How do I look into a murder from the 60's with little data to go on?
January 20, 2010 11:26 AM   Subscribe

How do I look into a murder from the 60's with little data to go on? Do I go straight to the poilice?

My mother says my paternal grandfather (deceased) always said that if he ever saw a black man (not his word) on his property he'd shoot him. The property is still in the family, it's a successful business in a raciallly tense part of the north.
One night at dinner in ( I think ) the 60's she brought up the black man's body that had been found on his property. Everyone at the table looked down and no one spoke. The subject was changed.
My father and his father both passed before I was born, I'm not close to my father's family, and my mother has a terrible memory.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm curious...if you don't go to the police, who would you go to?
posted by ian1977 at 11:36 AM on January 20, 2010

newspapers, town records, aunts and uncles...
posted by mr. remy at 11:39 AM on January 20, 2010

I'm confused. Was your grandfather's threat to shoot someone aimed at one person or all black people? Was the body identified or unknown? Who found the body on the property?

I don't think anyone is going to do anything about a half remembered conversation 50 years ago unless you have a eye witness or some remains to bring forward.
posted by wrnealis at 11:45 AM on January 20, 2010

You could ask Jerry Mitchell to take a look at it, or at least look into his investigative process for ideas
posted by Think_Long at 11:53 AM on January 20, 2010

If you found a willing police officer, they might look into unsolved missing person cases from that time period and locale. You don't have a body, an actual witness (your mother's testimony would only be hearsay even if she had a good memory and was willing to discuss with the police), nor a specific year. It sounds like this a few miles out of range of a long shot, but the police department that has jurisdiction in that area would be the primary contact. Ask to speak to a homicide detective about a non-urgent dated matter when you call.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:56 AM on January 20, 2010

Look at local newspapers from the time in question for discussion of an unsolved murder? Or ask the local police about unsolved murder cases?

Not sure if you're looking to report a crime or just find information about the possible event.
posted by jckll at 11:58 AM on January 20, 2010

Look at local newspapers from the time in question for discussion of an unsolved murder?

Something like that might be beyond futile. If you can even find archives they probably wouldn't be digitize so that would mean onths and months of physically scanning microfiche for perhaps one or two lines. The police would be the only worthwhile option unless you had some personal interest that you didn't want stepped on.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:01 PM on January 20, 2010

If, as you say was suggested at the dinner table, the body was "found", would an investigation not have taken place? Or are you suggesting that the body was "found" by family members and disposed of so as not to be "found" again? What's being asked here isn't entirely clear.

Of all the possible scenarios (and they are myriad), the most unlikely would seem to be that Grandpa shot someone, then casually retired to the house, leaving the victim to be "found" at random. If he was unstable enough to do that, perhaps his alleged racism was a symptom of more profound mental issues.
posted by dinger at 12:11 PM on January 20, 2010

You mentioned that other people at the table "looked down," and this implies that others knew something. I would suggest pursuing that implication if those individuals are still around, and seeing just what else is known or remembered about this issue.

As an aside, I found it amusing to see this question because I happen to be reading Lewis Shiner's Black and White, the plot of which centers on a quite similar familial dilemma.
posted by O Blitiri at 12:19 PM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's not clear from your question whether your mother knows any more than you just stated. In your telling, she was the one who brought up the subject at dinner in the 1960s. You say she has a terrible memory but can she remember anything else?
posted by chinston at 12:30 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

i often find stories like this contain a pearl of truth, but that's buried beneath a lack of specifics that point back to that pearl. a good researcher can often find the way to the 'pearl' through random luck, a methodical examination of known information and what can be gleaned from outside sources (as mentioned above "newspapers, town records..."). should you decide to research, you've got some interesting points in your favor (a "successful business" should surely have some notoriety to it, or a legendary status, especially if someone was killed there).

but before you even start any of this, what is your prime motivation here? are you seeking justice for the person who may have been murdered or are you just attempting to satisfy your own curiousity? the way you craft the tale as you know it would point to your grandfather having murdered someone and possibly never taking responsibility for that. will you be able to confront your own family about this and what will be the effects? and if he did kill someone, what about that victim and the victim's family? you may find yourself uncovering something painful to many people with no tangible way to resolve it other than perhaps clearing up lies and a cover-up from long ago.

should you decide to do this research, i wish you good luck, and ask that you keep these things and any other good advice here in mind as you move forward in an investigation. i would refrain from involving the police until you are absolutely certain their time and effort can help bring justice and a worthy resolution.
posted by kuppajava at 12:33 PM on January 20, 2010

I'd let it be. Since your grandfather has passed, there is no true justice to come of it, only hurt to your family.

I understand the desire to provide closure to your interest or the possible victim's family, but I find it hard to believe that you would find any truth from events from 50 years ago.
posted by gatsby died at 1:10 PM on January 20, 2010

Maybe this isn't an unsolved case...maybe its already solved but just a family secret.

What if...

Grandpa shot a black man that was on his property. He called the police, the police came and did their thing. It was determined (either justifiably or despicably) that it was self-defense hence no charges. Grandpa didn't want to freak out his kids, so to explain why the police were there and the body and all the chaos, he claimed to have 'found' a body. The lie was swallowed by the younger kids, and doubted by the older kids. The memory mutated and festered until years later, mentioning it at the dinner table causes suspicion, bad memories, shame, etc.
posted by ian1977 at 1:11 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

We had a similar family rumor, that my great-grandfather was a bank robber. (If you ask my uncle, he will tell you that the rumor is false; my great-grandfather was just the get-away driver. Ask my aunt and the whole story is false.)

After years of being frustrated with the stories, I started to do a little genealogical digging on the web. I used the info on (a) where my family was from, (b) when my great-grandfather lived, and (c) the fabled robbery to find obits and other family info (all online). I didn't even know the man's first name when I started looking. Eventually, after figuring out who was born when and exactly where, I was able to find an article with the name of the bank, my great-grandfather's name, the date of the robbery, and the names of his accomplices!

So yes, if your family members all seemed to know of the tale, there's a chance that some of the information is still around; even if your immediate family didn't record the information, someone else might have. It might have been in the newspapers, which means you'd be able to get your information at the library if you knew what to look for.

Figure out what you do know, what you could find out from your mother, and then see what you can find online or at the library before you ask the police department.
posted by brina at 1:32 PM on January 20, 2010

Are there any local history groups in the area who could help you with research? They may have access to databases, newspapers, stories, old-timers, etc. that everyday members of the public don't. (A lot do free lookups, too, or have message boards -- here in San Francisco, I use SFGenealogy a lot, for instance.)

I found information about a murder-suicide in my home in the 1970s by going through the local neighborhood newspaper archives at my library. That will give you a name, and then you can research dates, etc.
posted by vickyverky at 1:57 PM on January 20, 2010

If you have names (e.g. your grandfather's name and you believe his name would be in any relevant article, because it was on his property) the people on the forums might be able to help you. My mom's co-worker's daughter was murdered when I was a little girl, and years later someone on the forums was able to look through some online paid newspaper archive of some sort and tell me what cemetery she was buried in. This information was not on Google or any other search engine I tried. I would suggest you ask in the appropriate forum for the state the property is in (assuming you're in the US.)
posted by IndigoRain at 11:41 PM on January 20, 2010

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