Margarine Moonshiner Alert!

When once the scales of justice were tilted heavily in favor of the dairy lobby.

In February of this year I spoke publicly for the first time about my ancestors who were convicted in 1909 for selling margarine as butter and sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.  (If you didn’t catch my talk, start at 45:18 of this video to watch just the last 10 minutes.)  Though I gave only the highlights of their crazy story, the reaction I got was overwhelmingly positive.

I’m excited to share that next week I will be giving my first hour-long presentation on this branch of my family, “The Margarine Moonshiners from Minsk:  Conducting Story-Driven Research,” at the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Salt Lake City.

In spring 2011 a routine search on my great-grandfather revealed the shocking surprise that he had been incarcerated in Leavenworth. What followed was a rollicking genealogical journey tracing a group of brothers and brothers-in-law recently immigrated from Minsk, who set out to sell margarine as butter in defiance of one the stranger pieces of legislation ever passed.

Learn how my desire to tell this story in its entirety led to uncovering the hijinks of my great-grandfather, who fled with his family repeatedly before the feds finally nabbed him, my great-grandmother, whose pleas to the warden still survive, the brother-in-law he fingered who was excommunicated for selling lard as butter, another brother-in-law who was arrested for threatening to kill a witness, the soon-to-be-famous inspector who was hot on their tail the entire time, and more.

Numerous historical and genealogical repositories will be discussed as I retrace my multi-year journey to get to the bottom of this long-concealed chapter in my family history and offer advice for how you can better pursue the fascinating leads in your own tree when you think like a storyteller.

And, of course, I’ll discuss in great detail why the heck margarine was legislated against in the first place.

If you don’t plan to attend the conference, one possibility is to watch the live-streamed talk on Tuesday at 5:15 PM eastern time.    Details for purchasing access are here.  If paying isn’t what you had in mind, don’t worry, this won’t be the last time I speak publicly about this branch of my family!  But for those of you who do hear the talk, whether in person or online, afterwards you’ll all agree:

I Can't Believe It's Not Fiction


My Hunch about that Third Tombstone

I’ve been enjoying genealogy expert Elizabeth Shown Mills‘ series in the The New York Times answering research questions and providing advice.  Her second column got me thinking about what it takes to become an experienced researcher.  In response to a reader asking about becoming a professional genealogist, she wrote, in part:

As genealogical professionals, we are expected to know all the records that exist for the time, place and social group in which we work. We are expected to know the laws and the legal language. We need to understand the society and the ways in which cultural heritage may have prompted forebears to ignore the civil laws.

Her words reminded me of one of my bigger genealogical successes in the past year:  A friend showed me a tombstone he found in a Jewish cemetery in Mississippi which indicated the deceased had been born in 1808 in Philadelphia, and I had a hunch about what that meant.  A big hunch.  A crazy hunch.

It was a hunch I could only have made after having spent as many years doing Jewish genealogy as I have, and proving the hunch required marshaling all of my years of Internet research experience.  Neither makes me anywhere near the level required of a professional.  But for me it was a proud indicator of how far I’ve come!

Read the story below to hear how I blew my friend’s mind with my enormous discovery about his ancestry.