How I Uncovered the Complex Tale of the Killing of Quaker John Sharpless (and Why You Should Use These Techniques in Your Family History Research)

May 01, 2013

By guest blogger, author and Pennsylvania researcher, Stephanie Hoover





One of my fondest memories of elementary school is the "audio visual cart." Basically a metal shelving unit on wheels, it typically held a record player on the bottom, a slide carousel in the middle, and on the top shelf - that most wonderful of pre-HD inventions - the overhead projector. When the teacher wheeled the A/V cart into the classroom you knew your day was going to be different, a little special. And no one made better use of the A/V cart than the art teacher.


I still recall the day our third grade art instructor placed a transparency containing a large yellow circle on the glass face of the overhead projector. It looked like a giant sun on that white, pull-down screen affixed atop the blackboard. Over this she laid a transparency containing another circle - this one red. The resulting amalgam was a vibrant orange sphere. This, of course, was meant to demonstrate how combining colors created different hues. But it also taught us that we could make new discoveries simply by layering and overlapping familiar things. It is a lesson that extends well beyond art and is one every family historian will do well to remember.


As a professional writer and researcher, I have often unearthed hidden genealogical detail by methodically layering and expanding my investigations. Let's say, for example, that I don't know where in Pennsylvania my subject lived but I know he was a ferry operator. What were the major ferry lines crossing the Susquehanna River in the 1880s...? What census and tax records exist for these towns...? How many conceivable mis-spellings could there be for the surname in question? Little by little, one search is augmented by another and eventually I find my mystery man living in Rockville, Dauphin County.



(The Killing of John Sharpless: The Pursuit of Justice in Delaware County.

Published by The History Press, April 2013. Available through Stephanie Hoover's website and on



My recently released book, The Killing of John Sharpless: The Pursuit of Justice in Delaware County [The History Press, 2013], required six months of full-time research – much of which involved these same layering techniques. To learn about the victim, John Sharpless, and his widow Susan - both Quakers - the hundreds of resources I consulted included church and civil records as well as every county and family history I could get my hands on. In addition, however, I drove to the family's original homestead, visited the meetinghouse they attended, stood over their graves, uncovered their school curriculums to learn what they were taught as children, and immersed myself in Friends' publications to get a clearer understanding of the faith of their adulthood. To crawl inside the skin and mind of the accused murderer I reviewed trial transcripts, prison records, and newspaper accounts of the crime and subsequent investigation. But I also studied the general history of the poor house system in the state of Delaware since this is where accused killer Samuel Johnson was born. His harsh beginnings were the first layer of his life and greatly influenced everything that came after. I repeated this laborious process for other major figures in the book including the judge who heard the case and a close Sharpless friend whose opinion of the death penalty impacted the very story itself. These expansive research efforts allowed me to paint detailed character studies of my subjects – studies I could not have cultivated from a more shallow inquiry.


While many family history researchers focus, with laser-like concentration, on details significant only to the birth, marriage and death of their ancestors, I suggest traveling farther afield. What is the value in knowing your great-great-grandfather's date of death without discovering that, while a ferry operator, he suffered frostbite while scraping the decks after a surprise spring ice storm, or that his boat once caught fire mid-river? You won't find these stories in the easily accessed baptismal records, deeds or estate papers - but you will find them in the unmicrofilmed, archived journals of the men and women (not related to you) who settled near the ferry landing. And you'll only ferret out these surprises by experimenting with new colors - by adding new layers to your research and allowing yourself to discover new things.