What Billy Porter’s WDYTYA Episode Can Teach You

“Who Do You Think You Are” can be not only entertaining and inspiring, but can also show you some good insights into genealogy research… if you look closely. Here’s one important lesson from the Billy Porter episode.

Click the play button or scroll below to keep reading.

Who Is Billy Porter?

Billy Porter
Photo by Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue. Used under CC2.0.

Billy Porter is an actor who has won both a Tony and an Emmy. He’s a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was raised by his mother and step-father.

He went into the episode knowing that one of his ancestors had been shot and killed. Professional genealogist Nicka Smith was able to fill in some details for him.

What Happened to Billy Porter’s Ancestor?

Thomas Richardson, Billy Porter’s great-grandfather, lived in Pittsburgh. On May 25, 1923, he was shot and killed by William Fullerton, a Pittsburgh policeman.

In the WDYTYA episode, Nicka Smith presented two newspaper articles. One was from the Pittsburgh Press:

(Click the image to read the full article on Newspapers.com.)

Here’s how the Pittsburgh Press reported it:

“According to police, Richardson with two Negro companions and a white man were quarreling in Butler St., near Thirty-eighth st. The police at the Forty-third st. station were notified, and Patrolman Fullerton was sent to investigate. When the patrolman arrived at the scene of the quarrel, it is said that Richardson drew a revolver. The patrolman saw him reach for the gun, police say, and drew the quicker. Patrolman Fullerton fired first, and Richardson dropped to the ground with a bullet in his breast.”

So, in this account, the two men were facing each other. Richardson drew a gun, but Fullerton shot first.

But that isn’t how it was reported by the Pittsburgh Courier:

Here’s a link to the article on Newspapers.com.

As Nicka Smith pointed out on “Who Do You Think You Are,” the Pittsburgh Press was owned by whites. The Pittsburgh Courier was a Black-owned newspaper.

Not the End of the Story

I was curious if there were any other newspaper accounts of the shooting. There were several… and they had differing details as well. (I’m confident that Nicka Smith also found these articles, but was unable to present them during the episode due to time constraints.)

The Pittsburgh Gazette-Times (27 May 1923) reported: “As the officer started to escort Richardson across the street to a patrol box, Richardson is alleged to have broken away. When he failed to halt, Patrolman Fullerton drew his revolver and fired one shot, and Richardson fell to the ground with a bullet wound in his back.” (You can read this portion of the article on Newspapers.com. Note that Newspapers.com incorrectly named the newspaper as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

According to the Pittsburgh Post (9 June 1923), reporting on the Coroner’s Jury investigation: “Fullerton started toward the police box with his prisoner when Richardson stopped to speak to a friend in the crowd. The policeman with his own revolver in one hand and the Negro’s weapon in the other ordered Richardson to move on and after the Negro had taken a few steps forward, Fullerton fired into the Negro’s back, witnesses testified.” (You can read the full article in this clipping at Newspapers.com.)

Four different stories:

  • The Pittsburgh Press said Richardson drew a gun and was shot while facing Fullerton
  • The Pittsburgh Courier said that Richardson was shot in the back while walking to the patrol box
  • The Pittsburgh Gazette-Times said that Richardson was shot in the back while fleeing
  • The Pittsburgh Post reported coroner’s jury testimony that Richardson was shot in the back after not moving quickly enough for Fullerton

Important Genealogy Lessons

This episode gives us some good lessons in genealogy research, especially working with newspapers. These strategies apply even with more “routine” articles like obituaries, wedding notices, etc.

First, don’t stop with just one newspaper. Four different Pittsburgh newspapers each reported the shooting differently. (In the case of the Pittsburgh Press, it was very differently.) Back in the day, even small towns often had more than one newspaper. Also, take a look at newspapers for nearby towns, as well as any pertinent ethnic or religious newspapers.

Second, keep looking over a period of time. The Post article was more than two weeks after the shooting. I’ve seen similar things happen with obituaries. The first one has sparse details, but the ones published over the next few days have more details about survivors and the funeral arrangements.


Posted: July 26, 2022.

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  • Interesting about the different coverage. I also wondered about the death certificate, it said gun shot wound through right breast. I guess the bullet could have been exiting, but it implies shot forward facing which doesn’t seem to be accurate.

    • I saw that, too. I have to wonder how closely they examined the body. Did the coroner *really* look, or did he simply fill out the paperwork?

    • Coroners are often elected and do not have to be physicians at all. It’s definitely an elected position in Pittsburgh, so that affects the report. An autopsy report if available would be more accurate.

  • I actually went to Las Vegas to do research at the local public library once. My grandmother’s brother was killed in an auto-pedestrian accident there in 1984. I made a point to check all available newspapers. Lo and behold, one newspaper said my granduncle was struck by a woman; the other, by a man. In all likelihood, it’s possible that he was struck by more than one vehicle given it was Las Vegas Blvd.

  • Great post Amy! You are so on the money. Whilst some news stories were syndicated there can be slight variances and even though it seems tiresome it is worth checking them all as you may pick up more grains of information in each article than were in the first. And yes….looking at articles over time is important too.