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The first in her field

Most genealogists stumble on to criminals. Gwen Kubberness looks for them.

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Most genealogists stumble on to criminals. Gwen Kubberness looks for them.

G

wen Kubberness couldn’t take her eyes off the antique photo. It was from the 1920s and the woman’s name was Valerie Lowe. Kubberness found something imploring in Valerie’s face, as if she had a story she wanted the world to hear.

Kubberness decided she’d be the one to tell Valerie’s tale.

“When I first laid my eyes upon her I was struck by those eyes,” Kubberness recalled. “Instantly, I liked her and wanted to know her.”

Kubberness is a longtime genealogist and knew where to start looking. She tracked Lowe to Australia, where Lowe had the misfortune of connecting with a pair of troublemakers with a history of breaking and entering. Sydney police nabbed all three in connection with the burglary of a church, leaving behind a compelling interrogation.

“I had seen her mug shot online and I just started researching it,” Kubberness said from the Peru home where she cares for her aging parents. “And it just took off from there.”

Lowe had been dead and seemingly forgotten for 40 years, but you wouldn’t know it from the response to Kubberness’ posts. People read her true crime stories of yore and then began peppering Kubberness with questions about how they could find their scofflaw ancestors:

My grandfather was a bootlegger. Can you help me find him?

I think there’s a bigamist marriage in my family tree. Where should I look?

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If there’s an interesting crime story buried in your family tree, Gwen Kubberness can help you find it. The Peru resident, recently relocated from North Dakota, developed a first-of-its kind specialty in the field of genealogy, unearthing records with the specific intent of finding criminals and telling their stories. Kubberness said the question she most gets is how to find mug shots.

Kubberness, a transplant from North Dakota, is happy to help. Send her a message using a pseudonym — many followers prefer, understandably, to stay anonymous — and she’ll tell you how to track your fugitive great-uncle or how to trace your cattle-rustling grandpa to the gallows.

Why such fascination with the criminal element? Kubberness said it wasn’t from early exposure to lawlessness. Her retired parents were law-abiding folks who brought her up in polite society.

“I honestly don’t think it came from my childhood,” she said. “I was ‘The Waltons’ and ‘Little House on the Prairie’ — and I did live in North Dakota.”

The hobby sprung from traditional genealogy. One of her maternal great aunts had traced the family tree to the Vikings and reduced it all to writing. Every youth in the Kubberness family got a copy when the aunt died, but nobody gobbled up the data more voraciously than young Gwen.

“When I got the manila envelope and I opened it up and I looked at it, I was hooked,” she said. “I was 16 years old and I thought, ‘This is it. I love this stuff.’

“So I kind of picked up where she left off.”

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Say hello to Valerie Lowe, a good girl from Australia with bad taste in men. Kubberness learned of Valerie’s arrest in a church burglary (she’d fallen in with some bad company) and the resulting search for Lowe’s ancestral records led Kubberness to launch “Criminal Genealogy,” a blog dedicated to unearthing sordid tales of yore using genealogical resources.

Kubberness earned a criminal justice degree from Bismarck State College but shelved her career ambitions to relocate to Peru in May 2018 and tend to mom and dad. When not working at Hy-Vee, Kubberness can usually be found perched over a laptop scouring records in the English-speaking world for curious cases and to answer queries sent to her blog, “Criminal Genealogy.”

A year after launch there are 8,000 followers and counting. Kubberness said she’s the only one known to pursue this genealogical niche and Jim Keating, for one, said that may indeed be so.

Keating manages information technology for the La Salle County Genealogy Guild. He said there’s nothing new about delving into criminal records to reconstruct a family tree. Many families search for an ancestor and find him in jail or prison records, which is where the search usually ends. Cutthroats and pickpockets tend to be omitted from family trees.

But someone using genealogical records to unearth criminals and chronicle their wayward pasts? That, Keating said, is definitely a novel approach.

“We don’t purposely search records to find someone’s criminal past,” Keating said. “If we find it, we share it. What people do with that is their responsibility.”

A generation ago, Kubberness might not have found much of an audience, if any. Today, interest in genealogy has exploded — mail-away DNA kits are readily available at stores — and Americans weaned on TV scandal seem downright curious to learn what misdeeds their ancestors committed.

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Is this America's first criminal genealogist? Gwen Kubberness of Peru, a recent transplant from North Dakota, runs a blog with a fast-growing audience that tells crime stories of yore using ancestral records. Kubberness, who found an armed robber in her own family tree, claims to be the first genealogist to specialize in unearthing criminal histories. One member of the La Salle County Genealogy Guild thinks she’s right: Plenty of genealogists stumble across criminals when tracing their family trees, but few if any genealogists actually go looking for miscreants. 

Kubberness certainly was intrigued when her family genealogy turned up a 1930s armed robber named Robert Cecil Warren. She said she was “tickled pink” when she found his mug shot and could piece together a holdup he committed in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Indeed, the most common question she gets from followers is how to procure a mug shot. In most cases, families have no other photos of their ancestors.

“Back in the day it was expensive to have photos taken,” Kubberness explained.

One of her more consuming projects was linking her home state to the Son of Sam murders, a killing spree that terrorized New York over a year ending in summer 1977 with the arrest of David Berkowitz.

Though Berkowitz never set foot in North Dakota, Kubberness traced his social network to a group of devil worshippers in the Great Plains. Kubberness thinks Berkowitz didn’t act alone — some of

the spent bullets didn’t match his gun — and she’s convinced there were other killers, all with ties to a satanic cult stretching from the Empire State to the Peace Garden State.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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