If you’re anything like me, you want to know simply everything about your ancestors. I have fantasies about getting to heaven and being able to talk with my great-great grandmother about the color of the wallpaper in the upstairs back bedroom in her house! And recently I found a resource containing an unusual list.
City directories are great for locating where our ancestors were between census years. We can search directories by name to plot year by year where our ancestors were living. We can search them by address, to see who else might have been living with them – I’ve found women’s maiden names when I discovered their parents in the same house at the same time.
And many directories are filled with lists – lists of churches, fraternal organizations, funeral homes, cemeteries and more that our ancestors might have been involved with or used. But one list I saw in a directory blew me away.
How would you like to find something like the “Automobile Directory of Montgomery County, [Illinois]”?! From a 1918 directory I learned that Clem Bedinghaus on Rt. 1 in Farmersville owned an Overland. John Carroll from Ramsey owned a Hupmobile. Roscoe Heim of Harvel drove a Dort. (I’ll resist the temptation to tell you all about the four models Dort offered for sale. You’re a good researcher, and I’m sure you can find the info if I have piqued your interest….) Arthur Greenwood drove a Briscoe, John Hucker a Crow Elkhart and William Herzog a Paige. (Are you still with me or have I lost you to the early 20th century automobile section of Wikipedia?) Ed. Lessman owned two automobiles – a Ford and a Buick.
Explore city directories. You can find them on some of the genealogy websites and also on more general sites like GoogleBooks and Archive.org. But don’t just look for your ancestor’s name and address. Browse through all the pages to see what made their hometown the special place at was to them.
 Prairie Farmer’s Directory of Montgomery County, Illinois, (Chicago: Prairie Farmer Publishing, 1918); digital images, Archive.org (archive.org : accessed 7 July 2020).
Boy, wouldn’t you like to be able to find your great-grandparents marriage record? But you feel like you have no idea where to start. Just take it one step at a time, and wring every clue out of every document, even those clues that are hidden.
I’m searching for the marriage record of Joseph Lawson and his wife, Katherine Fay. They married in 1894, according to a history book about the maritime history of the Great Lakes. Though the 1890 US Federal census was destroyed, I’m fortunate that New York State took a census in 1892 and I’ve found likely candidates for both Joseph and Katherine in Buffalo.
But the big problem with that 1892 census is there are no addresses on it. If I knew what her address was in 1892, I’d have some idea where she likely went to church, which might give me a clue where she was married so I can get the parish register. But with no address on the census, and the young lady I’m looking at a servant girl who isn’t listed in a city directory, I’m kind of stuck.
Katie is listed Fourth Election District of the Sixth Ward. I could probably do some research to figure out what that is, but it may be a big area, and I still won’t know her address. But I can dig a little into Katie’s household.
The 1892 census in Buffalo doesn’t separate the households in any way. Katie is the third name down, then I see a different surname, and then a bunch of people named Dechert, which looks like a new household to me. So I just need to scroll up Katie’s household in the previous column to see if I can find someone who looks like the head of Katie’s household.
The household has clerks and laborers, a hostler and some others, but as I scroll up, I see Francis McSherry a hotel keeper. This looks like his household and the dozen or so names beneath his are boarders in his establishment.
And I know a man with a hotel is likely to be listed in a city directory.
393 Ellicott. I have an address for Francis, which give me an address for Katie. And using that same city directory I can see Joseph Lawson lived at 420 Fargo in Buffalo.
With that address it ought to be pretty easy to map the Catholic churches around their two addresses, and start looking for their marriage record.
Wring every clue out of your documents, even those hidden clues.
 Profile of Joseph Lawson from History of the Great Lakes,( http://www.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/GreatLakes/Documents/HGL2/default.asp?ID=s683 – accessed 25 July 2017)
City directories are easy to search by name, but have you tried searching them by address? It might turn up other people living at the same address, perhaps even some unknown relatives. But there’s another reason to search by address – you just might turn up an unusual spelling variation for a given surname.
For my Lockren cousins I have a list of spelling variants: Lockren, Lockran, Lochren, Lochran, Loughren, Loughran and more. Frequently I find members of the same household listed under different spellings in the same directory for a given year.
Ancestry.com’s directories, many of which are available for free on HeritageQuest Online with a library card, allow searching by address. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to use the search box for “Keyword” and enter the house number and street name. Usually I leave off terms such street or avenue because I don’t know how it might have been abbreviated. I then check the “exact” box.
When I did this for the Oakland, Alameda, California directories in the 1890s I was surprised to see an unusual surname variant – Rockren! In 1894, Charles, John and Mary are all listed under Rockren, and John and Mary also show up with Lockren,[i] but Charles doesn’t.
So far I haven’t seen ROCKREN pop up for my relatives in any other context, but nice to know there is yet one more way I might consider spelling this surname.
Consider searching directories by address. You never know what you will find!
[i] OCR index show LOEKREN, but actual page in directory shows LOCKREN
City directories are a great resource for solving all sorts of genealogical problems. Here’s one way you can use them to narrow down a marriage date – and even find the husband! – when a woman marries.
My great-great uncle, Henry Ahern, was married to Rebecca Calkins sometime in the early 1890s. I haven’t been able to find the marriage record, but their boys, William Henry and James Bernard were born in 1894 and 1896. A few years later, Henry passed away.
Rebecca Ahern, widow, appears in the 1900 San Francisco City Directory residing at 2770 21st, the same address mentioned in Henry’s obituary. In 1901, she appears in the San Francisco directory residing at 1790 Folsom, and she continues to live at the same address in 1902, 1903 and 1904, where she is listed as working in a bakery. Also living at the same address in 1901-1905 is Rebecca’s widowed mother, Nora Calkins.
No listing Rebecca Ahern appears in the 1905 San Francisco directory. But a search using the address, 1790 Folsom, turns up a Mrs. Rebecca Macy, working in a bakery. At the same address is Orlando Macy, a blacksmith.
With the information from the directories, I was able to narrow down the time frame in which Rebecca Ahern remarried and the name of her husband. A newspaper announcement in August of 1904 shows a marriage license issued for Orlando Macy, 1716 Folsom street, age 36, and Rebecca Ahern, 1719 Folsom street, age 32.
Try searching city directories by address as well as by name. You might just solve one of your vexing genealogical questions!
"California Death Index, 1940-1997," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VPNJ-CJD : 26 November 2014), William H Ahern, 19 Sep 1977; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.
"California Death Index, 1940-1997," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VPCW-G3P : 26 November 2014), James B Ahern, 08 Jul 1957; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.
 “Deaths: Ahern,” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 February 1900, p. 10, col. 4.
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1900, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1900), 170. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1901, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1901), 170. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1902, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1902), 170. From Fold3.com.
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1903, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1903), 170. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1904, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1904), 171. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
 Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing May 1905, (San Francisco, California: H.S. Crocker Company, 1905), 1180. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
 “Marriages Licenses,” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 August 1904, p. 47, col. 6. Note, although the newspaper shows Rebecca’s address as 1719 Folsom, this may be a “sound-alike” error and should likely be 1790 Folsom per the city directory information.
I might need to add a subtitle to my Searching for Stories blog. I’m thinking “Journeys Down the Rabbit Hole.”
Searching city directories for examples of what information can be found in them in preparation for an upcoming presentation, I discovered that Caron’s Louisville City Directory for 1936 contained something I hadn’t seen in other directories – a two-and-a-half page “Chronology of Local Events, January 1, 1935 to April 1, 1936.”
I was fascinated with the detail. “May 2, 1935 – Three killed by lightning – storm causes $80,000 damage to city.” “May 15 – Fire causes $25,000 damage at St. Joseph’s Orphan’s Home; 208 children led to safety.” “June 18 – Federal Government announces plans to build vault at Camp Knox for safe-keeping of substantial part of its gold supply.” “Aug. 29 – Stone lifted from Mammoth Cave mummy; ancient man in poor condition.” Story after story to investigate.
And then I saw this – “Oct 11 – Mrs. Ella Rogers held legally dead.” I had to know. In a coma? Removed from life support? Who was she? What happened to her? My subscription to GenealogyBank.com called to me. My 90-minute trip down the rabbit hole led to nearly 25 articles in newspapers from Lexington, Kentucky to Portland, Oregon, about the mystery disappearance of a pretty young widow.
After a trip to Chicago, she returned to her swanky Louisville apartment. She didn’t even unpack her suitcases, but had friend, Hal Harned, to dinner on October 7, 1928. Just as he was leaving, a taxi waiting for him in the street, the lights in her apartment went out. Harned offered to help, but she insisted she could take care of it herself. Ella was never seen again.
Harned tried to reach her the next day and made repeated telephone calls on the days following. Not hearing back, he contacted her father-in-law.  When the police investigated they found no trace of the woman. The dishes from her dinner with Harned were still on the table. Her suitcases still unpacked. Only her purse and the key to her apartment were missing.
The janitor of her building was investigated but eventually released due to lack of evidence. Police dragged a nearby pond but found nothing. Dead ends abounded – suspicious ash found in the building furnace was determined to be not from bones, but from coal. The “blood spots” on a wrench turned out to be rust. Theories of suicide, kidnapping and even death at the hands of hired thugs were floated, but nothing panned out.
Eventually, after seven years with no trace, no contact, no activity in her bank account, Ella McDowell Rogers was declared legally dead.  To this day the case remains unsolved.
I’m not sure why I like to chase rabbits like Ella Rogers down the hole. But It sure beats anything I can find on TV. How about you – any of you get sucked into an afternoon of research on a complete stranger? Feel free to share what you find in the comments section.
 Caron’s Louisville City Directory for 1936, (Louisville, Kentucky: Caron Directory Company, 1936), 11. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011, accessed 4 September 2016
 Caron’s Louisville City Directory for 1936, (Louisville, Kentucky: Caron Directory Company, 1936), 12. From Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011, accessed 4 September 2016
 “Mystery Cloaks Missing Widow,” New Orleans States, 17 November 1928, p. 2, col. 6.
 “Believe Young Widow Victim of Foul Play,” Omaha [Nebraska] World Herald, 28 December 1928, p. 2, col. 4
 “Suicide Hinted Now in Case of Missing Widow,” Lexington [Kentucky] Leader, 24 November 1928, p. 1, col. 8.
 “The Mystery of the Vanishing Lady,” The [Portland] Oregonian, 28 October, 1945, page 109
 “Court Rules Woman Dead,” Lexington [Kentucky] Leader, 11 October 1935, p. 27, col. 7
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.