Thursday, July 13, 2017

Meet our 2017 Sponsor: The Skeleton Whisperer

“The Egyptians believed that as long as you were remembered, you were immortal. By seeking out our ancestors, we give them immortality. Someday, perhaps, someone will make us immortal.”

(from the Skeleton Whisperer website)

This month I have had the pleasure of interacting with Sara Cochran of the Skeleton Whisperer. To see her website, click her logo to the right or just click her logo here:

Sara on getting the family involved

JEAN: Sara, we’ve known each other a few years now and I am watching you as genealogy slowly takes over your life. That’s a cool thing to me, but how is Terry, your husband, handling it? Is he helpful and supportive or does he roll his eyes? Or both?

SARA: Ha! It’s definitely a little bit of both. My love of family history began long before we met, so it’s always been something Terry has been used to, but if I go on too long his eyes do start to glaze over.  Not long after he proposed, I started researching his family tree, and after joking around that I was clearly trying to find a way to wiggle out of the wedding, he enjoyed learning what I found about his ancestors. In the last few years, genealogy has shifted from being a hobby to being a vocation and a focal point of my life. Terry has been hugely supportive of my decision to start a genealogy business. And he’s gotten a lot better about hiding the glazed look!

JEAN: I can relate! What got you started in doing genealogy and how long have you been researching your family?

SARA: Like many genealogists, I have my Grandmother to thank for getting me into genealogy. Way back in 1994, my mom, sister, and I attended a family reunion, and while we were there, my Grandma showed me the photo albums she had put together. I was really amazed at the fact the pictures even existed –some were already over 100 years old- and on top of that she knew all their names and how they were related to me, and even had stories to tell me about a few of them.  I immediately wanted to know more about all of them and she very generously sent me home with copies of her family group sheets, compiled from her research and inherited family information. Since then, a lot of information has come online and now I send her records about her family!

JEAN: That’s funny. I’ll bet that excites her that you are carrying on the legacy. SO, are you a California native? If not, from whence do you hail?

SARA: I’m not a California native, in fact, I don’t really think of myself as hailing from anywhere in particular. I grew up in the Air Force, you see, and we moved around a lot.  I’ve lived in Nevada, Washington, the Netherlands, as well as California; in some cases, multiple homes and school districts in those places.  All of this was long before social media existed, so every move meant losing all my friends as well as all feeling of community and belonging.  I think my lack of physical and community roots as a child is part of the reason I love genealogy so much. The more I learn about the stories of my ancestors, the more I realized that I do have a place to belong, a community that I will always be a part of no matter where I am.  Plus, it turns out that my ancestors moved around a lot too!

Sara on the black sheep

JEAN: Ah, it’s in the genes! I am most intrigued by one of your “other” related interests . . . you host a Facebook group called “Killer Kin.” Along with your business name – The Skeleton Whisperer – this is very macabre. Will you tell us something about that group and your reasons for starting it?

SARA: I can’t take sole credit for Killer Kin! Our fearless leader is Erin Taylor, whose 10th Great-Grandmother is Alice Martin Bishop who was hanged in 1648 for murdering her daughter. Erin wanted to form a community of genealogists who are researching those less-savory members of the family tree, but since the details of these crimes can get a bit gruesome, the admin team decided to make it a closed group. Our criteria for joining is that you are researching a criminal as part of your genealogy – either the perpetrators themselves or any of their victims, or are willing to help someone else research those topics. My Grandmother’s Uncle was murdered in 1909, so that’s my “Killer Kin” eligible person.

As far as the Skeleton Whisperer goes, it’s a little bit of a riff off of the George Bernard Shaw quote, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” It’s also a little bit of a tribute to one my Great-Grandfathers who, along with some other legal shenanigans, got into trouble when his whiskey still was discovered during prohibition.  I think it’s important that we recognize our black sheep ancestors and try to understand why they made the choices they did, rather than pretend they didn’t exist or white-wash them. My great-grandmother ended up making some hard choices because of her husband’s actions – we cannot hope to understand her decisions if we pretend that her husband was a fine upstanding citizen and perfect husband and father.

Sara on photo organization

JEAN: Good insight. You have some areas of expertise that I think are worth mentioning to our readers . . . one deals with organization of photos. I have seen you do a webinar on this and how you suggest people start. What are some of the things that KEEP people from getting their photos and related files organized?

SARA: In a word? Overwhelm.  So many of us have thousands upon thousands of photos in our personal collections, and now we’re starting to inherit the thousands of photos our parents and grandparents –sometimes great-grandparents- took as well.  We tend to tell ourselves it’s practically hopeless to get everything identified and labeled and organized, which adds to the overwhelm and makes us put it off.  I teach a different approach. First, we gather everything up into one place, which is counter-intuitive because then it looks even more overwhelming, but then we break it down into smaller and smaller pieces.  These smaller pieces are worked on one at a time until it’s all done.  I find that it’s far less stressful and faster to start with a huge pile of photographs and get everything sorted one time than starting with a smaller pile which you constantly have to shuffle around as new pictures are located.  
I think there’s also a certain amount of hesitation to start organizing photos because there’s such an emphasis on digitizing everything and a person who isn’t really comfortable with computers might avoid the photos because they don’t know how to digitize them. My advice is not to worry about it right now.  Focus on organizing the physical pictures, and when you’re done, consider hiring one of your younger family members, or even a photo scanning service, to take care of that part.  You might even infect one of those young cousins or grandchildren with the genealogy bug as they scan the pictures!

Sara on newspaper finds

JEAN: Ah, keep addicting the next generation! You also are enamored with newspapers and all the things you can find in them (like Killer Kin, I guess). What is the most unusual story or item you have found in your newspaper research?

SARA: This is a tough one because I love newspapers and I’ve found many unexpected stories in them.  My favorite, I think, was a short item in the society column of a New Jersey newspaper. I was actually looking for an obituary for a client at the time but this caught my eye. It took place back in the 1940s, and this young woman was at a funeral.  While she was paying her respects to the deceased, she knocked a candle over by accident.  Normally this is just an embarrassment and not newsworthy, but on this day, the candle fell into the open casket and caught fire!   

I also found an ad in the classified section once, placed by a farmer who was moving away, that everything on the property was for sale, except his wife!

Sara on Southern California research

JEAN: That candle in the casket is something to imagine! You know, we have readers from all over the world, but there are some who have California roots, even though they may live elsewhere. Your services of researching in the Inland Empire (what we call this area of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties that includes metropolitan, desert, and mountain regions) is extensive. I know it’s on your website and that you mention it will be a constantly changing page, but can you tell people about the repositories you offer to search for clients and a few of the unexpected finds at some of these?

SARA: Northern California might have the gold, but Southern California is rich with history and resources for genealogists. Every main branch public library I’ve visited in the Inland Empire has a selection of yearbooks, usually the local high schools, but occasionally colleges or grade schools. The Hemet Public Library has yearbooks from all over the United States, as well as local schools.  I was quite surprised to find that Hemet has court record books as well as a large collection of scrapbooks. The Riverside Public Library has over two dozen newspapers on microfilm, as well as a large collection of yearbooks, some maps, and photographs of historic people and homes.

I also research at the University of California Riverside Tomás Rivera Library, which has a vast special collection containing documents from all over the world. I had the honor of reading a series of letters written from one sweetheart to another back in the England around 1805. I have no idea how those letters ended up in Riverside, California, but it sure highlights the importance of not assuming your ancestors’ documents still live where the person used to live!

In general, I will research in repositories within 35 miles of March Air Reserve Base, and that’s included in my standard fees. I will research at locations further away when my clients need me to, but mileage does start to apply!

Sara on genealogy societies

JEAN: Quite understandable. Something else I saw on your website, that I think is a valuable aspect of genealogical research: your promotion of genealogical societies. A lot of people are backing off joining or attending them because they think they can get all they need from the Internet (I know you have heard that before). Even though you have it on your website, will you tell the readers WHY joining such a society is helpful in the world of genealogy?

SARA: I am a big advocate of joining – and participating in – your local genealogical society.  I have made some wonderful new friends at mine, and to me, there’s little better than sitting down with like-minded folks and collaborating over a problem or sharing a success.  Terry’s gotten a lot better about not letting his eyes glaze over when I tell him about a new find, but he still does it sometimes.  I can talk the ears off my fellow genealogical society members and they are excited about my success. They talk my ears off about their finds, too!  Many of the people who are in my genealogical society have been researching for far longer than I have – some of them over fifty years. These members have done their research in libraries and archives and by writing letters asking for help from local city clerks, and they can give me ideas on places to look for records that aren’t on my radar.  It’s an incredibly rich pool of knowledge, but many of these older members don’t use social media. The exchange of experience works both ways because I’m able to advise and assist the members of my society who aren’t as familiar with online resources and technology.  Once, I taught a member how to use her new scanner so she could work on her photo project. 

Sara on Sara

JEAN:  Those are great points, and having the reciprocity with knowledge and skills is a fabulous idea. Is there anything else you would like to add?

SARA: Although I live in Southern California and have access to fantastic record collections here, I’m also quite familiar with research throughout the United States as well as Ireland. For more information as well as news, I can be followed on Facebook, For more details about the services I offer, as well as to find out when and where I’ll be speaking, please visit my website, Finally, if anyone has questions or would like to talk about their project, I can be reached at

Sara will be one of the presenters at the Corona Family History Seminar on Saturday, August 5, 2017, 8:30am-12:30pm. To hear her and the other great speakers, come to this free event as 1123 S. Lincoln in Corona, California at the LDS church across from Corona High School.

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