The case of the missing family Bible: Let’s go sleuthing together!

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

GP&A Case #17: Kelly, the store clerk at Boomerangs Resale Store (Sherman Avenue), calls last Friday to ask if I’d like to take a look at an antique family Bible donated to the store in an old hardware cardboard box. She has no idea when exactly when it arrived or how it came to be donated. She called me because my genealogical research firm, Glynn Patrick & Associates, LLC, partners with area thrift shops to return family Bibles to their rightful owners. We only accept Bibles with personal information recorded in them, including at least one surname. Then, though genealogical research and old fashioned logical thinking, we return them to the rightful heir. The thrift shops donate the Bibles; GP&A donates the search. (I have a superstitious fear that it would be bad karma to charge a family for giving them back their own Bible.)

I tell her “Heck, yes!” and I hurry to pick it up. A new sleuthing adventure!

Together, Kelly and I reverently open a very beautiful and very large antique Bible with incredible woodprint drawings (but no copyright date). The Bible has a “Bible dictionary” including wood block sketches of “animals of the Bible” and “people mentioned in the Bible” and elaborate timeline notes and gold-leaf drawings. Inside the pages are a few crusty pressed roses, a couple old sepia portraits taken in the 1920s-1940s era, and handwritten entries of births and deaths which occurred in the Pecatonica, Illinois area. There is a church service bulletin (Easter 1941, no church name listed). The family appears to have immigrated in the early 1900s to America, and some entries are in German, including a hand-written confirmation record.

The paper is so old and brittle that the Bible’s bindings are coming apart and the opening pages crumble if you touch them with too much pressure.

Where would you start? Here are some hints!

  • We don’t remove the Bible from the box it was donated in. The book is too fragile. The box is giving support. You’ll want to return the Bible in as good a shape as possible and then leave the preservation to the family.
  • Wear gloves to handle the pages if you have a particularly fragile book to prevent oil transfers from your fingertips. (If you go to the collections area of the Wisconsin Historical Society and ask to handle special collections or photographs, they will provide white cotton gloves to you; it’s that important.)

Later, I show my husband the articles that I will draw from to begin the research (since I’m not going to pay an associate to do pro-bono work…).

“This one will take you two hours,” he predicts.

“Oh, no, likely much longer than that. I have to find the heir, you know, and this was long ago and far away. The ancestral line is hard because they came over (to the U.S.) late; by then, the name was more common. A couple days at least…”

That quick exchange proves that you can never predict how long a search will take. Some take months or even years. In this case, however, my husband won the bet. Twenty minutes later, I called the heir and offered the Madison-area family their Bible back.

How did we go from 1920 to 2011 so quickly? Here was the logical process behind the search:

Research Tip #1
Family Bibles are usually discarded when estates are settled, so begin with obituaries

  • This Bible went back decades. Third-party caretakers or institutions may purge family heirlooms following a death if there is no known will or heir. Neighbors or friends or people who don’t realize what they are throwing out will do that. Sometimes, family members become exhausted with the process of clearing out estates and begin throwing out boxes without looking inside. But rarely does a family member knowingly throw out a treasured family heirloom when there is still someone in the family (usually an “old” sentimental lady like me) who would pay $$ or plead to get it back. The family historian, for example.
  • A good starting place for an heir search begins with online obituary listings. I simply picked one of the names in the Bible: Robert John Meiers. He was three times removed from the original entrants and born on January 13, 1932 in Illinois. If he had NOT died recently, I might be able to track him to return the Bible to him. He became my target entry. I Googled “Obituary” and his first, middle and last name. Bingo! The very first entry was for a Robert J. Meiers who died in McFarland, Wisconsin. It was almost too easy! I pulled up the full obituary printed in the paper and printed it. From there, I found out that he was very active in the Door Creek Church (owners of Boomerang Resale Store). He had died in May, 2010. The chances were very good that I was holding his Bible.
  • From the obituary, I learned his widow’s name and his children’s name. I picked a daughter, because she still lived in McFarland. She now would be my “heir” target. She would know what the family wanted done with the Bible. (Usually pick a daughter. They tend to be most sentimental).

Research Tip #2
411.com is handy when you know the city someone lives in, or the address, or just the phone number (if you’re looking for an address). It offers a reverse directory option and age estimates, too.

  • Daughter Sally Meiers was very happy to hear about the Bible, which had inadvertently been discarded after her father’s death. She very much wanted it returned to the family. I told her she could pick it up at Boomerangs. That way, Kelly at Boomerangs could experience the thrill of my favorite part of this mission — returning a family Bible to its rightful owner. (Hence, she’ll give me more referrals, too!)

Research Tip #3
There are free on-line public sources to help you find transcripts of your family Bible that might be owned now by museums, collections, etc.

  • GenaLinks is a site that publishes information taken from family Bibles. You can look there to see if you have one floating around that has been transcribed.
  • Ancestor Hunt is another site that posts (free) Bible results.

It isn’t always this easy to match antiques with current day heirs, but in my experience, it is always this worthwhile. Genealogists often go to census records, marriage and death, social security death posts, old church records, etc. to locate heirs or to help identify or confirm original owners, so a one-stop solution shouldn’t be your expectation — it almost never happens. But the hunt itself is half the fun, and if you have an interest in this type of sleuthing, you’ll get hooked the very first time you do it.

My first time was when I happened across a Bible in a Tarpon Springs, Florida resale store and noticed the surname and many birth and death names. Because I have memberships to Ancestry.com and about five other sites, I paid the $20 for the Bible and brought it home to Madison. The heir to that Bible was much more difficult to track down, but once I had re-established a family tree with the help of the entries in the book, which took about a week to do for this group of names, I posted it on Ancestry.com and began looking for heirs there.

Bingo! A gentleman in Cleveland now owns the Foots Family Bible. The cost to him? $20, just what I’d spent to buy the book. He offered to pay me $100 for my time and trouble but you know, that darned Karma thing… $20 was all I would take, plus shipping (another $10 for the heavy Bible).

I’ve since done many more sleuthing jobs to return items to folks, and it’s just FUN! Genealogy is much more than a hobby for me and my family, because I actually do make money recreating family trees, etc., but this pro-bono work side of the business is the reason I got into genealogy in the first place, and a great reminder of the ties that bind present generations to ancestors.

If you’d like to learn more about genealogical searches, e-mail me at jodyp@magnapubs.com. I’ll be offering a free 2-hour seminar this spring on how and where to begin (U.S. only) searches for ancestral information, and the more the merrier!

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