Monday, May 9, 2022

A Puzzle in Ten Steps

When my father died, I was the first one to tackle his office. My father loved information. If something interested him, it ended up in a growing pile that ambitiously reached skyward. When we would prod him to tackle the clutter, he would threaten to light a match to it. I think he was joking.

After his death, I wouldn’t let my siblings enter that space until I first went through it. Mind you, it wasn’t hard to keep them at bay; it was rather daunting. As the family historian, I feared that someone else would pitch something that only I would find valuable. When I got into family history, my father had joined me. He contacted his cousins and gathered information which he proudly presented to me in our weekly phone calls. 

In his office, I found scraps of paper and envelopes with jottings that I salvaged from destruction. They would have had no meaning to anyone else. To me they were gold. 

 I found myself thinking of that recently, when I was working with a client where we had hit a dead end. His family came from an area where there was little on-line. I had built out what I could but felt as if I was nibbling around the edges. I hadn’t found that thread for which a simple tug begins to unravel the puzzle. As I probed for more information, I asked a question born of my experience in my father’s study. "Do you have any envelopes with jottings on family history?"  I told him about my experience and how an opening can emerge from the smallest detail. 

And yes, he had an envelope with a few details jotted by his late mother alongside notes on a purchase of needles and thread. It was only later that I connected that odd juxtaposition with my own search. In fact, the information on that envelope presented me with a very important thread on which I was able to build. Some of the jottings would not make sense until much later, but the thread with which I began was this:

“Sheba’s mother Betty raised Joe ” 

Joe was his grandfather, but my client had no idea who Sheba or Betty were. I recognized this as a good clue with multiple data points that would help to prove its accuracy. If they all lined, up I would know I was on the right trail. I had two names in relation to each other and one of them was unusual. I also knew they had to be in one of two cities, even better if they were in both. 

1)    Search related data points, lead with the unusual:  I went to and did a search on the unusual name of Sheba with a mother named Betty in both Minneapolis and Milwaukee, the two towns we knew Joe had lived in as a child with his father Sam. Up popped a record with a new surname, Betty's married name of Juster. Betty and Sheba Juster appeared in both cities. The trail was heating up.

2)    Form a hypothesis. To raise someone’s child you likely had a close relationship to his parent. My theory was that Betty was the sister of Sam Cohn, Joe’s father. Now I needed to validate that. I had two names, her given name and her husband’s surname.  I wanted her maiden name to test my theory. I plugged her husband’s name into a Minnesota marriage database and up popped his wife, Betty Cohn. 

3)    Verify the relationship: So how could I verify that she was a sister, rather than perhaps a cousin? For that I wanted to see if they had the same father.  I needed a death certificate for Sam and Betty. We had one for Sam and it gave his father as Eliezer. When we located one for Betty, it gave her father’s name as Alter. So not a match? Not so fast. I’ve done enough research in Jewish records to know that many people had two names which they used interchangeably. The jury was still out on this one. 

4)    Build an information foundation: I’ve learned that sometimes we need to wait for the facts to emerge. What we do while we wait is build the foundation. We look for constellations of related names in city directories and census records. Census records show family groupings. City directories show people with shared surnames at the same address or nearby addresses. The Minneapolis library has digitized city directories, so I was able to do my research from home. 

5)    Watch for multiple spellings. Just in case I forgot, the city directory reminded me that if I was searching for Cohn, I should also search for Kohn, Cohen and several other varieties. In fact, I found that the same person often went by different spellings in different years and across related family members at the same address we could see different surname spellings in the same year.





Alter Cohn

Altor Cohn

Alter Cohn

Rev Alter Cohn

Isaac Cohn

Ignatz Kohn

Isaac Cohn

Isaac Cohn

Bertha Cohn

Bessie Cohen

Betsy Cohn

Betty Cohn

Simeon Cohn

Sigmund Kohn



6)   Look for groupings and patterns: Notice above how both given names and surnames can change. Bertha to Bessie to Betsy to Betty. Isaac to Ignatz, Simeon to Sigmund. And we have Cohn, Cohen and Kohns. Each of these groupings shared a common address within a given year.

7)     Pay attention to proximity: It wasn’t until 1895 that Sam showed up near by. By now the Cohns were no longer living as a family, but in close proximity. Betty’s husband appeared across the street from Sam and by 1900 Sam was down the street from Betty and her husband. After that they disappeared only to reappear in Milwaukee. Alter remained in Minneapolis on that street for many years. I suspected these names were related and that hunch was confirmed when in Milwaukee I found Sam and Betty’s husband in a business called Cohn and Juster.

8)    Search newspapers, including community ones: We believed that Alter was Betty’s father based on her death certificate. I checked the MN Historical Society for death records and found two Alter Cohns in town. I searched for obituaries and found two – a detailed one with none of the related names and one with only the name, age and address. The local Jewish newspaper, the American Jewish World, began publishing under that name in 1915. I had dismissed this as a source earlier because Sam had left Minneapolis before it began. Alter, however, had remained so a search might yield more information than the city paper had. And in fact, a search yielded a detailed obituary that named all of his children, Betty and Sam among them. 

9) Search tombstonesFindagrave is a wonderful resource for tombstones. I did a search for the Alter Cohn in this obituary and came up with an image. Jewish tombstones often list the Hebrew name of both the decedent and their father. While Alter was written in English on the tombstone, his Hebrew name is reported as Eliazar, reconciling the different names given in Sam and Betty’s death certificates. Sam and Betty are indeed siblings based on both the obit and the tombstone. 

10) Expect variances in birth years: There were a few details to clear up about age. The death certificate gave a birth year of 1850. Birth years in census records ranged from 1839 to 1850 and carved into the tombstone was the year 1839, the year he gave to the census taker in 1895. I’m putting my money on 1839 as it was the first year reported and closest to the event. When I calculated how old he was when his son was born, 1850 didn’t make sense. I continued to build out the family, finding details on descendants of Sam’s two brothers and sisters.

So, there you have it. Ten simple steps from envelope to solution, an iterative process to solving a puzzle by finding that critical thread and following it wherever it leads.