One investigative tip can lead to another -- and another.
Linda Abrams, a genealogy gumshoe, went to Texas to match handwriting samples. She spent a couple weeks in Kentucky following a tip, only to find it was just hearsay. Over the years, Germany has beckoned, too.
Such are the destinations of the forensic genealogist who has used streetwise skills and her curiosity to dig a little deeper into the lives of the eight-man crew of the legendary H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to bring down an enemy ship.
The crew didn't live to tell the story. The Hunley went to its watery tomb within an hour of its triumph -- if not much sooner.
For Abrams, it's a world of win some, lose some and tangling with seeming dead ends.
"I don't think my part will ever be done. This was a tough case," says Abrams, who lives in western Massachusetts and has worked with the Hunley Project for more than a dozen years.
Just how tough? Consider this:
-- Only one crew member on the Confederate submarine was believed to have had children, and a descendant living in Georgia has little source material about him.
-- Four were European-born. (How researchers found that out is a fascinating tidbit).
-- Only one, Joseph Ridgaway, has been positively identified through DNA.
-- There are no known photos of any of the eight.
Abrams and other such researchers can't afford to be happy with what is "known" about an individual. In the Hunley's case, that was precious little when they began. The hunt is about following a trail, following another -- and not being afraid to venture into a rabbit hole.
The genealogist was to discuss her latest findings Saturday evening during a program at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, South Carolina. Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the Hunley's attack during the Civil War.
The lab houses the Hunley, which has been undergoing conservation treatment since it was raised a few miles off Charleston in 2000. It also has facial reconstructions of the crew and summaries of what is known about each.
Monday evening, a memorial service on the tip of Sullivan's Island will remember the 13 men who died that night: the eight on the Hunley and five on its prey, the USS Housatonic.
True romance, or just a fun legend?
Lt. George Dixon, captain of the Hunley, typifies ongoing challenges for scientists and historians.
A gold coin and a diamond ring and brooch were found with his remains.
"Dixon is still a mystery. Here is a guy making a mark for himself in the world, with some personal wealth," says Robert Neyland, head of underwater archeology for the Naval History and Heritage Command and former director of the Hunley Project. "Where he came from, and his family, is a bit of mystery."
Abrams says the lieutenant was a riverman possibly from Pennsylvania or Ohio.
She spent time doing research in Kentucky, but never was able to make a connection to a tip regarding Dixon. Today, he has no verified descendants.
What he does have is a story that has become a legend of sorts.
The gold coin he carried to his doom reportedly was given as a charm by his sweetheart, Queenie Bennett. The $20 piece deflected a Union bullet during the Battle of Shiloh and saved Dixon's life. He had the reverse side of the talisman engraved with the words, "My life Preserver."
The Bennett story has never been proven; a supposed photo of the blond, blue-eyed Dixon did not match his skull. And the photo, along with letters about the supposed relationship, have disappeared.
"Officially, I cannot prove or disprove" the romantic tale, says Kellen Correia, executive director of the Friends of the Hunley. "It makes for a really good story. The Hunley is one of those (in which) you cannot pin it down."