Friday, July 22, 2016

Second Cousins Are Magic (Ancestry repost)

Second Cousins Are Magic was originally written as a guest post for Ancestry Blog on July 22, 2016. I'm cross-posting it here in 2020 (back-dated to 2016) for completeness, updates, and follow-up. 

Siegmund Bodenheimer, 11 May 1913 Berlin
“How in the world did you find those great old photos?”

“I wish my family had photos like that.”

“I’m so jealous, all our family photos were lost in the flood.”

We all hear comments like this from time to time, and there really isn’t a good answer to them besides that well-practiced air of mystery we all try to perfect. Revealing the magic trick behind your finds just doesn’t do all the hard work justice. The response to seeing how the magic is done is usually underwhelming. You also could have just been plain old lucky and found your grandmother’s scrapbook – something we’ve all had to sheepishly confess to from time to time.

Your relatives really don’t want to know the techniques you use in your craft. Sadly, it generally bores them to tears. However they do love and appreciate those photos!

Well, to those of us who love genealogy, it is all about technique. I’ll now let you in on the very secret methods I personally employ in my genealogical detective casework to find photographic treasures. Are you ready for the big reveal?

I Talk to Second Cousins

Second cousins hold the magic.

Second cousins have all the best photos. All those great-grandparents who we thought never had their photos taken, the copies of photos that were destroyed in the fire, the photos we thought were left behind when the family left with only the clothing on their backs. Yes, those. For some families, those photos may really be lost, which is sad. But it’s possible that there are people out there who do have copies of photos you don’t know about, people who you never knew about – your second cousins, or better yet, your parent’s second cousins. They’re the ones who may have those precious photo albums.

My second great-grandfather, Benno, was camera shy. I really didn’t think a photo of him existed anywhere in the world. When I finally tracked down one of my father’s second cousins in Brazil, what did I find hanging in his front room? Not one, but two photos of Benno! Right there on the wall in plain sight. My newly-found cousin was astonished at my reaction, as my jaw literally hit the floor.

“Why wouldn’t I have a photo of my great grandfather?” he asked.

Benno Bodenheimer's family at his 70th birthday 21 Mar 1915
That’s the key. Second cousins share great-grandparents. And some of their photos might also have the entire family, which means one of your grandparents at an early age!

When I showed that photo to another second cousin, he said, “Oh, I have a photo that looks like that but I didn’t know who anyone was.” He then sent me a slightly beat-up photo taken on the same day: you can tell by the hats!

Benno Bodenheimer with children at his 70th birthday 21 Mar 1915

It turns out that the mysterious Benno was not at all camera shy. I now have at least seven photos of him.

A Piece of The Puzzle

Another of my father’s second cousins now lives in London. His mother ended up with all the family photos by way of South Africa. My father had never heard of him, yet there they were – photos of his great-grandparents, grandmother, her siblings, and even second great-grandparents. One of the most interesting discoveries was that up until then, I only had two photos of my second great-grandfather, Emanuel Wolff. This included one that just said, “Emanuel Wolff 1901” on the back. Well, since he died in 1901, I had made up a story in my head about this being the last photo taken of him.

Emanuel Wolff 1901
Wolff Family in Pegli, March 1901
In the collection was another photo that told a great deal more of the story. It was a group shot, and it turned out I literally only had a small piece of the big picture. The notes on the back helped the story take shape. The family was on vacation in the Italian Riviera resort of Pegli. It was winter in March 1901, and the family traveled about 1,200 km south by train from their Berlin home to get some much needed warmth and sun.   Emanuel died in December of 1901, some nine months later. So, it was not the last photo after all. It’s a completely different story, and one that I could not have heard without finding that magical second cousin.

Not to say that first cousins are a lost cause. They’re lovely people. You may have known them all your life. You probably know all their stories and photos already. If you don’t, well that’s really your first step: talk to your family. Actually, my motto is if all else fails, talk to your family, but you get the idea. This will also help you fill out the family tree so that you have a complete list of second cousins to trace.

It never fails that I finally track someone down, only to have my aunt tell me, “Of course I know Ronnie; we used to go to the movies together.” How does my family not understand that I am a genealogist?

Second cousins are really close relatives in a genealogical sense. They are the children of your parent’s first cousins. However, they often get lost in the shuffle, especially if you go up one generation and work on your parent’s second cousins. It is much easier to lose touch with your grandparent’s first cousins, whose children would be your parent’s second cousins. Don’t you dare refer to second cousins as distant cousins. Good grief, I have fourth cousins I still consider close.

How to approach your second cousins about photos:
  • Talk to your own family and get your tree filled out. Be sure to include all your parent’s second cousins by finding all your grandparent’s first cousins. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to look through everyone’s photo collections again.
  • Contact your long-lost cousins, and try not to sound like a crazy person. Establish your family credentials. Tell your story before asking any questions.
  • Tell them you are looking for photos. Many people are worried about your motivation. Their first instinct is that you want something from them: money. So ease their fears, and tell them right up front what you want from them: copies of photos.
  • Share the family tree with them, and share your photos with them. You’ll be amazed at how excited they are to see your boring old photos. Your photos are the ones that they haven’t seen, just as theirs are so special to you. It works both ways. Each person has a small piece of the puzzle, and they discount the pieces they have, simply because they have them.
  • The internet makes sharing digital photos across the world so easy. It’s truly an amazing time to live. If you don’t have a scanner, use something like Shoebox from Ancestry to turn your phone into a scanner.
  • Don’t get offended if they refer to you as a distant cousin. Try to repeat long-lost cousin as often as possible.
Second cousins may have more than photos. They could have juicy stories, scrapbooks, paperwork, letters, family lore, and much more. You’ll be surprised at how much you have in common with them. They are indeed family after all. Who would have guessed you’d have so much to talk about.

At the end of the day, my truthful answer to “How did you find those photos?” is a tired smile, and, “Legwork, lots of legwork.”


  1. Michael Hurdle
    July 22, 2016 at 2:02 pm
    I find that tracking down the descendants of the last child with whom my ancestors lived is usually the key (by use of census records)- and for some reason, the female lines (although not always the easiest to trace down to) are the most likely to have the old photos, Bibles, etc.

    July 22, 2016 at 2:09 pm
    LOVE this! I have been lucky to have at least 6 cousins of varying relationships share photos with me (and I have with others too). But you are correct about 2nd cousins, for sure! How else would I have a picture of a 2nd great-grandmother … and a 3rd? Or a picture of cousins and a great-grand aunt in Australia? Or pictures of my grandmother’s siblings? Maybe I should look for more ;-)!

    Michael Riggs
    July 22, 2016 at 2:36 pm
    Really well-done article, Dan. The first assumption we should make is that ancestors living in the early 20th century (or even late 19th) did indeed get their portraits taken, or family groups photographed. And the odds are high that those photos were passed down at least one of the many branches of those people. So the entire challenge is finding which branch– and that means “which 2nd cousin?” Happy searching.

    July 22, 2016 at 3:00 pm
    I’m lucky enough to have lots of old photos and have set up a cousins page on Facebook to share. A first cousin is coming to visit next week to share family photos her mom saved from our grandparents. Who knows? New gems? I can only hope!!

    Richard M. Cohen
    July 22, 2016 at 3:06 pm
    Love these posts. They speak ‘my’ language! They share my thoughts, my joys and my frustrations! We are family!

    July 22, 2016 at 4:54 pm
    This is so true! It wasn’t until I saw a photo on that I learned who my great grandpa was. A second cousin of mine that I never heard of, posted a photo that happened to match a photo that was left to me after my mother passed away. There was no name on the back of my mother’s picture, but it was identical to the named photo in my cousin’s family tree. Because of her I had a picture & a name to go with it. I found my great grandpa & a whole lot of first cousins once removed & second cousins only one state away. We’re planning to meet for the first time at my great grandpa’s homestead in the fall. This was a great post!

    Eileen Stonely Phelps
    July 22, 2016 at 5:04 pm
    I found my great-grandmother’s lips from a second cousin! I have a pair of opalotypes my grandmother had of her parents, probably brought with her when she and her husband came from England to the U.S. in 1910. Part of the mouth of her mother’s picture was missing when the emulsion flaked off the opalescent glass backing. My English second cousin sent me a CD with family pictures and there was a cabinet photo included of the same image with the lips intact. Now I can touch up the digital image with a mouth that’s real, not guesswork. I’d love to find an expert restorer who could fix the original opalotype.

    Diane Gould Hall
    July 22, 2016 at 10:04 pm
    I completely agree. My cousins, both 2nd and 3rd had some great photos to share with me. And, yes, they did contain my grandparents when they were younger. They didn’t know who everyone was in the photos, I filled in the blanks for them. Another cousin had portraits of my 2nd great grandparents hanging in their den. Oh my! Finding those photos is like Christmas and other holidays rolled into one. Great post. Your blog is new to me and I will add it to my reading list. I hope you will take a minute to visit my blog Welcome to the San Diego Genealogical Society.

  2. Dan Bodenheimer
    July 22, 2016 at 11:20 pm
    Thank you for all the great comments. I’ve had a few 3rd and 4th cousins remind me that they’re good too! �� With AncestryDNA, second and third cousins are even more important in helping to pinpoint the common ancestors! Please also follow me on Twitter at Thanks again, -Dan

    Mary Kircher Roddy
    July 23, 2016 at 2:16 am
    Thanks for the post. This was just the kick in the butt I needed to make me contact a second cousin about a specific picture. I heard from another second cousin that once he saw at my great aunt’s house a picture of my great great grandparents by the wagon they used to cross the country. So now I’ve contacted my great aunt’s grandchildren to see if they’ve got any recollection of such a picture. Fingers crossed! Keep up the good work.

    July 23, 2016 at 8:41 pm
    This is so interesting an awesome!

    Nancy Christensen
    July 23, 2016 at 8:55 pm
    I found a third cousin through Find a Grave, and what a treasure trove he had! He also introduced me to two other third cousins who knew still more.

    Michael Dyer
    July 24, 2016 at 8:05 am
    Great post. It’s an excellent reminder that cousins (no matter the degree removed) can be as valuable as any vital record. Between expansive social media and the millions who’ve tested DNA, everyone should be hunting their cousins and prodding to see what new-to-you stories, photos or heirlooms they inherited.

    Glenda Lentz
    July 24, 2016 at 9:17 pm
    Being a bastard child I am finding that no one really wants to say to much. I hate that but I was hoping that I could connect to someone. The DNA gave me the family but that is all. I love Ancestry though and continue to research known family.

    Kris VanNest
    July 29, 2016 at 12:29 pm
    great article! it inspired me to ask my older cousin for info about more family members

    July 30, 2016 at 12:20 pm
    This is an awesome article, I’m an adoptee who did not meet my parents until I turn 26 years old and I made so many wonderful discoveries just in the last week when I get paid I’m going to do the DNA test