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Anyone who’s into family history, even a little bit, knows how hard it is to pass up old photos at tag sales and flea markets. Instead, you want to adopt them all and give them names. So when our contributor Sunny Jane Morton found five photos together at an antiques store near Kirtland, Ohio, she snatched them up and issued a challenge to Family Tree Magazine: Could we confirm the identities of these people and determine how they fit together?
And we turned to you, dear readers, posting the photos on our blog at . Many of you set your own research aside, poring through census, marriage and death records for relationship clues. Photo Detective Maureen A. Taylor also weighed in to analyze date evidence in light of your research. Putting it all together creates a fascinating family tale and a model for solving your own photo mysteries.
Clues to Use
Taylor starts every photo inquiry the same way: “At first, I ignore what’s written on an image, because captions aren’t always correct. Instead, I look for clues as to when and where the images were taken.” That means studying the type of photo (print, tintype, etc.), clothing shown and photographer’s information. You can see some of these clues pointed out on pages 56 and 57. Added up, they date the childhood pictures to around the turn of the 20th century, and the photos of the young women to about 1910 to 1920.
We also can identify a place, thanks to the photo imprint from the J.E. Gearing studio in Covert, Mich. Covert township is in Van Buren County, in western Michigan on the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s at least 300 miles from Morton’s home in northeastern Ohio. The Lang family may have a Kirtland connection, but it’s also possible a collector transported them there. You can look up the name of photographers and studios in censuses and city directories to narrow a time frame. We didn’t find any records listing Gearing’s photo studio in Covert. We did, however, find an 1895 marriage record for photographer John E. Gearing in Van Buren County, along with an 1898 divorce record. His wife had filed, accusing him of desertion.
Normally, you’d also consider the provenance (history of ownership) of a mystery image, and the other photos you find with it. If your mom tells you that her mom discovered a photo among her aunt’s things, and the aunt was your grandfather’s sister, you can guess that the photo shows someone connected to either your grandfather’s or the aunt’s husband’s family. If your mystery photo is on an album page with pictures of your dad’s cousin, chances are the photo is from that family.
In our case, those provenance clues are missing. If you find old pictures for sale, ask the seller where they came from. It’s doubtful he’ll know, but it’s worth asking.
On the Case
Using the place and general time period, several Family Tree Magazine followers researched the Lang family. In the 1900 census, a Bernice Lang, born in 1894, was “stepdaughter” in the household of Thomas and Ella Morgan in Covert, Van Buren, Mich.—the same location as the J.E. Gearing photo labeled with Bernice’s name. Readers Mike McPharlin and Ann D. broadened the search to marriage and death records. “I believe Bernice Lang was the daughter of Joseph Lang and Ella Teachout, born in July 1894, in Van Buren County, Mich.,” McPharlin writes. Ella may be the “Etta” who wrote the note on the photo postcard, having crossed the ls in a rush.
Researching newspapers, Sara H. found that Bernice’s father, Joseph, died Nov. 30, 1896, when she was just 2 years old. “Joseph died at age 29 in a fire aboard the steamer City of Kalamazoo, docked in South Haven, Van Buren County,” she writes. “A newspaper account says he left behind a widow and one child.” Van Buren County marriage records show that Ella M. Lang (nee Teachout) married James T. Morgan Dec. 1, 1898. Sharp-eyed Jeanine B. noticed a stepson, Alfred E. Buchanan, in the household in the 1900 census. She dug up Ella’s first marriage, back in 1879, to William Buchanan; Alfred was his son from a previous marriage.
Multiple readers used their sleuthing skills to find 17-year-old Lenna M. Lang in the 1910 census, daughter of Andrew M. (born about 1869) and Laura B. (born about 1868).
Their common last name suggests that Lenna, Beatrice and Bernice were cousins. Confirming this means going back in time. Andrew and Laura’s March 22, 1892, marriage record reveals his parents’ names as Michael Lang and Barbara Hong or Hony (or any number of other interpretations). The 1880 census shows Michael and “Barbary” Lang with sons Joseph, born about 1867, and Andrew, born about 1869. On the 1896 death record of Joseph Lang, we find his parents named as Michael and Barbara, and his age as 30, giving him a birthdate in 1867.
This makes Lenna and Bernice first cousins. But what about Beatrice? McPharlin writes, “I think Beatrice Lang is the daughter of William Lang and Minnie Burg. She was born on June 25, 1910, probably in Covert, since the 1910 US census taken in April 1910 puts the family in Covert.”
William isn’t with the Michael and Barbara Lang family in the 1880 census, but perhaps he was born later. Of course, there are no 1890 census records to check for the area, but he’d probably still be living with his parents in 1900. Michael died in 1895, as Sara H. discovered in Covert probate records, but the 1900 census lists a widowed Barbara with son Willie E., born in September 1880. William is 29 years old in the 1910 census, when he and Minnie have a 6-year-old son, Joseph, and would’ve been expecting Beatrice. Before William, Minnie was briefly married to Grant Green. Perhaps the grief of losing their 18-month-old son, Maxwell, to pneumonia, was too much for their marriage.
And Henry Burg, the name on the back of the photo labeled “Beatrice Lang”? Mary H. identified him as Minnie’s father, grandfather to Beatrice. Kelly D. adds that Minnie’s middle initial was E—perhaps short for Etta.
Then What Happened?
Sometimes even when you’ve answered your genealogy question, you have to keep going. Bernice married Virgil Sink in 1911; they had a son, Burson, in 1913. Bernice died in 1969 in Benton Harbor, Mich. Lenna married Neil Leggett in 1915, as M. Christine N. discovered. They had a daughter, Lorinne, before Neil died in 1921. Lenna remarried, divorced and married again. She died in 1968.
Beatrice married a man named George Cook in 1935, Cheryl M. discovered; they divorced six months later. Ann D. found Beatrice’s 1937 marriage record to Walter George McDonald, which reports her birthplace in Covert. Linda G. located a death record for Beatrice, listed as divorced, dated Dec. 11, 1997. She died at a care facility in Kirtland, Ohio. Perhaps these photos were among her things, eventually making their way to the antiques store where Morton found them.
As often happens in genealogical research, a possible match discovered early on turned out to be a false lead. The 1910 and 1920 US censuses in Grand Rapids, Kent County, Mich., had parents Joseph B. and Theresia P. Lang, with Leona J., born in 1896, and Beatrice C., born in 1905, among their children. But further research revealed better matches. Multiple marriages and changing surnames added more challenges. Luckily, both marriage and death records for the place and time period give the birthplace and parents’ names, helping to link the records into this family’s unique story.
Get clues to identify mystery photos with Family Photo Detective by Maureen A. Taylor.