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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Newspaper Records  by Ryan Taylor, revised by Susanna de Groot, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Crime and Newspapers

Crime, always of newspaper interest, is a rich resource if researchers have relatives involved, either as perpetrators or as victims. In the earliest Edmonton Bulletin, with its lack of local personal news, there is a theft given in some detail. It begins with a short item on the first page:

The odd wording of this news item is confusing to the reader, as if we had stumbled into the middle of an article. When we reach an inside page (they are unnumbered), we find that is true.

Here we find a lengthy account of what happened, clearly written before the short item on page one:

Elsewhere in the same issue is an advertisement for C. W. Sutter, gentleman’s outfitter, ready made clothing and fancy goods. There being less concern in those days lest a newspaper account affect the trial outcome, the accused is assumed to be guilty and a full description of the crime given. In true old newspaper style, the miscreant’s name is spelled differently on page one than inside the paper.

From this newspaper notice, a researcher with an interest in any of the participants could access the relevant court records to see what the official version would be, and what sentence, if any, was passed on the two men.

Newspapers and court records of many different kinds work in tandem to provide researchers with very detailed materials on legal matters. The sometimes undetailed record in the governmental archives can be supplemented by the juicier version in the newspaper account.

An accidental death resulting from a car running into a horse-drawn wagon near Highland Creek, Ontario, in 1926 led to a court case with a man convicted of leaving the scene of the accident, among other things.

It starts on page one and continues inside the paper in great detail as this snippet illustrates:


While a researcher might discover an interesting crime through the newspaper and then proceed to the court records, it should also be remembered that court records, easily accessed through finding aids in local, provincial or national archives, can also be lead to newspaper accounts.

Looking at the index to an archival finding aid (an easy task) produces a court case, which will include a previously unknown date of the event. Once the date is known, it is a simple matter to consult local newspapers.

In the case above, which took place at West Hill and Highland Creek, some distance from Oshawa, the trial took place at the county seat (Whitby, next to Oshawa). Keep these jurisdictions in mind when linking court cases to newspaper reports.

Newspapers have always loved murders, because of the sensational reports they generate:

     Brutal Murder      Colwell, Oct. 1.—O. W. Garrett, a pioneer of Montcalm county, and 61 years old, was brutally murdered last night or this morning, his head being nearly severed from his body by an axe or hatchet. About a quarter past 11 this morning Mrs. Garrett, wife of deceased, came over to the residence of Mr. Knight, a near neighbor, and informed them that Mr. Garrett was dead, and that he died about 4 o’clock this morning. Mr. Knight, accompanied by three or four other neighbors, also by Dr. Hammond, of Trufant, visited the residence of the deceased and there a horrible sight was found. The deceased lay with his head and shoulders on the floor, and his feet resting on the side of the bed. Life was extinct, and from appearances had been dead for some time. 

   A jury was summoned and an inquest held. Several witnesses were examined and evidence taken from which the jury brought in a verdict that the deceased came to his death at the hands of his wife from wounds inflicted by an axe or hatchet; that no weapons were found, and that one or more of the wounds would have been fatal. Mrs. Garrett was arrested and taken to Coral. From the evidence taken it appeared that the deceased had lived very unhappily with his wife for the past fifteen years, and that she has several times threatened his life. The supposition is that Mrs. Garrett struck the deceased with the axe one or more blows while in bed, and then either dragged him or he fell from the bed and she finished her hellish purpose while his head lay on the floor, as there was no signs of a struggle and but very little blood on the bed. Mrs. Garrett refused to testify at the inquest, and would answer noquestions at all'. (St. Mary’s Argus,6 October 1881)

This excited narrative, with its shaky grammar, was published a long way from the events it describes. It probably derived from a telegraphed wire story which was published across North America because of the quality of the story. Nonetheless, it can represent murders as they have always been reported, emphasising the gore and dramatic quality of everyone’s reaction. There will certainly be more detail in the local newspaper at the time of the trial, and court records in the archives.

Most people do not have a murder in the family, but it is a rare thing when there are no relations who have gone to jail at some point, or at least faced a judge in court.

One of the commonest of these is the domestic dispute.

Although finding this sort of event in one’s family history is not pleasant, it cannot be ignored. In larger cities, this routine domestic occurrence would not merit newspaper coverage. In earlier days, wife beating seemed to be the occasion of levity.

A common news item reported local fires. In the days of open hearths, or of wood-burning stoves, house fires happened regularly. Descriptions of fires are often vividly detailed, and can be copied directly into a family history.

Information about fires can be used in conjunction with fire insurance maps, which are widely available, to obtain a good idea of a relative’s house (size and construction). For more details about using fire insurance maps in this way, see Fire insurance maps: their history and applications, by Diane L. Oswald (Lacewing Press, 1997).

Some idea of the extent of Canadian fire insurances maps can be gained by consulting Robert J. Hayward’sFire insurance plans in the national map collection (National Archives of Canada, 1977). Many fire insurance maps, either in the original paper format or on microfiche, are available in local archives.

There may also be local guides, such as Canadian fire insurance plans in Ontario collections, 1876-1973, by Marcel Fortin, Lorraine Dubreil and Cheryl A. Woods (Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives, 1995).

Newspapers have always been a means of conveying legal notices to the public. These might be governmental in origin, announcing public appointments, for instance, or personal.

Husbands giving notice that they would not be responsible for a wife’s debts can be found in many pioneer newspapers. This indication of a breakdown in family relations may be the only independent record a genealogist can find that the pair has parted.

Divorces were so difficult to obtain in Canada that couples would separate but not divorce, but without the newspaper notice a researcher several generations later has no way of knowing this. Even the earliest newspapers have these legal notices in them.

A variation of this kind of notice is that regarding missing people. These are more rare, and information about runaways might be found more profitably in news items, but the data in the notices can be useful.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.