Hunting for Family Stories
A journey into the past showed me some crooked branches on my family tree.
I recently subscribed to a newspaper's historical archives service to research an article. In a fleeting moment of too much free time and nothing to watch on TV, I put the names of a couple of my family members into the search box and saw what would happen.
To my surprise, my dad and uncle (both deceased) made it into the local papers, the former in 1959 and the latter in both 1955 and 1959.
It was the history researcher's version of Googling yourself. Obviously, since the articles were there for the reading — thanks to technology, you're outstanding — I had to stop my other project and read them.
Some background information about these two before I get into what I discovered. When I was a kid, my mom told me my dad and uncle, twin brothers born in 1935, were both knuckleheads. They did dumb stuff but were otherwise great people. My uncle told us they'd spent time together in prison — but only because they got caught returning cars they'd stolen for a joyride. Heck, he even had pictures of the two of them playing together on the prison softball team.
How bad could it have been?
Well, the articles I found weren't capital B bad, but they definitely made two of the primary leaves on my family tree out to be a little more than silly hooligans in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Let's start with dad.
It turns out that in 1959, my father, at the adult age of 24, was arrested with a "gang of youths" across the border in Wisconsin. It seems, at least according to the newspaper, he was part of a gang going into the neighboring state to settle a score or two.
Here's the kicker. It listed the ages of the gang members in the paper; local news was relatively carefree with personal information back in the day. There were some 16, 17, 18-year-olds, maybe a 19-year-old, and my dad at the "youth" age of 24. He was the Matthew McConaughey character in the movie 'Dazed and Confused' without the coolness of Matthew McConaughey to fall back on.
My old man was way too old to hang out with the youths.
Dad passed away in 1978, but I'd be making fun of him for this story if he were alive today.
On to my uncle, which at least as far as this story is concerned, is saving the best for last.
In 1955, at the tender age of 20, police arrested him for holding up local gas stations with five other dummies. How did they know it was him, you ask?
Tracks in the dirt were discovered as the getaway car fled the scene of one of the crimes. Later, while the police were investigating the scene, the gang of robbers drove by. After a short chase through downtown, my uncle's car was stopped. The tire tracks matched his tires.
How could the authorities be so sure? Well — prepare to roll your eyes and chuckle. He had mismatched snow tires on the back of his car, and like a narcissistic arsonist, he drove by the crime scene while investigators were doing their thing. They (likely) vaguely recognized the car and figured out they were right when they compared the tire tracks.
Here's the best part. Three people were in the car, and when investigators questioned my uncle, he implicated the others involved. Ever the criminal stalwart, my dad's brother ratted out the other people involved in his crime spree.
I know what you're thinking, that's crazy, but an experience like that had to have set him straight.
You'd be wrong.
In 1959, a police officer in western Minnesota stopped to help two young men whose car had broken down on the side of the road. One of them was my uncle — now 24 (no longer a "youth"). After looking around a bit, the officer discovered his car had a bag of $20 in change and 8 cases of whiskey - ironically, the same amount reported stolen from a local liquor store earlier in the day.
My uncle, who'd always worked his lifetime of sobriety into every story he ever told, once robbed liquor stores.
I'm assuming (side note — It's the best I can do, my family has all passed away) that the liquor store thing was the reason he ended up in prison. I'm not sure about dad, but I'm willing to bet it had nothing to do with returning stolen cars after a night of joyriding.
Like with dad, if he were alive, I'd make fun of him for those great episodes of idiocy. Since he isn't, my younger brother and I get to get a kick out of it on his behalf.
Is there a lesson here? Probably not. I guess, if you need one, don't go digging into your past because you never know what you'll discover, or do, because your family may have been insane.
Either way, it's fun to know.
About the Creator
Historian for The Streets of St. Paul and Minnesota Then. I'm using this platform to share stories about Minnesota history and whatever else (or wherever else) I find interesting at the time.
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