Delving into newspaper archives can be a great way to gain insight into the story behind the stories in a given ancestor's life—as long as you pick up the knack of reading between the lines. Still, there may be pitfalls in that approach.
That certainly turned out to be the case in pursuit of the psyche comprising one John Hogue, the man we now know as one of Canada's convicted murderers during those tumultuous years during World War I. Possibly displaced as prime headline in a news vortex that sucked national attention away to far distant current events across the Atlantic, the story of John Hogue's narrowly missing a fate of swinging on the gallows in Ontario dropped off the radar at about the time news reached home about the devastating casualties just sustained at Vimy Ridge.
Still, before that point, there was much to glean from the newspapers, and I've trawled through every report I could find. One, in particular, I want to revisit now as an example of how that hope of analyzing one's family history subject may sometimes backfire on a researcher.
This particular report on John Hogue appeared in the Brandon Daily Sun, a newspaper back in Manitoba, where Hogue had begun his long deportation journey in early 1917, and from which he had just completed a three month jail sentence. The article was datelined "Windsor, Ont., Feb. 13," shortly after Hogue had shot a Dominion immigration official in Ontario, in the course of attempting an escape.
The setting for the news story was the Windsor jail, where Hogue was being held for trial, scheduled for early March. Undoubtedly, thoughts uppermost on his mind would have been the very real possibility of a death sentence, and how that likelihood would spin out in his various relationships.
That, at least, was how I presumed it might have been. Reviewing the article now and giving it a second thought, I'm not sure it provides the same glimpse into his psyche as one might have presumed—a little fact checking persuaded me to think differently about the man's current state of mind, at least at that point.
Let's take a look at the article, and then I'll explain what I mean. From the page five article, under the title, "Alleged Murderer Disposed of Property":
James Steward, alias Wm. Anderson, alleged murderer of Marshall Jackson, of Winnipeg, who will stand trial in March, has disposed of all his earthly possessions. He has willed his diamond scarf pin to a sister, Margaret Ashworth of Evansville, Ohio; a small savings bank account deposited in a Des Moines, Iowa, bank, to another sister, of Travers City, Mich.; a valuable traveling clock to Inspector of Police Mortimer Wigle, of Windsor; a rain coat to Fred Steward, his night guard at Sandwich jail.
In addition to questions about implications for professional ethics in regard to the last two bequests, it turned out there were other doubtful details about the revelation of this criminal's first installment on last wishes.
On its face, this appears to be a wonderful opportunity to confirm this man's family circle—but if you thought that at first glance, think again. Remember, this is the man whom people were led to believe was named something other than his true identity; what makes us think he would correctly name either of the two sisters he had mentioned?
But let's, for a moment, give him the benefit of the doubt. Since we already know his true identity as John Hogue of Charleston, West Virginia, we can take a look at his family tree. As it turns out, he did have two sisters. Well, amend that: because his mother had been married twice, he had an older half-sister as well as a younger sister. However—and I know this won't come as a surprise to you now—neither of those sisters was named Margaret, let alone Ashworth. Plus, each of his sisters spent their entire lives in their hometown, back in West Virginia, not in Evansville, Ohio, or Travers City, Michigan.
Come to think of it, there isn't even any such place as Evansville, Ohio—not according to Google Maps or any Internet search. (Well, there was one result that came up on MapQuest, north of the point on eastbound Interstate 80, just before the split with Interstate 680, approaching Youngstown. But I couldn't replicate that information anywhere else.) Evansville, Indiana, yes (on the Ohio River, even); but not in Ohio. Perhaps our traveling yeggman had gotten his directions wrong.
But let's assume, for a moment, that this Margaret Ashworth was a real person. Was there anyone by such a name anywhere in Ohio close to that time period? As it turns out, there were no results on Ancestry.com for such a name in the 1920 census—but there was someone by that name in Youngstown in the 1930 census. Could that be some sort of clue?
Why did the article name one sister, but not the other? Why, indeed, did the paper include the name of a city that didn't even exist? Were these just editorial mistakes? Or can we even believe that the man had family scattered over all the midwestern United States—and bank accounts, too? Why would the newspaper's readership even care what an alleged murderer's possessions consisted of—or where they were bound after his demise?
Whether an editorial ploy or manipulative move on the part of Hogue, himself, this little display of histrionics tended to make me less sympathetic to his cause. It hatched all sorts of unanswerable questions, foremost among them considerations of the psychological aspects they might be revealing. Was this Hogue, attempting with pathos to sway the public (or at least the potential jurors), or was it simply reformist agitators seeking to disrupt the traditions of Canadian jurisprudence with a change in public sentiment?
Above all, hadn't anyone thought of the implication of such a statement before a verdict could even be reached in Hogue's court case? Why give away all one's "earthly possessions" before judgment has been pronounced? Wouldn't that have been considered an admission of guilt?
This type of agonizing over past newspaper reports may well be beyond the purview of what is meant by an "exhaustive search" for genealogical answers. To sort it all out, I'll likely resort to transcribing each of the many newspaper articles I've found, arrange them in date order, and set them aside to gel for a while before picking them back up for a final review. Sometimes, my brain needs a respite like that.
A story like this comes with baggage—a lot of context which simply can't be ignored. Although we'll need to revisit just one more stop along the way to John Hogue's commutation of execution to a life sentence, after that, it will be time to move along to the next episode in his story. You know this story couldn't just stop there.