Yes, it’s true: Not every house has a happy story to tell

By Rick Read — Special to the Houstory Hearth

Last week, genealogist Rick Read shared his insight into how to effectively take “then” and “now” photos of your house using an older home in Bellingham, Wash. as the example. This week, he returns to tell us about the heartbreaking story behind those photos.

Rick has nearly 40 years of experience as an award-winning TV producer. He is also an avid still photographer and genealogist and was, for five years, the research aide for theWhatcom Genealogical Society (Washington state).

My previous blog entry focused on creating a “then” and “now” display of old and recent photos of your home.  What I did not talk about in that article was why the original “then” photo was taken in the first place.

Credit: 1995.0001.019938 Photo by Jack Carver Courtesy: Whatcom Museum

Jeff Jewell, Whatcom Museum photo historian (Bellingham, Wash.), asked me to research the photo, taken by veteran Bellingham Herald photographer Jack Carver. The photo was catalogued into the museum collection with a one-sentence description that included a surname (that I will not reveal for privacy reasons); a time frame (“spring 1958”); and a word (“murder”).

Not much to go on. So, how to proceed? With an approximate date, I could have simply looked through three months of newspaper microfilm to find the event. My experience has been that, depending on the magnitude of the event you’re researching, it can take up to an hour to scan through a month’s worth of newspapers. OK, so I could have found the article in about three hours. Fortunately, there was a quicker method.

The surname mentioned in the photo description was more uncommon than common – a big help. The event in question was a murder, so I knew I could check the state death index to find that surname. That would lead me to a first name and date. That would cut my research time considerably. But was there any quicker method?

If your subject was born, married or died in Washington state, the answer is “yes.” The Secretary of State’s office has created a wonderful online resource – the first of its kind in the country – called, “The Washington State Digital Archives” (http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov). By entering a first and/or last name, you can find birth, marriage and death records – as well as additional information – for almost anyone who was born, married or died in the state.

In this case, I did not have a first name, but I did have an unusual surname and an approximate date. So, I entered the surname, clicked on “Death Records,” then sorted the records by clicking on “Death Year,” and up popped a single death record for 1958. Suddenly, I had the victim’s full name, date of death, and even the names of her parents.

Minutes after arriving at the Bellingham Library, I was looking at the reason why Jack Carver had taken that photo back in the spring of 1958. Turns out it was front-page news.

Background: Sam and Ethel had lived with their three children at the house on “I” Street for three years (I found this information by researching their name in the city directory). On the night before Father’s Day, Ethel walked her daughter to a babysitting job just a few doors down the street. When Ethel didn’t return promptly, Sam became concerned. He went outside and discovered his wife, beaten and unconscious, lying alongside their home. She passed away the next morning. An 18-year-old man was arrested later and he confessed to the random killing.

This turned out to be on of those “be careful what you wish for” stories. It can be a fascinating process to research the stories associated with your home. Just keep in mind that not all of those stories may be happy ones.

Editor’s note: While it is true not every house has a happy story to tell, we still believe it’s important to document the past and present. After all, history is not always pleasant — but it does help to give us context and insight — which is why it holds value. 

For more on disclosure of your home’s past, Inman News — a great resource for independent real estate news — recently published an article on the topic entitled, “Disclosing crime when selling a home.” 

We’d love to know your thoughts! Let us know — would you want to know the full history of your home, warts and all? 

If you have knowledge in a topic our readers may be interested in — such as historical preservation, home genealogy or homes in general — and are interested in writing a guest column for us, please let us know! Contact us at info@homehistorybook.com.

2 comments on “Yes, it’s true: Not every house has a happy story to tell

  1. N. P. Maling says:

    Reblogged this on Sea Genes and commented:
    Interesting tale and methodology for doing a house-related genealogical project.

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