Who Murdered My Aunt in 1920s Detroit?

Tracing Your Roots: Tips for finding out whether the killer of a long-dead relative was brought to justice.

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Dear Professor Gates:

I have been tracing my family tree on Ancestry.com and I found out that my second great-aunt, Nannie Crenshaw, was killed in Wayne County, Mich., in 1920. If I want to find out if her killer was charged and convicted, what steps should I take next? I have sent you her death certificate. —Adrienne Rose

When we read your late relative’s death certificate, we saw the tragic circumstances of Nannie Crenshaw’s death in Detroit on April 12, 1920: a compound skull fracture listed as the result of a homicide. She was only 38 years old, single, black and working as a stenographer for “JD Baily.” How hard her untimely death must have been for those she left behind!

That being said, there are a number of ways to search for information about the murder of a relative decades in the past. One of the simplest ways to gather information is to search historical newspapers. Press accounts of homicides often contain names of witnesses and suspects. In addition, some newspapers followed trials and reported on convictions and punishments.

Was Her Death Covered in the Press?

Several databases are useful for searching historical newspapers, including ProQuest and NewspaperArchive.com.

Additionally, the Library of Michigan holds Detroit newspapers active in 1920, which can be searched. Typically, we would also advise, in the case of an African-American death, a search of historically black newspapers. It is worth noting, however, that two of the major black papers for the Detroit area—the Detroit Plaindealer (1883-1894) and the Michigan Chronicle (1936-present)—were not in circulation at the time of Crenshaw’s death.

Our own historical-newspaper search did not turn up anything on Crenshaw. Even after using variant spellings and search terms, we could not locate a record of the homicide in Detroit.

We then noted that the death record identified Crenshaw’s place of birth as Portsmouth, Ohio, and her mother and father’s place of birth as Glasgow, Ky. We considered the possibility that a report of the murder was included in the local newspaper. Since she had been a resident of Detroit for only five months before her death, a paper from a place where she would have been more well-known might have reported the homicide, we reasoned.

NewspaperArchive.com maintains databases for six newspapers in Portsmouth. However, we did not turn up an article on the homicide there, either. You may have more luck on your own with newspapers in Glasgow, but there is always the possibility that the murder was not reported in the local newspaper.

Sadly, given the sheer volume of murders at the time, it might have been difficult for the newspapers to get around to reporting them all. Between 1920 and 1930, Detroit recorded 1,284 homicides, with one of the highest murder rates in the nation, according to Hour Detroit magazine. In fact, the era in which your second great-aunt lived was characterized by great social turmoil. Its backdrop was the Great Migration, an early-20th-century exodus of millions of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities that increased Detroit’s black population by nearly 2,000 percent between 1910 and 1930.

Reaction to the demographic tide wasn’t always welcoming: Historians estimate that there may have been as many as 875,000 Ku Klux Klan members residing in Michigan in the 1920s. A police force stacked with white Southerners who were hired to keep “black residents in check” added to the racial tension flooding the city. Hopefully, racism didn’t impede progress on her homicide case.