“Every person has a story and you just have to ask.”
– Eleven-year-old Eli Boardman of Boulder, Co., editor/publisher of his own community newspaper, the Boardman Camera, 200 editions old and still going strong. (As reported by Jim Romenesko.)
Words of wisdom for genealogists, as well as youthful journalists!
I’m working on a history of my house, mostly for my own selfish pleasure but also to practice my skills in this particular research area. When I spot any vintage news items involving my street, I naturally go on alert. Not long ago I was searching local newspaper microfilms for an obituary when I stumbled upon a terribly sad story from 1938 that took place across the street from where I now live. (Preliminary poking around in censuses and directories indicates that some relatives of the people mentioned in the news item may still be living, hence the brackets.)
Child Found Drowned in Goldfish Pool Here / Mother Transfers From Ship and Returns to Montclair
An 18-month-old baby [...] was drowned on Saturday when she fell into a goldfish pool at the rear of [a] home on [...] Place. Deputy County Medical Examiner Olcott said the death was accidental and caused by drowning.
The article went on to say that the toddler was staying with her aunt at a house neighboring the yard with the goldfish pool. Sadly, the scenario in the story could still be written today: The child went out of sight only for a few minutes, but somehow managed to circumvent a high fence around the pool. The toddler’s mother was on a ship en route to South America, but was intercepted off Cape Hatteras and transferred to a liner headed back north, so that she arrived back in New Jersey the following day.
It was strange and sad to read about such a tragedy on a street I know so well — a street that continues to be a favorite of families with young children. I can tell you that there’s no trace remaining of the goldfish pond mentioned in the story, but it was still oddly disturbing to read about something like that happening on our pleasant little street, even though it was so long ago.
Now I’m wondering what news items might be out there about my own property. I suppose that’s a hidden hazard of doing house history reports — not all the stories are going to be colorful and heartwarming. And I guess I’ll be mentioning this possibility up front in doing this sort of research for someone else.
Tom Kemp at the GenealogyBank blog notes that the New York City-based newspaper The Irish American published regular reports of marriages and deaths in Ireland between 1849 to 1914. This does not sound like a definitive listing, but apparently the listings occur often enough, and in enough quantity, to be notable. Civil registration in Ireland did not begin until 1864.
The newspaper is searchable through GenealogyBank, which is a subscription service, but is also often accessible through public libraries.
The copy editor in me prompts some quirky reactions to old newspapers: “Ewwww…. Futura! I hate that font!” (By the way, did you know there’s an entire documentary about Helvetica?)
But as we all know, newspapers are about more than type fonts. They give us big genealogy discoveries. Today is about a sequel to one of them.
A while back I wrote about the treasure trove of family nuggets I found through keyword searches of the Troy (N.Y.) Times-Record. I pawed through this impressive pile of clips in drunken abandon, updating my notes like mad.
Several months later, I’m regarding my impressive pile of clips with more wariness. Like censuses, newspaper items can contain a lot of information to cross-check. Did I get everything right? And what did I miss?
As part of Operation Database Cleanup, I began updating the database card of my great-great-aunt Mary Ann (Mamie) Haigney Walker (1872-1956). She had been a minor part of the Big Newspaper Trove, but it did contain her obituary, where I found the names of her husband and son. My current task was doublechecking these names. I didn’t have much else planned.
The names checked out fine against the obituary. But it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to cross-check these names in the rest of the newspaper items in my files – purely as a precaution. I just knew I had seen everything there was to see about this surname.
Mrs. Mary Walker of Kelly Road recently celebrated her eightieth birthday. At the time she was at the summer home of her sons in Far Rockaway and was surprised with a large dinner party of relatives and friends. Mrs. Walker was honored with a large birthday cake. Four generations of Walkers were represented by Mrs. Walker, her son, Edward, grandson and great-granddaughter. …
OK, class, what is of interest here?
(A) The phrase “home of her SONS.”
(B) The phrase “FOUR GENERATIONS of Walkers were represented.”
(C) The headline font may be Futura.
Very good, it is both A and B! We see that Mrs. Walker might have had more than the one son listed in her obituary. She also had a grandson and great-granddaughter. Perhaps they are mentioned by name elsewhere in the clips? Perhaps it would be a good idea to look?
After further examinations of the clips, I think “sons” might be a typo, as I have found only one son mentioned by name in subsequent articles. But I certainly went back to the rest of the clippings in a chastened and more careful state of mind. I realized I hadn’t really been paying a lot of attention to the Walkers – I had been too busy looking for clues about the Haigney surname.
As a result of renewed hunting I have added two grandchildren to the list I’m investigating for Mamie’s family group, plus a woman with a surname different from Walker who might be a married granddaughter or great-granddaughter. All of these names were scattered throughout my collection of newspaper snippets, but because I wasn’t really scanning for them, I read right over them.
A clear case of read in haste; re-read (and research) at leisure. Consider me abashed.
I’m quite excited, and not just because it’s the second time in as many weeks that I’ve managed to sneak a reference to the Whig Party into the blog. The Troy Irish Genealogy Society has a new addition to its Troy Newspaper Project:
This is the sixth data set added to the newspaper collection, and includes 821 reports of deaths and the names of 1,749 brides and grooms. All of it is from a period that considerably predates 1880, when civil registration became law in New York State.
Project coordinator Bill McGrath shared these highlights:
• Most of the records are from the Capital District area, i.e., Troy and neighboring cities such as Albany, Watervliet (West Troy) and Schenectady.
• A significant number of records came from nearby states such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.
• In the next few months, the society plans to add more of the 28,000 death and marriage records reported in 40 years of the Troy Daily Whig from 1839-78. They’re also working on a database of 4,000 burial records from St. Mary’s Cemetery in Troy.
My dad wouldn’t have been caught dead reading The New York Times. “The paper for eggheads,” is about as printable a comment as I can reproduce here. But there were culturally sound reasons behind his distaste.
The Times didn’t cover Dad’s New York. It’s famous for having a blind spot about working-class New Yorkers, really. I do think they’ve tried to rectify that in recent years. But to this day, it’s possible to read unintentionally amusing pieces wherein an earnest Times writer takes a trip to a place like Queens or Staten Island, and carries on as if they’ve just been to Mars.
My purpose is not solely to make fun of the Times (no! not solely!). The more important point is that I belong to a Daily News family as far as death notices go. In the more distant past, we were of course a Brooklyn Eagle family, but one branch seems to have been staunchly Brooklyn Standard Union.
We know from any basic research guide that newspapers are valuable sources for genealogists. Obituaries and birth announcements are only the most obvious benefit. Society meetings, town government, charity balls, who was visiting whom and who had just come home from the hospital — all this was fodder for news once upon a time, and a good thing, too.
But we must pay attention to who our ancestors were, to use newspapers effectively. Because once upon a time, the paper you read was a bit like where you worshiped. You just didn’t read some papers because they were edited by those [expletive] dirty [political/economic/religious enemies]. You would never, ever insert a notice about a loved one’s birth or death in that [expletive] paper. After all, you’d want your friends to read it, wouldn’t you?
And don’t think you’re off the hook in small towns. For an example, consider this episode in Terry Ryan’s affecting memoir, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. At one point young Terry and her mother make a nostalgic visit to Mom’s small Midwestern hometown. Here’s what newspaper consumerism was like there, circa 1915:
The seven papers Mom’s uncle Frank and aunt Clara read were mostly Republican-owned, but they subscribed to a few Democrat newspapers, too. “Not to mention,” Mom said, “a German-language paper for immigrants like my grandparents, and a Whig paper.”
“Wig?” I said …
“No, Whig with an h, like the political party of the same name,” she said. … “The party died out in the mid-1800s, but it still had its followers. According to Uncle Frank, people had to have a variety of news sources to be well-rounded … “
I grew up long past the time when it was possible to subscribe to seven newspapers! Consolidation and corporate ownership meant, even by the 1970s, that relatively few large towns in the U.S. had more than one daily. Today, there is much talk about the death of the printed newspaper, but re-reading this passage, it occurs that we’re experiencing not a death, but a restoration of diverse opinions and themes. If Uncle Frank were alive today, I’m convinced, his Google Reader would be working overtime.
As it is, it helps to be aware of this vanished and complex world of print news, when we’re using it to track our ancestors.