Many family histories, if not most, are frustratingly incomplete. People vanish, leaving behind only cryptic sentences in letters or documents – moved West; left no forwarding address. Sometimes we find them; sometimes we don’t. We can’t always know everything, much as we’d like to.
But in the case of my distant cousin Catherine Haigney, I sure wish I could.
She died in 1946, in some violent way. The death certificate was quite clear (if shocking) on that point. The death was referred to the medical examiner for further investigation.
So off I went to apply for the coroner’s report, thinking that even if I didn’t like what was in it, at least it would explain Catherine’s death to my satisfaction.
Well, yes and no.
Catherine entered her final hours on September 16, 1946 lying unconscious on the floor of her Brooklyn apartment. Her landlady found her and called an ambulance. At Kings County Hospital, they found a wound on her head had resulted in a brain hemorrhage. She died two days later, without regaining consciousness.
So where did the head wound come from?
According to the hospital:
“Patient unconscious when admitted. Impression: Subdural hematoma, multiple abrasions. Said to have been beaten up one week ago, was a patient in this hospital and released.”
According to the medical examiner:
“This is a re-currence of injuries received on Sept. 9-1946. Their [sic] is no report of a case on Sept. 9-th, 1946 in the 68th Pct.”
And also from the medical examiner:
“Deceased was brought to the Kings County Hospital on the 16th day of September, in an unconscious state, from her home, she having allegedly received head injury in some unknown manner, about one week prior to admission. Police, however, have no record of any alleged assault and report nothing suspicious.”
There is a lot more in the way of facts and figures. As a set of documents, this coroner’s report is really interesting, and I’ll write about that in another post.
But none of it says anything more about the violent act that ultimately killed Catherine. The medical examiner’s report mentions that a detective from the 68th Precinct was assigned to investigate Catherine’s death. And that’s where the story leaves off.
What happened? One big problem: The incident that fractured Catherine’s skull wasn’t reported to the authorities at the time. (Or, possibly, it was reported, but was not considered worth looking into.) So forget about it turning up as a newspaper police blotter item somewhere around Sept. 9. It seems that the next step would be finding out what, if anything, was reported by the detective who investigated after her death.
I’ve taken my time about writing this one up, because frankly, it’s just really sad and frustrating. Especially the idea that somebody could be beaten that seriously and nothing would come of it, at least judging from the papers I have so far. Could this have been considered a “domestic incident” too mundane to make a big deal of? (Tough to reflect upon, but definitely not unheard-of.) Was there something about her lifestyle that put her in the category of people too marginal to worry about? Or was it just something that couldn’t be solved?
Guesses, that’s all I have at the moment. Also, a lot of sadness.
Catherine was a first cousin twice removed, which means her father, William Haigney, and my great-grandfather, Joseph, were brothers. I was so excited to learn of her existence.
William (1867-1930) remains a blurred image on the family chart, somebody unknown to the older relatives I’ve been able to ask. But … he’d had a daughter, born about 1905. And although experience should have taught me otherwise, my head instantly filled with fantasies of collateral kin, rediscovered cousins and unmined troves of memorabilia.
Unfortunately, the first sign that these would remain fantasies came early: a 1946 entry in the New York City Death Records Index that looked an awful lot like Catherine. I jotted down the certificate number and put it on a list of items to look up on an upcoming trip to the New York City Municipal Archives in downtown Manhattan.
This was actually one of those times that I half-hoped I had the wrong person in the index. My inner schoolteacher told me sternly that it was best to know the facts, however disappointing: Most likely she’d perished, unmarried and childless, of pneumonia, or cancer, or whatever. The dreamer inside me responded: Yes, yes, of course – but what if?
Funny how when you’re mulling two pet possibilities, you get blindslided by a third. This is what happened when I scrolled through the microfilm and hit Catherine’s death certificate.
Father: William Haigney
Mother: Sarah Dowd King Haigney
Sigh. It really was her. Oh, well.
Cause of death: Fractured skull, subdural hemorrhage, lacerated brain.
“Holy @#$@,” I said to the microfilm machine.
“Excuse me?” said the person next to me, who very fortunately was plugged into an MP3 player and was only reacting to the sight of my lips moving. (I hope.)
I re-read the cause line. It said what I thought it said.
Very dramatic, I thought, my brain going temporarily foggy. But let’s not get carried away. Maybe it wasn’t really sinister. Maybe it was a chronic disease of some sort that … that fractures skulls and lacerates …
Never mind that. Back to facts. Who was the doctor, and where had he examined her?
Oh. He was a coroner. And he’d seen her at the Kings County Morgue.
Well, then. That does sound legitimately dramatic.
It took a while to settle down and actually look critically at the certificate, so hard did I have to work at readjusting my expectations. I’m a big girl and I know that not everyone dies in their beds. Still, I had trouble assimilating the intense contrast this certificate posed to what I’d hoped to find.
And the facts on the death certificate don’t help. Catherine’s job was listed as “usher, theater,” similar to the occupation listed for her in the 1930 census – cashier, theater. The date of death was September 18, 1946 in Kings County Hospital. On that same date, a Kings County medical examiner took charge of her remains at the morgue. But the death certificate wasn’t filled out and filed until Oct. 1, and the informant was Catherine’s maternal uncle, James Dowd.
So why the gap between the date of death and the filing of the certificate? Had Catherine’s body lain unidentified in the morgue for two weeks, or was this just the result of having to wait for an investigation to run its course? And how did she receive the fatal injury?
According to the certifiate, Catherine’s death was turned over to the medlcal examiner for investigation. There was a number for a coroner’s case file, which I’ve requested. It might have some answers. Until then, my questions (and my unruly imagination) will have to be put on hold.
Images of many counties in the New York State census of 1865 are available online at Familysearch.org. Which is great. They are not indexed. Which is daunting.
Right before the holidays I searched for my Watervliet Haigneys in this census. I ran into trouble when I noted that these 1865 pages didn’t seem to have street names or house numbers. They number the dwellings (and the families) in order of visitation. So House 1 meant first house visited. That’s it. Not No. 1 Chapman Street, or whatever. Just No. 1 House Visited.
It did not seem possible, therefore, to browse pages by street names, which can help when you know where the family lived but can’t locate them in an index. One can’t browse by guessing where the enumerator walked first. This was frustrating, because I knew from city directories where this family was living in 1865, but I couldn’t think of how to find them in the census, short of reading it page by page.
I googled around for any obvious finding aids for the 1865 Watervliet E.D.s — nada. Obviously I would need to call or write a local expert to see if they could help with this. Then the holidays rushed up and I forgot about it. Bad me.
Then New Year’s Day rolled around, and the whole house was sleeping off the holiday calories, and I had my feet up and my 17th cup of coffee in hand, thinking about this 1865 census.
I started thinking about those pages at the back of each census district count — the agricultural schedules, the mortality schedules, the sections listing who was serving in the military. This family was headed by a soldier in the U.S. Army. Maybe that would narrow my search. So I flipped to the back of one district listing, and that’s when I saw Section X:
This tenth section includes spaces for listing important places in the district, such as churches, schools and newspaper offices. And it occurred that if I could find a listing in a district for the church where my ancestors worshiped, I might not have a sure bet, but I would feel a lot better about slogging through 50-odd pages.
The page above lists the places of worship in Watervliet’s First Election District. It notes the presence of a Roman Catholic church, although not its name. However, the Reformed Dutch church listed below it is a few blocks from St. Bridget’s, the Roman Catholic parish where my ancestors went to church.
OKAY! We have a district to search!
What happened next was a New Year’s gift. Just for laughs, I started paging through the district in reverse order. I thought it would be more interesting. (This is the sort of thought that occurs after 17 cups of coffee.)
And there were my Haigneys, on page 46 of 53 pages. Sweet.
So don’t forget those back pages in that 1865 New York census. See if a church or another landmark rings a bell. Or look to see if your surname is on the military listings. It’s one way of narrowing a search in a big district. And it sure beats reading the whole city of Watervliet.
The other day I was reviewing my online files, which are in a quite a state, and I rediscovered one of my signature Primitive Word Charts™ compiling data encountered in a Civil War pension file about my gg-grandfather Martin Haigney’s date of birth.
It’s another one of those exercises in How Old Do You Think You Are? Here goes!
|1890||Martin says he is 57 on his initial application.
Birth year: Approximately 1833.
|1890||Martin’s neighbors say he is “about sixty”.
Birth year: Approximately 1830.
|1897||Martin says he is 66 on his application for an increase.
Birth year: Approximately 1831.
|1907||Martin gives his date of birth as 2 March 1831 on his declaration for continuance of his pension. He states age as “past age of 75 years.”|
|1907||Army records supplied in support of Martin’s declaration of 1907 state his age on (a) 7 Mar 1859 as 27 and his age on (b) 7 Mar 1864 as 32.
Birth year (a) 1832; Birth year (b) 1832.
|1907||Martin’s affadavit affirms that to the best of his recollection he was 22 years old on his first enlistment, 7 March 1854. He says he must have been born in 1832, not 1831 as stated on his initial 1907 application.|
|1908||Martin gives his date of birth as 18 March 1832 in an application for an increase.|
|1908||Martin’s date of birth is noted as 18 March 1832 in approval of increase|
- Martin did not know the exact date or year of his birth:
- He gives an age on his initial application that doesn’t agree with the age he would be from information on later applications.
- He furnishes two different birthdays – 2 March and 18 March – on different documents.
- In his affidavit of 1907, he says his age at the time of his first enlistment is “to the best of my recollection.”
- Note that the birth month and the enlistment month are the same. It is possible that the birth date given was a guess pegged to a date everybody did actually agree upon – the date Martin first enlisted in the army.
- The pension forms do not uniformly require birth dates. The early forms asked only for age.
- At this point a birth year of 1832 seems to be a decent estimate. Using the information from the Army’s enlistment records, we know the age Martin gave at his re-enlistment in 1859 was 27. At least this record was compiled closest to whatever the actual date was.
- Of course, all this information is only from one source — the pension file. The census birth date estimates skip around: 1832 in the 1860 census; 1830 in the 1870 census; 1827 in the 1880 census; 1835 in the 1900 census; 1830 in the 1910 census. His tombstone lists a birthdate of 1829.
What is the moral of this particular tale, you might ask? There might not be much of one, but I’ll take a stab at it:
First: “To the best of my recollection” sure doesn’t mean “my exact recollection” on anybody’s part.
Second: You know when they say to use a wide date range when searching databases, no matter what you know you know about a person? Listen to them.
Note From The Dept. of Mangled Prose: Ha! I just noticed that I labeled Part One “When Were He Born Again?” A product of the post-turkey-day haze, I guess. Should I change it, or should it stand as part of the historical record? Decisions, decisions.
We now have officially entered the holiday season, which means that if anyone is vaguely interested in all this genealogical poking around we’re doing, now is the time they’re going to ask about it.
Just before Turkey Day, in one of those feast-planning phone conversations, my sister Mary and I got to talking about the genealogy stuff and about our ancestor Martin Haigney in particular. (I know, I know: The last half of this year has pretty much been MartinFest, but his Civil War pension file has just had so much interesting stuff in it.)
One of the questions my sister and I discussed is a classic: When was he born, exactly?
And even better: You mean he didn’t know either?
It’s so interesting to contemplate the radically different relationship our ancestors had with concepts such as vital statistics. Not being sure exactly when you were born? To me it feels dislocating, upsetting. How much in my life would be difficult, if not impossible, if I could not prove when I was born?
To Martin, it did not appear to be something one thought about at all. In fact, I’ll bet he didn’t worry much about it until his old age, when somebody at the Bureau of Pensions noticed a discrepancy in the ages Martin had reported on various pieces of paperwork.
The result was this 1907 affidavit, which neatly illustrates the vague relationship many of our ancestors had with their own birthdates, and the subsequent difficulties we can have trying to establish a timeline for them. In my Part II post, I’ll discuss Martin’s various ages, as stated by himself and others.
State of NEW YORK
County of STEUBEN
In the matter of Pension Ctf. #592,963 of Martin Haigney, Ord. Dep. U.S.A. – Claim for pension, Act of Feb. 6, 1907.
Personally came before me, a Notary Public in and for aforesaid County and State Martin Haigney aged 75 years Citizen of the Town of Bath (S. & S. Home) County of Steuben State of New York well known to me to be reputable and entitled to credit, and who being duly sworn, declares in relation to aforesaid case, as follows:
I am the above described claimant for pension under the Act of Feb. 6th, 1907, and in reply to official letter of March 18th calling for proof of my age, I have to state that I cannot get proof of same by record evidence or otherwise, and hereby wish to ammend [sic] my claim on account of a slight discrepancy and error discovered by me. I have figured back and well remember now that I was 22 years of age at my first enlistment in the Regular army on March 7, 1854. According to that I must have been born in 1832 instead of 1831 as I thought when filing my claim on age on or about Feb. 12, 1907.
Therefore, I wish to amend said claim so as to have my pension commence at the rate of $20 per month from the date of the filing of this statement in the Pension office; and that a rating of $15 per month be granted me commencing from the date of filing said claim, on or about Feb. 12, 1907, because I was more than 74 years old at the date of said filing, and supposed I was 75 years old, but as before stated, I now recollect well that I was 22 years old at the time of my first enlistment, and the records in Washington no doubt will corroborate my statement.
I am unable to furnish proof of my age, and respectfully ask that my claim be amended as above requested.
Witnesses to Mark: Daniel J. Orcutt Thomas B. Hannon
Martin X Haigney
[Receiving stamp at Pension Office: March 27, 1907]
Note: Martin sent this affidavit not from Watervliet (West Troy), his longtime home, but from Steuben County, New York, where he was a resident of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ home in Bath. I wrote a little bit about the home here.
I wouldn’t have visited the museum at the Watervliet Arsenal if my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney hadn’t served there.
My interest in armaments and military history is mild, to put it mildly. And I wasn’t sure how useful the visit would be in giving me specific insights about my ancestor’s life there. Also, it was pouring chilly rain as I set out.
Fortunately, I didn’t talk myself into a detour to a nice warm Starbucks.
Housed in the historic Iron Building, the Watervliet Arsenal museum includes a wealth of artifacts, displayed in the context of the lives of Arsenal workers and residents. (Fun fact: The poet Stephen Vincent Benet was a third-generation resident. His grandfather and father were both commanders there, and the arsenal’s Benet Laboratory is named in their honor.)
Watervliet has operated since 1813, but since Martin’s Army service occurred between 1854 and 1867, I concentrated on the Civil War-era displays. Interestingly, Watervliet did not manufacture the actual cannon guns in that conflict. It made everything else, such as the carriages they sat upon, the shells they fired, and the ammunition cases that held the cannonballs.
Behind a metal door at one end of the exhibit hall is a huge, echoing room that feels off-limits to visitors, but is actually a particularly cool exhibit area. On one side is a wealth of rare antique cannons and weaponry. On the other is an array of metalworking machinery, arranged to give a sense of what an arsenal shop floor might have looked like back in Martin’s day.
At peak capacity during the Civil War, the arsenal had 2,000 employees, one-quarter of whom were children. At first only boys were hired, but when the arsenal began manufacturing cartridges for the Sharps carbine in 1864, it was discovered that the smaller hands of little girls were better suited to rolling the linen cylinders.
“I was nine years old,” recalled a child worker many years later. “All of us little girls sat on a long bench, our feet not quite touching the floor, and we filled cartridges all day long … I worked from seven in the morning until six at night.”
The curator, a helpful and erudite fellow called Scott, clarified the term “artificer,” an enigmatic job description in my ancestor’s Civil War pension file. It’s an elegant way of saying “machinist”; however, Martin’s particular machines and skills are lost in the mists of time.
Since my visit coincided with the last of the day’s visiting hours, Scott was able to show me the barracks where Martin would have lived as a soldier. (In the 1860 census, Martin has two addresses – one at the arsenal, and one at a house in the town of West Troy with his wife Mary and their oldest child Joseph, my great-grandfather.)
It was not a day (or a setting) for poring over records. But thanks to the museum and the kindness of its curator, I had a grand time walking in Martin’s footsteps for an afternoon.