Who Do You Think You Are?
‘I Investigated My Great Grandfather’s Mysterious Death’
The family rumour was that Katie Carmichael’s paternal great grandfather was murdered in New York in the 1930s. She explores the truth in an eye-catching new book that she crowdfunded, says Claire Vaughan
The USA was just emerging from the Great Depression on 3 February 1939 when a Scottish sailor was found fatally injured in New York’s Little Spain area. His injuries aroused enough suspicion for his case to be referred to the city’s medical examiner. The question on everyone’s lips was, “Was it murder?” His family believed the answer to be an unequivocal “Yes”. He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave far from home, but now one of his descendants has investigated his life and suspicious death.
Lockdown hasn’t been all home-schooling, online yoga and baking – many people have been researching their genealogy and looking to publish the results. If you are one of them, Katie Carmichael’s innovative take on a long-standing family mystery, My Great-Grandfather the Alien, may well be of interest.
It all started when Katie, a graphic designer from Alloa in Clackmannanshire in the Central Lowlands of Scotland, was a child. “My dad Duncan used to say that his grandfather, Thomas Carmichael, was murdered in New York – obviously, that was quite intriguing! Those were the days before the web, but as databases started emerging online, it felt like there was scope to find out a wee bit more.”
Katie’s partner Bill is also a keen family historian. “Bill can’t resist a project and I’m a bit like that too, so we thought that we’d take a look and see if we could find anything out.”
Thomas was born in 1888 and grew up in Glasgow, so Katie used the basic information she knew to search ScotlandsPeople ( scotlandspeople.gov.uk). “I looked for a Thomas Carmichael who had married a Mary Campbell and was a ship’s steward.” Sure enough, Katie found his wedding certificate, but tracking him down in the censuses was more difficult.
Eventually, she made a breakthrough. Searching online databases for Thomas, the records of a mysterious Peter McCann kept popping up. “It didn’t seem relevant, but then we noticed he had two addresses in common with Thomas.” The pieces started to fall into place. “I discovered Thomas’ younger sister was born Elizabeth McCann in 1891, but in the census taken a fortnight later, the family were calling themselves Carmichael.” Thomas had been born a McCann, and Peter was his brother. But there were more eureka moments to come as the couple delved deeper.
‘My dad Duncan used to say that Thomas was murdered in New York’