words Marla Cantrell
images courtesy Joe Bott
Joe Bott, with his mane of white hair, seems to catch the attention of everyone inside the Fayetteville, Arkansas diner, where he’s come for lunch and to share his story. He is tall and angular, and when he speaks, he says this: “It all started with a mosquito bite.” He laughs. “I swear, it did!”
What Joe is referencing is the beginning of a website called Dead Fred, that reunites orphaned vintage photos with their rightful heirs. Joe and his team are like the Sherlock Holmes of the genealogy crowd. They track down old photos, find clues about the people shown, and then post them on the site, and they are wildly popular because of it.
How the mosquito fits in is this: On June 2, 1998, Joe woke at two in the morning. His head was pounding, he had a fever, and he didn’t feel like himself at all. He woke his wife. They headed to the hospital and from there to the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed with encephalitis, caused by the mosquito. “It was touch and go for awhile,” he says.
The illness makes the brain swell, which was why Joe felt so disoriented. There are only 2,000 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control each year, so the odds of getting encephalitis are slim. Joe is philosophical as to why it happened to him. And while he didn’t enjoy his four-month recovery, it did have its perks.
For one thing, he could suddenly draw, something that was foreign to him before the bite. (He’s so talented, those closest to him are pushing him to have an art show in the near future.) Joe is a doer by nature, so the time he was spending recuperating left him fidgety and bored. He drew, but that didn’t take up all his waking hours, which led to the next good thing.
“I was probably driving my wife crazy,” Joe says. “She bought me a computer, and I started looking up my family history.” And while he did find a wealth of information, he found very few vintage photos online. And Joe was a big believer in photos.
He’d been collecting them since 1965 when he was in the Navy. One day, while he was off-duty, a downpour started. “I walked into an antique shop to get out of the rain. I was a poor sailor trying to look like a customer. I found this family album from the 1880s, and I fell in love with it. Those were the first photos I bought.”
By the time the mosquito had done its damage, Joe had 15,000 old photos. He loved to imagine the back stories, who these people were, what their lives had been like.
He was thinking about that as he pecked away at his keyboard. He came up with this idea: What if he could reunite the photos with their rightful owners? And that’s why, in March 2001, he launched the website. Finding the right name was important, and after several suggestions, he chose Dead Fred. The name refers to Frederick III, German Emperor and King of Prussia, who took the throne in March and died in June 1888. Joe doesn’t typically like post-mortem photos, but he did buy the one of King Frederick III, and that photo seemed the perfect symbol for his new venture.
Once the name was decided, he concentrated on posting his images, with any information he had, such as names, dates, and locations. If someone claimed a photo Joe owned, he shipped it to them at cost. The process of getting the website going involved the work of several people, including copywriter Jeannette Balleza Collins, who is now a co-owner, and Amanda Shertzer, also a co-owner. Jeannette remembers her first meeting with Joe. “One thing I like about him is that he’s naturally curious, and he’s always trying new things.”
This website was a stretch for Joe, and he spent four months scanning and uploading thousands of photos, a tedious process since Joe had a dial-up connection that was painfully slow. He didn’t know what to expect when Dead Fred launched. But within the first few days, there were more than 9,000 hits, and the emails came flooding in. Soon, fans of the site were mailing Dead Fred old, unidentified photos.
The first to be returned was of a mother with her child, taken in 1900. The baby’s name was William Griegson. On the back of the photo was William’s birth date. Joe put on his detective hat, searched records online, and found William’s son in New Jersey. “I called him, and he thought I was lying. I had to call him back. It was a time with a lot of phone scamming going on,” Joe says, adding that he returned the photo, much to the delight of the Griegson heir.
“Something clicked for me when I reunited that photo. I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. I get emails from families now, who say that they found their ancestor’s only existing photo on Dead Fred. People tell me they’ve cried when they found family photos,” Joe says.
Since the launch of Dead Fred, the crew has gone to many genealogy conventions. They pull up the site on a laptop and search the surnames of those who’ve come to their booth, seeing if they have any photos that could be family. “When you get a hit,” Jeannette says, “it’s just amazing. The photos we have of their ancestors will be so similar. The features will look the same. The genetic apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “From the get-go, we were trying to take something typically seen as old and dusty, and turn it into something fun.”
The plan worked. Now, visitors are adding photos from as far away as Japan. Jeannette got on board as well, adding a wedding photo of her maternal grandparents. “It feels good to know it’s out there, that it will never be lost. That’s the beauty of having it on Dead Fred,” she says.
As the site grew, more and more people took notice. One of their biggest accomplishments was getting mentioned on the Today show. They heard from a producer several days before and tried to get ready for the influx of traffic, but the site still crashed. It seemed as if everyone who watched that morning show wanted to see what Dead Fred was all about.
Since then, they’ve put together a book, Desperate Genealogist’s Idea Book, Creative Ways to Outsmart Your Elusive Ancestors. They got some big names in the world of family history, like Megan Smolenyak, from the Who Do You Think You Are TV show, to contribute. “My one claim to fame is that I got to write one of the chapters,” Joe says, and then grins.
This hobby of his turned out to be a big part of his life. He works in research and development for Tyson Foods, a job he loves. He gets to travel, which is another thing he loves. But he is nearing seventy, so retirement is approaching. And when it arrives, he plans to spend even more time growing Dead Fred.
Every time an orphaned photo goes home, Joe and his team feel a great accomplishment. They also understand how easy it is to abandon them. There’s usually one person in a family who ends up with old photos. When that person dies or leaves their home for health reasons, the pictures sometimes end up with someone who doesn’t understand their value. Joe and Jeannette have heard stories of old photos ending up in the garbage, something that makes them exceedingly sad. More often, they end up in thrift or antique shops.
That’s why Joe travels with an empty suitcase. He learned his lesson when he went to Duluth, Minnesota. An antique shop was going out of business, and they had a file cabinet full of photos from the 1800s. Joe went to K-Mart and bought the biggest suitcase they had and filled it with the pictures. “It cost me a hundred bucks to get it on the plane, but it was worth it,” Joe says.
“Think about how much photos mean,” Jeannette says. “When you ask someone what they’d take if they fled their home, they usually say, ‘My kids, my pets, my photos.’ We’re finding those orphan photos and sending them back.”
Joe grins. This venture that started because a mosquito bite threatened to kill him is one of his greatest accomplishments. Sometimes, he says, there is a silver lining. You just have to be willing to find it.