A Local Life: William Addams Reitwiesner, 56; genealogist of presidents, kings and thousands of commoners

Robert Addams Reitwiesner was consumed by his research.
Robert Addams Reitwiesner was consumed by his research. (Family Photo)
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By Timothy R. Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 5:23 PM

William Addams Reitwiesner discovered that presidents Warren G. Harding, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter were cousins; that the singer Madonna is related to Camilla Parker Bowles, consort to Prince Charles; that President Obama had ancestors who were slave owners; and that at least one U.S. senator was related to Elvis.

Mr. Reitwiesner (RITE-weez-ner), who held a series of low-paying jobs at the Library of Congress to be near the source of his research, spent almost all of his spare time devotedly cataloguing the pedigrees of U.S. political figures, European royals and celebrities.

Almost every day the library was open, he would do research in its genealogy reading room, working at a long wooden table as he single-mindedly entered data into a laptop computer.

"Some stay for 10 minutes," said one reference librarian in the genealogy reading room. "He stayed all day."

On Saturdays, Mr. Reitwiesner worked the entire day at the library. Weeknights, he would often stay until closing at 9 p.m. Then he would take his work home to his apartment on Capitol Hill, where he moved so he could always be close to the library.

"I work eight hours a day, sleep six and spend the rest of my time doing genealogical research," Mr. Reitwiesner told the New York Times in 1983.

He did it for fun, receiving no remuneration for his hours of work.

By culling books, newspaper clippings, census records and the occasional family Bible, he would chart the family trees of the influential and prominent in thorough detail.

Mr. Reitwiesner, who was 56 when he died Nov. 12 of complications from rectal cancer at the Washington Home hospice in the District, documented many of his findings on his Web site. He meticulously annotated where the information came from, such as slave shipment schedules, genealogical registers or baptismal reports.

During presidential election cycles, Mr. Reitwiesner traced the lineages of candidates, and his findings often made news. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, is related to Elvis, he found. Former president George H.W. Bush's family tree branched into three separate royal lines. In one connection, Mr. Reitwiesner said Bush and James A. Baker III, his secretary of state, were distant cousins.

"I've always been suspicious of far-out claims of kinship," Baker wrote in his 2006 memoir "Work Hard, Study . . . and Keep Out of Politics!," "and there's no way for me to judge the accuracy of Reitwiesner's work, other than to say that the bottom of his twelve-generation chart of my ancestry is consistent with Baker family records."

When investigating Obama's background, Mr. Reitwiesner found the future president's familial ties to a Virginia slaveholding family.

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