A Family’s Quest for Truth: Is Their Treasured Heirloom the Famous X-Rayed Ring?

Have you ever seen an image of the very first X-ray? Look at the fourth finger. What do you see?

If you guessed “ring”, you are correct. When German physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-ray in November 1895, the first image he took was of his wife Anna Bertha’s left hand – with her engagement ring prominently displayed for the world to see. Upon seeing the ghostly image , Bertha is said to have exclaimed, “I have seen my own death.” 

Fast Forward 120 years...

In 2017, I received an e-mail from a new translation client named Allison Stabile. She and her cousins, Frank Wilson and Paul Heidorf, all descendants of the Röntgen family, were on a quest to prove that the golden ring that had been passed down by their relatives for generations was the ring – the ring in the x-rayed image of Bertha’s hand that had become famous throughout the world. 

All signs pointed to the fact that it was. The interior of the ring was engraved with the name F. Röntgen (you’ll soon see why an F…) and the date 1869.  Family lore and photos of Bertha and other ancestors showed a very similar-looking ring on the women’s hands throughout the ages.  But Frank, Allison, and Paul wanted to be absolutely sure.

The ring, engraved with the name F. Röntgen and the year 1869

The ring's journey through time

Frank Wilson received the ring from his Aunt Julia (Louise Grauel’s granddaughter) in 1979. At that point, he determined to prove the ring’s connection to the famous x-ray once and for all. 

Through Frank’s extensive research, he came to believe that the ring was made at a workshop in Emmerich, Germany in 1839, as it was there that his great-great-grandfather Ferdinand Röntgen married Henriette Catharina on April 30, 1839 (there’s our F!). 

Ferdinand Röntgen, uncle of X-ray discoverer Wilhelm Conrad Rôntgen

After Ferdinand’s wife’s death in the 1860s,  Frank believes that Ferdinand passed Henriette’s ring on to his beloved nephew, future discoverer of X-rays Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. When Wilhelm and his fiancé Anna Bertha were engaged in 1869, it was this special family heirloom that he gave to his bride-to-be.

Close up of engravings in the ring
Anna Bertha (known as Bertha), posed with her engagement ring on her finger, sometime between 1869-1872. This is the first known picture of the ring.

After Bertha’s death in 1919 – during a time of economic hardship in post-World War I Germany – Frank believes that Wilhelm Conrad had the ring sent back to its original owners, specifically to his cousin Louise Grauel, now in America. She had emigrated with her brother Johann Heinrich and her father (Wilhelm Conrad’s uncle) Ferdinand in 1872. As you can imagine, this ring was extra special to Louise, as it had originally belonged to her mother, Henriette. 

As time progressed, this special family keepsake was passed down through the generations, until it eventually made its way from an aunt to Frank himself in 1979. 

The original recipient of the ring, Henriette Catharina (Louise's mother)
Louise Röntgen Grauel, seen with the ring on her pinky finger in 1929

The Quest begins

After he came into possession of the family heirloom, Frank was ready to prove its authenticity – and that required going back to the land where the ring had come from.
Over the years, Frank researched the life of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, and then made multiple trips to Europe following in his famous relative’s footsteps. Röntgen’s physics laboratory at the University of Würzburg, Röntgen’s birthplace of Lennep, Germany, and Röntgen’s hometown of Apeldoorn in the Netherlands were just a few of the stops on his research trips. Frank also journeyed to Utrecht and Zürich, the cities where Röntgen had received his education. Along the way, he consulted with various experts – antique experts, goldsmiths, engraving experts, and more –  to assist him in his quest for verification. The Röntgen Museum in Lennep and the Deutsches Museum in Munich also became frequent points of contact as his quest continued. 
Cousin Allison joined Frank in searching for clues in Lennep, Germany in 2017 (Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen's birthplace)
Antique specialist in The Netherlands assisting with the ring

So what did the experts say?

While each expert assisted Frank in their own way, it was an expert goldsmith in Switzerland who told Frank that the ring had actually been resized in the late nineteenth century – which fit perfectly with the theory that the ring given to Bertha had originally belonged to someone else with a different-size finger. Henriette, perhaps?

An engraving expert then informed Frank that the ring engraver was likely not an expert himself and that he had probably been working without a magnifying glass. Based on detailed examination of the engraving, it was this expert’s opinion that the “1869” portion of the engraving had been done by a different engraver or with a different engraving tool – thus supporting the fact that the “1869” was added at a different time than the name “F. Röntgen”.Could it have been for Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s engagement to Bertha? 

Following these findings, multiple experts recommended that Frank have a DNA analysis of the ring performed. This could help solve things once and for all.

It was that path that Frank decided to embark on next. 

Many tests were carried out on the ring in Europe.

in the meantime...

While Frank was hard at work getting clues about the physical ring itself, Allison Stabile, Frank’s third cousin and great-great-great-granddaughter of Uncle Ferdinand Röntgen, was busy herself.

Allison – whose middle name is Röntgen – had hundreds of documents and photos in her possession, family keepsakes that had been passed down to her through her family line.  She met Frank on Ancestry.com while trying to identify certain shared ancestors in photos. But shared ancestors weren’t the only thing these two Röntgen cousins had in common…

After years of online contact, Frank and Allison finally met in person in November of 2016, researching with fellow Röntgen descendant Paul Heidorf in the archives at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. On that trip, Frank proudly showed Allison the famous ring – and more.

In addition to the ring, Frank showed Allison two forks and spoons that had been passed down to him from his Aunt Julia. These spoons, with hallmarks proving they were made in Amsterdam in 1842, were from the 1842 Amsterdam wedding of X-ray inventor Wilhelm Conrad’s Röntgen’s parents. Their monogram (RF, for Röntgen and the wife’s maiden name of Frowein) was carved on the back. More impressed with the ring than the spoon, Allison didn’t give them much thought, until…

Röntgen descendants Allison Stabile, Paul Heidorf, and Frank Wilson researching together at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio (2016)

Two years later, Allison was sorting through all the family heirlooms that she herself had received. Her eyes widened in shock as she stumbled upon two familiar-looking silver spoons. She turned them over –  that same R and F were on the back! They were from the very same Dutch set that Frank had showed her two years ago! 

While neither Frank nor Allison know how the spoons came to America or how the set got separated and divided up among two Röntgen family lines (who might never have met each other without Ancestry.com), this coincidence between the third cousins made Allison and Frank feel even more united on their journey to prove the ring’s origins. 

One of the 1842 Dutch spoons from Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen's parents' wedding in 1842

But let’s get back to the mystery of the ring…

With Frank searching for physical proof on the ring itself, Allison started looking for written proof. After all, she had those 19th-century letters and photographs from the Röntgen family in her possessions. Could the ring have been mentioned within those old German pages?

And that’s how I got involved. With the letters in German and the old German handwriting, Allison couldn’t read them herself. Through a series of referrals, she found my website, and I was so glad she did. The family’s quest to find the ring’s origins sounded like an exciting challenge to me!

I made sure to tell Allison what "ring" looked like in the old German handwriting, in case she happened to stumble across it when sorting her letters!

Starting in 2017, I began translating multiple letters for the family – beautiful handwritten letters from Friedrich, Wilhelm Conrad’s father, and Ferdinand, Wilhelm Conrad’s brother. While the discoverer of X-rays was mentioned in the letters (at one point, his father said they were moving back from Holland to be closer to Wilhelm Conrad in Germany), dozens of translations produced no mention of the ring itself. Back to the drawing board.

While we haven’t found any mention of the ring – yet!-, I’ve really enjoyed translating Allison’s special letters and learning the history of the Röntgen family. 

A cruel twist of fate...

With the letters not producing any written clues, Frank and Allison turned back to the physical ring itself. In 2019, Frank again set off to Europe, ready to follow the experts’ advice and have the DNA in the engraving of the ring tested in Switzerland. Perhaps DNA could prove the ring’s origins once and for all.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.

When Frank awoke from a nap on the train ride from Düsseldorf to Switzerland, the ring – along with some cash – had vanished from his nearby backpack. The thief had only left the ring’s plastic bag behind. 

Frank acted quickly, immediately reporting the theft to the local police in Düsseldorf. But despite the quick action, the police were unable to locate the thief. The ring was gone. 

But There's Still Hope...

For years, Frank, Allison, and Paul have been working diligently to trace the origins of their beloved family possession, an item that also has immense meaning to the scientific community. In fact, once the ring’s origins were proven, Frank was planning on donating a replica to the Röntgen Museum in Lennep, Germany, so that the entire world could share in this ring’s special story. But before he could do so, the ring was cruelly stolen – and the thief likely had no idea what he had taken from the family.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. In the last few months, interest in the Röntgen ring story has provided the cousins with a glimmer of hope. When I was in Salzburg last summer, author Alexandra Nagele became interested in the family’s story and decided to interview me about my work with the Röntgen letters and the ring itself. That article was published in the Salzburger Nachrichten, the main newspaper of Salzburg, this past September. Through that recent article, other newspapers have expressed interest in the fascinating saga and more articles are forthcoming. 

Perhaps, with enough media attention and getting the word out, the ring will resurface someday – and people will be able to recognize and return it when it does. 


The article in the Salzburger Nachrichten Newspaper, September 2020
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen
Retired neurologist Frank Wilson, who has done an incredible amount of research on the history of the Röntgen ring and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen himself

Will you help to spread the word about the missing Röntgen ring? Share the story on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with your community and genealogy groups. The more people that know about the ring’s fascinating history, the more chance of it being found and returned someday. You never know what can happen when we all work together.

Five Year Anniversary Celebration – Celebrating Five Years With You!

This September is our five year company anniversary! Thanks to you, it’s been an amazing journey – click play to find out why…

be sure to Watch to the end for a special gift (Digital Items include all vital record reference guides, Journey into German Genealogy video, and premium article package).

Thank you for all your support over the last five years! – Katherine

From Germany to America: An 1853 Journey

During the course of the nineteenth century, millions of our ancestors left Germany and embarked on a new life in America. Whether the reason was the failed 1848 uprisings, the effects of the Industrial Revolution, or simply seeking an opportunity for a better life, the end result was the same – our ancestors bravely left behind everything they knew and moved to a foreign land halfway around the world.

Photo: https://gcaptain.com/maritime-monday-august-29-2016/immigrant-ship/

Fast forward two hundred years. If we genealogists want to discover the stories of these emigrant ancestors who so bravely left their homeland, passenger lists, emigration documents, and other records may provide the only clues available. But for some lucky genealogists, there is more: personal letters, letters written in the very hands of their ancestors, letters that detail their journey across the ocean and the beginnings of their new life in America.

Susan Hennefield is one such person who was lucky enough to find such a letter among her father’s belongings. I recently had the pleasure of translating this 1853 letter, and she has kindly agreed to let me share it with you here to showcase what an emigration experience was like in the mid-nineteenth century. My own ancestor, Gerhard Wolken, sailed from Bremen in 1854, so I like to think that he might have had a similar journey to Susan’s ancestor Wilhelm below! Perhaps your ancestors did too?

1854 Passenger List of the Ship “Jeverland”. My ancestor Gerhard Wolken emigrated to America at the age of 23, much like Susan’s ancestor Wilhelm Riecker below.

Background Info:

Wilhelm Friedrich Riecker was twenty-two years old when he left Germany for a new life in America. He was the second son of at least twelve children, and his father was a soapmaker in Kürnbach, Karlsruhe. Read on below to see his first letter to his parents after arriving in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York after a 57-day sea journey…

Williamsburg, Sept. 10, 1853

            Dear parents and siblings,

After arriving in my new homeland on August 13 after a 57-day sea journey, I am now picking up the pen to write. I hope that this letter finds you all still happy and healthy, as you were at the time of my departure. We left Mannheim on June 12 at 5:00 in the morning, arrived in Cologne at 7:30 in the evening, and, since there were no more tickets being issued then, had to spend the night in Cologne. We then left for Bremen the following day. They checked all our passports in Preußisch-Minden, on the Hanoverian border. Those who didn’t have the proper documents (which the authorities were not happy about) had to go back.

We stayed in Bremen the 14th and 15th. On the afternoon of the 16th, we left Bremen on a small barge and headed towards Bremerhaven. We didn’t arrive there until the 18th. In Bremen I had to pay half of a Prussian thaler for board, and then had to buy tinware for 1 thaler and a mattress for ½ a thaler. I didn’t buy a pillow or woolen carpet so that I could save my money.

In the passenger building in Bremerhaven, there were people who had already been there fourteen days or even four weeks because they were dealing with cases against the Bremen shipping clerks. It could have easily been the case that I would also have had to wait 14 days at the port because when I was in Bremen, I received a ticket without the name of the captain or the ship that I was supposed to go on. But I went straight to the office and said, “Please be so good and fill in these two spots for me.” They replied, “You won’t receive that information until you are in Bremerhaven.”  But I went back in the afternoon and asked him again, and then he did as I asked. As we were arriving in Bremerhaven, they took us straight to the ocean-bound ship and said, “Whoever has a ticket for the ship Orion led by Captain Schwartz, bring your things on board.” It was only me and a locksmith from Saxony who did so. The barge then made its way to land and everyone went into the passenger building. There they received food like on the ship, just a little bit better. Everyone had to sleep on their own mattress.

So on June 18, we departed from the port. It was a Saturday afternoon with nice, warm weather, and the ship steadily made its way out of the port. The next day we had a good strong wind, we flew like an arrow. If that wind had stayed, we would have made it to New York in 24 days. We sailed on the North Sea for 10 days. It was shortly after 3:00 in the afternoon when we would have gone through the Channel, but we had bad wind and could have been stuck there for 14 days. So we therefore sailed between England and Scotland, which was dangerous – when we woke up in the morning we were heading towards both of the islands, but then the ship was turned about again so that we were being pushed away from the islands instead of going towards them. That same day looked stormy. At the beginning of our trip it was so cold that you almost couldn’t stand being out on the deck. Later it was warm. We didn’t have very favorable winds, so we always had to veer quickly off course, to the right or to the left, which caused it to be a long journey. There were often storms. One time there was a thunderstorm at 3:00 in the morning. The storm appeared within ten minutes, and all the sailors, except for those who were on watch, were still sleeping. Then there was a scream, and all the boxes slid down. The sailors couldn’t reach the ropes to shorten sail, and then they were completely blinded by fire and lightning and then the darkness. But after the sailors had shortened sail, the storm was over.

Births that took place: 2 Deaths: 2  

Things went well on my trip to Bremen, but I can’t say anything good about the sea: in the morning, we received black coffee, or if someone wanted to have hot water and had their own coffee or wanted to make soup, then they could. Throughout the week, lunch consisted of: peas, beans, rice, barley, sauerkraut, and salted bacon, beef, potatoes. In the evenings, tea or water, ¼ butter for the entire week, zwieback, almost so small that you all would have thrown it to the chickens, 4 small little cakes of white zwieback per week, and 3 half liters of sweet water a day for four people.

Aug. 12. On Friday afternoon at 2:00, we saw land, but we couldn’t tell at first if it actually was land or just a cloud. We anchored at 8:00 and stayed there for two hours. At 10:00 we continued on again, and in the morning we were in front of the fort. Then a doctor came and asked if there were any sick people on board. Then we were taken, with the boxes, into the harbor on a tugboat. That was 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, and I was then in New York until Sunday morning. Then I went over to Brooklyn. I found Joseph after about forty minutes, without wandering aimlessly around Brooklyn too much before. The first week, I boarded at a German innkeeper’s, then I stayed with Joseph at H. Vollmer’s at the bakery until we found work for me. I am now working in Williamsburg at a comb and whalebone factory for an American. I earn six thalers a week for every dozen, and from that I need 2 ½ thalers for room and board. I am actually boarding at Christiana Billett’s place. She says to tell you all hello, and hello to her relatives as well. They are all healthy, as are Gottlieb Veit and his wife and Sophie Schaaf. They live an entire hour away from Joseph. G. Veit came to the bakery a few days after my arrival without even knowing that I was here. We then drove out to his home. When we got there, Sophie Schaaf was sitting in front of the house with G. Veit’s girl. I didn’t recognize her then. Elisabetha was not feeling well that evening of my first visit. They were all excited about my arrival and our reunion. Gottlieb Pfeifer, Wilh. Müller, we all get together every Sunday. Weißert will have told you that Joh. Pfeiffer has gone to California.

 Furthermore: Joseph didn’t receive the letter that I myself took to the post office in Kalrsruhe right before my departure. Write again soon about what Gottfried is up to in Karlsruhe. Joseph didn’t even know that Gottfried had left Kürnbach.

 I would very much like to know how things turned out this year with the recruits. I would also advise everyone that they should not travel via Bremen, but via Haven instead. I think that is the shortest way. Going through Bremen always takes longer and the highly-praised food on the ship that people talk about is not how it actually is. 

Joseph and I send you all our affectionate regards, as well as regards to all of our cousins Karl Pfeifer, Ch. Scharpf, J. Riecker, our cousins Susanna and both Johanna’s, and especially to our esteemed uncle in Ellwangen, our Gother Kärcher, J. Hamman, W. Brand, and their children, cousin Baumwirth, Mayor Drechsel, and our neighbor Joh. Pfeifer, and my friends whom I visited the last few days I was there, as well as to Georg Schaaf and Engelhard Müller.

            Don’t worry about either of us.


                                    loyal son,

                                    W.F. Riecker

Also say hello to the recruiting leader and his wife. If both of her brothers want to come to America, cobblers can make good money here.

Did your ancestor come over from Germany in the 19th century? How have you found information about their journey? Let us know in the comments!

More Info: German Immigrants: List of Passengers Bound from Germany to New York, 1847-1854

RootsTech: The Conference of Kindness

“Before you say something, ask yourself: is it true and is it kind?”

“If someone is mean to you, kill them with kindness. It’s amazing to see how their attitude turns around.”

“Do a random act of kindness every day.”

These three ideas, wisdom imparted over the years by my mom, dad, and grandma, very much shaped my childhood. Kindness was the number one quality valued in our family, and there’s therefore nothing my brothers and I love more than a heartwarming story of people going out of their way to do something nice. Someone buying a coffee for the person in line behind them at Starbucks? Right up our alley. The lady at Trader Joes giving me free flowers for my mom on Valentine’s Day? Made our day.

This love for kindness (and honestly, who doesn’t like it when people are nice?) has found a wonderful home in the genealogy community. This past week at the RootsTech Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, I was overwhelmingly reminded of the kindness of the genealogy world. Whenever my mom or my husband texted me to ask how the conference was going, I would repeatedly reply with some variation of, “Everyone is so nice!” or “I feel so loved!”. And because I think we could all use a little more happiness in our lives – and because perhaps you like kindness stories as much as my family and I do – I wanted to share with you my experiences last week at RootsTech in honor of the wonderful community we are all a part of. Thank you to all the people mentioned in this article for making my week so special.

1. The Kindness of Fellow Speakers

The Monday before I left for Salt Lake was a bit stressful. I had taken the day off to get ready for the conference – get my hair cut, get my fliers made for my booth, mail a book at the post office, etc. – but somehow it still ended up being 9:00 before I started packing. And I had to leave for the airport at 5:15 the next morning.

Needless to say, when I get to Salt Lake, I realized I had forgotten a few things in the stress of last-minute packing – one of them being a bowl for all the candy I had bought for my booth. Now, I had forgotten a bowl my very first year of exhibiting, so I knew how hard it was to find one – even with a mall next door. I was not looking forward to having to do it again. 

And this is where the first act of kindness comes in.

I suddenly remembered that in our RootsTech Speaker Facebook group, a nice local speaker had posted  – to hundreds of us, mind you – that if we needed anything during the conference, we could text her and perhaps she could help us out as she was local. I decided to contact her with my forgotten bowl story, hoping I wasn’t taking advantage – like I said, she had posted this to hundreds of people – but sure enough, she responded right away and was able to bring me two perfect bowls from her own home. This kind offer to help people she didn’t even know really set the tone for my entire week…

I never even got to meet my bowl-hero! Due to scheduling conflicts, we just arranged pick up points. It was so nice for her to go out of her way to help a person she had never met.


Of course, that was not the only thing I forgot. As I use payments with Square on my phone, I usually bring a stylus for people to sign with. And in my packing stress, I didn’t even think to bring this small item. Normally I wouldn’t mind people signing my phone with their finger, but with all the sickness going around, I thought it best to avoid any additional germs – but where could I find a stylus this late in the game?

I put out an SOS to fellow speakers and exhibitors, knowing everyone was busy and might not reply. But Amy Johnson Crow went out of her way to not only give me an extra stylus she had, but also to bring it personally to  my booth so I wouldn’t have to abandon my post during the busy conference day. The generosity – of both time and goods – of my fellow speakers really made me feel like I was part of a wonderful, caring community. 

2. The Kindness of Strangers

But it wasn’t just fellow speakers who were so nice that week. Perfect strangers made my week so special as well. 

For those of you who have been to RootsTech, you know how absolutely huge the Expo Hall is – getting from one side to the other is like the Oregon Trail of warehouses. So I was extra touched when one woman made her way all the way over to my booth – at the very far side of the Expo Hall – not to get anything for herself, but just to come tell me how much my presentation at RootsTech last year had helped her to advance her genealogy research in 2019. Her taking the time to tell me how my lecture on German church records broke down brick walls for her and her family truly made my morning. A kind word can really change someone’s day.

I really appreciated this woman coming all the way over to tell me her good news!

In addition to kind words, little acts of kindness can also be so meaningful. For those of you who see me at conferences, you’ll know that I am usually working my booth by myself – which makes it really hard to get away to get lunch, as that is the time when classes are out and people expect you to be there. Needless to say, I sometimes get a bit hungry waiting for the break to roll around. One nice man  – who I had never even met before – was visiting my booth when he realized it was almost 2:00 and I must not have had lunch yet. He then dug around in his backpack and gave me his only box of raisins from his own bag to hold me over until I could get a break. And I didn’t even know his name!

Thank goodness for snacks!

3. The Clients Who Have Become Friends

As a genealogy translator who works from home,  ninety-nine percent of my contact with clients is over e-mail. As a people-person and extravert, this part of the job does not exactly match my personality. However, through conferences such as RootsTech, I have been lucky enough to get to know several of my clients and German handwriting course students in person throughout the years – and they are the nicest people ever. This year at RootsTech, these clients were kind enough to 1) stop by and say hello (remember how big that Expo Hall is?!), 2) tell me congratulations on how my business has grown since they have known me (the fact that they noticed really meant a lot to me) , and 3) make a point to tell potential new clients browsing at my booth that that they would recommend me (gotta love clients who do your marketing work for you!). While these may have been small actions for them, it meant the world to me and allowed me to feel a sense of connection with them as well. Plus, amidst 24,000 attendees, it’s always nice to see a familiar face!

Love getting to see these familiar faces!

4. The Kind Surprises

One of my favorite things about conferences is getting to know the “genealogy regulars” – the people who attend genealogy conferences on a more consistent basis. This year, one of these regulars – a woman whom I had gotten to know and develop a friendship with last year – came to my booth and told me that she had brought me a present from her hometown of New Orleans. She then gave me a strand of rare black Mardi gras beads with the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of St. Louis (my hometown) on it, and a cute little purple dog made out of beads as well. The fact that this woman thought of me before the conference and went out of her way to bring me such a personalized present really made my day. 

I  was so touched that she thought of me – and even remembered my hometown – before the conference even started.

5. The Words of Motivation

As any speaker/vendor will tell you (and as I alluded to in the first section), as much as we love RootsTech, the weeks leading up to the conference can be a bit stressful. For most of February, I was working 24/7 to finish my new book, The Magic of German Church Records, and, of course, was working on preparing my presentation for RootsTech as well. The night before the presentation, I didn’t sleep as well as I had wanted, and woke up frustrated that I didn’t get a good night’s rest before a very important day.

I then logged in to check my e-mail, and saw a message from a client –  who I had never met in person – telling me that he was going to attend my presentation that day and that he was very excited about it. He then wrote the exact phrase I needed to hear in my worried-about-my-lack-of-sleep state:

These two sentences were the exact bit of motivation I needed at that very moment of tiredness, and the fact that this person I hadn’t yet met took time out of his day to write me a motivating e-mail meant the world to me – and gave me the extra energy I needed. 

After the presentation, countless people also took time out of their days to come to my booth and tell me how much they enjoyed it, which meant a great deal to me as well. After putting hours and hours of work into a lecture, it really means a lot to us speakers to know that it made a difference to you and will help you in your research. So thank you to all of you who made a point to stop by!

In conclusion, it was a wonderful week, and I left Salt Lake City with a smile on my face. Thank you to everyone who went out of their way to spread their kindness in my direction – as you see, it meant so much to me and I love the genealogy community even more now than I did before.

What about you? Did you experience any acts of kindness at RootsTech? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear your stories. 


My Ancestor, the Serial Killer: A Story from Gary Haas

Disclaimer: This post is meant to share a piece of my client’s family history that he was kind enough to share – as well as to show how his different research methods can pay off. I absolutely do not condone or wish to glorify the actions taken by Sebastian Bauer in any way, shape, or form. – Katherine Schober

My Ancestor, the Serial Killer: A Story from Gary Haas

Sometimes there are extra notes scribbled in at the top or the bottom of your ancestor’s document. Usually rather small and written seemingly haphazardly, these comments can be rather daunting to translate, and it may be tempting to ignore them. But if you do decide to find out what they mean, you may just discover extremely juicy details of your ancestor’s past…

Gary, a retired accountant and family history researcher, did not ignore those scribbled two lines at the bottom of his ancestor’s marriage record. And he was very surprised by what he found.

Let’s Start at the Beginning…

Gary’s ancestors comes from Waldmünchen, Bavaria, Germany – and there are unfortunately few Catholic church records from there that have been digitized. Plus, the best documents about his ancestors were in German…for which he had limited skills. Gary knew that if he wanted to advance his family history, he would need to find a professional researcher who could locate the documents in Germany and who could translate them for him once she did.

Finding a Researcher…

On his quest for a researcher, Gary went on a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, he was able to find and hire an internationally-known researcher who volunteered at the library. She was born in Germany, German was her first language, she could read the German script, and she made periodic research trips to Germany. Just what he was looking for!

Over in Germany…

Once over in Germany, the researcher started searching the Catholic diocese’s archives in Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany. There, she happened to find an 1803 document on the wedding of his 4x-great-grandparents, Sebastian Bauer and Barbara Schmidhuber, from Ast, Bavaria, near the Bohemian border. But the document did a bit more than just report on their marriage…

The Big Reveal…

While most of the handwriting on this document looked clear to Gary, the two lines at the bottom of the document were a scrawl – but they piqued his interest.

Luckily, the researcher was able to translate the priest’s extra comment at the bottom of the page – and you’ll never guess what it said:

Dieser erdrosselte sein Weib 1813 – 20. Apr. u. wurde geköpft in Waldmünchen.

In case you don’t speak German, this translates to:

This man strangled his wife on April 20, 1813 and was beheaded in

Well, that’s not something you find every day. Gary knew he had to find out more.

The Research Continues…

Through Google searches, Gary was able to find many articles on Sebastian’s beheading. One search of Google Books (a great resource for everyone – https://books.google.com/) even found a two-page newspaper article describing Sebastian’s confession – a wealth of information!

“Historical account of the crimes of Sebastian Bauer from Untergrafenreid, who was sentenced to death because of the murder of his wife and his old father-in-law:”

Even though Gary does not speak German, he was able to get a rough translation of this Fraktur article using Google Translate by taking the following steps:

  • Create a jpg image of the document
  • Copy the  jpg to Google Drive
  • Right click on the jpg in Google Drive
  • Open with Google Docs
  • Copy and paste text to https://translate.google.com

While Google Translate couldn’t provide all the details, it did give him a simple understanding of the newspaper article’s content. He then had a professional translator fill him in with the intricate details…. 

What Led Sebastian to Murder? It’s All in the Article…

So what led Sebastian, a 38-year-old weaver and son of a tenant farmer raised in the Christian faith, to be executed for murder?

According to the article, it all started with his marriage to Barbara in 1803 – the record of which can be seen above. Two years later, in 1805, he apparently went into the woods with his 77-year-old father in law. In debt from drinking and gambling, Sebastian wanted his father-in-law’s money – sooner rather than later. He therefore hit his father on the back of the head with his stick, eventually killing him. He then drug the body behind the bushes and arranged him in a way that it would look like he had died of natural causes. He got away with his crime – at first.

Now, Sebastian and Barbara had six children – two of whom were living at the time of the execution – during their marriage. But at some point during this marriage, Sebastian became “friendly” with the oldest daughter of a tenant (for the purpose of this story, we’ll call her Johanna), and she got pregnant. Fearing the judgement of other people, and especially of Sebastian’s wife, the two tried to abort the baby, but to no avail. It was then that they made the plan to kill his wife.

They first tried by gradually poisoning her – but that was taking too long. Sebastian, and, as he claimed, Johanna as well, decided things needed to move more quickly. Weighing the decision in his mind all of Holy Week before Easter, he finally decided to strangle her in the night as she slept.

His first attempt – on April 19, 1813 – didn’t work. Barbara woke up, and was, of course, terrified. However, that didn’t stop Sebastian from trying the next night. On April 20, 1813, he strangled Barbara in her sleep. She was 29 years old.

In order to again make it look like she died of natural causes, Sebastian pulled her out of the bed and laid her on the floor. He then cried for help, acting so distraught that the neighbors said they truly felt sorry for him and for his loss.

Her 1813 death record states that she died of consumption – which goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read.

Two days later, Johanna moved in to his house. And less than two weeks later, the pair was married. But all of this began to make neighbors suspicious. His wife had just died, and two weeks later, he marries someone else? Furthermore, it looked like Johanna could be pregnant…

To quash these rumors that he may have killed his wife due to Johanna’s pregnancy, Sebastian and Johanna (again, according to his account) decided to try to abort the baby a second time. He went to several towns searching for rat poison, and eventually was able to purchase some for a few kreuzers. The next morning, while Sebastian was sleeping, Johanna took the poison. However, she began to throw up violently, and Sebastian tried to help her by giving her olive oil, milk, honey, etc. – but nothing worked. After 37 hours, both she and the unborn baby died.

Now Sebastian’s father-in-law, wife, and his new wife were all dead. Things were starting to add up, and people began to look at Sebastian with increased suspicion. The bodies of Barbara and Johanna were taken and examined by the authorities, and it became clear that the causes of death were strangling and poison.

After being discovered, Sebastian confessed to everything. He was sentenced to beheading by sword.

“According to this information [the confession], Sebastian Bauer is to be handed over to the executioner, in order to be executed bythe sword – for him, as a well-deserved punishment, for others, as a warning and shocking example.
Waldmünchen, October 11, 1814″

Apparently, the executioner’s first attempt was unsuccessful, causing Sebastian to jump up.

That’s not your average family history.

Yet Gary’s research continues…

Ten years after Gary’s shocking discovery about his ancestor, he had the chance to find out more. At Gary’s request, his cousin, who was in their ancestral area working on a book, teamed up with a woman from Wisconsin and her German husband, to continue researching this gruesome part of their family history over in Europe.

And guess who they found? The actual descendants of Sebastian’s executioner.

These descendants told them that executioners were at the lowest rungs of German society, and the fact the executioner botched the execution did not earn him any extra glory.

The team was also able to visit the community museum of the German town yielded what is purported to be the axe used to behead Sebastian (perhaps the sword was changed to an axe?)….truly a gruesome sight.

So what were Gary’s takeaways from his research project? He said:

  1. It’s important to look at the entire document. Can you imagine if I had just ignored those two extra sentences at the bottom of the page?
  2. I learned how important it is to know when to hire a professional to research and translate. While I can get the gist of the document with my limited skills, nothing beats a trained translator to get the full story. You never know what you’ll find in German records.

Thank you, Gary, for sharing your family story and your research strategies with us!

Contributor: Gary Haas

Gary Haas is a retired accountant who uses computer skills to research family and local history.

If you would like to know more about the Bauer family history, check out the book Johann Sebastian Bauer: History and genealogy of the Bauers of Sinzendorf, Englmannsbrunn and Untergrafenried, Bavaria, Germany and Plain, Sauk County, Wisconsin by Kenneth L. Kraemer.

This post contains an affiliate link, which does not affect you at all, but does help support my business as I earn a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate. This in turn helps me to continue supporting you with educational (I hope!) genealogy content.

Lessons from Old Letters: Words of Wisdom Through the Ages

As a genealogy translator, I’ve translated my share of old letters. While many of these letters simply speak of family matters, farming information, financial issues, etc., every once in a while, sage words of wisdom seem to jump out at me from across the page. Of course, these words of wisdom are  meant for the letter’s recipient – but I choose to think of them as voices from the past, sharing their advice with all of us who may very well need it today.

Below, I’ve collected some of these words of wisdom from the letters I’ve translated the past few years. Dating from 1874 to 1945, on topics such as love, health, clothing, and life in general, it’s fascinating to see how, while the world around us has changed, humanity in general remains much the same. Read on and see what you think. What quote do you think most applies to us today?

On Love: 

1. Love is our most important weapon and nothing can resist it forever.

– Family friend to teenage girl, June 1920

Liebe ist unsere wichtigste Waffe und nichts kann ihr auf die Dauer wiederstehen.


On Relationships:

2. Since you’ve been friends for a year already, you should know where you stand. There is no reason for you to be treated like a toy; he’ll simply get rid of you one day if he so desires. If you aren’t courageous enough to have a serious conversation with him, and you think it will lead to you two splitting up, then the relationship was never a good one anyway.

-Mother to daughter, April 1940

Nachdem die Freundschaft schon bereits ein Jahr besteht, solltest du eigentlich wissen woran du bist, es hat doch keinen Zweck daß du dich Jahr u. Tag hinhalten lassest zum Spielzeug, u. wenn es ihm einfällt hängt er eines Tages ab. Wenn du den Mut nicht hast zu einer ernsten Aussprache u. denkst daß es daran zum scheitern kommt, denn ist das Verhältnis ohnehin doch eine Aussichtslose Sache.


On Health: 

3. We are all still healthy, which I wish for you all from the bottom of my heart – as health is the best thing in this world, better than money and property.

– Father to son, August 1924

Wir sind soweit noch gesund, was ich Euch von Härtzen Winsche thun, den die Gesundheit ist ja doch das Beste auf dieser Weld, beser den Geld u. Gut. 


On Children:

4. I was more with the children than ever and never enjoyed them so much, and never so clearly realized that now is the time to enjoy them, if I am ever going to – for they will soon, if they live, have other things that will take them from me. 

– Father reflecting on trip with children, June 1880

Original in English.


On Clothing: 

5. Always be well-dressed – people judge a great deal based on appearances.

– Mother to daughter, July 1939 

Gehe nur immer gut gekleidet, man urteilt viel nach dem Aüßern.


On Life: 

6.  It is only when times … are so hard and a person grants help to other people during such times that one can hope to be saved from the current bleak situation. We emerged from the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War; we will also need to raise ourselves out of today’s hardships if we don’t want to be completely destroyed.

– A suitor to his sweetheart, December 1919

[German no longer available.] Wir sind aus dem Wirrwar des 30 jähr. Krieges herausgekommen und werden auch aus dem heutigen Elend herausmüssen, wenn wir nicht ganz untergehen wollen.


7. Don’t despair. We’ve pulled through other bad times and we’ll pull through these times as well.

– Husband to wife, during World War II 

…nicht verzweifeln. Wir haben schon … andere schlimme Zeiten überstanden und werden auch dies überstehen. 


8. Keep your head up high and don’t lose your courage; just think, if something doesn’t work out, then you are gaining more and more experience.

–  Mother to daughter, October 1938

Nur Kopf hoch u. den Mut nicht verlieren u. denke wenn etwas nicht klappt, du bekommst immer mehr Erfahrung.


9. Don’t think that our life here on earth should always be filled with joy and pleasure; no, it wouldn’t be good that way. That would make us arrogant, because pain, displeasure and want – if they are not too great – simply test us, influencing both this world and the eternal afterlife; that is why we shouldn’t despair in times of adversity and why we shouldn’t be arrogant in times of happiness.

– Father to son, October 1874

Denkt nicht daß das irdische Leben allezeit nur Freude und Genuß gibt, nein das sollte nicht gut sein das sollte uns übermüthig machen, denn auch Schmerz Verdruss und Entbehrung wenn dieselbe nicht ja hart eintreffen stellen uns auf die Probe und entscheiden über ein dieseits und ein einigest Jenseits; deswegen in Widerwärtigkeiten nicht verzagt und in Glück und Wohlleben nicht übermüthig. 

10. In any case, my beloved, we are right to hope, as we are both still young enough and are only standing at the beginning of this uneven road called life.

– Marie Lustgarten to Isadore Colle, sweethearts, January 1898

In allen Fällen mein Geliebter, haben wir vor zu hoffen Recht, denn, wir sind beide noch jung genug und stehen daher erst beim beginne dieser unebenen Strasse, Leben genannt. – Irene Kaplan, January 1898, Marie to Isidor

And one final quote – while this isn’t exactly sage advice, it did make me laugh to think our stereotype of Germany hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years!

Germany in general is terrible regarding the drinking habits of the young and old, tall and short, rich and poor, everyone is yearning for beer, can’t live without beer, and is completely undone by beer.

– Man visiting Germany from America, July 1900

Es ist überhaupt mit Deutschland etwas Furchtbares betreffs des Trinkens Jung & Alt, Groß & Klein, Reich u. Arm, alles strebt nach Bier, kann ohne Bier nicht leben und geht noch völlig in Bier auf.

In closing, I leave you with a poem written by my German ancestor Wilhelm Müller (1881-1945), a pastor in Germany during World War I and World War II. The poem, entitled “Die alten Briefe”, or “The Old Letters”, seems to sum up this blog post on old letters well – Wilhelm writes of how important old letters are, and how we should treasure them for years to come.  See his poem (my English translation) below: 


Wilhelm Müller, as a WWI chaplain on the French front, 1915

The Old Letters

I rummage through old letters

that have slept for decades long

about to toss them to the flames

I realized that was wrong

as I began to read

of all that once had been

I knew, I couldn’t do it

couldn’t burn these words of men.

How those yellowed papers

so warmly spoke to me

A soul shining through the page

I couldn’t let it be.

Letters from a mother,

seeped with her selfless heart

her endless care for children

apparent from the start.

I read her loving words

so loyal, kind and true

Such good they did to me,

my sense of safety grew.

And touching notes from children –

forming letters wide-eyed

Seeing their little faces

shining with joy and pride

and, the writing over

on paper oh so fine

I see their bitter tears as well

when missing a stroke or line.

Adoring letters of friendship

from old romantic days

swearing to a lover

to keep one’s heart ablaze.

How soon this passion fades away

as time does take its course

This token of remembrance

recalls the relationship’s source.

I cannot part with these letters,

which speak to my very soul.

These letters are the hearts of men

To the flames, they shall not go.


Die Alten Briefe

Ich kramte in alten Briefen,

die seit Jahrzehnten schliefen,

den Flammen woll’ ich sie weih’n.

Doch dann begann ich zu lesen

von allem, was einst gewesen,

Da wußt’ ich: es kann nicht sein!


Wie’s doch aus den alten Papieren

so warm und so traut zu mir spricht!

Sie haben ja eine Seele;

nein – ich zerstöre sie nicht.


Da sind die Briefe der Mutter,

von selbstloser Liebe durchtränkt,

von nie ermüdender Sorge,

die nur ihrer Kinder gedenkt.

Und las ich die lieben Worte,

voll Andacht, wie tut mir’s so gut!

Ich fühl mich noch einmal nach Jahren

geborgen in treuer Hut.


Und rührende Kinderbriefchen –

die Buchstaben sorgsam gemalt!

Ich seh, wenn die kleinen Gesichter

in freudigem Stolze gestrahlt,

wenn Ihnen das Schriftstück gelungen

auf Briefpapier herrlich geziert,

ich seh’ noch die bitteren Tränen,

wenn Ihnen ein Unglück passiert.


Und schwärmende Freundschaftsbriefe

aus alter romantischer Zeit,

in der man begeistert geschworen

auf Treue und Unfehlbarkeit.

Wie schwanden die Ideale

dann vor dem erwachenden Blick!

Ein kleines Erinnerungszeichen

ruft alles Entzücken zurück.


Ich trenne mich nicht von dem Briefen,

aus denen so viel zu mir spricht.

Sie haben ja eine Seele! –

Nein, ich verbrenne sie nicht.










Three Ways to Experience Your Ancestry Through Travel: Guest Post by Travel Coordinator Keri Forbringer

So you’ve discovered your family is from Germany…now what? If you’re anything like my family, you will want to go see the country for yourself.

My family is from Germany and Austria. Like many families, we can trace our ancestry to varying degrees. My mom’s side is relatively well-documented: her great grandfather came to the US from Esslingen, Germany in the 1800s, where he had owned a mill. There is both family lore and documentation to support the history. My dad’s side is more of a mystery: we know his grandparents both arrived in New York City, also in the 1800s, where they got married, had kids, and moved to the suburbs (the American dream, right?), but we can’t find much about their lives before their arrival. Like many immigrants, they may have wanted it that way. A fresh start, perhaps, that involved truly embracing their new country and its culture. 

Whether your family history is well-documented or hard to find, there is plenty to be gained through travel. How? Read on for three different ways to do so.

  1. Take an Ancestry Cruise

For someone like my dad – who knows relatively little about his ancestry, but is eager to learn – something like the new Journey of Genealogy Cruise might be ideal. This cruise is the first of its kind; Ancestry.com and Cunard have partnered to offer a unique, in-depth genealogy experience. Passengers depart from London on November 4th and arrive in New York City after a seven-night journey across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2. This voyage follows the path of many American immigrants who sailed across the ocean to New York. It makes perfect sense that Cunard has partnered with Ancestry, because one in five immigrants who arrived in New York City did so on a Cunard ship. Passengers get an in-depth look at their own ancestry, using the resources provided and the expertise of the cruise’s special guests, which include genealogy, history, and ancestry experts. Upon arrival in New York, passengers can add a two-night extension to explore Ellis Island and historic Manhattan.

I can also personally recommend adding a trip to the Tenement Museum, which does an incredible job of showing what life was like for immigrants in New York. In particular, there is a tour called Shop Life that features a German family’s saloon from 1870s New York. Other tours feature immigrants from various backgrounds; all tours are well-researched and well-presented.

  1. Take a Guided Ancestry Tour through Germany

For someone who knows a little more about his or her family history, I might recommend something like a Go Ahead Tours trip through Germany. Go Ahead Tours has also partnered with Ancestry.com to create an itinerary that gives travelers a general overview of Germany with a specific focus on ancestry. The trip is twelve days long and travels north-to-south through Germany, from Hamburg to Munich. Stops between the two cities include Bremen, Cologne, Heidelberg, Nuremberg, Ansbach and Rothenburg. Special ancestry-related tours include the BallinStadt Emigration Museum, the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, and the Hessenpark Open Air Museum. Genealogists will help you discover more about your family history before your departure, and expert guides will help you experience Germany and its history and culture during your visit.

  1. Design Your Own Trip with a Travel Advisor

The benefits of a group tour are clear: a pre-set itinerary with interesting people and a guide helping you along the way. But group tours are not for everyone. Perhaps you would like to focus more specifically on your family’s place of origin, the dates you can travel don’t align with the tour dates offered, or maybe you just don’t like groups. If you fall into this category but you don’t know where to start when planning your trip, I highly recommend using a travel advisor. A good travel advisor can help you determine your travel priorities. He or she can work with you to create a custom itinerary, which gets shaped and polished through a dialogue until it is tailored to your interests and is just right for you.

My mom falls into this category: she is an enthusiastic traveler, but appreciates having someone help her work out the details.  She loves having an itinerary that includes everything from hotel check-in information to details about where to park in a given city, along with pre-booked train tickets with instructions for finding her particular train. If I were to send her on a trip to explore her ancestry in Germany, we would focus her travels in Baden-Württemberg, where her family is from. If she wanted, I might set her up with a local church or office official who might be able to provide her with more historical records about her family in Esslingen. Her travel priorities tend to include experiencing the local culture, so I might encourage her to travel during an event like the Freiburg wine festival, or have her go to a Christmas Market in the winter.

Wherever your family is from – Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or Luxembourg – or wherever your interests lie – adventure travel like hiking or biking, or in cultural experiences like food, castles, churches, and town life – there is something to be gained from working with a skilled travel advisor. We can help you experience your family’s country of origin in rich detail, tailored to your specific interests.


Keri Forbringer is a Virtuoso Travel Coordinator with Luxury Travel Works based in Shrewsbury, MA. She can be reached at keri@luxyrtravelworks.com.