Photo Mysteries

You may have photographs that  contain the faces of people you know are your ancestors, but have no clue who they are. It's not typical for an old photograph to be labeled and even then there may only be a first name or minimal information.

A few weeks ago, I talked about finding secret treasure in your attics (or basement, or grandma's house!). There were hundreds of different family artifacts contained within the box I found including photographs, post cards, greeting cards and letters. I couldn’t wait to figure out who everyone was!

In my personal genealogy, the Ferguson family has been a consistent brick wall for me the past 10 years.  A distant cousin has also been working on the origins of the family in Scotland with no luck for close to 30 years. The patriarch, William Ferguson who was born in Scotland, married his wife Mary Steele in Illinois in 1857.  The family had 7 children including my great grand father (the baby) Thomas Ferguson. Unfortunately, we have no idea where William came from in Scotland, his parents names or any details about him at all prior to his marriage in 1857.

One of the children of William Ferguson and Mary Steel was Mary Jane Ferguson Espley. We don't know too much about her except that she was born in 1868, the fifth child of William and Mary.

William Ferguson and family.  Mary Jane is the youngest in her mother's lap.

William Ferguson and family.  Mary Jane is the youngest in her mother's lap.


She later married Thomas Espley in 1891. They had one child Mary Ellen Espley born in 1894. Sadly, shortly after this Mary Jane died of measles. Sometime later, Thomas and his daughter Mary Ellen went to England to visit his parents. Tragically while visiting, Mary Ellen died in England at her grandmother's home in Salford, Lanchashire at the age of 3.

One of the photos in the hundreds of unidentified photos I have has always stuck out to me. Its not typical to see an old photo of a man and a young chid. It seemed possible that the picture could be Thomas Espley and his daughter Mary Ellen, but there were hundreds of photos in the box that covered at least 8 or 9 different families, plus photos of friends and neighbors. Over the past few months, my mind kept drifting back to the picture with the overwhelming feeling that this had to be Thomas and Mary Ellen. I have never seen a picture of either of them before and I hadn't done any research into when the photo was possibly taken based on the clothing or hairstyles, but something still nagged at me about that photo. I reminded myself to check my books for the style of clothing to give me a clue as to when this picture could have been taken.


The next day, I went to the Grundy County Historical Museum. If you haven’t visited the Museum and have ties to the area, it is a great way to connect with Grundy County history. The museum has a number of old albums dating all the way back to the 1850's through recent times. I decided to begin searching through them to work on a project of  indexing all the photographers in Morris and when they were in operation to help others figure out how to date and identify their photographs. I came to one book of the Grand Lodge of Illinois (Masons) book that held photos of its members from the 1800's and early 1900's. As I looked through I noticed someone familiar on the second page.


I quickly turned over the back of the photo.


"T.J. Espley". I pulled up the scan of my photo and they were nearly identical! It was obvious that the previous photo was Thomas J. Espley and his young daughter during the short time after his wife Mary died and she was still alive. With this information I was able to date this photograph to either 1895 or 1896.

Thomas, Mary Jane and Mary Ellen's story seems to have been revealed in such remarkable ways that I can't help but feel like their story was reaching out to be told. Mary Jane's grave in Evergreen cemetery simply says Mary Jane daughter of William and Mary Ferguson. I never knew she was married until I started looking into the marriage index. From there I discovered that she was married to Thomas Espley and for several years that was the extent of what I knew about her life. Later, while looking for probate information for her father William Ferguson, I stumbled upon the probate file of Mary Steel Ferguson. William had failed to properly disperse his wife's assets to the children and a court date was set to determine who were the rightful descendants. In the probate file, the original copy of Mary Ellen Espley's death certificate in England was found. The court record explained that Mary Jane had died shortly after her mother's death and her daughter a few years after that and therefore were no descendants down that line to distribute money to.

It was a long road to finding the identity to that picture, but the journey was well worth it! Send us a message here if you need help identifying your mystery photographs  There are dozens of clues we can utilize to tell a story from the picture alone.