Once in a blue moon

Everyone who indulges in family history research understands the role that serendipity plays in successfully locating the ancestors we seek. I have recently come to understand what a confluence of serendipity and a blue moon can mean to my research, my focus on family stories, and a brick wall.

A blue moon occurred on Saturday, 21 May 2016, a day I had arranged a first meeting with a distant Saunders-Cummings cousin to share family stories and data. Her arrival was preceded by an totally unexpected visit by another distant cousin in the same Cummings line. The day was full of family stories and photos. My patient husband managed to endure, but later commented that he had no family stories to tell. (Never a prophet in my own house!)

At my encouragement (read: nagging), he began typing his family’s stories. Eleven pages later he was still bemoaning that he had no good stories, just a few stubborn, unanswered questions:  When did his parents move into the old house at 7421 Dacosta Street in Detroit? Why was his mother adamant that he and his brother have bunk beds – not twin beds – in their back bedroom, and oh yes, what about the murder that supposedly took place in that house in Michigan? Yes, a murder, and he has no stories to tell!

The only information available to help discover the whole story was the first name – Kenny or Kennie , a man who might have killed his mother there sometime in the 1940s – and the street address. I had tried to find the story of that murder several years ago, without success, and while I can handle computer research, I am no magician. Searching with so little information is a real challenge!

But this was the weekend of serendipity and blue moons, so I checked the research I had done earlier. City directories, contemporary newspapers, census records, general “wide-net” searches … nothing conjured up the least clue. But now I had one more source I didn’t have then: the 1940 U.S. Census.

With so little information, I went to http://1940census.archives.gov/, which allows searching without an Enumeration District number. Refining my search by state, city, and street location, I hoped to find the families who lived on Dacosta Street in 1940.

Oh, serendipity, there was only one family on the first sheet:  Lawrence Maurer, 35; his wife, Daisy, 30; and June, 11; Janet, 1 month; and Kenneth, age 7, living at 7421 Dacosta Street. The bricks were crumbling.

Now that I had the family’s name, I checked for 1940s Detroit newspapers on newspapers.com, and I didn’t really need the date range; the story was a famous one on 27 November 1951:

Detroit Free Press

This is what took place in the house my husband’s parents bought shortly after the crime. Kenneth Maurer had killed his mother Daisy and 11-year old sister Janet with a Boy Scout axe and knife, cleaned up the blood spread throughout the house, hid the weapons, removed all photos of himself from the albums and picture frames in the house, and disappeared. He left his sister’s body wrapped in a rug in a closet and his mother lying between the twin beds in the back bedroom. He was 18 years old.

Ionia headlineI found more than twenty newspaper articles printed in the months following the crime covering the hunt for Kenneth, his capture fourteen months later  in Miami (and his return to Detroit), his father’s support, the murder charges, and his commitment to the Ionia State Hospital after being diagnosed by three psychiatrists as schizophrenic and unable to aid in his own defense. He never went to trial.

The final installment of this mystery came with a single newspaper article dated 12 May 1964 reporting Kenneth’s death.

The family mystery, a brick wall of sorts, became so much dust with the confluence of a blue moon and some unexpected serendipity.

My husband is still writing down all those family stories he doesn’t have, but I won’t tell him that he can’t top this one!

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

11 thoughts on “Once in a blue moon

  1. Wow, what a story – gives me chills! It is amazing how you figured it and I think your husband would be hard-pressed to top it. I am appreciative of your tip for searching 1940 census records, which could be quite helpful to lots of folks.

  2. Murders are quite the find. My gggg grandfather george shivery was murdered by his nephew jehu Simmons in kennett twp Chester co pa in 1818 over a card game. Was national news.

  3. This makes me think of a murder I have in the family tree that I’ve been wondering about. My greatgrandmother’s brother (Joseph Winningham) was murdered in Charleston on December 6, 1953. His death certificate says it’s a homicide & he died from a stab wound to the heart. My mom says she always heard it was his wife’s brother during a drunken argument. His wife is Ida Sweat. I bet it was in the newspapers at the time, but I haven’t found anything yet that wasn’t behind a pay wall. 🙁

  4. Am not sure how many City Directories are available online, but within the city or at a Library a person can find and trace who lived in a location. Usually bigger cities had yearly Directories. Thankfully many newspapers as your found are online as well these days.
    Very interesting and it answered another of his questions, that of the “No twin beds,” one.
    Good research possibilities these days:)

  5. I only have one strange death in my tree. In 1672 my ancestress Florence Norman Hart Whittredge drowned herself in a puddle of water “not sufficient to cover her face”. It was declared a suicide, and she clearly was disturbed. Yet she was alone, and drag marks were found in the woods. It just sounds so fishy. Here is a complete account from the Memoir of the Rev. William Adams, of Dedham, Mass., (Coll Mass Hist Soc, 4th Series, Vol. I, pp. 17-18):

    Aug 20, 1672: I went to Ipswich and at Wenham had from Mr. Newman the full relation of ye strange death of Thomas Whitteridge, his wife, who being a woman of no commendable life was by a fortune-teller told yt she should meet with great trouble, if she escaped with her life: afterward being in great horror, Mr. Richard Hubbards gave her several scriptures to consider of. When he was gone she turned ye Bible the best part of an hour saying there was another scripture if she could find it, wc what it was or whether she found it being unknown to others she clapt the Bible too and said she would never look into it more, wc by the just judgment of God she never did. At night she told her son, a youth about 12 or 13 years at ye most, yt it would be as ye fortune teller had said–the boy desired his mother yt she would not mind what he had said, for he believed he was a lying fellow, but yt she would mind what was said in the word of God. At this word she flew up saying (as some report) He is come! The door either by her or of itselfe being opened with great violence she ran out. And being presently followed no sight could be had of her, but a shrieking or groaning or both was heard. The next morning there was to be seen a path made thro the thickest places of weeds and briars as if a great timber log had been drawn there which being followed her coat was found therein, and she a little further with her face thrust into a little puddle of water not sufficient to cover her face, lying dead. Quam inscrutabilia judicia Dei!

    Thanks to Roger W. Smith for transcribing and posting this to his blog Roger’s Gleanings.

    1. I’m related to the Maurer’s too! Lawrence was my great-grandmother’s brother. My great-grandmother is the one your mother is named after & I’m named after her too. Small world.

      1. Janet Maurer was a classmate of mine, at Ann Arbor Trail School, on Chatham St. just a few blocks from Dacosta. We were in 6th grade at the time. I remember Janet as a pretty girl with long dark hair, in “banana ” curls. Of course we were all shocked when our teacher told us that Janet had died. Even more shocking when we read the newspaper describing how she died. It is something that has stayed with me all these years. I only just found out what ultimately happened to Kenneth by reading this article. I knew he had been arrested, but did not know the rest.

    2. Hi Lisa, not sure you will see this, you wrote this 3 years ago. My father in law was June’s half-brother. We knew something happened in the family years ago, but Dad would not talk about it. All my husband knew was Daisy and Janet died and he thought he heard something about Ken. I’ve even researching my family, and my husbands along the way. I just came across the whole story this week. Unbelievable!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.