Sometimes I sit down at my desk, anxious to get on with my family research and nothing happens. I sit staring at a blank computer screen trying to figure out what to do next, and not a thing comes to mind. Every site I know of has been searched; every database scoured with the same results turning up over and over, now what?
I’ll tell you what--take a break. Not from genealogy research, God forbid! Genealogy is what I do. Instead, try researching the people who were living in the same neighborhood as your relatives. Not just their history, take a look at what they were doing; what they were talking about, sort of a variation on the “friends and family” technique. I suppose it’s closer to sociology than genealogy, but still interesting and relevant. You may learn something about your ancestors by “going in the back door”. You’ll certainly get a feel for what was going on in their community.
For instance, Saturday I wrote about a group of my ancestors who left Ireland and settled in Farmington, NY. They weren’t there alone; there was a whole group of Irish living there, (mostly from County Waterford), in an area referred to as the “prairie district”. They didn’t live in a vacuum; they visited, formed friendships, fought and intermarried. They gossiped too, and in 1899 you can bet the topic was the increasingly evident pregnancy of Mrs. Catherine Sexton, a pregnancy conceived while her husband Edward Sexton was in jail on an assault charge. Things got even more sensational when in 1903 Edward was put on trial for ambushing and murdering Thomas Mahaney; the man he believed had cuckolded him and fathered his wife’s child. Found guilty, Edward was sent to the electric chair at Auburn.
Searching the site Old Fulton Postcards http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html produced hundreds of articles about the trial and turned up earlier offences Edward had committed, beginning with his shooting a neighbor in the head at the tender age of eleven. The neighbor survived, but the crime earned young Eddie a stay at the”Western House of Refuge”, which it turns out was one of the first facilities in the country for juvenile delinquents, and located in Rochester, NY. The search also turned up this article about conditions in their Farmington neighborhood—“Persons acquainted with the prairie district say that many hard cider, alcohol and poor whiskey gangs are in full sway there and it cannot be described as a peaceful rural community”. Another article made reference to the “prairie chicken gang”. Now that’s information you can use.
I learned other interesting things while delving into Edward Sexton’s sordid life. I had long believed the Mahoney and Mahaney families in Farmington were actually the same family and that was borne out by details in articles about an earlier assault Sexton had made on one Maurice or Morris Mahaney, who I knew was a brother of my second great uncle Thomas Mahoney, (not to be confused with murder victim Thomas Mahaney). The term “prairie district” was a new one on me as was the turbulent lifestyle of some of its residents. I even found pictures of Edward and his victim Mahaney in a newspaper. I wish I could turn up a few of my ancestors pictures, but somehow it always seems to be individuals on the periphery.
Something else about the murder absorbed me. It was Edward Sexton’s uncanny resemblance to Mink Snopes, a character in William Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet. From Edward’s wife’s infidelity, the murder from ambush and even his physical description, it’s like this case was the model on which Faulkner based his character. Then too, the year Edward went to jail as a juvenile, his parents brazenly chose to name another of their sons Pliney Sexton, after the rich banker in a nearby village who coincidentally shared their surname—again, straight out of Faulkner. But I digress…
In closing, if you find yourself hitting walls and getting frustrated why not try a different approach. Think of how excited you will be when in a month or so you resume your specific family research and a whole slew of new databases have come online.