Another brick in the wall

J Frank Bell
J. Frank Bell (1878-1944), Justice of the Peace and son of John Francis Bell (1839-1905).

As I’ve mentioned before, genealogical research favors the resourceful — and the patient. One of my outstanding brick walls, a man who has defeated generations of researchers in my mother’s family, is my great-great-grandfather John Francis Bell (1839–1905). Now, while nothing I’m going to say here will provide anything so pleasing as a breakthrough on this mysterious fellow, I think (and hope) there will be value in the journey, in advance of reaching some sort of destination.

I have written elsewhere about strategies for Google searches and the uses of periodic name searches (under every conceivable name variant) when dealing with recalcitrant relatives. John Francis/John F./J. F. Bell is, as I say, high on my list, as is my great-great-great-great-grandfather Dr. John Campbell White (1757–1847), of whom perhaps more later. And so, last week, I did a routine set of searches for Mr. Bell which, of course, turned up some intriguing biographical notes.

The earliest confirmed something I already knew. The John F. Bell family can be found in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1880 Federal Census, and he is listed (in partnership with Thomas J. Bowles) as Bell & Bowles, carpenters, 504 West Main Street, in Chataigne’s Richmond city directory for 1883–84. (Bell’s home address was 1007 West Main, as in the 1880 Census.)

The Engineering Record, Building Record, and Sanitary Engineer for 9 June 1888 lists John Francis Bell as (presumably) an unsuccessful bidder for a contract to enlarge the Richmond Court House: his estimates are by far the highest of the four, perhaps reflecting the small scale of his operations.

The Southeastern Reporter, Volume 20, reports a judgment of 31 January 1895 in the case of Taylor et al. vs. Netherwood, a case involving “the validity of the lien of a subcontractor filed under the mechanic’s lien law.

“In the month of April, 1890, John F. Bell entered into a contract with Wirt E. Taylor to build for the latter a dwelling house of stone and brick in the city of Richmond. Bell, who was a carpenter, employed James Netherwood to do the stonework and furnish the necessary materials for the fixed sum of $2,350. Netherwood furnished the materials, and executed the work as required by the plans and the specifications, and to the satisfaction of the architect, the general contractor, and the owner. There was no complaint of the manner of its execution. It was only of the delay in doing the work.”

An exhaustive account of the case follows, but the summary is all we need: “[The] court ascertained that Bell, the general contractor, owed James Netherwood the amount claimed under the lien, and that Taylor owed Bell more than enough to satisfy the lien, [so] neither of them is injured by the form of the decree, nor has any good cause for complaint. Taylor, in his answer, admits that he holds the amount money claimed in his hand to be paid to Bell or otherwise, as the court may direct. It would be a vain and useless act to subject the property to the payment of the lien when the owner already had the money in hand to pay it, and only waited for the court to decide to whom he should pay it. There was no occasion, therefore, for the court to direct that Taylor’s property on which the lien was perfected should be rented or sold, but only to decree to whom it should be paid.”

I think we catch another glimpse of John F. Bell in the Engineering News Record supplement of 27 June 1901: “The lowest bid received on June 1 for the stable at the Norfolk Navy Yard was that of John F. Bell, Norfolk, Va. at $6,091. The bid was accepted.”[1]

John Francis Bell is buried with his wife Isabella (Phillips) Bell at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, which can be seen at Findagrave. A bonus in my search is this reference to my great-grandfather, J. F. Bell, who appears in 1922 as a Justice of the Peace for Norfolk in the Kempville Magisterial District.



[1] It could also be my great-grandfather, the younger John Francis Bell (1878–1944), who would marry Minnie Estelle Jackson of Norfolk in 1902.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

8 thoughts on “Another brick in the wall

  1. Scott, reading your article was very helpful for me as a beginning genealogist who has not learned yet all the tricks of the trade of searching public records that may be in, for instance, Google. I just re-read your 2014 article about having to use your own “telescope” to search the “universe” that google will offer. Great analogy! But on a more basic level, where would I learn how to do all the various search forms that one inserts such as parenthesis, plus marks, quotation marks etc to help define a given search? Thank you.

    1. Judy, my method is really about the words/names involved, although I admire people who are good at limiting searches — actually, though, that might work best when looking at a library catalog. With regard to Google searches, I think there is a value in turning up what there is to turn up: for example, I had no idea that John Francis Bell was a prominent enough carpenter/contractor to bid on a big job like the Richmond Court House. So that was a surprise!

      1. Just to reinforce Scott’s conceptual approach: more & more printed stuff is becoming searchable through Google on a WEEKLY basis so you need to recast your previous searches on occasion. Scott may find more info as more of that engineering publication and more of those various regional legal report publications come on line. Probably 99.6 percent of what could be up is NOT up yet.

        This is especially important in probate matters that may turn up in tort cases (the stuff that gets into those legal reporters), information which straightens out unclear relationships. As the Mass Supreme Judicial Court wrote in a decision in about 1896 involving a cousin of Agatha Christie, “she may not have fully known our legal standards, but she knew who her kin were.” And she spelled it out in her will, which can be found at Family Search but is not to be found as a will via Google.

        However, the law suit involving Nathaniel Miller made a whole bunch of those reporters as a guiding decision across state lines, and those, as public documents, are now searchable on line.

        When I stumbled on to it using a “Scott Search”, all I could say was WOW! So, run those names again!

          1. To Jan and Jinny, also:

            Well, if you wait about 2 more weeks for the Google bots to scour the internet to cache updates, then type in: “Vita Brevis”, Scott Search

            you may indeed be “found.” NOTE–> for this to work best, the comma must be OUTSIDE the quotation mark as the QM represents the end of the symbol string. On eBay, it tries to default to no QMs at all, but it still works best even there for narrowing searches.

            Next up, attaching it to follow-ups, such as:
            “Scott Search,” engineering or architects or parentheses. Extend the concept by adding specific functions, kind of like the tags that appear at the end of a post. Increased use of the words as a specific phrase, “Scott Search”, will increase its findability.

            At that point, you ought to copyright it. (The Globe journalist who coined “Red Sox Nation” says he doesn’t regret not copyrighting it, but still ….)

            As an example, re Jinny’s query below and your reply, using: “Vita Brevis”, year change
            I got the Zach post on double-dating as the 2nd hit, and then the 12/29/15 post on “Chaos in the streets” as the 3rd hit.

            A test run of “Vita Brevis”, Scott Search brings up a few interesting selections but not all of your postings, so, yes, wait a few more weeks.

            When I helped a former DAR officer finally find her missing family in the 1850 census via Ancestry, I told at her first, with a smile, “Oh, that was a Bob Search.” Or, How To Out-Think The Enumerators. (I used the distinctive first name of one of the daughters and her age and of course location–and there they were. The enumerator had carried the given name of the family above down to this family.)

  2. I have had many brick walls in doing family research for my own family and my husbands. I still have one brick wall left that I would like to find. One of my brick walls was my great great grandfather Thomas Clark the last information we knew for a long time that he was born in New York State in 1793 and was in the Malahide Ontario Census for 1861. After that we lost track of him. We figured he had died somewhere after 1861. Well, my sister, found pension records for Thomas Clark and how his widow tried to get a pension as he had served in the war of 1812. This was an awesome find. It seems that Sarah had to go through a long tedious process and eventually was granted land and some money from my great great grandfather’s service.
    One never knows where you might find information. We Now have the date of Thomas Clark’s death and where he died..
    Never give up.

  3. Some brick walls seem to be made of solid concrete. My ancestor, James Prichard, is buried in Poughkeepsie, New York. His headstone lists his death date as 23 May 1813 with his age listed as 63 years 3 months. A church register from Poughkeepsie lists his birthdate as 09 November 1748. Obviously, these dates don’t compute. Supposedly James Prichard was born in London, England. It is my understanding that in 1752 England and its colonies changed their calendar/dating system. For example: George Washington was born 11 February 1731 in Virginia; however, his birthdate was recalculated and is now listed as 22 February 1732. I would like to see a discussion regarding this problem with a calendar system change.

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