A suspicious first cousin

Timothy and Louisa_Cropped
My mother’s grandfather and her aunt

One day a few years ago, my mother (who was 85 at the time) got a phone call from a young lady who said “Hello, I think I’m your cousin!”  Mom, who was well aware of and always on the lookout for scams, immediately assumed that this was just one more.  The caller said that she was the great-granddaughter of my mother’s father’s sister, ‘Louisa.’ Mom, who knew all of her father’s siblings, had visited the family regularly in Detroit when she was a child and never met or even heard of an aunt with that name. She very politely informed the caller that no, she was mistaken, there never was a sister with that name and she must have the wrong family.  The caller persisted and asked if she could send Mom some genealogical material that she had collected that would demonstrate her point.  My mother replied, “Well, sure, send it along. I’ll ask my son, who works at a genealogical society, to take a look at it.”

Mom then called me and warned me that I’d be getting some information from an apparent crank who was attempting to pass herself off as a member of the family.  About a week later, an envelope arrived with the information from the ‘crank.’

The writer had done quite a lot of research to determine that her great-grandmother was a sister of my grandfather’s, and enclosed copies of birth and death certificates clearly showing that she was indeed a member of the family.  She even enclosed a photograph of my Mom’s grandfather (whom I had seen in many other photographs) with his daughter, the previously unknown sister.  It turns out that the mysterious Louisa had died a few months before my mother was born and was subsequently never mentioned again by anyone in the family. I called my Mom and told her that the writer appeared to be correct, that her father did have a sister named Louisa, and the proof seemed unimpeachable.

I examined the descendancy chart for the lost sister and noticed some names that I had heard from Mom’s stories of her friends when growing up.  One of the names was a person who had recently called my mother to reminisce about the good old days, growing up in the 1920s.  The person was one of Mom’s favorite playmates and lived next door. It turns out that the next-door friend was a child of the long-lost sister. His father had remarried and the friend had been only a year or two old when his mother died.

Before I met my new cousin (via email), I had very little information about Mom’s family: basically, only the names of her grandparents and (some of) her father’s siblings. Since working with my cousin we’ve made many additional discoveries based on sharing information we had assembled separately.

The moral of the story is that not all unbelievable stories are false and many can be established by good genealogical research.  (Although Mom always had a hard time believing that she had an aunt she had never heard of!)

About Sam Sturgis

Sam was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees in Psychology from Eastern Michigan University and worked as a Human Factors researcher in automotive safety for 13 years. He entered the field of commercial software development in 1983 and acted as software developer and development manager at Wang Laboratories and The Foxboro Company. Sam joined the NEHGS staff in 2005. Sam's interest in genealogy began shortly after moving to Massachusetts, when he and his family chanced upon the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, during a vacation on Cape Cod. There he discovered that he is a descendent of the Sturgis family that settled on Cape Cod in the 1630's. Sam and his wife Gail live in Medway, Massachusetts. They have two grown children: Katie, a Registered Nurse in Wrentham, and David, a software developer in Somerville.

8 thoughts on “A suspicious first cousin

  1. Boy, that rings a bell, through a DNA test I have unearthed a second cousin whose names and locales do not match anything I have knowledge of. I didn’t know, nor did my mother know that her grandfather was illegitimate and his year younger sister also illegitimate. The difference was he was raised by his father’s parents in Canada. His sister was raised by their mother in VT, who married and moved away, apparently adopted by her stepfather. I found this through records and not from the nonexistent family lore.

  2. I got a message from a genealogy site last summer from a woman who turned out to be the grand-daughter of my great-aunt – my never married, librarian, career woman, great-aunt! We have exchanged photos, letters, and other information, and one of my cousins hopes to meet her this summer. What a great thing, for all of us to find more family and to understand better those who went before us.

  3. This story is very similar to My mother’s biological mother,. Emma Augusta Latza-Lesser Jaskolka Boerstler who died when my mother was 6 years old. Seems like the Lesser family know very little about her and some seem to think that there were only brothers; they don’t realize that there was a sister who died in 1926 at the age of 26; She isn’t even mentioned in the brothers’ obits even though they all went rushing out to find her that horrible day that she didn’t come home and that one of the brothers, John Lesser, helped a year or so in raising my mom..

  4. When my great-grandparents split up (although never divorced) he (John Alfred Joyce) went on to have a second family. We were always aware of their existence but they did not know about the first family. A few years ago, I was finally able to track them down. Some of them thought I was the “crank cousin” and my story couldn’t possibly be true. But most of my “new” family welcomed me. In fact, they weren’t upset that their grandparents hadn’t been legally married but were terribly disappointed that they weren’t Irish. Al’s story (which changed depending on who he was telling it to) was that he was born on the boat on his way from Ireland. In fact, he was born in Whitechapel during the reign of Jack the Ripper!

  5. I was on Ancestry.com looking up my grandmother on my fathers side. All of sudden up pops a picture of her and three of her children. She had lived with us when she was alive and I knew alot about that side of the family but neither I nor any of my siblings had ever seen this picture. I recognized her oldist daughter (a teenager in the picture) but the other two were very young and looked nothing like the people I knew one of them being my father. I also did not know the person who posted picture. I later found out that she was the great grandaughter my great grandfathers sister.

  6. Sam–I just read your fascinating blog post, referred from the post by Scott Steward. A very similar thing happened to me, when I was contacted through the DNA genome service, 23andme, by a first cousin whose genome segments we shared. I had no knowledge of her or her family. Turns out her paternal grandfather is my maternal grandfather. My mother was adopted by a family who became my “adopted” grandparents, and no one in the family every knew, or at least they kept it a secret from my mother and her siblings. So, now, after I retire, I am going on a hunt for my maternal grandmother. Wish me luck.

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