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Shocking Genealogy Sources

An unsettling source for genealogy can be true crime magazines. While the stories are often embellished, these magazines are a unique eye on history. I discovered this while researching a family member who was the victim of crime.


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A member of my family was a murder victim fifty years ago. That alone is a conversation stopper. As you might well imagine, my family has had a difficult time discussing the event at all and, half a century later, I am still piecing together events.

Within weeks of the murder, a true crime magazine ran the story, along with several photos. Everyone in the family agrees the story was embellished to some degree, but the story was largely factual. What is unsettling about these publications is the graphic nature of the photographs, up until fairly recent sensitivities kicked in. If you consider "exploring them, be prepared for some unpleasant photographs.

Ever the curious one, I did some research into this genre. Reputable publications, such as "Writer's Digest," used to recommend that writers obtain police photos to accompany articles they submitted to true crime publications. There were photographers who even specialized in crime photography. The good news is that most of the photos are in black-and-white.

Some of these publications were owned by publishing houses like Fawcett Publishing and Dell Publishing. They are often referred to as "pulp" magazines. The magazine that ran the story about my family has been called "pulp fiction" - but it was a true story and included a photograph of my parents at the crime scene, searching for the murderer. There does not seem to be a reliable guide for searching for specific stories. You won't find them in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature!

While in my family's case, the story was not entirely accurate and the photos were unsettling, it did serve as a useful genealogical tool. The story included a number of names that became research resources for me. In fact, some of the photos included people I had not realized where so closely involved in solving the case. True crime publications are not for the queasy. They are filled with inaccuracies, but they are based on facts that you just might have overlooked otherwise.

Some people have wondered why I consider true crime magazines a genealogical source - and how I can tolerate looking at them. I do it for my ancestors. One of the purposes of genealogy is to set the record straight about families. I have used my family's story as an "unreliable source" and then I verified or discounted the information through other sources. I have found a wealth of information that has proven to be true. In fact, I have discovered several pieces of the puzzle that I was not aware of and that were factual.

True crime magazines can be found on eBay and elsewhere on the Internet, and for reasonable prices. Crimes stories tended to be very timely and sometimes a publication would do a ten-year "anniversary" coverage a particular story. If you are interested in researching these publications, you'll find a number of them available covering crimes as far back as the early 1900's. Here are some titles you may wish to explore:

National Police Gazette
Startling Detective
Crime Detective
True Story
Physical Culture
True Confessions
True Dective Mysteries
Inside Detective
Front Page Detective
Spotlight Detective
Master Detective
True Mystery

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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