Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Search For Justina Continues

My great-grandmother’s birthplace and therefore the identity of her parents and ancestors will remain shrouded in mystery for a while longer. After a second day spent searching through the documents at the National Archives in Washington, DC, I am no closer to determining when and where she entered the U.S.

Part of that is because her date of immigration is a moving target. I mentioned in my earlier post that the 1920 Census listed her year of immigration as 1889, two years prior to what we had originally thought.

The 1910 Census lists her as coming to the U.S. in 1886, three earlier than that. The archivist in the library of the Archives said this is not unusual at all and to go by the date on the earlier census, since it was closer to the actual date. I searched the 1900 Census data and here is where I ran into problems.

Since Oklahoma was not a state then, its census data is not as searchable on the website. Therefore, delving into the microfilm is required, using the Soundex Coding System to locate surnames.

The system probably looked better on the cocktail napkin it was drafted on but that was before the census officials got drunk and spilled beer on it, thus rendering their notes illegible. The next morning they tried to recreate the system through hangover-addled minds and this is the convoluted process of indexing family names they devised.

To find your ancestors, you have to reduce their surname to a code. It starts with the first letter of the name and then reduces the rest to a three-digit number. For example, ‘Keil’ becomes K400, ‘Dick’ is D200, and ‘Goeringer’ is G652.

Which begs the question: What’s wrong with just alphabetizing them?

Apparently, the good ol’ alphabet which is more than sufficient for everyone else in the country was too much trouble for the census officials. The Soundex system is based on the say a surname sounds, so researchers can locate names that may have been recorded under a different spelling, like BROWN and BROWNE. According to this system, ‘Keil’ sounds like ‘Kelley’ or ‘Kimmel’, ‘Dick’ sounds like ‘Dukes’ and ‘Goeringer’ sounds like ‘Greenworth’. It does make it easier to find alternate spellings, but much more difficult to find the names with specific spelling.

(By the way, Jason, there were a lot of Kimmels in Oklahoma territory in 1900.)

But the code system is only part of the nightmare. Each family’s information is recorded on a separate file card with the code written in the upper left corner. Even here within a single code such as K400, the much more efficient alphabetic order is eschewed. There is no rhyme or reason to the order in which the cards were transferred to the microfilm. It’s as if the census bureau officials stacked the cards together and shuffled them before the feeding them through the microfilm recorder. Some names that don’t even come close to sounding like the others of the same code are mixed in.

(Marla, 81 year-old Jacob Swartz was living in Washita County in 1900.)

(FYI, Carol. Abraham Balzer and his young wife Agnes were also living in Washita County that year.)

And the nightmare continues. On some of the census bureau’s data lists, officials made notations (for whatever reasons) by scribbling numbers and symbols over the family surname! This practice essentially renders the entries illegible. It’s not as if there was plenty of room in the left margins next to the children’s names.

This ludicrous system may be why I could not locate any of my relatives that I know were living in Oklahoma in 1900. The 1910 data show George and Justina had two children over the age of 10 and lists their birthplace as Oklahoma. Peace Lutheran Church in Bessie was established in 1893 and its archives clearly list George Frederick Dick as a founding member as well as a number of Goeringers.

So why aren’t they on the 1900 Census? Washita County may have been very rural at that time but it was hardly overlooked with half a dozen enumerative districts established between the Cloud Chief and Union townships.

The day was not a total loss. I was able to ascertain that Justina did not enter the country by way of Baltimore, Boston, Canada, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia or San Francisco. It’s very likely that she arrived in Galveston but those records are incomplete. Don’t blame it on the hurricane though. She did her own brand of damage in 1900 so look to the sea captains with illegible handwriting and lax attitudes about record keeping. They are the reason there are very few records between 1871 and 1894, the time period Justina arrived.

(Since 'Keil' is close to 'Keim', Adam, I noticed quite a few of your ancestors coming to New York each year. They could've got together and booked the Queen Mary.)

There is another disturbing aspect that may not be the fault of the census bureau officials and their hatred of the ever-pesky alphabet. I cannot find Justina’s brother Conrad, his wife Sophie or their son Phillip in any of the U.S. Census from 1910 to 1930. It’s as if they never existed.

Family of George Frederick Dick

Back row (L-R) Amelia, Emil, Hanna, Herman
Front row (L-R) Hulda, Justina Keil Dick (wife), Mary (on lap), Friederich (father), Mary Elizabeth (mother), George Frederick, Sam, Freda
(Friederich and Mary Elizabeth are my great-great-grandparents!)

For now, great-grandmother Justina’s origins remain obscured and nearly all leads have dried up. I hope that something will turn up in the future that will allow me to continue my search.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Breathless" is now available at loveyoudivine Alterotica!

My first novel "Breathless" by my pseudonym Alex Morgan has been released by loveyoudivine Alterotica! It is the novella version of my short story "Safe Word" which was published last year.

Please check it out at

The body of a man is found as Provincetown prepares for Mates weekend, a popular leather gathering. Corey thinks a BDSM scene went past its extreme limit. He tours the town's dark dungeons, looking for a murderer preying on young men. Can Corey find him before becoming a victim to the ultimnate BDSM fantasay of execution?

“All of the victims were killed in the same manner, in cities where a major leather even was being held,” Corey said.

“And you think that this maniac is here in Provincetown?”

“You saw the body yourself, Chief.”

“But none of the others.”

“You will very shortly.”

“What do you mean?” Chief Stewart said in surprise.

“The files from those cases are being emailed to all communities involved to each other,” Corey answered. “You’ll be able to make your own conclusions. Please ask Agent Seger to forward anything she finds back to them.”

Chief Stewart began to grasp the scope of the crime. “Any connections between the victims?”

“So far, none that we can tell,” Corey sighed. “They were all young men from around the country, just visiting leather events.”

“San Francisco, New York City, Chicago and Washington, DC are all huge compared to Provincetown. They always have hundreds of events going on all the time. Can they say for certain that those guys were in those cities for those events?”

“In a couple of the cases, surviving relatives knew what their kin were up to, attending a leather gathering. Unfortunately some of the men were closeted, it seems, and the families had no idea where their family members went. It was only after the death that the relations realized there was a part of him they had never expected. In the two cases where the victim has not been identified, not counting ours, it’s theorized that he was so far in the closet, he gave his family and friends no clue to where he was going, so they have no idea where to start looking for him.”

“Or,” Chief Stewart held up a finger. “The family knows where he went but so disapproved of their man’s lifestyle that they don’t care if he’s missing. It doesn’t matter to them if he’s dead, as long as he’s not bugging them anymore.”

Corey nodded throughout the chief’s hypothesis. “Sad but very possibly true.”

U.S. Botanic Gardens - Washington, DC

I came across the U.S. Botanic Gardens yesterday quite by accident yesterday and decided to take a look. It's hard to believe this is across the street from our nation's capitol building. It is a peaceful oasis in a city that is anything but.

"Show me your garden...and I will tell you what you are like."
Alfred Austin - English Poet Laureate (1835-1913)

According to Alfred, we are green, leafy and have lots of purple orchids.

A tea tree.

Bird of Paradise

Lovely chrymathesums

Old Man Cactus

Barrel Cactus

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Chat with Maggie Sefton

Imagine having a walk-on part in a movie and then being invited to sign autographs with the rest of the cast. And you find yourself sitting between Angela Lansbury and Bono from U2. People smile and give you that “bless your heart” look but don’t ask for your autograph because they’re too busy clamoring to talk to the real stars.

Maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration but it does describe how I felt at the Book Bazaar Sunday morning at Boucheron. To my right sat Stephen Jay Schwarz who is a roguishly good-looking version of the lead singer of U2. He gave away fifty books in thirty minutes. Beyond him was Tom Schreck who finished his fifty in forty-five minutes.

On my left was Maggie Sefton. I had seen her mysteries in stores but since I was unfamiliar with her work, I hadn’t ventured to buy one. I still don’t know her as an author but Maggie Sefton the person is wonderful! Between chatting with readers and autographing her books, she gave me volumes of advice and words of wisdom.

First, she told me that readers make you a best-seller, not the publishers. The mystery genre is one where an author gains an audience by word of mouth, something I heard more than once throughout the conference. One person reads your book and recommends it to another. That person passes it on and so on. She termed authors that started with a small readership and worked steadily gaining a large following ‘organic’. This term has so many different meanings but in Maggie’s context, it makes sense. They grew from the bottom up. Not from the top down like many do when publishers and marketers are driving the sales, not readers. She said that publishers and marketers can help put an author to the top of the lists but if the readers aren’t there, the author’s next book doesn’t do so well.

She also gave me an assignment: read “Think and Grow Rich”. Since this is certainly not the first time I’ve heard this, there must be something to it. She said to read it then contact her afterwards. Guess what is number one on my to-do list now.

It’s all metaphysical, she said. You take a step in the direction you want to go and the universe responds. I certainly hope so.

Ms. Sefton may be metaphysical but she can talk sports with the best of them. She loves the Denver Broncos and Colorado State. However, she has some strong opinions about an unfortunate bygone era in the University of Colorado’s checkered past. Apparently the Big 10 players back in the day were a lot more upstanding students and model citizens than those of the Big 8. I grew up in Oklahoma so this wasn’t exactly shocking news.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, copies of my debut novel “Breathless” did not reach me in Indianapolis. So between Schwarz’s and Sefton’s stacks of colorful books, I had a single black and white printer copy of my book cover. Although it has a picture of a sexy, muscular man, it didn’t attract the attention of more than three people. Even the promise of a free copy without having to use one of their free book coupons wasn’t enough.

Still, it was a very successful Bouchercon for me, with my chat with Maggie Sefton as being the pinnacle of the entire conference. I met and made new contacts and strengthened the ones I made last year.

I took a step in the direction I want to go. Universe, your move.

Scenes from Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis

The lovely Kathy Lynn Emerson, author of the Face Down series featuring sleuth Lady Susanna Appleton.

The very sweet and gracious Dr. Camille Minichino, author of the Periodic Table murder series featuring Dr. Gloria Lamerino.

Greg Herren, author of the Chanse MacLeod series set in New Orleans.

Neil Plakcy, author of the Kimo Kanapa'aka series set in Hawai'i

Dashing Anthony Bidulka, author of the Russell Quant mysteries set in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Mark Richard Zubro, author of the Tom and Scott mysteries.

Ellen Hart, author of the Jane Lawless mysteries.

Sharan Newman, author of the Catherine LeVendeur mysteries set in twelfth century France.

John Maddox Roberts, author of the SPQR mysteries featuring Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus set in ancient Rome.

Alan Gordon, author of mystery series featuring Feste from "Twelfth Night" set in thirteenth century Italy.

The lovely Heather Graham, prolific paranormal author.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Deadly Harvest by Heather Graham

Wow! I love a good ghost story and Heather Graham delivers a great one in Deadly Harvest, the second installment in her Flynn brothers trilogy. Aidan, Jeremy and Zach Flynn inherited a mansion outside of New Orleans from a great-aunt whom they have never heard of before her death. Aidan, the oldest of the brothers, and his now-wife Kendall deal with their own ghosts that haunt the mansion in Deadly Night.

Deadly Harvest opens in New Orleans just before Halloween as Jeremy Flynn is involved in a series of debates with Rowenna Cavanaugh on the use of paranormal abilities in detective work. Rowenna is open to the possibilities but Jeremy is adamantly closed-minded. Still the debates are a great money-raiser for Aidan and Kendall Children’s House charities.

Jeremy and Rowenna, for different reasons and different ways, are caught up in the same mystery back in Rowenna’s hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. The wife of Jeremy’s ex-partner vanishes in thin air from a cemetery on Halloween in the middle of town when Salem is packed with tourists.

The detective on the case is the father of the man Rowenna was to marry until her fiancé was killed in Iraq. She remains as close to him as if actually was her father-in-law by marriage. Joe does not like private investigators like Jeremy Flynn, but through her, they forge an uneasy alliance.

Although she denies having a ‘gift’ or any psychic abilities, Rowenna ‘sees’ things and can sometimes put herself into a victim’s place to solve crimes. This ability leads her to the body of a young woman who has been strangled and hung up like a scarecrow. Since it isn’t Jeremy’s friend, the chilling realization that a serial killer is loose soaks into the close-knit community.

Jeremy stays close-minded but is haunted by the ghost of a young boy Billy who drowned several years before. Jeremy was a forensic diver back then and was unable to save Billy. He continues to torture himself for not being there two minutes earlier that he might have saved him. But as with Deadly Night, Deadly Harvest has a benevolent ghost and in this case, it’s young Billy. The reader gets the notion that Billy is not vengeful long before Jeremy does.

Unlike the first book though, Deadly Harvest contains many disturbing references to demonism, since the murderer in the story is trying to become the Prince of Darkness in the flesh and must sacrifice young women to achieve his goal.

Though not as many ghosts as the first, Deadly Harvest moves at an exciting, pulse-pounding pace and is very difficult to put down. I read the nearly four-hundred page book in one day. It’s that good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Flight of Aquavit by Anthony Bidulka

I met Anthony Bidulka quite unexpectedly during a business trip to Toronto earlier this year. While perusing a bookstore, I found out that he had a book signing later that day just a few blocks away. I had seen Mr. Bidulka’s works in many places but this was the first chance to meet him. I purchased Flight of Aquavit, the follow-up to his debut novel, Amuse Bouche and enjoyed it very much.

His sleuth Russell Quant, like the author, lives in Saskatoon in Saskatchewan. The novel opens with Quant nearly being killed in an ambush in an attempt to scare him off of a case that he hasn’t even been contacted for. Intrigued rather than frightened, Quant is soon after hired by a local business who is being blackmailed by an anonymous ‘Loverboy’. His client is convinced that Loverboy is a one-night stand from his recent past. To find the blackmailer, Quant searches on-line dating sites, does some late night bar-hopping and makes a trip to the New York City gay scene. For a thirty-two year old, ex-cop, out, single private investigator, Quant seems a little naïve about some aspects of twenty-first century gay life and lacks the street-smarts that should’ve sent up alarms in his head to prevent him from walking directly into his own kidnapping scheme.

Written in first person, Flight of Aquavit is told through the viewpoint of Quant but some of the secondary characters that make up his circle of family and friends often threaten to hijack the story. His Ukranian mother, who faces every crisis by cooking huge amounts of food, drops by to spend Christmas with him. His neighbor Sereena Smith travels with him to New York City and he begins to suspect a secret side of her, based on the fawning reaction of people around her.

Mr. Bidulka keeps his sleuth busy during the course of events form the opening ambush to the final climax, but the pace of the book never overwhelms the reader. There are enough twists and turns in the plot that the book is difficult to put down. Just how I like it. The ending may be a bit predictable but it is a satisfying solution if not particularly happy.

Although the action kept the story moving at an exciting pace, another feature of Bidulka’s writing made reading Flight of Aquavit enjoyable. Quant’s narrative is laced with snarky side comments, parenthetical phrases and pop culture references that make the reader laugh out loud.

The title refers to a drink Flight of Aquavit that Quant’s friend Sereena introduces him to during their brief trip to New York City. The only other mention of it during the novel is the final page, so it’s unclear what the connection was between drink and mystery.

Even though I started with the second novel in the Quant mysteries, I didn’t feel as if I was out of the loop or needed to have read the first to get to know the characters or setting. I plant to read his debut novel because I want to.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Helium Murder by Camille Minichino

After reading her debut novel, The Hydrogen Murder, I predicted that Dr. Camille Minichino would hone her craft and her follow-up would be an improvement. I was right. The Helium Murder, second in the series, is a fun read and a great story.

Minichino’s sleuth, Dr. Gloria Lamerino is enjoying her retirement in Revere, a northern suburb of Boston, after thirty years of teaching physics in California. She’s also enjoying the attentions of homicide detective Matt Gennaro, whom she helps by being a scientific consultant on cases. When a congresswoman is killed in a hit-and-run accident, Gloria’s assistance is required since the victim carried an important vote in the House of Representatives that affected the future of the helium, industry and the preservation of the nation’s quickly-depleting helium reserves. Gloria finds herself between a greedy businessman, a jilted fiancé and a bitter brother. With all that going on, she must deal with the ghost of her long-deceased overbearing mother and the thirty-year old mystery surrounding her own fiancé’s death.

There is no shortage of colorful characters in Lamerino’s Revere, Massachusetts. Minichino has a great knack for creating people that you think you know or wish you knew. Her bff Rose is constantly concerned about Gloria’s perpetual unmarried status and the teacher whom she helps with special interest projects for his class, keeps asking her for a date. All are very endearing to the reader.

Minichino’s writing style is refreshing and peppered with quips, snarky comments and enough literature and pop culture references that the mystery sometimes takes a back seat to the humor.

There are also occasions when Minichino sounds a bit like an encyclopedia when citing facts about the elements at the center of the mystery. But it is difficult to educate a reader on unexciting subjects without a data dump.

The Helium Murder is a great second outing for Dr. Gloria Lamerino. Fortunately, there are plenty of elements in the Periodic Table for fun like this.

Reclamation by Sarah Zettel

One of the first things I noticed about Sarah Zettel’s debut novel Reclamation was how it was written: exciting action, great science fiction, outstanding prose. The next thing I noticed was her inspiration from Frank Herbert, whom she emulated by writing a few lines of lore from her universe at the beginning of each chapter. But with all this going for her, why did I not know what was happening throughout most of the book? I kept thinking that Reclamation was the follow-up to a previous novel. It felt as if I was missing a significant portion of the backstory.

Zettel created a wonderful universe with many amazing beings and worlds but without introductions, explanations or definitions of its plethora of aspects, the reader must piece together the plot alone and is not always successful.

The second half is a more enjoyable read but mainly because by that time, the chain of events makes a little more sense.

Zettel leaves gaps which confuse the plot lines even more. For example: Why was Kiv and some of his offspring killed? Who were the two Vitae with the children? Who are the Aunorante Sangh? For this last question, many of the characters accused each other of being a part of this group but their identity was never disclosed.

I did find the characters in her story to be fascinating. Eric Born, the main character, is a power-gifted human with telekinesis. Although the story alludes to other such beings, very few actually appear in the story. One other is a woman named Arlas, who is among the lowest class of humans, the Notouch. Together they wage a resistance war against the Vitae, who have proclaimed themselves masters of the Quarter Galaxy.

Reclamation moves a long at a great clip and there is no shortage of action and adventure. Perhaps a second read of the novel is warranted since I know who the characters are now, especially since there are so many, the plot takes a back seat to them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Search for Justina - National Archives

After our visit to the National Archives last week, Mom and I felt empowered enough to search a branch of our family tree about which we know so little. My great-grandmother Justina Keil was one of many Germans who lived in Russia before immigrating to the United States.

My great-grandparents George Frederick and Justina (Keil) Dick

When Catherine the Great (a German princess) rose to power, she encouraged Germans to settle in Russia. The Germans did by setting up townships and schools that were more advanced than what the Russians had at that time.

After her death, the political environment deteriorated for the Germans so they began to move westward to the United States in search of a better life, i.e. an unoppressed one. Nearly all of my ancestors were among those Germans that settled in Russia before immigrating here.

My great-grandmother Justina came to the U.S. when she was a mere whisp of a girl of sixteen. She traveled with her brother Conrad, his wife Sophie and their infant son Phillip. When they left, Justina's mother told her that she was dead to her.

They never saw her again.

Now the question is: When and where did they arrive? I went to the National Archives to find the answers. The entrance for researchers is on Pennsylvania Avenue across the street from the U.S. Navy Memorial. If you want to see the Declaration of Independance, the Bill of Rights, etc. you enter through the south entrance on Independence Avenue. I was issued a temporary badge signifying that I was ther doing research.

The amount of information stored here is overwhelming. I started with the documents of immigrants arriving at the port of New York from the records of the U.S. Customs Service, 1820-1897. There is a CD-Rom of Russians to America from 1850-1896. There are also several volumes of a printed series: Migration from the Russian Empire: Lists of Passengers Arriving at the Port of New York.

Justina apparently did not come to America via New York.

I turned to which offers their services for free within the National Archives and Records Administration building. There I found her on the 1920 Census in Washita County, Oklahoma. I was surprised to find the year of her immigration to be 1889. We thought it was 1891.

Maybe she told the family it was '91 to knock a couple of years off of her age? The librarian in the Geneaology section of the Archives asked if she would have done that. I wouldn't know because she died exactly 26 years before to the day I was born, but looking at the women in my family, it is NOT a stretch of the imagination, by any means.

I spent 5 hours searching records and came up with nothing, so I will have to refocus my efforts and look elsewhere. Maybe at the Archives, maybe some place entirely different.

But I will find her.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Disney's A Christmas Carol Train

Disney is promoting its latest 3D animated film, A Christmas Carol to be released November 6, by a train criss-crossing the country. The train has exhibits from the making of the movie and some items from Charles Dickens himself. This weekend it stopped at Baltimore's B&O Museum near downtown.

Christmas carolers kept us in the Christmas mood. It was warm for a fall day in Baltimore but Disney supplied us with fake snow.

The first car of the exhibit had some of the costumes the actors wore for filming. There were also personal items from Charles Dickens.

Examples of his writing.

A portrait of Charles Dickens.

This car showed images from the film used in the making of "A Christmas Carol".

These were models used for the buildings in the film. Here Big Ben is under construction.

A horse-drawn hearse.

Fred's house.

Scrooge's office.

The contraption that Jim Carrey wore during filming. The cameras on his face and the spots helped the animators generate the computer images of Scrooge.

All actors wore special tights with reference spots for filming

The last car had a fireplace.

Frazier samples Scrooge's meal.