Finding the secrets locked in your genes

Published on: March 24, 2011

The South Bay Genealogical Society’s President Mary McIntire, center, and Vice President Judy Masterson, welcome speaker Alvie Davidson of Lakeland at a recent meeting. Penny Fletcher Photo

The South Bay Genealogical Society’s President Mary McIntire, center, and Vice President Judy Masterson, welcome speaker Alvie Davidson of Lakeland at a recent meeting. Penny Fletcher Photo


CYPRESS CREEK — Sometimes looking into your family’s past can give you what many call a “Wow!” moment.

John Bowker of Sun City Center had just such a moment while researching his family tree.

“You can’t always do your research on line,” John told me March 15 at a luncheon meeting of the South Bay Genealogical Society. “Sometimes, nothing can take the place of being there. Of traveling to the place where an ancestor lived.”

While tracking his father’s side of the family, John ran across a reference to a great aunt named Meredyth. At first he thought the spelling must be wrong, because it was so unusual, but his father had continued to spell it the same way during the whole 40 years he’d kept the diary, which finally led John to conclude the spelling was correct.

No Internet or telephone searches, however, showed such a person had ever existed.

Undaunted, John, who had already taken trips to the Allen County Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to do genealogy reports, went to Rhode Island to an area near where his father had grown up.

At the local library he went through many films of newspaper clippings and was finally ready to give up because the only time the woman he was searching for was mentioned was in a wedding brief that simply said “his father’s sister had attended.”

Deciding to leave that branch of the family tree bare for the time being, he turned to leave. Almost as an afterthought, he asked the librarian if she had ever seen any record of someone with the first name of Meredith spelled with a “Y”. After all, the spelling was so unusual that he figured if she had, she would remember it.

As soon as he spoke, a woman who happened to be nearby turned and said, “Oh, you must mean Meredyth Bowker.”

And that’s how John began filling out that branch of his family tree. The elusive Great Aunt Meredyth was located at last, opening up a whole new group of relatives to him.

John isn’t alone. Both amateur and professional genealogists have similar stories to tell.

Alvie Davidson, a Circuit Court qualified expert forensic genealogist from Lakeland is often called upon by attorneys and banks to find missing heirs.

Davidson was the speaker at the March luncheon. He spoke for more than a half an hour, while showing sides of various forms and paperwork he had found stored away in courthouses and basements; boxes and files.

Genealogists usually know they need birth and death certificates, but many other forms are available such as original applications for Social Security cards and military records, he said.

Unfortunately, there are still some states that are not as cooperative as Florida, which has an “open records policy” under the Sunshine Law, although even that doesn’t cover things like sealed adoptions or juvenile court records.

Divorces can yield all kinds of information, he said. There are always four components to a divorce proceeding: the complaint, the response from the other party, the interrogatories (from when the two attorneys get together and discuss the facts of the case) and the findings of a Special Master or judge.

“Sometimes, there’s a real surprise in the details,” Davidson said, citing a case where a 90-year-old California man who thought he had no family actually did have an heir who was located before he died.

The heir was totally surprised as well; especially when he received more than a million dollars.

The search started when the elderly man’s guardian said someone should try and find an heir, he explained. “The man’s brother had married only briefly and divorced. Then he married a woman to whom he stayed married until his death. No one knew there had been a child in the first marriage, but there was.”

Another case showed remarkable coincidences in a family tree. Three suicides, in fact.

Yet none of the people even knew each other. Other coincidences, such as the reclusive behavior of many in that family, were also obviously present.

Until just a few decades ago, records weren’t always up to par. Davidson showed a birth record where a last name had been scratched out and another one handwritten above it.

“This shows me that the mother must have remarried but no legal adoption by the stepfather occurred,” he said.

Some people just “went by” a name.

Other problems arise when a birth certificate simply says “Baby Girl Doe” or “Baby Boy Johnson,” which was common in many places (especially with home births) for years.

“When searching, you always go backward from where you are,” Davidson explained. You start with your own generation; then go to the one before that; then the one before that; each generation having more than one branch when there are siblings, and of course, each generation having two sides: a maternal and paternal, he explained.

Lots of information can be gleaned from newspaper clippings of weddings and obituaries too. And often cemetery records work well.

Davidson has a private investigator’s license so he can open records not open to the general public in many states.

Davidson may be reached at or by calling (863) 858-6745.

Meanwhile, Ed Frank and his group of South Bay Genealogical Society volunteers are available to help searchers in the Genealogy Room at the South Shore Library.

Or you can find out more by visiting the group’s Web site at or emailing

Interested people may also contact the society’s president, Mary McIntyre at (813) 634-3818 or vice president, Jody Masterson, at (813) 938-4614.