Episode 294 - The Pirate Next Door / Genie Finds Jesse James In Story Of Husband’s Ancestor / Finding World War II Records

podcast episode Aug 11, 2019

Host Scott Fisher opens the show with David Allen Lambert, Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and American Ancestors.org. David shares what’s in the 19th century Bible of his great grandparents after obtaining it this week. Fisher then shares some 1895 instructions on “how to use a telephone.” David then tips his hat to a 12-year-old listener who is VERY into Extreme Genes! The guys open Family Histoire News talking about a light up cane that saved over two dozen people on the Titanic. It was recently auctioned off. Hear what it sold for. Then it’s a new adventure for the man who found the Titanic in the 1980s, Robert Ballard. Find out what he’s looking for now. Then David shares news of a new database of people paying the Hearth Tax in the UK from the 17th century.

Next, Fisher visits with Dr. Mark Hanna, a professor at UC-San Diego. Mark is an experts in colonial pirates and talks about “the pirate next door,” and how they were accepted back in the colonies despite their brutal adventures on the high seas. Hear why that was and how Fisher’s ancestor pirate story fits what Mark describes.

Then, Fisher visits with Jen Rickards, a genie from the St. Louis area, who learned that her husband’s great grandfather had a run in with Jesse James! Hear the story and how she found it.

In Ask Us Anything, Melanie McComb of NEHGS takes questions on obtaining World War II records and metals.

That’s all this week on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show!

Transcript of Episode 294 

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Segment 1 Episode 294

Fisher:  Hey, thanks for joining us for America’s Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. My name is Fisher. I am your Radio Roots Sleuth on the program where we shake your family tree and watch the nuts fall out. And of course, if you’ve never been with us before, this is where we come up with all kinds of great stories for you about discoveries that people have made, including one of my guests today, Jan Ricketts. She’s from the St. Louis area, and she’s tied in one of her husband’s ancestors to Jesse James, but on the good side of the law. You’re going to want to hear what she found and how she found it. And we’re going to talk to Dr. Mark Hanna. He’s a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and he talks about pirates, “The Pirate Next Door” how they would often come back from overseas and all the horrible things they did and just lived normal lives among the Puritans. You’ll want to hear what he has to say especially concerning my pirate ancestors, so that’s kind of interesting stuff. Hey, if you haven’t signed up yet for our “Weekly Genie Newsletter” hey, you’ve got to do that because we give you a blog each week from me, plus links to past and present shows and links to stories that you as a genealogist will find interesting. Right now, it’s time to head off to Boston because David Allen Lambert is standing by. He is the Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. David, did you get the bible you’ve been waiting for?

David: It just arrived yesterday and I was so delighted that it showed up in one piece. Well, the cover is loose.

Fisher: [Laughs] Okay two pieces then.

David:Yeah, two pieces, but eight to ten pounder. First time in America. It’s now been in the home of each one of the children of my great grandparents.


David: Dates go back to 1874 and including current handwriting of one of my great aunts who lived until her late 90s when she died in 1995.

Fisher:What a great find. What a great thing. Congratulations.

David: Thank you. And I understand you recently dialled up some information on your family.

Fisher: [Laughs] That’s a good way to put it yeah. I found out that my great grandfather’s business actually wound up having a telephone put in by 1895 because there was this national phone directory that’s about the size of somebody’s local phone book these days. And it had this general information at the beginning that I thought was really interesting. It said, “From 1895 a careful observance of the following will aid materially in securing good service. To call central office, give the bell crank one sharp turn then take the hand telephone from the hook, place it firmly against the ear and listen for the operator who should answer, “What number?” Give the operator the location and number of the station desired. For example, New York, Cortland 1520, Chicago, Maine 52. The operator will then repeat back your order and made to avoid errors and expedite the service. Ask for further information in relation to the station called for. In talking, speak directly into the transmitter with lips as close as possible to the mouth piece. When you are through talking, return the hand telephone to the hook, give the bell crank one sharp turn to notify the operator that you have completed your conversation.” That’s how it went in 1895. Isn’t that amazing?

David: That is. Can you imagine that a cellphoneback then would have been the size of a normal refrigerator?

Fisher: Yeah, that’s right. I’m sure that’s true.

David: [Laughs]

Fisher:All right, let’s get on with our Family Histoire News David. Where do we start?

David: Well, actually this going to be a little bit of a shout-out. I got a really cute tweet in regard to Extreme Genes the other day and I thought I’d share it. Jennifer Hooper, who’s @jennhooper on Twitter wrote “How to tell your kids are absorbing genealogy. Listen to every podcast you can by Extreme Genes on road trips and around town. Your 12-year-old daughter will play a video game weeks later and bring it to your attention that she hears Extreme Genes theme in every game song. [Laughs]

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: So, our newest fan out there, Samantha Grace, thanks for listening and thanks for paying attention even if we happen to be in your video game.

Fisher: That’s awesome! I like that, but then this is an original theme, you know.

David: It really is.

Fisher:It takes an effort to create something like that. [Laughs]

David: I think it does. Maybe some video game is stolen and we’ll have to find out what the game is now and play it online. [Laughs]


David: Well, I’ll tell you I always love in Family Histoire News titanic stories, not only in size, I mean the actual Titanic. And recently at an auction a surviving cane, not just any cane, but a light-up cane from 1912 went up for auction. It was from passenger Ella White that helped guide lifeboat 8. Twenty five passengers were able to get to safety because of this.

Fisher: Wow, and it went for $62,500. They were thinking it was going for like three to five hundred thousand. So, I’m thinking somebody stole it at this auction.

David: And I’ll tell you I hope they can get the battery to fit in the cane from 1912. [Laughs]

Fisher:[Laughs] Good thought there.

David:Well, you know, the Titanic was discovered back in 1985 by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the director of that project was Bob Ballard. And Bob Ballard is at it again, thirty plus years later. He is now in search of a smaller item, the plane that carried Amelia Earhart and was never seen again.

Fisher: Yeah, they’re making great progress on this too. Lots of clues on an island out there   in the Pacific. I’m not going to be surprised if they put this together at some point.

David: Well, I’ll tell you, if they do find her, I hope we can get her as a guest on Extreme Genes. [Laughs]

Fisher:She’ll be very old now David.

David: That’s true. That’s true. A super centenarian.

Fisher: Yes.

David: The next thing I want to bring to your attention is Shamrock’s genealogist. Melanie McComb has done it again. She has told us about a hearth tax that is now available online. Back in 17th century England a tax was levied on people who had a hearth, basically an oven, in your home. This digital tax is now available for Yorkshire, Durham, Middlesex, Westminster and the City of London. In other returns for other parts of England they will be soon be in the pipeline, and they can be found online at GAMS, gams.uni-graz.at. And again, it is free and it is a work in progress so maybe you might find your 1600s ancestors before they came over to America. Well, if you’re not a member of American Ancestors, you can always become one by going online on AmericanAncestors.org, the New England Historic Society in Boston and you can save $20 by using the coupon code “Extreme.” Catch you around next time my friend.

Fisher: David, have great one. Thanks so much. Talk to you soon.

David: Take care.

Fisher: And coming up next, we’re going to talk to Dr. Mark Hanna from the University of California, San Diego about, “The Pirate Next Door” how they assimilated back into normal American society after their adventures on the high seas. Argh, it’s coming up next in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 2 Episode 294

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Dr. Mark Hanna

Fisher: And welcome back. It is America’s Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth. This segment is brought to you by Legacy Tree Genealogists. And I’m really excited to have on the line with me right now Dr. Mark Hanna. He is a professor at UC, San Diego. A couple of years ago he wrote in Humanity’s Magazine about, “The Pirate Next Door” and some of the things that we’ve learned about pirates that aren’t really true, and some of the true things that we’ve never been told. It’s a really interesting article, Mark. It’s great to have you on the show. Welcome.

Mark: Fisher, thanks for having me on.

Fisher: You know, I know that there are more people than just myself who’ve discovered pirates in their background, but I think the thing that I discovered for myself that was most unique about this guy William Downs, who was part of the crew of the Fancy with Captain Henry Every, is that he lived a pretty normal life after that. And your story here a couple of years ago talked about this. “The Pirate Next Door” pretty much says it all. They were just ordinary folks. How was it that they were able to be accepted back into the community after doing some really horrible things?

Mark: I think it’s strangely shocking for a lot of people to find out that many of those sort of most notorious pirates of the early modern period actually settled down and bought land and no longer went to sea again and actually lived sometimes really quiet lives. And that was the sort of central premise of my book which the article was about.

Fisher: Right.

Mark: The book is “Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire.” That article is essentially trying to sort of explain in just a small story exactly the kind of bigger picture of the world that I was finding in the early modern period, which is people going out to sea, often at a young age, hoping for some big score, and then eventually coming home, buying land and settling down and never going back to sea again.

Fisher: Right.

Mark: It happened a lot more than we thought.

Fisher: Well, what surprised me about it was your explanation about why it was that places like Newport, Rhode Island, would become pirates’ nest, where they were basically released from prison, or if they actually wound up going to trial, they were found not guilty and released. And yet the English government, the powerful English government, the most powerful navy in the world couldn’t do anything to these people once they landed in places like Rhode Island.

Mark: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of reasons for why they were so openly welcomed. It’s multiple variables that I sort of pull apart. Lots of details in the book, but in a very sort of simple way, their economic reasons, legal reasons, political reasons, and even religious and cultural reasons that created this sort of atmosphere where it seemed all right to allow someone to come from plundering the Mughal Empire in the Indian Ocean and welcome them back into Newport and allow them to buy land and become customs officials. Some of the sort of main reasons would be, for example, the major economic crisis from the 1690s that was alleviated by a lot of the gold and silver that came out of the Indian Ocean that had actually been coming from the Caribbean against the Spanish for years in the 1670s and ‘80s and now came from the Indian Ocean. There also were religious reasons, which is the primary victims of the people I wrote about in that article where the ships belonging to the Mughal Empire, which is the large Muslim empire which is in today India, and these people would often, Quakers actually, didn’t really perceive what they were supporting was in fact somehow a problem. These people were, as many respects to religious villains and we would consider them religious bigots but they were very much in support of this kind of violent activity and willing to turn a blind eye to it, which I think they probably did more than actively engage it.

Fisher: So, they’re like looking at these other people as infidels, right? So it didn’t really much matter, and I suppose to some extent had to be a tit for tat right, because their ships would attack those who had come out of the colonies as well, right?    

Mark: Yes and no. I mean, in fact, one of the things that makes what they were doing so troubling is the Mughal Empire was very much at peace with England. And the East India Company was making huge amounts of profits from trading legally with the Mughal Empire. And so this is actually quite painful for the British government because they did not want to accept the Mughal Empire, and they had been at peace with the Mughal Empire. And so these colonists were in fact supporting activity that was very good for them on a local level, but not for the sort of empire as a whole. And part of I think what happened over the course of years subsequently when I was writing about them, there eventually became a mutual understanding of why this was a problem. You know, England was very much at peace with the Mughal Empire, and that’s what makes these people pirates and not something else.

Fisher: That’s right. Because if they weren’t, then it’s basically privateering and that was always pretty much accepted too, right?

Mark: Sure. And that was actually its own complicated legal rule that was allowed, which was essentially people being provided paperwork by local authorities to allow them to attack the enemies during war time. But privateering of course got manipulated and used in its own ways and can be abused over and over again.

Fisher: It’s kind of amazing to me because I’ve read so much about these pirates who got released from jail, or the people look the other way. And then like in the case of my seventh great grandfather, William Downs, he winds up marrying a Puritan woman, and she was the great granddaughter of John Howland from the Mayflower. And you just think, well, how does the Puritan community accept these people, you know?

Mark: One thing about people who don’t know a lot about Puritans, they don’t really know much about the history about Puritans, but Puritans are people who want to purify the products in its church. They want to actually proceed and push the products of reformation as far as it should go, by eliminating man-made things that are against the original church, and so some of the most intense Puritans were the most militant.

Fisher: Um hmm. Yeah.

Mark: They believed in reforming the church but they also believed destroying the Catholic Church, which many consider the Antichrist, or destroying Islam. And so, even though we think of Puritans as wearing buckles and black outfits, but in fact a lot of them were very much aggressive militant people who are very much in support of an active war against what they considered the Antichrist. And so some of the people who had come back from the Indian Ocean, they would go to the local taverns and tell stories about blowing up mosques. That made a lot of people we would call Puritans, it made a lot of them very happy.

Fisher: You know, I wouldn’t have ever thought of it that way. And one of the pirates who actually was released did run a pub right there in the middle of Newport and his name was on the list that was issued in the proclamation by King William III when he wanted these pirates captured and brought home, and many of them were hanged when they got back to Britain. Others obviously, found a much better place to stay right there in the colonies.

Mark: Right. I mean, it’s really actually the number who were actually caught of these who were in the Indian Ocean are very slim but there’s a handful. That had been a very important 1696 trial in London. And they were executed. Essentially when a ship would come in the Indian Ocean, they would sail up past Florida and they would just drop a handful of guys off in Charleston and drop a handful of guys off in the Delaware Bay, and drop a few guys off in Philadelphia. They’d drop a few more off in Newport. And so, they didn’t sort of show up all in one big ship of pirate crew.

Fisher: Right. Yeah.

Mark: They would just sort of filter themselves into the local community. And this must have agreed with the guy who ended up in the Delaware Bay and met the governor, William Markham.

Fisher: Yeah.

Mark: Who was obviously very impressed with meeting this guy, and he had him marry his daughter.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Mark: And so this is one of our notorious stories.

Fisher: That is notorious. And of course, Jim Bailey’s recent research is implying that the Sea Flower, which came into Newport in the late 1600s, the first slave ship in there was actually a cover for Henry Every’s people, so that people would think it was a slave ship and not all these guys were wanted for piracy.

Mark: Yeah, that’s actually possible. My own work doesn’t verify or take away from that, but there’s basically two years where each very slowly these ships would arrive and what’s interesting in every one of these counties, the vast majority were very welcoming. And it really ended up being a handful of officials who were trying to chase them down with not a lot of support.

Fisher:Well, there are a lot of people who were saying they were going to help the Crown and they were going to bow to the king’s wishes and all that and they still looked the other way, right?

Mark: Sure. I mean, I think there’s about five or six people that I write about. Some of them are governors, some of them are custom officials, but the problem is it is very difficult to chase after pirates who have been spending their money in your local community or married to your daughter.

Fisher: Yeah. [Laughs]

Mark: [Laughs] And expect to have a lot of support. 

Fisher: A lot of support there. But the culture did change ultimately, and it was really quite remarkable how it was done.

Mark: Yeah. In many ways there was an economic change which is a lot of goods that was being brought from the Indian Ocean, actually ended up arriving legally and at a much cheaper rate in large part because of acts that were created in England that were challenging by the East India Company. So, you ended up having legal goods arrive at a more reasonable rate.

Fisher: What time period was that?

Mark: The last of the Navigation Acts was started in 1696 which starts implementing the new court system. That doesn’t really get formally settled, not till around 1701, and then the very first trial held with a new structured admiralty court was in 1704 in Boston. And that was a trial that was using a type of law, civil law, that didn’t require a jury. It was very controversial, very upsetting for a lot of local people because a man was executed without a jury of one’s peers. But over time that court system ended up being more acceptable to people once they realized they don’t really need to be so active in supporting these men from taking their goods from around the world.

Fisher: I’m just wondering, are there any databases out there where people can look up and see if their ancestors may have been pirates?

Mark: Yeah, that’s a good question. There aren’t a lot of databases that actually can tell you about the history of piracy and give you names. Some of them you have to go to a library that actually has paid for these databases. So, one would be known as the colonial office records, and sometimes those are online, and there are certain universities that have them. So, if you went to university you could type in colonial office records and those if you typed in pirate you might see names of people who have been accused or noted as being a local pirate. And then there’s a lot of the local stories. I mean, actually many of the colonies have compiled and edited volumes of their colonial records, so a lot of the stories that I tell about, for example, Philadelphia, you can find in the Pennsylvania County records you can get at the D.C. research university or you can find it in Philadelphia.

Fisher: He’s Dr. Mark Hanna. He’s with UC, San Diego. He’s written an article called “The Pirate Next Door” and what’s the name of your book?

Mark: The book is called “Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire 1570-1740” and was published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Fisher: See, so if you have a pirate back there, this is a great book to look into. Thanks so much doctor for coming on and we really enjoyed it.

Mark: It was great talking to you.

Fisher: Coming up next we’re going to talk to a St. Louis woman who has a remarkable story. She’s an ordinary person with an extraordinary find. It’s coming up next in five minutes on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 3 Episode 294

Host: Scott Fisher with guest JanRicketts

Fisher:And, welcome back to Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. I am Fisher your Radio Roots Sleuth, and it is always fun to run across ordinary people with extraordinary finds and how they found them. And one of those people is Jan Ricketts and she’s near St. Louis, Missouri. Jan, welcome to Extreme Genes!

Jan: I’m great Fisher. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Fisher: Your story makes me excited to have you here and you know, it is fun as you’ve mentioned to me off air as you go about your research, you’re looking for just the usual things to try to fill out a picture of an individual and then something comes along and you have to follow it all the way down the rabbit hole and see what it shows.

Jan: Absolutely.

Fisher: Tell us about your little journey with Jesse James.

Jan:Yes.When I first started my research back in 2012, I was still just getting into it, learning, and making connections with distant relatives. I got in contact with a cousin, Bob Richardson. He lives in Seattle and he’s been doing research on the family for many, many years. He originally brought me the story, telling me that on my husband’s side, their second great grandfather Joseph Henry Ricketts and he’s known as Sheriff Joe Ricketts. And he said the reason that he remembers him is because of his infamous run-in with Jesse James.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Jan: And I’m immediately like, really? Tell me more. I’m fascinated by this.

Fisher: Wow!

Jan: So, that’s how it originally came about. He shared some newspaper articles and a couple of books that had told this unknown story. My husband Mark, his second great grandfather is the only man in history to have ever put Jesse James and the James gang behind bars.

Fisher: Oh, wow! [Laughs] How does Mark’s family feel about this connection?

Jan: They were completely blown away and excited you know. They didn’t realize that they had this connection with that. They just knew that he lived in Liberty, Missouri, and that was about it. I’ve been the one to uncover all the truth for his particular side of the family. So they were excited to hear about all this.

Fisher: Sure. So, tell us about some of the details of this because I know there was some challenge involved in this from Jesse himself, right?

Jan: Um, yeah there was. [Laughs] This is not something that is spread around by the James family and by a lot of people. Even when I reached out to the Clay County Archives and talked to Chris Harris, he had no idea, no records of any of this actually happening and he even challenged me on it and said, “Are you sure this is not just a story?” I said, look, these are the sources that I have and it traces all the way back to an eyewitness who was a judge during that time, who witnessed the whole thing and gave his account of it. I mean, you can’t get anymore close to accurate as that.

Fisher: So, what was the story? How did he arrest him?

Jan: So, Joe Ricketts was the first republican sheriff elected in a democrat town, in a very long time. One day, a man named Sam Holmes arrived at the courthouse with a verbal message for Ricketts from Frank and Jesse James. He told them that no republican will ever put them behind bars.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Jan: They’re going to be coming into town and there’s going to be no republican that will ever put them behind bars.

Fisher: But Sheriff Joe said, “Yes, we’re going to put him behind bars. Trust me it’s going to happen. It’s going to be incredible. A republican will do it, I know it.

Jan: [Laughs] Yeah, they took it as a dare obviously.

Fisher: Right.

Jan: Ricketts was not a man for unnecessary trouble or quarrelling but he was not the type of man that would put up with any such impudence.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Jan: So, he went and talked with Judge Philander Lucas. He was the one who told this story to the newspaper and he told them what happened and the judge asked, “Well, what are you going to do, Joe?” He didn’t say a word. He just turned and gave him a very comical and significant wink which means more than words.

Fisher: Right, yeah. Watch what’s going to happen, exactly.

Jan: Exactly. So then, the next day the James gang came riding into town like they said they were going to, shooting their guns, making a ruckus, and scaring off people. Then they dismounted and went into the local saloon. The judge is standing there watching all of this, wondering where the sheriff was and there he was, standing across the road wearing an overcoat that he’d never worn before with his hat tilted down over his eyes and he watched the boys run into town and they never saw him.

Fisher: [Laughs] Now what year was this?

Jan: This was 1865.

Fisher: Okay.

Jan: So, this was before the James gang actually got into doing all the robberies and going about the country. So, this was still kind of early on before all of that. But they were still making trouble in the towns that they were in before all of that.

Fisher: Okay.

Jan: So, they were still making a name for themselves.

Fisher: Yeah.

Jan: Well, then Sheriff Joe just crossed the street, walked up to the saloon and as he stood there he pulled out two six shooters from underneath his overcoat and said, “Throw your hands up.” Then the James gang turned around and saw what confronted them and they obeyed very quickly. And Joe said, “Now then, you scoundrels you said that no republican could arrest you or take you. I’ll show you a trick about that.”

Fisher: [Laughs] Wow, and what did he do with them?

Jan: He took them and marched them across the road over to the courthouse where the judge was and presented them to the court. Sadly, they didn’t really have any charges that they could level on them at that moment. So, they kind of just spent a little time in jail till they cooled off and they had to release them but not before Joe looked at them and said, “You mind your Ps and Qs.”

Fisher: [Laughs] What a great story. This is fantastic. So, talk about your sources, where did you find some of this? Obviously, it started with somebody who gave you a little hint that this was out there.

Jan: Yes and he’s the one who originally started supplying the sources. He told me there were a couple of newspaper clippings, and the first book that I found was called, Desperate Men: the James Gang and the Wild Bunch, by James Horan.

Fisher: Okay.

Jan: And that was published in 1949. And thanks to that, it then led me to the actual newspaper articles because it had them in the book. So, I was able to look them up on Newspapers.com, and get a couple of the newspaper articles that originally mentioned this.

Fisher: So, how close to the actual event were the newspaper articles?

Jan: The first that this story was ever mentioned was in 1902.

Fisher: Oh, wow. So, like 30 some-odd years. 37 years or something after it actually happened.

Jan: Yes. I questioned why it was taking so long for this to come out and judge Philander Lucas like I said he is the eyewitness who gave the story. He explained in the newspaper article that this was after the time that Jesse James had been reinterred because he was getting grave- robbed and his grave was being bothered. So, they reinterred him and the stories were coming out again about how he was such a great outlaw.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Jan: He got tired of all of these false stories, especially the one that he’d never been arrested. So, he wanted to set the record straight once and for all.

Fisher: Wow. And it sounds like he did. Then it was repeated I guess a couple of other times, right?

Jan:  It was repeated in a couple of different newspapers and then another book was written by Ted Yeatman, it’s called “Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend.” And he also wrote an article for True West Magazine. And then another book came out called, “Jesse James: Death of a Legend, by Will Henry.” His book was then quoted in the 1950s by many different newspapers about this story.

Fisher: Wow.

Jan: It’s like it keeps coming out but then going away again like it just gets forgotten, you know, put in the dust again.

Fisher: She’s Jan Ricketts from near St. Louis, Missouri, and her husband’s ancestor is the only man in history to have arrested Jesse James. She had no idea that she was going to find that story. Amazing detective work there Jan, good going!

Jan: Thank you so much.

Fisher: An ordinary person with an extraordinary find. And of course you can always reach out to us if you’ve got one to share. And coming up next, it’s another Ask Us Anything segment, talking about World War II records with Melanie McComb when we return in three minutes on Extreme Genes.

Segment 4 Episode 294

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Melanie McComb

Fisher: Hey, welcome back! It is America's Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. It’s our Ask Us Anything segment. And today, we've got back our Swiss army knife of genealogists, the woman who knows about so many different aspects of it. It’s Melanie McComb from the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. How are you, Melanie?

Melanie: I'm good, Fisher. How are you?

Fisher: Awesome! And we have a great question here. This is from Robert in South Carolina, and he asks, "What records are available if my relative's file was burned in the 1973 records fire in St Louis?" That is a great question. First of all, I guess we should just talk about the fire, because it was pretty devastating.

Melanie: Yes, absolutely. So, what happened was, on July 12th, 1973, a little bit after midnight, a fire was reported at the National Personnel Records Center in St Louis, Missouri. And what was so devastating about the fire was just how much it reached all the different floors. The fire went out of control for over 22 hours.

Fisher: Ugh!

Melanie: It took two days before the fire fighters could even re-enter the building. It was just so unsafe to get in there.

Fisher: Well, and think about all the different war records that were lost. It wasn't just World War II.

Melanie: Exactly, yeah. There were a number of records that were being stored there at the time, the majority being World War II, but you're right, even the air force records were going through 1964 was actually lost as well, and some of the army records going through 1960. And we're talking like 74 percent loss of both of those records.

Fisher: Wow! So, this is why we have the question here from Robert, what records are now available after his relative's records were obviously lost in this fire?

Melanie: Sure. So, there's a couple of things to try to help rebuild some of that file. And one of the first things you want to look at is getting the separation discharge paperwork. And that can be obtained from your State Adjutant General Officeif you don't have it in your family's paperwork. My grandfather, he was fortunate enough that he actually kept his own copy the DD 214with his personal papers, in addition to filing with the state. And what's great about the paperwork is that it gives you the service number of the military veteran, what campaigns they saw, if they won any medals, their address after the war. So, it gives a lot of great genealogical information to help understand what they may have seen if they had served overseas, for example.

Fisher: Sure. And is this then going to lead to other records perhaps in DC?

Melanie: Absolutely, because then you start getting into payment vouchers from the National Archives.Medical and health records could be obtained as well, such as from next of kin. So you can really start to see what happened. Like if you had an ancestor that may have been exposed to gasor something, that would be in the medical file.

Fisher: Wow! Okay, and that would be like a World War I Vet? For gassed, you said gassed.

Melanie: Even World War II, they actually were gassed with mustard gas.

Fisher: Huh!

Melanie: There actually was a story on NPRwhere they actually started building a public database of people that actually were exposed to mustard gas.

Fisher: During World War II? That's crazy! Had no idea.

Melanie: Yeah, it was actually part of some government experiments that they actually were setting up. So, it’s really interesting what kind of information is starting to come out now.

Fisher: And you know, if you're going to write a story about your relative or your ancestor who served in World War II, I really don't know how you would do it if you didn't go through this process to obtain all of this information.

Melanie: Another way I would go about it too is, and you're right, it can be a little bit daunting, is going into the unit history of your ancestor.

Fisher: Right, right, right.

Melanie: So for example, like my grandfather was part of the Thunderbirdsand he was one of the army regiments that actually liberated Dachau concentration camp.

Fisher: Ugh!

Melanie: I can't imagine what it must have been like to see that. But what I did is, I started looking more into what they saw and started trying to trace their campaign all the way across Italy to North Africa and up through France to be able to get an idea of what they might have seen each day.

Fisher: Wow! So it sounds like there's still a lot you can get despite the fire. What a great question!

Melanie: Absolutely.

Fisher: All right, Melanie, great, we're going to take a break, we're going to come back in three minutes, and we do have another question about the process for obtaining medals or awards from World War II Vets. That's coming up in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 5 Episode 294

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Melanie McComb

Fisher: Hey, we're back at it for our final segment this week of Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show, talking Ask Us Anything, taking your questions at [email protected]. This question comes from Pat in New Hampshire. And Pat asks, "Is there a process for obtaining medals or awards for my World War II relatives?" That is a great question. Of course, most of those World War II relatives are gone now, so it’s now a process of proving your relationship to them, is it not, Melanie?

Melanie: Absolutely. So, you're right. And it’s not something that you generally can have the public request, so the medals are going to go to the next of kin of the person that served in the military. So if you are a child or sister or brother, you can actually go in and request these medals to be sent to you. So maybe you want to make like a shadow box of your ancestor, your relative's World War II service. You actually can apply for that through the National Archives and they can send you the medals.

Fisher: This is so cool. Now I'm thinking, the most common ones I would think number one is a purple heart, right?

Melanie: Um hmm.

Fisher: And another one would be the World War II victory medal, which pretty much everybody got, right?

Melanie: You're right. Those are the most common ones. And then there are other ones, too that you'd want to look into if they received any award for valor. My grandfather for example, he won I believe the Silver Star.

Fisher: Wow!

Melanie: And that was a special one for bravery. He actually saved a number of his troops by throwing a grenade at Nazi soldiers that were firing out on them, and basically saved them from being hunted down in those trenches by gun fire.

Fisher: Wow! And so, part of that whole thing with the Silver Star is also an explanation of what that person was given that award for, correct?

Melanie: Right. There should be a small citation that goes with what they actually done. And a lot of times, you find out those kind of write ups are usually in the newspapers. So I actually had a little bit of a write up in the newspaper that explained how he got that star.

Fisher: Wow! Did he ever talk much about it?

Melanie: You know, he actually died a few years after I was born, so I didn't really know him very well, but I was told that he was in some kind of parade maybe or something when he was coming home and celebrating his award. But no, he never really spoke of his service. And largely, that was based on what we talked about earlier, was what he saw in the camps and everything. So I think it just hit him really hard and he really locked away a lot of those memories.

Fisher: Sure, absolutely. There's so many of them dead. And I think, as anybody would if you saw those kinds of things. So, what is the process now as we go through this, where would you apply?

Melanie: Sure. So, if it’s the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps, you can go through Archives.gov, which is the National Archives website. And they have a link on their website, under military records to request the medals. And what they'll do is, they'll ask you who you are next of kin to the person that you're applying for the medals for, and then it will also ask you for the service number, which you'll need from their discharge paperwork or any other documentation, as well as any other information about what the ranked and location, etc, so they can locate the actual copy of the file and see what medals they were awarded.

Melanie: For the Coast Guard. You have to write to the Coast Guard directly.

Fisher: Okay. So do you have to actually prove your relationship or do you just declare your relationship? I mean, is this like joining a lineage society where you have to provide, you know, your birth certificate and marriage certificate or whatever it is,the principal document that shows your relationship?

Melanie: Typically, you declare what your relationship is.

Fisher: Okay.

Melanie: So, as far as I'm aware, there's not anything like a lineage society where they're actually asking you to prove the relationship, but what they are going to ask is, especially if you're a little bit far removed and a child or sibling. They're going to want a copy of their death record, obituary, something that proves that they actually are deceased and you're not just requesting medals for someone that might still be alive.

Fisher: Sure. That's great information and we appreciate the question so much, Pat. And once again, if you have a question for us on any topic for genealogy or family history, just email us at [email protected]. As always, we appreciate all your expertise, Melanie McComb.

Melanie: All right. Well, thank you. Have a good day.

Fisher: Hey, that's it for this week. We're running a little short. Don't forget to sign up for our Weekly Genie Newsletter and our Patron Club. You can support the show and get all kinds of bonus podcasts and early access to our regular podcasts. We will talk to you again next week. And remember, as far as everyone knows, we're a nice, normal family!

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