Death Records – Useful Sources If Used with Caution
By Carolyn L. Barkley
I had a dream the other night in which I was standing in front of a small group of individuals to whom I was saying, “Hi, I’m Carolyn and I’m addicted to indexing.” While for several years I have enjoyed creating indices for authors as they complete their manuscripts, this year I signed up to be a volunteer indexer for familysearch.org. My addiction did not manifest itself immediately. I could index U.S. census records, starting and stopping, often letting a few weeks go by between sessions. But when “Massachusetts Death Records, 1906-1915” became available for indexing, I was truly hooked. In just a few weeks, I’d indexed about 5000 death certificates and often found myself stealing time from other work in order to do just one more download of 25 certificates. I could sit down to do one download at 9:00 p.m. and suddenly, many downloads later, it would be midnight! What made this project so interesting? I have multiple family lines in Massachusetts. Vital record research in New England is always a joy when compared with other regions (like the South!), and while I have used “Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850” as well as the “Massachusetts Vital Records 1841-1910” database (both available on the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s website) the familysearch.org project extends vital records access through 1915. Additional aspects draw me to these records, however. Normally, we are searching for a single death certificate for a specific individual. We may or may not locate a needed certificate and if located, we may or may not find useful information in the record. In indexing a chronological series of death records for one locality, however, it is possible to glimpse a snapshot of a community at a specific point in time, to understand trends in such areas as immigration and health, and to uncover the dramas and stories that make up the fabric of a community.
Death records provide primary information for some data and secondary information for others and as such should be used with caution and analyzed carefully. While all information is not provided for all years, and not all clerks and informants provided all the information requested, here are the broad categories of data that you will find:
1. Personal information: Name of individual, town or city in which the death took place, date of death, residence at the time of death, age, race, date of birth, and place of birth. Each certificate will include some combination of this information. Names can sometimes provide startling moments – if my name had been Tirzah Bagg, I think I might have considered changing it (my apologies if she is your ancestor)! Try to determine the relationship between the informant (the person providing the information to the clerk for the certificate) and the deceased individual. If the informant was the father, mother or the wife, the personal information provided will be reasonably correct – probably. If the information was provided by a neighbor, the doctor or a hospital or institutional record, or a more distant relative such as a nephew, grandson, etc., the information may be missing, incomplete, or at worst, incorrect. Whoever was the informant, consider the information carefully in light of other information you have documented about this individual. If the data is in conflict with your previous research, you will need to locate further documentation in additional primary resources.
2. Relationship information: A married woman’s death certificate may contain her maiden name (if known) as well as the given and middle name of her husband (if known). It is significant that the death certificate of a married man does not include his wife’s name, unless she is the informant and then she may be identified only as “Mrs. Harry Smith.” Of particular usefulness (although subject to the same caveat about informant knowledge) is the inclusion of an individual’s father, mother’s maiden name, as well as the birth place of both mother and father. This information provides clues to the identification and geographical location of an additional generation. You will want to compare the birth place of the deceased and the birth places of his or her parents. In this time period, many of the deceased are members of the first generation born in this country, thus providing you with additional information. Sometimes you will be given the town or county of foreign birth, but more often the entry is simply “Russia,” “Canada,” “Ireland,” “Finland,” etc. All such information can help you locate ethnic communities, churches and cemeteries, and newspapers in the area in which the individual resided at the time of death, thus leading to possible resources for additional information. It is sometimes disconcerting to realize how little is known (or how little an individual will provide to the clerk) about a deceased family member’s mother and father. Often only one antecedent is known which may mean that only that parent immigrated to this country.
3. Medical information. Medical history has become an important area of genealogical research in the past several years and the cause of death can provide an insight into family health issues. In indexing a series of certificates, I noted how many individuals, even then, suffered from cancer, stroke, and heart disease, although tuberculosis was clearly the significant disease of the time period. The number of still-births, premature babies, and children dying within a few months from “marasmus” and “inanition” – lack of nourishment – as well as pneumonia and other such diseases is a bit startling and underlines the lack of prenatal care and poor living conditions of the time. The prevalence of peritonitis after surgery would have made a person think twice about having an operation. Few homicides are reported, although several suicides are included. It was a decidedly more dangerous time in the workplace, as witnessed by the numbers of elevator, railroad, and automobile accidents.
Medical information is full of fascinating vignettes. There is the case of Annie L. Dixon, born in Boston, the daughter of James J. McGlenn and Mary Gibbons, both born in Ireland. She was the wife of Arthur B. Dixon, born in Rollo Bay, Prince Edward Island. They resided at 29 Dennis Street in Boston where on 5 February 1907, Annie committed suicide by poisoning herself with illuminating gas “during [an] aberration of mind.” Because I was indexing a series of certificates registered on the same day as Annie’s death, I discovered that she had also killed her four children by the same method: 5-year-old Margaret, 4-year-old George, 2½-year-old Mildred, and 1-year-old Mary.
Felice Gulifa, a 34-year-old laborer, born in Italy; Morris Zackland, a Russian-born mason, aged 32; Meyer Arlook, a 56-year-old Russian-born carpenter; and Joseph Adler, a 32-year-old workman, all died in Boston on 25 August 1906 from multiple injuries after being buried beneath a falling wall.
On 24 January 1910, two Norwegian fishermen from the schooner Paragon, Olaf Abramson and Martin Nelson, drowned off the Quero Bank; six days later, Edward Severson of Sweden and Charles Edwards of Norway, fishermen on the schooner Florence E. Stream, drowned in the same location. A few days later, John Ribiero of Lisbon, a fisherman on the schooner Thalea, drowned off the Jeffries Bank. All of these drownings were documented in Gloucester death certificates.
These examples may have been significant enough at the time to prompt a newspaper report. Locate the newspapers in the town or city of the deceased. Read the paper for a few days before and after the death date to gain background information that might pertain to the deceased. For example, in the case of the drownings, was there anything unusual about the weather that created the circumstances surrounding these deaths? A death can be puzzling as in the case of a 30-year-old painter who died from accidental strangulation having gotten his head stuck between the pickets of a fence, or may be work-related as in the case of a 58-year-old painter who died of acute lead poisoning. A death can be tragic as in the case of a 72-year-old man who died of apoplexy just two days after his wife died of arterio-sclerosis, or in that of Patrick A Daley, who drowned, presumably as a suicide, and was found in Boston Harbor near the Congress Street Bridge on Christmas Day 1908. In another episode English-born Thomas Rawcliffe of Lawrence, Massachusetts, a 44-year-old widower, died of alcoholism about 26 April 1909, and was subsequently found dead in a freight car in Olneyville Station, Rhode Island. Regardless of the circumstances, the causes of death point to human drama and tell a story.
4. Miscellaneous information. A death certificate may also provide additional helpful information or clues leading to further research. If the individual died in an institution (tuberculosis sanitarium, state hospital, etc.), the certificate may indicate how long the deceased had been institutionalized prior to his or her death and whether or not the disease was contracted in the institution, as well as the location of the deceased’s former or usual residence. One interesting certificate reported an individual who died in the state infirmary in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, where he had been living for 2 years, having been in the state for 2 years and 10 days. Clues abound in this record as the individual, a linotype operator, had been born in Illinois, his father in Pennsylvania, and his mother in Virginia. In addition, the place of burial or removal and the name of funeral director/company may also be included. I was surprised to find that a number of patients from the Bridgewater State Farm were sent to the Tufts Medical School following death. In some cases the cemetery name will suggest a specific religion and/or church and therefore lead to additional records. For example, in Springfield, burial in St. Michael’s Cemetery would prompt contact with St. Michael’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic) to determine if other records are available. In addition, funeral homes and cemeteries may also provide additional background information.
Death records, when analyzed with care, can be important documents for genealogical research. Several web sites provide access to online death records: www.vitalrec.com/deathrecords/, http://home.att.net/~wee-monster/deathrecords.html, and ancestry.com. “Cyndi’s List” also provides a series of links to death record information. If you are researching death records in earlier time periods, a keyword search for “death records” on genealogical.com will yield a list of 350 titles covering a variety of time periods and geographical locations.
If you would like information on volunteering for the familysearch.org indexing projects, go to http://www.familysearchindexing.org/en/home/home.jsf?pname=homeTab where you will find all the necessary information – just remember that the Massachusetts Death Records project is mine!