The Phone Book–Ancestry Part V

Who even has a phone book anymore?


I just spent a Friday night turning the cyber-pages of the London phone book. It broke open a mystery I’ve been hunting for 18 months.

phone book, London phone book, Ancestry.com, genealogy, JSTOR, Google, family names, John Smith, Mary Smith, research, digging.Amazing.



A short diversion to talk about names

Listen, if like several of my ancestors, you marry a man named Smith (or are a Smith) and you elect to have children, watch the names.

I don’t care if, like my mother-in-law, your name is Mary. Please name your daughter something unusual like Hepzibah and Zipporah.

Name your sons Ashram or Ezekiel.

Just NOT Mary or John, particularly if you are John Smith III.

It will drive your genealogist descendants crazy!

(Our lines stop at several John Smiths married to Mary–on both my side of the family tree and my husband’s).

phone book, London phone book, Ancestry.com, genealogy, JSTOR, Google, family names, John Smith, Mary Smith, research, digging.

Not the actual address, but a fair likeness. (By Xakaxunknownx at  Wikipedia)

The phone book hunt

I sought a woman with a common name, Mary Riley.

She never married.

I’ve tried every detail I had about her, few, but nothing turned up anything in Ancestry I could build a tree upon.

But I had her address and because her friends used it too (coming and going through immigration), I knew it never changed.

Tonight the light bulb went on. What if I checked the phone book?

By matching her common name with her address, I might be able to trace her through the years until I could make an educated guess at when she died.

From there, I could check the probate records.

It was worth a try on a rainy Friday night while my husband watched a James Bond movie.

I’m not sure if it was easier she referred to herself as “Miss Riley,” but after I found her in the London phone book for 1931, 1945 and 1948, I switched to “Miss Riley.”

By double checking the name against the address, I followed her right through time all the way up until 1964.

Back to Google and now JSTOR!

I then tried Google with the name and address.

A curious item turned up through JSTOR–which stands for “Journal Storage,” a digital powerhouse library for academic journals.

Since I’m not attached to a university, I don’t have personal access via my computer to JSTOR. I’d have to visit the local university library to read the article.

I was able to read enough of what was in it to see a new first name.

Fortunately, Mary’s parents gave one child a more unique name: Lottie Emily.

I paced, frustrated my search might be delayed. On a whim, I posted my request on Facebook and to my surprise, I got an answer!

My high school Physics lab partner works at USC. He looked it up and sent me the article.

Eureka! Thanks, Lance Hill.

It explained a few interesting points.

One more try with Google and I turned up an obscure family history tree.

It had both Mary’s and Lottie’s name, with appropriate birth dates

Ancestry’s Search Engine

Back at Ancestry with a few more names, several birth years and now a father and mother turned up: William and Rose.

I had her family and Mary’s middle name.

phone book, London phone book, Ancestry.com, genealogy, JSTOR, Google, family names, John Smith, Mary Smith, research, digging.

Mary Riley in Egypt circa 1916 (Wheaton College Special Collections)

The less common middle name enabled me to follow her through several rounds of census records.

Eventually I learned her death date and read the probate report.

A genealogist knows, however, the story is often found in the “collateral” family members.

Mary had many siblings and by tracing their census, death and probate records a fuller picture arose.

As a result, I  have a better idea of where she came from.

A lot about her makes sense now.

I’ll be able to explain who she was and why she made her choices in my book.

I always liked Miss Mary Riley.

But I understand her better today.

All because of a Friday night with the phone book.

What odd resource have you used to learn a fact?


A night with the phone book sparks discovery. Click to Tweet

London’s phone book, Google and JSTOR provide clues. Click to Tweet

Have you used the phone book to solve a problem? Click to Tweet

Every month in 2017, I’ll be telling the stories about God’s leading and my blessed–and astonished–reactions while writing Mrs. Oswald Chambersbiographer ancestry

The next newsletter comes out May 20: In which a friend sends me on a mission to meet a stranger in Scotland

If you’re interested in reading about those amazing coincidences, sign up for my newsletter here.

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