Recently, I was testing our newspaper collection at WorldVitalRecords.com, looking for search results in the mid-twentieth century. I have an aunt who was killed in 1956 at age 17; I thought she might make a good test case. When I was a child making my first family group sheets, I asked my parents why she died so young. Their answer, as I remember it, was that she was killed in an auto accident on her way home from work at a local drugstore. Such tragedies usually make the newspaper, so I thought I might turn up at least one article about the accident, and possibly also an obituary.
There’s a dark side to family history research. All those ancestors lived, as we do, in a world filled with good and evil, with triumph and tragedy and random chance. I’m not thinking just of the rumors that my mother’s great-great-great uncle what’s-his-name was hung as a horse thief, sad as that must have been for the whole family (if it really happened). What my test search found in our newspaper collection was a few shades darker than that.
There were articles about my aunt’s death in newspapers from Utah to Idaho to California — but they weren’t about an auto accident. For example, on June 27, 1956, a front-page story in the Idaho State Journal (of Pocatello, Idaho) reported that detectives from Salt Lake City and Provo had joined the investigation of “the sex murder” of my 17-year-old aunt. The story explained, “The pretty teenage girl was sexually molested and murdered while on her way home from working at a drugstore June 13. Her body was found in a canal near Vernal [Utah] June 16.”
There was more.
Papers as far away as the Long Beach [California] Press-Telegram picked another UP story a few weeks later. “A 23-year-old service station attendant left a note Wednesday confessing to the murder of a pretty teenage girl and then killed himself on a lonely hillside.” That’s bad enough, but it got worse as I read further. “Her battered, partially nude body was found four days later floating in an irrigation ditch. She had been sexually molested.”
(You’ve noticed by now that I’ve omitted the names of both killer and victim, though the news stories gave them. The names don’t matter to my story, and I don’t want to intrude on her family’s — or his family’s — privacy any more than I have to, in telling the story at all.)
In December of that year the Ogden [Utah] Standard-Examiner ran an article which added a sad detail or two. It was their list of Utah’s top ten news stories of the year. The first was “the miraculous recovery of a girl who lay trapped under a wrecked car for nine days.” The second was “the flaming blast which turned a restaurant in the Utah community of Monticello into a help of rubble, killing 15.” (In case you’re curious, the culprit was a gas valve inadvertently left open in the basement. Don’t do that.) Number ten was the disappearance of my 17-year-old aunt, “the finding of her body in a stream,” and “the subsequent suicide” of her murderer, a local father of two, who killed himself as the police closed in.
I told my siblings of this discovery. They said they had known for years, and they were surprised I hadn’t. They had learned of it from another document of genealogical interest, her death certificate. So I looked that up online, too. The first thing I noticed was an instruction printed in bold type in the certificate’s margin: “Physicians Should State Cause of Death in Plain Terms.” Duly warned, I read through the document.
Birthplace: Vernal, Utah
Usual Occupation: Student
Place of Injury: Street in Vernal City
Injury Occurred: Not While at Work
Was Autopsy Performed? Yes
Immediate Cause (in longhand, which seems more poignant): Death By Strangulation
The response in Part 20b, “DESCRIBE HOW INJURY OCCURRED,” is also in longhand: “This girl was sexually assaulted. Choked about the neck. Struck on the chin. Was found 4 days after disappearance submerged in a canal. Attacker’s suicide note left later states he killed her quickly about 10:30 p.m.” Signed, Ray E. Spendlove, MD.
I don’t tell this dark story to celebrate the darkness, and I would understand if some people avoid family history because they expect or fear they’ll find such things. For my part, I justify this glimpse into the abyss — among others — with these three thoughts:
First, the darkness is real, and it shaped my ancestors and their time, which in turn shape me and my time — in which darkness is also real.
Second, if I want to know my own heritage, I want to know the real, unvarnished history, not some carefully sanitized version that won’t distress a child and that, oh, by the way, isn’t quite true.
The third thought is more complex.
Her parents, my grandparents, were the kindest, gentlest people on the planet. I can only imagine how dark those days — and many days thereafter — must have been for them. Somehow, they overcame it, because when I knew them, not too many years after this tragedy, they were quite cheerful, and they hadn’t moved away to escape the memories. Knowing what they overcame, I admire them now even more than before.
This aunt was a decade younger than my parents, and I was born less than a decade after that gruesome summer. In my childhood, I thought my parents were much too worried about such things as villains lurking in the bushes, waiting to prey upon school children who abandoned the sidewalks and walked through the local park on their way home from school. I absorbed and obeyed that fear for a while, but soon I was disobediently walking home through the park every afternoon, if the weather was good — and if my older sister wasn’t looking. I never saw a villain lurking.
Now a parent myself, I still think my parents were a bit too worried. But now I know why. Their worries came from a source far more personal than the six o’clock news. So I understand my parents more than before, too.
. . . All of which is awfully close to the point of doing family history research in the first place.