The story behind the story

If you want to learn about how I found the John Becker story, or if you’re interested in what methods I have used to trace the Becker family tree, please keep reading.

FINDING THE FAMILY

When I began to research my Becker tree I knew my great-grandpa’s name, Frank Becker, and his wife, Cecelia. I learned the name of Frank’s siblings (Dorothy, Margaret) from my dad.

Having the names of my great-grandpa and his siblings was all I needed to find them in the census. I paid for a couple months of access to Ancestry.com, which has indexed tons of documents like American censuses or military draft documents for World Wars I and II. Using the powerful search feature on Ancestry makes it very easy to find the census records I am looking for (most of the time).

I found a census record with my the three names I was seeking. My great-grandpa’s age was about right. It looked like I had found the family. The census showed me that my great-grandpa’s father was William Becker and his mother was Anna. I also got approximate ages for both of them.

My grandma Renaud (Frank Becker’s daughter Jan) and my great-uncle Jack (Frank Becker’s son) were able to confirm these names. They also told me a story about how William Becker died suddenly in the street when Uncle Jack was about 3 or 4. Jack apparently was walking with his grandfather William when he died.

There are a lot of potential sources of information created when a person dies:

  • There is usually a death certificate
  • Often, the family pays for an obituary
  • The person usually appears in burial permit listings in the newspapers
  • There is a headstone in the cemetery with name, dates, etc

Many of these potential sources can be searched online (if the person lived in St. Louis).

For example, the state of Missouri has a database of death certificates from 1910-1951. You can search by the deceased’s name or year of death. The site provides copies of the original certificates as PDF files you can download.

As a side note, here are two other death-related online resources. First, the St. Louis Archdiocese has provided a searchable database of area Catholic cemeteries, which provides the name of the deceased, age at death, and date of burial. It also lets you see who is buried nearby, which can be helpful if you find other family members. Second, the St. Louis Public Library has compiled an index of Post-Dispatch obituaries, covering the years 1880-1927, 1942-45, and 1992-2006.

Anyway, to find William Becker, I guesstimated the year he died based on Uncle Jack’s age. Then I searched the death certificates for William Becker, looking at those that were issued around the 1930s. Since I knew William’s wife was Anna, I could discard all the certificates that listed a different name for the wife.

So, with a list of potential death dates for my William Becker, I went to the St. Louis County Library Headquarters. They have a special collections department with tons of microfilms of various sorts, including copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. I looked up the obituaries for the William Beckers on my list. As it turned out, the very first one I looked up was the right one. The obituary named his children: Dorothy, Margaret, and Frank.

But, I thought to myself, it was unusual to die out in public in the street. Perhaps there was a news story. I looked through the Post-Dispatch, but no luck. But in the Globe, there it was! A one-paragraph story at the bottom of a page with a tiny headline.

Finding William Becker was my first success, and a keystone in tracing the rest of the family, back to our original Becker immigrant ancestor, also named William.

I was able to go further back because William’s death certificate included the names of his parents. With their names, I could search the censuses and find the family when William was a child.

I used similar methods to locate all the Beckers I currently have on my tree: using the census to find families and approximate birthdates; then searching the death certificates or the Catholic cemeteries online to find death dates; and then looking up obituaries in the newspapers.

JOHN BECKER

For much of the family my research has gone well. But some people have given me trouble, like John A. Becker. The problem was that I was unsure what became of him after he grew up and left the nest.

I eventually found his obituary by making some guesses and lookups. I was surprised to find that he had died quite young. Not only that, but he died in another city — Chicago. He was the only family member I had seen (to that point) who had left St. Louis. Why was he in Chicago when he died? When I found his death certificate, it indicated John had died by trauma to the head.

It seemed probable that something very wrong had happened; perhaps it had been newsworthy. But I was in St. Louis, and our library doesn’t have Chicago newspaper microfilms.

On a whim, I searched Google for online Chicago databases and I discovered that Northwestern University had a database of Chicago’s homicides from 1890-1930.

I searched this database for John Becker, and found a case file which seemed to contain some answers. The date of death was Nov. 11, 1917, the same date on John Becker’s death certificate and the obituary. The case file indicated he had been found dead with his skull fractured in the 3rd floor of the Sharples building. It named a defendant in the case, John Dell Claude, and gave dates of arrest and sentencing, among other details. I felt sure there must have been something in the newspapers, though I had no idea how much of a story it might have been.

As I said above, I didn’t have immediate access to Chicago newspapers on microfilm. But as it turned out, that wasn’t a big obstacle. I learned that there was a searchable archive of Chicago Tribune pages from 1852-1984. You can print PDFs of the original pages for a fee.

I found a truckload of stories related to John A. Becker’s murder. His story made the front page twice: first when his body was discovered, and again when the killer gave his full confession to police. I also learned why John had been in Chicago in the first place: he had joined the Navy and was training there.

After this, I read my local St. Louis papers (Post-Dispatch, Globe-Democrat, Star). I was disappointed that while all three papers covered the story, none of them offered many additional details. I wanted to learn more.

A colleague at the Post-Dispatch pointed out that the Great Lakes Naval Training Center had its own newspaper as well as a library which kept archived copies of the paper. I called the library, eager to see how the base’s own paper might have covered the story. The librarian there was very helpful, but he found that the newspaper hadn’t covered the death at all. It was mostly a “good-news” P.R. sort of newspaper.

So I turned my attention to the killers. I knew E. L. Dierdorff had committed suicide before he was caught and John Dell Claude had been sentenced to life in the prison.

I looked them up on the Illinois state death index. This gave me their exact death dates, as well as death certificate numbers.

I enlisted the help of Molly Kennedy, a genealogical researcher in Illinois.

She was able to print copies of the killers’ death certificates from microfilm. She also found John Becker articles from five other Chicago daily newspapers.

The final bit of research I tried was to look at John Becker’s official military personnel file. I am lucky to live in St. Louis, which is home to the National Personnel Records Center – Military Personnel Records. I sent a request for John Becker’s file via postal mail. The government found his file and gave me two options: I could order a complete copy of his record for $50, or I could visit the center and go through his file with my own hands. I chose the latter.

I took with me my laptop and a scanner. I wasn’t expecting to find much in the file … after all, John Becker died after just a few months in the Navy.

Boy was I surprised! The file was pretty big. It contained a 60-page transcript of the Cook County Coroner’s inquest. This was a gold mine of information. In the newspapers, I had read bits about some key witnesses. Now I had in my hands a sworn transcription of the entire proceeding, the exact words of every witness in the case.

Not only that, but the file had a lot of correspondence among the Navy, a Congressman, and John Becker’s father, Frank. It had John Becker’s service record, which was obviously brief, but was signed in his own hand and contained his fingerprints.

I was very pleased to be able to scan all these documents. Now I can have my own digital copies of them, and make them available here on my website for anybody who’d like to check them out.

Interested? Here they are:

Anyway, that’s the story behind the story.

About Josh Renaud

I'm the Emperor of the Renaud Empire, which is to say that I'm the husband of a Boliviana and the father of three daughters and one son. When I'm not conquering lands and expanding borders, I'm a newspaper designer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Find me on Twitter (@Kirkman) or Google+.
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2 Responses to The story behind the story

  1. anita says:

    Wow, Josh-I’m exhausted after all that! Good work!

  2. judi says:

    Josh, I have followed this history and geneaological lesson with great interest as you have written about your Becker ancestors and detailed your research. I’m just starting in on a project to write about my four great-grandmothers, three of whom (from family sources) were quilters, as I am. It is often harder to trace the lives of women, so of course I’ll search records for their husbands, too. Your work has given me an additional incentive to get back to my project. You’ve been teaching the olde teacher!