Thursday, April 8, 2010

What Happened in this Family?

I want to know what happened in the family of John and Lydia (Bell) Thompson....

From my mother’s records I knew that one of her family lines went like this:
Audrey Meinzen -> Emma Bickerstaff Meinzen -> Mary Thompson Bickerstaff -> John Thompson & Lydia Bell.

I already knew that Mary was born in October 1873, married in March 1891, and died in September 1940. But I knew nothing about her parents other than their names and a general location: Jefferson County, Ohio. That, in combination with Mary’s birth year, was a start.

I began my search with census records and found them in the 1880 census. John T. and Lyddia B. Thompson were living on Main Street in New Alexandria, Jefferson County, Ohio, on June 11, 1880, when the census taker came. John T. was 29, an illiterate laborer. Lyddia B., 26, his wife, was keeping house, and could read and write. Their children were Mary B., 6; Laura, 5; Annie R., 3; and Ida, 8/12 years. Ohio was the place of birth for all of them.

The 1880 census record also helped anticipate a possible year of marriage for John and Lydia. Their date of marriage in Jefferson County, Ohio, was recorded as September 23, 1872. Their names on the county marriage record were recorded as John Thos. Thompson and Lydia N. (or M.) Bell. (No parents’ names were recorded.)

The 1880 census also helped identify the names of children already born and still living. I searched birth record transcripts and requested records for Mary, Laura V., and Rachel Ann (who may also be Annie R.). I found nothing for Ida.

The 1900 census was a different matter. Instead of John Thomas Thompson, I found Thomas Thompson, 52 years, a junk dealer, with wife, Lydia, 4? years. The census indicated that Lydia was the mother of 11 children with 7 still living; and that Thomas and Lydia had been married 11 years.

Except for their ages, the 1900 census information didn’t add up unless this was a second marriage for Lydia. Did she marry her deceased husband’s brother (Thomas) who happened to have as his first name his brother’s middle name (John Thomas)? Or did John Thomas choose to be called Thomas sometime between 1880 and 1900? Or did the census taker make a mistake? And what about the children who were listed in the 1880 census? Mary was married in 1891 when she was 17. By 1900, Laura would have been about 25; Annie, about 23; and Ida, about 20 years - all old enough to have been married, so it wasn’t unusual not to find them living with their parents.

Lydia as the mother of 11 children with 7 living adds up, too, if we consider the children in both census records together and assume that 4 had died. Together the living children were: Mary (b. Oct 1874); Laura (b. Dec 1875); Annie R. (or Rachel Ann) (b. Feb 1878); Ida (b. 1879-1880); James (b. Aug 1881); Elizabeth (b. Jan 1883); and Jessie (b. Aug 1887). Birth transcripts all give the parents’ names as John Thompson and Lydia Bell.

In the 1910 census, I found a John and Lydia Thompson living in Follansbee, Brooke County, WV. The ages seem to fit but John was a shoemaker, and somehow, considering other information from Steubenville city directories, I doubt these are “my” John and Lydia.

Searches of Steubenville city directories were helpful.
1899-1900: John T. (wife Lydia) junk dealer, residing at 615 South
1904-1905: John T. (wife Lydia) junk dealer, residing at the Seminary Building
1913: John T. (wife Lydia) laborer, residing at 238 N. Lake Erie Avenue
1915-1916: John T. (wife Lydia) laborer, residing at 258 N. Lake Erie Ave.

The 1920 census, taken in January 1920, recorded John Thompson, widow, as an inmate at the Jefferson County Infirmary.

I went on a hunt for Lydia Bell Thompson’s death date, sometime between 1915 and 1920 - and came up empty-handed. I searched the Ohio Historical Society Archives, where death certificates from 1908 to 1952 are indexed by name and are available on microfilm. In fact, I searched for both John and Lydia. There were several people with those names, but I decided none of them were mine either because of location or after searching out obituaries for them.

And then! And then suddenly, had the Ohio Death Certificate Index online and it had more search options than just a name. In fact, they also had death certificates from other states. (Note: you can still find Ohio death certificates at familysearch but they are no longer searchable separately.)

I found Lydia first. She died in the Cross Creek District of Brooke County, West Virginia, on February 21, 1930. Could this be “my” Lydia? Probably not, since John was already a widow in 1920, but it was worth a look. FamilySearch linked to West Virginia Vital Records where I was able to find, print, and save her death certificate. It certainly looked like my Lydia: born May 8, 1851 in Ohio; husband: John Thompson. The informant was Laura Shorts. Could that be Laura of the census records?

I decided that one of the Steubenville newspapers might have an obituary, since Lydia had lived most of her life in Jefferson County. Yes, there was one. But one piece of the information was odd: “Her husband preceded her in death several years ago.” How could that be? I was certain this was the right Lydia Thompson because the children were listed, including Mrs. Ida Deal of Cleveland; Mrs. C. J. Bickerstaff of Mineral Ridge, Ohio [my great-grandmother]; Mrs. Jessie Mendenhall, Wheeling; and Mrs. [Laura] Shorts, at home. And, Lydia was being buried in New Alexandria, Ohio, where she and John had lived.

How could both John and Lydia be widowers at the same time?

Then another John Thompson - different from the ones I’d search at OHS - turned up in the FamilySearch Ohio Death Certificate search. His death date was listed as March 4, 1923, in Cross Creek Township at the Jefferson County Infirmary. Again I decided that an obituary might have helpful information. There are lots of John Thompsons and maybe this wasn’t mine.

My search for an obituary revealed two. One indicates that he was survived by his widow and James R. Thompson, Mrs. Mary Bickerstaff, Mrs. Laura Shorts, and Mrs. Ida Hall. That first obituary didn’t mention his place of death, but listed Union Cemetery as his place of burial. The second obituary said that he passed away at the County Home and was survived by daughters Mary, Annie, Laura, and Jessie; and by two brothers, Wm. H. and James R. Thompson. This was definitely "my" John Thompson.

I contacted Union Cemetery for information about his burial. They returned information from their interment directory with his name, date of death, cause of death, date of interment, and first names of his parents. Someone from the Union Cemetery Association added a note: “This is all the information we have on your Great Great Grandfather. He is Buried in County Ground, and no other Relatives are around him. County Ground is Ground owned by The County and is where they bury those who have no one to bury them.”

I want to know what happened in this family. I probably never will, but I want to know why John and Lydia are buried in two different cemeteries. I want to know why John was at the County Home while Lydia was with a daughter. And why did no family member (or members) come forward to buy a plot of land so my great-great-grandfather didn’t have to buried in a pauper’s grave?

Do you have unanswered questions like these for any of your ancestors?

1880 U. S. Census, Ohio, Jefferson, New Alexandria, Main Street, E. D. 100, written p. 18, Lines 43-48, Family #37, John Thompson and family, 11 June 1880.

1900 U.S. Census, Ohio, Jefferson, Steubenville Township, 3rd Ward, Market Street, E.D. #80, printed p. 92, Lines 92-96, Dwelling #8, Family #9, [John] Thomas Thompson and family, 1 Jun 1900.

1920 U. S. Census, Ohio, Jefferson, Wintersville Precinct, Jefferson County Infirmary, E.D. 182, p. 25, line 23, John Thompson, 21 Jan 1920.

Marriage Records of Jefferson County, Ohio, Book 8, Part 1, 1865-1874. (Image shown above.)

Steubenville City Directory 1899-1900. The Burch Directory Company, Akron, Ohio, p. 205.

Steubenville Official City Directory 1904-1905. The Burch Directory Company, Akron, Ohio, p. 275,

Steubenville Official City Directory 1913. The Burch Directory Company, Akron, Ohio, p. 352.

Steubenville Official City Directory 1915-1916. The Burch Directory Company, Akron, Ohio, p. 376.

Certificate of Death for John Thompson, State of Ohio, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, File No. 19754, (1923), from

Obituary of John Thompson, The Steubenville Herald-Star, Monday, March 5, 1923, p. 10, col. 8, Archives Library of the Ohio Historical Society, Microfilm #13008. (Image shown above.)

Obituary of John Thompson, The Steubenville Daily Gazette, Monday, March 5, 1923, p. 2, col. 6, Archives Library of the Ohio Historical Society, Microfilm #22486.

Union Cemetery Association Interment Directory: John Thompson, and note from Association representative, 4 Aug 2008.

Certificate of Death for Lydia Thompson, West Virginia State Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, Certificate #2545 (1930),"> (Image shown above.)

Obituary of Lydia Thompson, The Steubenville Herald-Star, Saturday, February 22, 1930, p. 5, col. 2, Archives Library of the Ohio Historical Society, Microfilm #13041.

Copyright © 2010 by Nancy Messier.


  1. Intriguing mystery and good detective work; I hope you are able to find out more about this family.

  2. I was intrigued by your research and the family. I too would like to hear the answers to your questions. Thanks for sharing.

  3. If I ever find more about them, I'll be sure to share.


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