More Thoughts on Research

Old Newspapers

In my last post, I discussed the importance of research to a thorough investigation.  Research can also help bring you face-to-face with the dead.  Through diligent research, we can uncover not only locations, but sometimes even the very words from those long since departed.  I’m sure many of you know the thrill of uncovering some long-since-forgotten tidbit of the past.  For those of us who take research seriously, it’s difficult to not believe at times the departed guide us in our quest to learn more about their earthly lives.  Allow me to share just two examples.

I’m currently researching the facts surrounding a tragedy at a 100-year old commercial building.  The story that survives is very bare-bones (no pun intended).  The building originally had coal fired boilers as part of its heating system.  Sometime during the mid-20th century, the old coal boilers were replaced with oil-fired boilers.  While the oil-fired boilers eliminated the backbreaking work of shoveling tons of coal, they presented a new and deadly problem – the ever present threat of a backfire.

All went well with the boilers for a long time until one faithful morning.  The maintenance man arrived early to start his normal routine of chores.  As he lit the boiler, a tremendous explosion rocked downtown.  The boiler belched a wall of flame which incinerated the helpless worker.

Ever since this tragedy, witnesses report sounds of footsteps near the area of the old boilers, unexplained clanging sounds, as well as moans and cries of agony.  A story goes a new worker was hired on a few years ago who scoffed at the ghost stories.  Scoffed at them that is until one morning when he had a dreadful encounter with a ghost.  While working in the basement near where the boilers once stood, the man heard a noise as if someone was walking towards him, but he saw no one.  As it got closer, a mist began to form.  The mist turned into the form of the long-since dead maintenance man.  The figure suddenly began to twist and moan as if in severe agony.  Falling to the floor, the figure let our one last blood curdling scream and vanished.  The worker fled the building and refused to ever return.

The original story did not date the boiler backfire.  However, through tracking down other versions of the story, I was finally able to get an approximate date.  With that date, I was able to hit the archives to look at copies of old newspapers.  I struck pay dirt by finding not one, but two newspaper stories written only hours after the mishap.  Now I finally had the real story: how the boiler backfired, how the worker struggled out of the basement despite being engulfed in flames, how two passersby disregarded their own safety and rushed to aid the gravely injured man, how the man survived for several agonizing hours and finally succumbing to his injuries late that afternoon.  Most importantly, I found his name: Ben Burnett.  Ben is no longer an anonymous ghost, but a once very much alive human being whose death left behind a widow, three brothers and three sisters.

Another example proved even more providential.  While in college, I happened upon a book in the school library about the history of the 91st Infantry Division in World War One.  The book was inscribed by a major who was a brigade commander of in the 91st during the war.  The inscription indicated the man, at least in the 1920s, was living in the same city as the college.  Taking a chance, I attempted to locate the man in the phone book.  Lucky strike number one: his widow was in the phone book.  Unfortunately, I was a bit too late as it turned out she’d passed away just months before.  My next lucky break came in searching old newspapers.  Someone with lots of time on their hands had in the 1950s indexed the local newspaper (God bless him or her for undertaking such a monumental task!).  I hit pay dirt once again as it turned out the man had become a prominent District United States Attorney in the city following the war.

The man’s death was front page news for over a week.  His death came about while on a fishing trip to a major river outside the city.  The first headlines detailed how he’d disappeared.  Then the stories recounted the frantic search efforts.  And finally documenting the calling off of search efforts and the presumption he’d drown while wade-fishing in the fast-moving river current.

My newspaper archive research also revealed two other interesting stories.  The major, as District US Attorney, was heavily involved in prosecuting bootlegging gangsters as this was the era of prohibition.  Several stories mention threats made to him and his family.  Another very curious article talked about the family returning home to find possessions moved around inside the house.  The police thought it was the result of break-ins, but nothing was stolen.  The article concludes with the curious note that a group of “Chinese ghost hunters” were called in to investigate – keep in mind this is during the late 1920s.  Who were these “Chinese ghost hunters” and what, if anything, did they find?  Unfortunately, that lead remains cold as I was unable to find any other reference to this group.

My final big break came when the local paper supplied a copy of the obituary of the major’s widow.  It listed an elderly son living in my hometown as one of the survivors.  I tracked him down, gave him a call and told him about my research.  We arranged a time to meet.  The son remembered well his father’s life and tragic death.  The son relayed the fact that the major was an expert fisherman and how the family remained convinced the major was murdered by mob interests in retaliation for his investigations of bootlegging.  When I mentioned the article on the ghost hunters, he somewhat reluctantly relayed his belief was people broke into their home and moved things around as a warning to the major and his family to stay out of mob business.  A few days after our visit, the son sent me a photocopy of a letter written by the major while in France during the war.  What an amazing find to read the actual hand-written words of someone long since passed.

I can’t help feeling in both these cases, especially the case of the major, I received some otherworldly guidance in my research.  I certainly feel I know the major as well as I know any living person.

I believe researchers who’ve experienced similar results know exactly what I’m talking about.  You never know what you might uncover through good research.

2010 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

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3 Responses to “More Thoughts on Research”

  1. You are absolutely right! I am a adjunct professor with a local college. One of the hardest things to do with modern students is to get them to research and write. I would like permission to use your words as an offereing to my future students.

    Furthermore, allow me to point out that we share an experience and a curiosity. I recently took a job as a security officer. As I patroled several buildings, one building inparticular took my interest. The architecture in this building seemed strange, as if it were not all the same building. I became curious and began researching the building. I found that the building is actually 3 or more building. The original structure dates back the the mid 1800’s and the first adjacent structure was built in 1905. The buildings were conjoined and added on to between 1948 and 1951, with many renovations since.

    Aside from all of this I dug up a rather intriguing storey that I would love to share with you. I also encounter a few ghosts, or an over active imagination, lol I am not sure which.

  2. woops, lol I want to know when and if you answer me. I forgot to check the box.

  3. Sherri,
    Thanks for your comments. I’d be glad if my words will help your studends get focused on the importance of good and thorough research. Interested in hearing your stories too. Thanks again!
    – Steve

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