Through strategic partnership agreements, it has acquired the holding of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies and the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, and transferred HSP’s museum holdings to the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia. HSP has also updated the research facility at 1300 Locust Street, making entering and leaving a much better controlled process as well as adding a lounge area for patrons.

2. American Philosophical Society

APS was the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin. He founded it in 1743 because “there are many in every province in circumstances that set them at ease, and afford leisure to cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge.” It was the first learned society in America. It quickly gained an international reputation, and its accomplishments over the past 270 years have only further cemented it. APS “promotes useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities through excellence in scholarly research, professional meetings, publications, library resources, and community outreach.” Many of its holdings are valuable for genealogists. I, of course, will be working with their vast collection of Franklin papers while I am here.


Library Company of Philadelphia


3. The Library Company of Philadelphia

Another of Benjamin Franklin’s brilliant ideas, the Library Company was founded in 1731 as the first lending library in America. Even today, the library operates under the subscription model, with shareholders supporting its operations. Until the 1850s it was the largest public library in the country. Since then, it has continued to grow, and in the 1950s became a research facility. Today it is used by everyone from high school students to film producers to senior research scholars. In 1987 the library started granting fellowships, and since then more than 700 scholars have participated in the program. And the best part is that it is located on Locust Street, right next door to HSP, making it very convenient to visit both repositories.

Valuable New Resource: Elements of Genealogical Analysis

02 Sep 2014

Robert Charles Anderson is perhaps the most well-known New England genealogist of his generation. As head of the Great Migration Study Project of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) for more than twenty years, he has contributed greatly to our knowledge of these earliest colonial immigrants.

As you can imagine, this was a massive project. If it was to be successful, it would need an organized approach. This would insure the best possible results. Over the years he has refined his system, but the substance has changed little from the beginning. Now you can learn his method and apply it to your own research. NEHGS recently released a new book from Bob: Elements of Genealogical Analysis: How to Maximize Your Research Using the Great Migration Study Project Method.


Elements Cover


The book is compact at 168 pages plus 15 pages of introductory matter in a 6×9” format. The book has two main sections: Analytic Tools and Problem-Solving Sequence. The brief, three-page overview that precedes these sections provides a great summary of the process.

Bob starts by sharing his two fundamental rules of genealogy, and I couldn’t agree with him more:

  1. All statements must be based only on accurately reported, carefully documented, and exhaustively analyzed records.
  2. You must have a sound, explicit reason for saying that any two individual records refer to the same person.

Unfortunately, it is in this second rule that many genealogists fall short. A record that has the right name in the right place at the right time is not automatic justification to presume that it is the same individual as you are seeking. It take more than that.

There are three analytic tools that he uses:

  1. Source Analysis (the detailed examination of a source[defined as a coherent group of records created by a single jurisdiction or a single author for a defined purpose])
  2. Record Analysis (the detailed examination of a record [defined as the portion of a source that pertains to a single event])
  3. Linkage Analysis (examining two or more analyzed records to determine whether they refer to a single individual or multiple persons)

His Problem-Solving Sequence is a series of five steps:

  1. Problem Selection
  2. Problem Analysis
  3. Data Collection
  4. Synthesis
  5. Problem Resolution

The best part about Bob’s method is that it does not matter whether you are dealing with paper, digital, or other types of records. The process works no matter what. Following his steps will insure that you have the best possible results, and that the individuals in your family tree are actually are related to you.

The price of $24.95 is a bit higher than I would expect for a book of this size. That said, the information contained within it is very valuable. It deserves a place on the shelf of every genealogist. It is available from NEHGS at the website.

What did your ancestors do to bring home the bacon?

01 Sep 2014


One of the best parts of family history research is finding out more information than just the dates and places of their births, marriages, and deaths. Occupational records offer insight into the daily lives of our ancestors. As a Mocavo Basic member, you can individually search more than 420,000 databases to your heart’s content for free to discover your family’s stories. From their first job, to the day they retired, find out what your ancestors did to bring home the bacon.

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