Ginnifer Goodwin – Who Do You Think You Are – “Not What I Expected”

My favorite genealogy series, WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? returns this summer on Sunday, July 26th at 9/8c on TLC with a heart-wrenching episode with actress Ginnifer Goodwin who you probably know from her “Big Love” HBO series and ABCs “Once Upon A Time” where she stars opposite her husband.

Ginnifer in the archives with books behind her.

Ginnifer in the archives with books behind her.  Courtesy TLC.

Ginnifer Goodwin knows nothing about her paternal grandfather’s family because he refused to talk about his parents. She goes on a journey to uncover the truth behind her great-grandparents’ story, and is shocked at what she discovers.

I’ll just warn you now, get the Kleenex box.  You’ll need it.

Ginnifer never knew her paternal grandfather, John Barton Goodwin, who died when she was an infant. She’s been haunted by the lack of information surrounding his family line; he never talked about his parents to her father, Tim. Understanding the generations that laid the foundation for her has grown more important to her since becoming a mother herself. The birth of her son Oliver has reignited her desire to know why her grandfather never spoke of his mother and father.

Ginnifer starts her search for information with her dad, who recalls that his father John Barton Goodwin’s parents were named Nellie Barton and John “Al” Goodwin, and that for some unknown reason, John Barton Goodwin was abandoned or left home when he was just 11 years old, making his own way in life in Memphis, Tennessee.

The last time he did any research, Tim found a 1910 Census return in which Nellie, Al and John Barton are living in Batesville, Arkansas, along with John’s older sister, Pearl.  Ginnifer wonders what could have happened for Nellie to have let 11 year old John leave her home, and heads to Arkansas to see if she can find some answers.

Local records in Batesville reveal, surprisingly, that Nellie’s maiden name was Haynes, not Barton, and a search for her marriage record returns a result for Nellie and a man named J.D. Williams, not Ginnifer’s great grandfather, Al Goodwin! Can this be right?

What happened with Nellie’s first marriage that she eventually married Al Goodwin? Was Nellie a young widow?  The local genealogist explains that death records of this time are incomplete and advises that Ginnifer visit the Independence County Courthouse to search for evidence for the other alternative to the end of a marriage: divorce records.

Next, Ginnifer meets with a historian, who has found a case for Nellie suing J.D. Williams (a.k.a. “Duff”) for divorce. Ginnifer discovers that Nellie successfully sued for divorce when Duff abandoned Nellie while pregnant for their daughter Pearl just months after their marriage.

Ginnier discovers that Duff Williams sued Nellie for divorce first, and only married Nellie to avoid jail time for having sex with her outside of matrimony. But the tables were turned when he falsely accused Nellie in court of adultery, and his lies sent him to prison.  Three years later, Nellie finally files for divorce.  Shortly thereafter, Nellie marrys Al Goodwin, Ginnifer’s great-grandfather, hoping for a fresh start.

Continuing her search for Nellie and Al Goodwin, Ginnifer finds that between 1906 and 1911, Al racked up 18 indictments for bootlegging and gambling, and served two years in prison.  She has to ask herself….was Nellie involved?

It’s about this time that my heart truly goes out to Ginnifer.  She’s finding out, but as she says at one point, ‘somehow this is not what I expected.’  Ginnifer’s tears are not cried by an actress.

In Al’s own penitentiary records, Ginnifer is shocked to see her great-grandfather’s mugshot.  She can see her father’s face in Al, and I can see Al’s face in Ginnifer as well.

Then Ginnifer discovers Al had syphilis in 1906, 2 years after her grandfather was born, while married to Nellie, and was being visited by a woman other than his wife while in prison.  It comes as little surprise that Nellie filed for divorce while Al was behind bars.  Obviously Nellie’s life was challenging, at best, and possibly much, much worse.  From later records, it appears that Nellie had another son by Al Goodwin.

In 1911, it was almost impossible for a woman to support herself, let alone with 3 children, without a husband.  Ginnifer’s grandfather would have been about 6 or 7 at this time.  It would be another 5 years until he left home at age 11, choosing to fend for himself against almost astronomical odds.  Why would he do this?  What happened?

Ginnifer forges on to see what happened to Nellie after her second divorce. She finds Nellie and her daughter Pearl in a Memphis, Tennessee City Directory… but Nellie is listed as Mrs. Nellie Wyllie – next to a third husband, Hugh Wyllie! Next, Ginnifer is surprised to discover that Nellie moved again – this time, to Louisiana! Curious why she ended up there, Ginnifer follows her great-grandmother’s trail south to Shreveport.

In Louisiana, Ginnifer pulls local newspapers which reveal the 1925 headline: “12 Alleged ‘DopeLaw Violators Indicted” – and among the indicted is Hugh Wyllie.

Ginnifer is heartbroken as she realizes what this means for, and possibly about, her grandmother.

Next, Ginnifer is stunned to find an article in the newspaper about her great-grandmother Nellie, titled “Woman to be tried on Morphine charge.” In 1935, at age 54, Nellie plead guilty to purchasing and possessing morphine, and was sentenced to two years in federal prison. Saddened to learn her great-grandmother served time in prison, Ginnifer wonders why Nellie would be involved in drug dealing.

Was she an addict just supporting her own habit?  It’s hard to say based on these documents, but if Nellie and Hugh were addicts, they might have been treated at the most famous clinic of the time, which just happened to be in nearby Shreveport, and may be the reason they ended up there.

Ginnifer meets with a drug historian, who has located the extensive records from the Shreveport drug clinic. Ginnifer comes across her great-grandmother’s entry, which states that she became addicted as a result of using morphine to treat “a heart condition and syphilis.” Ginnifer recalls Al Goodwin’s prison record in which he too suffered from syphilis. Jim informs Ginnifer that Nellie was probably introduced to morphine by a doctor as it was liberally prescribed to syphilis patients for pain associated with the early stages of the disease.  That disease was not cureable until the discovery of antibiotics.

Medical addiction was, in the words of the historian, “ubiquitous among women” during that timeframe.  Doctors prescribed cocaine, heroin and morphine for a wide variety of medical conditions.  Realizing that people were becoming addicted by the hundreds of thousands, the government stepped in to regulate and then prohibit the sale of these drugs beginning in 1914 and extending through the 1920s and 1930s.  Each step which tightened the legal noose created an ever-growing underground market for thousands of already-addicted patients with no avenue for drugs or cure.  Women were disproportionately represented in the number of addicted victims, and in 1923, 75% of the women in federal prisons were there due to violations of the Harrison Act which prohibited the sale of opiates.

Ginnifer discovers that Nellie’s addiction stretched back 11 years to a time when John Barton Goodwin was just 6 years old, finally revealing the most likely reason he was eventually abandoned or left home so young. Finally, Ginnifer is dismayed to find an additional entry for Nellie’s daughter Pearl, who also suffered from morphine addiction and entered the clinic on the same day as her mother.  Nellie checked the box that indicated that she wanted to be cured, but obviously, judging from the court records another dozen years later, she wasn’t.  Sadly, the clinic closed the following year, and Nellie was once again on her own.  In another 11 years, she too would become one of those women in the federal penitentiary, serving two years.  Ironically, that’s probably when her addiction was cured.  Given her advanced age at death, I’m guessing she was also cured of syphilis when antibiotics became available after WWII.  Amazingly, Nellie lived to age 82.

Nellie’s obituary from 1963 shows that she was only survived by her two sons.  Pearl had gone before her mother.

Minden Cemetery

At the end, Ginnifer heads to Minden Cemetery outside Shreveport to pay respects to her great-grandmother who lived to be 82.  At Nellie’s gravesite, Ginnifer considers this woman she’s come to know, who suffered through a string of terrible relationships and more. Understanding that her great-grandparents weren’t necessarily model citizens, Ginnifer empathizes with Nellie and Al, who battled internal demons.  In many ways, especially for Nellie, this is a story of tragedy.

Through bittersweet tears, Ginnifer is glad to have finally learned the story of her great-grandparents and hopes it will open up her family’s hearts and let healing begin.

Come see for yourself this Sunday evening, July 26th at 9/8c on TLC – and bring Kleenex, lots of Kleenex!



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27 thoughts on “Ginnifer Goodwin – Who Do You Think You Are – “Not What I Expected”

  1. Since many people, including me, do not have cable, please keep us updated on this story! So interesting.

  2. Thanks for the highlights, Roberta. I’ve been a dedicated viewer of both the series Ginnifer has been involved with.

  3. I will be watching Roberta with my Kleenex in hand. Sometimes we find things that are not what we expected, but it is our history and still a part of us.

    I had a researcher looking for information on my grandfather Thomas Edward Oldham’s siblings.
    She wrote me back informing me she didn’t have to look to far regarding my Gt. Aunt Ida B. Oldham as she was on the front page of the newspapers. She was trying to get a divorce from her abusive husband. He came to her apartment and the janitor let him into her apartment to wait for her to return as long as he promised he wouldn’t cause any trouble.
    When she returned with a girlfriend he shot and killed her friend. As Ida ran out of the apartment trying to escape, he shot her several times killing her as well. They had two small children. I never knew what happened to the children. They had a boy and a girl and they were very young at the time of their mother’s death.
    He pleaded self defense at his trail. It was awful to realize all of this tragedy. My heart went out to my Gt. Aunt Ida in a struggle that ended so terribly for her and causing so much heartache for her family.

  4. This would be astounding for Ginnifer to contact me, I have relatives Charles Goodwin and William George Williams from the south in the mid 1800s. My closest relative found is 2nd-3rd, tested at FamilyTree DNA. I apologize I cannot go to the show this Sunday. Thank you for sharing all this. I hope to hear from you.

  5. I was a little disappointed that people weren’t told what I think is the most amazing part of the story, that John went on to overcome these great obstacles to become a highly successful man in life .

    • Yes My Grand-Father became a very driven man. He was a ward of the State and was raised by a judge who showed interest in him. He went on to be one of the State of Tennessee’s Top Builders and Top Developers. He was awarded a State Certificate for his Success. At one point all his Son’s were in the development and construction business. As for Grandchildren 5 of us boys have followed his path.

  6. I’ve updated the article now with the information I could not include before the show aired. It’s the several paragraphs above the cemetery photo. Hope everyone enjoyed the episode.

  7. This is good information for her to know because addiction is a hereditary disease and her children could be predisposed to addiction. Just like any other disease, early detection and proactive steps are necessary!!!

  8. I have researched family lines in Arkansas and have run into these family lines in my research. John Barton Goodwin was named after his mother’s side of the family as the family lore goes. It wasn’t Nellie’s maiden name but rather Nellie’s father whose name was Isaac Barton Haynes. And John Albert Goodwin’s father was John Wilkinson Goodwin, a baptist minister. Several members of the family ended up in Memphis. While I am sure John Barton felt abandonded by his parents – he probably wasn’t on his “own” from the age of 11 like the highlights of the program states Though I cannot find him in the 1920 census but by 1930 he is married with children. Ironically John Barton’s 2nd son, John Edwin Goodwin dies at the age of 9 from an accidental lethal dose of morphine in 1935. The history of the abuse of morphone of that era continues to pleague this family.

    • Curious about the information you have on the morphine overdose. His death certificate lists cause of death as massive head injury, and indicates an accident at home with a large stone.

    • That is not correct !!!!! A stone Mantel that had been installed in a house my Grandfather was building for my Grandmother fell on John Edwin !!! the stone mason had just finished the mantel and he jumped up on the hearth and it fell. I think he was 12 when it happened. he is buried next to my DAD Railton Forcedick Goodwin (Hank)

  9. Pingback: DNAeXplain Archives – Entertainment Articles | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

  10. I am so glad to run across this old article of yours about Ginnifer Goodwin. I did watch the show, and I enjoyed your synopsis. My family is from Batesville, Arkansas, and I grew up there. I am happy to report that there is a bright side to the Goodwin family that WDYTYA didn’t report. The rest of the Goodwin family members, most at least, are respectable people. One branch owned a drugstore for years that had a very popular soda fountain. I had fountain cokes there many times when I was growing up. My mother went to school with one of the Goodwin “boys” and I think she may have had a crush on him. I hope Ginnifer realizes that she came from an old respected family in my hometown.

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