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Devils in the Details

By Daniel Hubbard | April 22, 2012

Last week, I was starting to investigate a client’s family story. It was remembered as a case of manslaughter, though not in so many words. It was supposedly committed by a man who married into the family that I was researching. It turned out to involve death threats, a brutal, premeditated murder and the prospect of multiple lynchings. I only had the broadest outlines but now as the details start to emerge from a roll of microfilm, a few things have struck me.

The newspaper that I have been reading gives many details about what happened. It even recorded the pretrial testimony of the main witness for the prosecution. It also includes tidbits like some sniping directed at another local paper that seemed to be endorsing the idea of lynching the three accused men. There is something though that it does not include.

The articles have almost nothing about the relationships between people. Two of the defendants were father and son. The other was the father’s hired hand. A fourth man was under suspicion and he was that star witness. He was somehow in the father’s employ as well. That is it. Virtually nothing is said beyond that in the dozens of articles that I have read about the case. A modern reader might be excused for thinking that if there was more to write on the subject, it would be written over and over. Therefore, there is nothing more.

The Absence of Evidence

Sometimes the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is especially true when the search is not yet exhaustive or when the creator of a source may not have felt obliged to record certain information. That is something to keep in mind in research. It is certainly something that is apparent in this story.

There were many relationships that went unmentioned or nearly so. Only once have I found it mentioned that the son among the defendants had a wife. Her name is not stated. Never was it written that they had only been married for a few months when the murder occurred. No reporter mentioned that at the time of his conviction, a few months after the murder,  she was about seven months pregnant with their first child. That might be attributed to an unwillingness to sensationalize the situation. Today, we would surely know all about it. If we applied those modern expectations that we would be told such things, we’d be wrong.

No one wrote that the main witness was the first cousin of that pregnant wife. That family relationship might actually have some relevance to the case but it was not written in the newspaper. Proving that relationship is something I did long ago, before any murder research, simply because I needed to understand relationships. The witness happens to be a man that is already part of the broader story of this family on the frontier but no hint of his involvement in the plotting had been passed down. Nothing about his role was remembered. Nothing about those two being cousins was written. The first little demon appeared in the details.

Who were the People in Their Neighborhood?

It can be interesting to research neighbors. You never know who they will turn out to be. In this case the neighbor was also a murderer and and I’m researching the witness.  So perhaps, checking that neighbor might lead to something interesting. The father had a very common surname but it was a surname that had shown up in earlier generations of my investigation into the witness’s family. On the off chance that there was some connection back East, I decided to put a little effort into investigating the past of the father and his son.

The family turned out to have spent several decades in Wisconsin. A totally irrelevant place to the rest of the story but the father had come from New York, and that was interesting. His father was from Vermont and that was intriguing. On the other hand, having a common Anglo-Saxon name in New England is not much of a surprise or much of a clue. When I found the father as a youngster in the census in New York, my jaw dropped. There he was in a town that is very, very familiar. When I looked at the record, I realized that I was looking at the family of the witness’s maternal uncle. The witness and the son among the accused were second cousins. They weren’t just eventually related by marriage during the escalating trouble, they had been related by blood the whole time of the trouble that turned to threats and finally murder.

They must have known they were second cousins. Their fathers were both in the area and one can assume that those two would have known they were first cousins. Why did they converge upon the same point along the frontier after decades in very separate places? I may never know and the newspaper never mentioned the relationship. That’s the second little demon in the details so far.

Only the hired hand was not, as far as I know, a relative.

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