The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend (Adventures in Genealogy)

While some who dabble in genealogy might dread the proverbial skeletons in the closet, there are those of us who go looking for them. That’s exactly what I did on the day that I discovered that my 4th great-grandfather, William Zurweller, unloaded on a guy in Riverside. Let me warn you: Like most genealogy, this story is complicated. But is also exciting. Remember, genealogy is exciting! Come to the library, and do your genealogy!
It all started when I came across William Zurweller’s death certificate on Ancestry (a database that you can access for free at BCPL). Under cause of death, I saw: “Gunshot wound in the left side of the head (murder).” I thought, “Well, now I need that obituary.”

I opened up BCPL’s ProQuest Cincinnati Enquirer (Historical) database (another one that you can access for free, from home, with your library card). My search for William Zurweller yielded something unexpected, an article from October 31, 1893: “DEADLY: Was the Awful Combat Between Geo. Theetge and Wm. Zurweller – The Body of the Former Receives Six Bullets and Death Ends His Suffering Five Minutes Later. Frightened Children of the Enraged Men Witness the Bloody Tragedy at Collum’s Station. A Series of Threats and Petty Quarrels Culminate in a Murder—Eight Children Left Orphans—The Victim a Desperate Man.” And, that was just the headline!  The article stated that William Zurweller and George Theetge had worked together at the Rolling Mill in Cincinnati, but that they had a falling out over Theetge’s son, whom Zurweller had taken in. One day George Theetge saw William Zurweller’s children playing marbles in the street, and threatened to kill their family. The children ran home to tell Zurweller, who grabbed his gun, proceeded to Theetge’s house shouting profanities. Theetge came outside, his gun misfired, so he tried to fight Zurweller by force – which ended poorly for him. Several other articles described the event and the proceedings, with most describing Theetge as a “scoundrel, his brothers having also died with their boots on.” Less than a week after the event, Zurweller went free – the jury found that he was acting in self-defense. Evidently, Theetge wasn’t terribly missed. For curiosity’s sake, I went on the hunt to see if Theetge really was such a scoundrel.

My search for Theetge brought another gem of a headline from the Cincinnati Enquirer on July 23, 1879: “KENTUCKY BLOOD: Which was Shed in Petersburg Sunday Night. Desperate Encounter Between George Theetge, Andy Leonard and a Peace-Maker.” Apparently, Theetge, who was at that time working at the distillery in Petersburg, started a fight with some visiting boys from Lawrenceburg, and he was carrying a knife and cutting people up. The interesting part of this article was the Peace-Maker, named later in the article as John Feely, a teamster of the town. I recognized that name. My coworker, Joseph English, also does his genealogy, and had Feely ancestors in Petersburg. I asked him if this was his ancestor, he said he thought it might be. A quick search on ancestry showed that his 2nd great grandfather, John Feely, was a teamster, according to the 1880 census. John Feely, an angelic sort (if his descendants are any indication), tried to break up the fight. When he was holding George Theetge and Andy Leonard at arm’s length, Theetge stabbed him in the arm and in the stomach. The article states that the abdomen wound was “deep and dangerous and very painful… he was carried to his home where his wounds were dressed, and where yesterday he was unable to speak and was regarded as in a very critical condition.” However, we know that because he was on the 1880 census (and not the 1880 Mortality Schedule), that he did indeed live through this. Though, we can only speculate if he might have had any lasting pain. There is one upside to these tragic stories – when introducing Joseph, I can now say, “My ancestor killed the man who stabbed his ancestor. Welcome to Kentucky.” Just kidding about that last part.

Now back to what started this all – the death certificate with the cause of death listed as murder. I did eventually find that article in the Boone County Recorder, after realizing that his place of death was Taylorsport. While reading through the paper that was published right after his date of death, I found reference to the death of a man named Zuelli. The location, date, and story around his death were accurate, so I knew that this was actually William Zurweller, my 4th great grandfather. Apparently William Zurweller threw Lou Phelps, who couldn’t swim, in the Ohio River. Phelps made it out, but he was very angry, so he went home to get his gun. Zurweller was at the time, living in a tent in Taylorsport. Lou Phelps approached the tent and was about to lose his nerve when he heard Zurweller say, “If we had drowned him, we could have kept his whiskey.” And, that sent Phelps over the edge, so he shot Zurweller. I don’t know what happened to Phelps after this, but I do know that Phelps’ and Zurweller’s grandchildren, Mary Elizabeth Phelps and Snowden Humphrey, would go on to marry, and become my second great grandparents. Apparently the families didn’t hold onto that grudge.


Kaitlin Barber is a Boone County native and recent graduate of the Masters of Public History Program at NKU. She began her work with Local History and Genealogy at BCPL in 2011. 

The Life and Legacy of Ralph V. Lents

Mr. Ralph Lents has been on our minds lately- hasn’t he? In an earlier blog, we discussed how a little man in a plain brown suit has been watching over the Lents Branch on North Bend Road, long after he passed from this life. You may have heard by now that the current Lents Branch building will be closing its doors on September 1 to make way for a building that will better meet the needs of Boone County taxpayers. What we haven’t talked about is who Ralph V. Lents was and what motivated him to sponsor a sweet little library in the heart of northern Boone County.

2_174_Mr__and_Mrs__R_V__LentsIn 1974 with the aid of the Walton Advertiser and encouraged by former students and friends, Ralph Vernon Lents wrote and published his autobiographical memoirs. Born in Marshall County in 1896 to fourth cousins Rufus and Ada Lents. He was named for Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rufus and Ada hoped their young son would go on to great things. Lents recalled the first few years of life were lonely and very poor living on a rural and often wet farm where Rufus Lents raised corn, tobacco and hay. As poor as the family was and as many times as they had to move to find better land and a better life, school remained an important focus in young Ralph’s life. Throughout the years, young Ralph would excel at his studies, often winning spelling bees and outshining classmates in Latin and Algebra. While in school, he would still need to help bring in tobacco and cotton on the farm, as well as, pick up extra work as janitor of the high school in Hardin, Ky. As a career and vocation, he chose his greatest love, teaching.

In his memoirs, Lents reminisced about his adventures before coming to Boone County, Kentucky. Those adventures included a broken engagement, a broken marriage and a nearly deadly bout of typhoid fever. Mr. Lents had a passion for squirrel and rabbit hunting, as well as, fishing. He would take every opportunity to go hunting and fishing with friends, neighbors and even students. Ralph Lents met his second wife, life-long partner and Boone County native, Mollie Newman, while teaching in Pendleton County. They married in 1925 and soon they both graduated from Murray State Normal School, a teaching college- now known as Murray State University.

Hired by school trustee J.P. Dolwick in 1926, Ralph and Mollie Lents settled in to teaching at the Constance School located on the Ohio River, near the Anderson Ferry. The couple taught for 34 years and spent the remainder of their lives in Boone County. They didn’t have children of their own, so they dedicated their lives to teaching others. People still talk about how they would see Mr. Lents standing on the school playground holding all of the little girls’ purses as they played at recess. Others remember how he would hand out pennies and political information at Halloween — R.V. Lents was an ardent Democrat throughout his life.  The couple were active 4-H Club leaders and never missed a Boone County Fair. A pavilion at the Boone County Fair Grounds is named after Mr. Lents.

As life-long learners and educators, the couple saved up approximately a million dollars to be used to build a library branch in Hebron. For a man who grew up without shoes and picked cotton, a million dollars was a lifetime of savings. In 1989, five years after Ralph V. Lents passed, the R.V. Lents Branch of the Boone County Library System was dedicated in his memory. Through the years, the Lents Branch has offered story times and programming to young children and homework help to students, as well as, books and helpful resources to their parents. At BCPL, we like to think that Mr. and Mrs. Lents would be pleased how their branch has served the community and the children and grandchildren of their former students. Their legacy lives on through the lives of all the people who have  made use of the books and services provided by the Lents Branch.


Bridget Striker, graduate of the University of Kentucky, has been with BCPL since 2001 where she uses her background in archaeology, historic preservation and GIS mapping to ferret out elusive bits of Boone County history as the Local History Coordinator. Bridget serves as Vice-Chair of the Boone County Historic Preservation Review Board and Executive Board Member of the Rabbit Hash Historical Society.