ID sought of little girl left in North Carolina grave 85 years ago

Published: Monday, May 31 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Duane Maples peered out his window during a recent phone interview. He looked out over the neighboring cemetery, over his "quiet neighbors." He glanced at the towering cedar tree. "There it is," he said. "Miracles happen, I guess. It's always possible someone reads the story and comes forward. But I just don't know. ... It's a long shot."

But it's exactly the kind of long-shot miracle Barnhill still wishes for, even expects from the help of other church members inspired by the promised help of the biblical spirit of Elijah.

"Someone out there knows," Barnhill said. He started to cry. Then, with a kind of emotional, high-pitched tone that often accompanies tears, he asked to be excused. "I'm sorry. Please understand. This is close to my heart."

What we did:

We started by assuming possible scenarios: If the girl's parents reported her death in the area, perhaps when they bought her casket, it would appear on a death certificate in the county in which she reportedly died, not necessarily where she was buried.

But we discovered each county's public online database required the one thing we didn't have, a name; databases couldn't be searched by other defining criteria like birth place, ethnicity, age or even a death date — all information traditionally included on death certificates at the time.

We contacted several register-of-deed officials in those counties. They had a few more search tools in their belt and graciously obliged our request to search the total deaths in a four-to-six-month spring period in 1925. Each county returned a list of about 100 to 200 names for that time. But that's largely — and understandably — where their generosity ended. None, except kindhearted Brunswick County, took the hour or two to personally click open each name on the list to see if scanned-in information on death certificates matched with the girl's identifying criteria.

Therefore, further research naturally falls to interested local members in surrounding counties in North and South Carolina already positioned to physically visit such offices where they have access to more robust search capabilities.

Of course, there are two more obvious scenarios: First, they may not have officially reported her death at all; or, second, they had it recorded in their home county, a common occurrence in those days, according to David Rencher, chief genealogical officer of FamilySearch. And just like the state-run databases, FamilySearch, too, requires a name.

After meeting with Rencher, we spent time with several genealogy experts at the church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City. We seemingly exhausted possibilities. After finding an accurate list of funeral homes existing in the Wilmington area in 1925, we discovered since none of them appear to exist today, there's no chance of finding a record of the identity of people who purchased a child's casket during that time period.

What you can do:

1. Do you remember this story, or a close version of it, in your recent family history? If so, contact Laura McLeod at 910-620-1399.

2. Use these clues to search:

A white girl

Likely born in Utah, or at least in the West

Age 3, but possibly 2 or 4

Died sometime in the spring but possibly in the summer

Died in 1925 but possibly in 1924 or 1926

Died in a county at least somewhat near Wilmington, N.C., where the parents purchased her casket

e-mail: jhancock@desnews.com

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