Lost Lambs

It’s tough to explain the satisfactions of genealogy to nonparticipants. And I completely understand their bewilderment. Why does anyone want to traipse around cemeteries cooing over tombstones? What exactly is so much fun about libraries?

But there’s one thing that everybody seems to get, even the most bored and impatient of listeners:

It’s really, really nice to find the lost babies.

That’s what I call those children who lived and died between census years, the ones who exist perhaps as a question mark on an old family data sheet, or — in the case of my great-great aunt Rose (Connors) Brant — as a statistical squiggle on the census returns.

Rose (1860-1914) had six children, six living, when she and her family were counted in the U.S. federal census in Jersey City in 1900. When 1910 rolled around, she was the mother of eight children, seven living, her youngest child being born in about 1905. On my genealogy program, Rose’s tally was four pink circles for the girls, three for the boys, and one Unknown, which, in Reunion anyway, is a white space.

Those white Unknown spaces sadden me to no end, and the mysteries they contain can stay unresolved for years, sometimes for always. Happily, this particular mystery occurred when civil registration for vitals was well under way in New Jersey.

At the state archives in Trenton, births for earlier years are filed by certificate number.To find one, you need to examine an index reel that is arranged by year and parents’ surnames. Since Rose’s two youngest surviving children were born in 1900 and 1905, that meant she could have had a child in between — or she could have had a child after 1905, but before 1910. I decided to try that earlier time frame first, seeing as Rose was already nearing age 40 in 1900.

And very soon I found her missing child — a little boy, born just before Christmas 1902, and dead of meningitis by September 1903. I was saddened at how brief his life was. But it still felt good to type a name over that “Unknown,” and convert the white tag to blue. It’s strange to think how a life can be reduced to a set of numbers scrawled on a census tally sheet — and satisfying when you can be the person who puts a name where there was once just a statistic.


Seen: Old Psychiatric Hospital, Marlboro

Urban ecologist James O’Brien shares haunting photographs of the old Marlboro (NJ) Psychiatric Hospital, closed in 1998 and slowly being absorbed by local flora and fauna. The hospital operated for six decades, considered a state-of-the-art facility at the start, but by the end of its official life, a troubled echo of the bad old days of psychiatric care.

According to NJ.com, state officials will finally demolish the complex in Monmouth County once they resolve issues related to asbestos remediation and decommissioning an old wastewater treatment plant. (It was supposed to be razed two years ago.) For now, the buildings remain, tangled in vines and scrawled with graffiti. Some of the interiors sport huge fireplaces, beautiful panelling and graceful bay windows — Downton Abbey crossed with Hill House.

A note for the researcher: The records for Marlboro are held by New Jersey’s Department of Human Services, and some contact information can be found here. However, being medical records, they may well prove tricky to access for the genealogical researcher who must work within today’s privacy regulations. A lot can depend upon the time frame and the relationship of the researcher to the patient (also, to be frank, some luck). This thread contains an interesting discussion about Marlboro and ancestor hunting.


Vitals: Gems, A Dud, And Wishful Thinking

The Big Brown Envelope of New York Vitals from Albany lingered in the pile of post-vacation mail for about a second. That’s because getting vitals from New York State is about as carefree a process as snagging a breakfast reservation to Cinderella’s Royal Table at Disney World.

Just kidding! It is not THAT bad! Still, in the interest of full disclosure: The last time an envelope from Albany arrived, I was high as a kite on painkillers following elbow surgery, but I came roaring back to alertness at the sight of a return address that read “Department of Health.” Mr. Archaeologist had no idea a zombie could open an envelope that fast.

This time was no different. Shoving silly nothings such as credit-card bills and municipal tax reminders aside, I tore into the envelope, to be rewarded with a treasure trove of data. In a lot of cases I was getting confirmation, not discovery. Overall, though, it was a satisfying haul.

There was only one dud, but it was a tough one. The certificate I thought might be for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Connors turned out to be for an 18-year-old; clearly not my Patrick, who should have been at least in his fifties.

“So you guessed wrong,” said Mr. Archaeologist helpfully.

“I do NOT guess,” I said coldly.

“Excuse me. I meant your hypothesis turned out to be incorrect.”

That’s better.

Well, it was true about my guess … I mean, my hypothesis … oh, let’s just come clean; this was a great example of wishful thinking. In my defense, when I ordered up the certificate, I didn’t know everything I know now. But still: I’d had a burial card for Patrick from St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands, that read 10 March 1882. When I went to search the death index microfiches, all I could find for a Patrick Connors who died in West Troy was a death on 18 September 1883. Maybe the burial card was somehow in error. (Although these St. Agnes cards haven’t been wrong yet. See? Wishful thinking.) Or maybe the death was reported some time after the fact.

The day after sending in the request, I turned up an Albany County probate filing that stated my ancestor’s death was 10 March 1882, in other words, what the burial card said. If I’d had the probate filing 24 hours earlier, I’d have snapped out of it. Oh, well. The request was already on its way.

What now? Back to the index, I guess, and see what I can see again. Did I really, truly check all the name spelling variations? Did my eyes cross over one listing too many?

It is helpful to get a reminder from time to time about how important it is to keep your cool and not let the desire for a quick solution override common sense. This is, of course, a great life lesson in general, but in genealogy, it is particularly pertinent.


Upstate NY Excitement

Read this item from the Upstate New York Genealogy Blog about interesting new advances in making New York State records available online. This is especially exciting for New York State residents, who will be able to access newly digitized records free under an arrangement between Ancestry.com and the New York State Archives.

Also of note from the article: It says the New York State Birth, Death and Marriage Index will soon be accessible through Archives.com. It is not clear at this point whether this will fall under the free-access arrangement for New York residents, or whether it will be subscription-only.


Stuff That Comes Up: Shorthand

From the Whoops! Been Meaning To Tell You About That files:

These notes are on the back of the 1946 coroner’s report filed in the death of one of my distant cousins. They’re in shorthand, I’m guessing. They cover most of the back of the page.

My first reaction was surprise, of course, but my second was surprise at my own surprise. I should have known I’d come up against shorthand sooner or later — in probate documents, for instance.

Is it Pitman or Gregg? Alas, I would not know. As a reporter I relied upon a compact tape recorder and a really, really fast longhand. Still do. I need to find an interpreter, and I might have a couple of candidates among my friends and neighbors. At least I hope so.

Or I might have to become more educated myself.

It’s always entertaining, the things you end up having to learn when you’re doing genealogy.


Gone and (Almost) Forgotten

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.


On The Coroner’s Trail

You never know when you’re going to need a coroner’s report, right?

It turned out that I needed one after I pulled an NYC death certificate and got a nasty surprise — my distant cousin had died after her skull (somehow) was fractured (by someone or something un-named).

Next step: a coroner’s report, which is not held at the Municipal Archives. But they will forward a request to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, if you find a report number. (The Archives holds microfilms of coroner-related records, although not for all years and all localities.)

This search had to wait until my next visit to the Archives, which came about because an American Girl doll had had an unfortunate accident and needed a trip to the doll hospital at American Girl Place in Manhattan.

Immediately, I thought of the coroner’s log. Wouldn’t anyone?

Typically, the trip went less than swimmingly, especially at first:

1. Run out of house with my youngest, briefcase over shoulder, crying “Go Go GO!” Ignore child’s snickers.

2. Run to school. Hug child goodbye (that was correct child, wasn’t it?) Sprint for bus stop a block away. Realize I am carrying mod pink lunchbox. Sprint back to school.

3. Hop bus, get to archives. Explain search to extremely nice, extremely brisk staffer, who points to Cabinet 8 on the far side of room. Kings County coroner’s logs are in there, she says.

4. Stare intently at rows of drawers labeled many things, but not “Brooklyn” or “Kings.”

5. Explain to second staffer what I’m looking for. Second staffer says those records aren’t at this facility. Despair.

6. Staffer No. 1 strides over and rolls eyes. She eyes the cabinet, pulls open drawer marked “Richmond and Queens” and points.

7. Yep, there are the films of the Brooklyn logs for 1946. Don’t ask why. Just grab microfilm machine and get going.

And yes, I did find the coroner’s report number, shuddering a bit along the way. (Random entry: “Unidentified bones found in water at foot of 58th St.”) Incidentally, you can bypass the coroner’s logs if the death certificate includes the coroner’s report number — so check.

Then it was time to file and pay for the request. If you ever end up doing this, you will give the nice people at the Municipal Archives a check for no more than $30. Specifically, in the field where one generally writes stuff like “Ten and xx/100 Dollars,” you will write “Not to Exceed $30.”

I’m mentioning this so that I can spare you (and the nice folks at the Archives) a repeat of my torn-up checks while I internalized this concept. This oddly-written check will cover a $10 search fee and the copying of up to 20 pages at $1 per page. If there are more than 20 pages, you’ll be notified of the fee so you can decide if you want to go for it.

So after the checkbook confetti cleared, the request was filed and I was on my way to the doll hospital.

The doll, by the way, recovered beautifully.

And the coroner’s report came a couple of weeks later, but that’s another story altogether.


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