It happens to every genealogist at some point. We run into the proverbial research "brick wall" and are unable to figure out a key bit of information on an ancestor. Sometimes it is who they married. Other times, it is who their parents were. And there can also be no records of that person's death. While I pride myself as a genealogist of being able to conquer the brick walls (and would be happy to help you conquer yours!), I do have a couple in my own family that continue to stump me.
One of those is a mystery that haunted my paternal grandfather, Walt, and drove his long-time interest in, and hobby of, genealogy. I guess you can say I inherited his brick wall, though I tried to help him figure it out when I first started doing genealogy more than fourteen years ago. Walt did all of his genealogy work without using a computer, so I naively assumed that a few clicks on Ancestry.com would lead me to the answers my grandfather so desperately wanted to receive. Unfortunately that was not the case.
Walt's maternal grandfather was William Andrew Cook who was born 8 March 1865 in Georgia, and he is a very hard man to find records for! According to Walt's handwritten family tree (sadly with no source citations), William married Walt's maternal grandmother, Mary Alice Carr, about 1883 (I have found a conflicting date of 1886 in other records. Their first child was born in 1884, so maybe 1883 was wishful thinking on my grandfather's part that they were married before the child was born. 😉)
William and Mary Alice lived in Overton County, Tennessee, and had four children: Walter Lee, born 1884; Edna, born 1889; Effie, born 1890; and Ethel, born 1893. Sadly, Mary Alice died in 1894 at the age of 26, leaving William with four young children. Walter Lee was almost eleven at the time of his mother's passing, but the girls were only five, four, and one. Legend has it that, at some point after Mary Alice died, William put the girls in the care of a Baker family, and he and Walter Lee went to Linton, Indiana, to work in the mines.
For awhile after they left for Indiana, William sent money home for the care of the girls. But eventually, the money stopped coming. At this point, the girls went put in the care of their maternal grandparents. No one ever heard of, or from, William again. Sadly, Walter Lee died in Linton in 1906. The cause of death on his death certificate is "suicide by morphine poisoning." The informant on his death certificate was not William. The person didn't know who his parents were or even when he was born. Does this mean William had already died? Or moved on?
I have not been able to find any trace of William (really either before Mary Alice died or after). I asked the Historical Society of Greene County, Indiana (where Linton is located), for help in the search. They couldn't find anything either after checking all of their available local databases, especially those that list men who died in mining accidents.
I do think I have figured out who his parents were, though I haven't completed reasonably exhaustive research yet to prove it. William doesn't show up in any census records as an adult that I have looked at so far, which makes him even more of an enigma (though the most likely census to have solid info on the family would be the 1890 census and, sadly, that census is mostly lost).
My grandfather, whose full name was William Walter, was named for these two men: William Andrew Cook and Walter Lee Cook. Being their namesake really fueled his passion for finally solving the mystery of what happened to them. While I was able to find proof of Walter Lee's demise, I am still left wondering, just as Walt did: What happened to William Andrew Cook? Did he precede Walter Lee in death? Did he die in a mining accident? Did he remarry and have another family? So many things to wonder, and not a lot to go on to try to figure them out.
Do you have any brick walls in your family? Let me know in the comments. And I am always excited to try to help you solve them!