Friday, December 7, 2018

When Ancestors Made Headlines

It can trigger an uneasy feeling, discovering that an ancestor's name actually appeared in newspaper headlines. Whether as villain or victim, such an event affords us as researchers a lens through which to view an episode in our forebear's lifetime. Such was the case with yet another Knapp family member, an uncle of William Malphus Knapp, the man whom we originally discovered through his abandoned photograph.

This particular uncle was named Cornelius Knapp. Like some of the other uncles of William Malphus Knapp, Cornelius' place of birth was alternately reported to be either Ohio or Canada. The family had moved from Ontario to eventually reside in Sandusky, Ohio, so either location is likely for Cornelius' start in life.

Eventually, Cornelius ended up in Adair County, Missouri, where he married a woman by the name of Massey Ann Elliott in 1858.

The couple stayed on in Adair County through at least the 1870 census, but some time after that, they made the move out west to Washington. They settled in Cowlitz County, a name in Washington now becoming familiar to us as we learn about the extended Knapp family and how many of their relatives made that same move.

As Washington did not achieve statehood until 1889, the Knapps' arrival there placed them in the category of "pioneers." That, at least, was how they were described in front page headlines on Friday, November 30, 1900, in the Tacoma Daily Ledger.

"Pioneers Murdered" declared the news wire report issued from Seattle, leading into a detailed description of what had happened. The Knapp couple, eating dinner in the home where they had settled eighteen years prior, was shot through a window "by an unknown assassin." Death was instant for Massey, and followed quickly for Cornelius as well.

News of the double murder and the still at-large assailant spread quickly. A follow up article, though mistakenly mentioning that the Knapp couple had been murdered on Thanksgiving evening (it was actually on the eve of Thanksgiving that year), reported that by Monday, December 3, Washington governor John Rankin Rogers had offered a reward "for the apprehension and conviction of the murderer."

Not surprisingly, shortly thereafter, a suspect was arrested on charges of murdering the Knapp couple. That, however, was not all. On the night of the murders, apparently a warehouse was also broken into, and the trail of clues led the sheriff to one particular suspect, a man named Martin Stickel. It was the suspect's own actions, in that initial encounter with law enforcement, that led investigators to clues resolving yet another murder.

By December 21, the Tacoma newspaper reported that the suspect had been found guilty of that other murder—one for which much substantiating evidence had been found. (Apparently, the authorities had chosen to try the suspect for this other, older, murder first, and use the case of the Knapp murders as follow up, in case the jury didn't return a verdict requiring capital punishment for the earlier murder.)

News reports continued in other newspapers. On December 27, the Aberdeen Herald, for instance, called murderer Martin Stickel "the most notorious and cold-blooded criminal" ever to be tried in Cowlitz County. Not surprisingly, Stickel was sentenced to be hanged, but even that added to his notoriety, for he unwittingly achieved the dubious distinction of being the last murderer to be hanged in Cowlitz county by local authorities. After that point, the state took jurisdiction over executions.

Whether the tragedy and its aftermath played any role in William Malphus Knapp's decision to return to the midwest after 1900, I can't say. There were other Knapp family members who remained in the Washington and Oregon vicinity. But the event itself—not to mention the flurry of news reports as the case made its way through court—certainly must have been difficult for the family to endure.

Cornelius and Massey Knapp were buried in Castle Rock, the same community in Cowlitz County where they had settled eighteen years earlier. Thanks to the efforts of yet another Find A Grave volunteer—plus input from another Knapp family researcher—Cornelius Knapp's memorial is full of information concerning the abrupt and tragic end of their lives.

While researchers are usually eager to uncover details of their ancestors' lives, finding family in the limelight like this is not the fortunate discovery we hope to locate. Newspapers can become the source of secrets long forgotten, or explain difficult circumstances otherwise endured in silence. Though we can presume that at some time, it is possible for the persistent researcher to uncover a newspaper report on an ancestor, learning of such stories can sometimes turn out to be unnerving.

Above: Detail from the 1858 Adair County, Missouri, marriage record of Cornelius Knapp and Massey Ann Elliott; image courtesy  


  1. Replies
    1. You never know what you will stumble across, when you take your family history research to the newspapers!


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