Once in a blue moon

Everyone who indulges in family history research understands the role that serendipity plays in successfully locating the ancestors we seek. I have recently come to understand what a confluence of serendipity and a blue moon can mean to my research, my focus on family stories, and a brick wall.

A blue moon occurred on Saturday, 21 May 2016, a day I had arranged a first meeting with a distant Saunders-Cummings cousin to share family stories and data. Her arrival was preceded by an totally unexpected visit by another distant cousin in the same Cummings line. The day was full of family stories and photos. My patient husband managed to endure, but later commented that he had no family stories to tell. (Never a prophet in my own house!)

At my encouragement (read: nagging), he began typing his family’s stories. Eleven pages later he was still bemoaning that he had no good stories, just a few stubborn, unanswered questions:  When did his parents move into the old house at 7421 Dacosta Street in Detroit? Why was his mother adamant that he and his brother have bunk beds – not twin beds – in their back bedroom, and oh yes, what about the murder that supposedly took place in that house in Michigan? Yes, a murder, and he has no stories to tell!

The only information available to help discover the whole story was the first name – Kenny or Kennie , a man who might have killed his mother there sometime in the 1940s – and the street address. I had tried to find the story of that murder several years ago, without success, and while I can handle computer research, I am no magician. Searching with so little information is a real challenge!

But this was the weekend of serendipity and blue moons, so I checked the research I had done earlier. City directories, contemporary newspapers, census records, general “wide-net” searches … nothing conjured up the least clue. But now I had one more source I didn’t have then: the 1940 U.S. Census.

With so little information, I went to http://1940census.archives.gov/, which allows searching without an Enumeration District number. Refining my search by state, city, and street location, I hoped to find the families who lived on Dacosta Street in 1940.

Oh, serendipity, there was only one family on the first sheet:  Lawrence Maurer, 35; his wife, Daisy, 30; and June, 11; Janet, 1 month; and Kenneth, age 7, living at 7421 Dacosta Street. The bricks were crumbling.

Now that I had the family’s name, I checked for 1940s Detroit newspapers on newspapers.com, and I didn’t really need the date range; the story was a famous one on 27 November 1951:

Detroit Free Press

This is what took place in the house my husband’s parents bought shortly after the crime. Kenneth Maurer had killed his mother Daisy and 11-year old sister Janet with a Boy Scout axe and knife, cleaned up the blood spread throughout the house, hid the weapons, removed all photos of himself from the albums and picture frames in the house, and disappeared. He left his sister’s body wrapped in a rug in a closet and his mother lying between the twin beds in the back bedroom. He was 18 years old.

Ionia headlineI found more than twenty newspaper articles printed in the months following the crime covering the hunt for Kenneth, his capture fourteen months later  in Miami (and his return to Detroit), his father’s support, the murder charges, and his commitment to the Ionia State Hospital after being diagnosed by three psychiatrists as schizophrenic and unable to aid in his own defense. He never went to trial.

The final installment of this mystery came with a single newspaper article dated 12 May 1964 reporting Kenneth’s death.

The family mystery, a brick wall of sorts, became so much dust with the confluence of a blue moon and some unexpected serendipity.

My husband is still writing down all those family stories he doesn’t have, but I won’t tell him that he can’t top this one!

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.View all posts by Jan Doerr