And another newspaper thing …

Over on the Brooklyn genealogy email list, correspondent Julie Parks recently contributed an interesting search tip for the Fulton newspaper database, a great New York source. The tip: searching by your ancestor’s street address as well as name. As she notes, it’s true you can pull up a lot of information about people who are not your ancestors, particularly if they lived in apartment buildings. But one might get lucky, too. Some respondents to the initial post didn’t have much luck searching address alone, but others got results with a name/address combination.

I have only just started playing around with this option myself — it’s pulled up a couple of articles I had already found. But I’m looking forward to experimenting with it some more to see if some of my more elusive ancestors might pop up.


Raiders of the lost Internet

Martin Hollick at The Slovak Yankee made an important point the other day about what he calls the “hidden Web” — i.e., potentially useful online genealogy databases that won’t necessarily pop up in search engine results. To me, he’s also talking about putting the “re” back in front of “search.” Sit down in front of a computer anymore and it’s all about keywords.

Well, that’s the way we’re living now, but to me the problem with keywords is twofold. First, everybody’s figured out that you have to deploy them, which means it’s possible to waste a lot of time clicking into sites that are not much more than prettily arranged collections of buzzwords. Second, thinking up good keyword searches is only one part of analyzing a research task and coming up with a coherent search strategy. As Hollick notes, you need to know about specific sites that have good information. I have gotten my best tipoffs from genealogy email lists, where kind posters have given detailed feedback on good databases and searchable sites.

I also see a lost aspect from the days before search engines (and heck, before the Web). Please understand, I wouldn’t want to return to those days. Does anybody remember things like this:

That is what it looked like when a person hooked into something called Gopher, an information-sharing protocol from antiquity, also known as 1991. You can read about it on Wikipedia, to which I am indebted for this nostalgic image. I was never anywhere close to Gopher-geekdom — I was one of the carpetbaggers who played around with it when AOL introduced its Usenet (another historical link provided) and Gopher portals back in 1994-ish. My point isn’t that text-intense, root-around situations like this are so fantastic to use — I don’t care what the nostalgists say, they weren’t — but they did encourage a bit more thought about what you were trying to find and where you might most productively go looking for it.

It’s similar to the mourning for the classic card catalog — the lost opportunities for serendipitous discoveries, the ways flipping through cards jogs the thought process in ways that clicking on links doesn’t. I wouldn’t argue for backtracking on progress, that’s silly. But it’s good to remember there’s always more than one way to tackle a problem, before we get lost in a keyword-generating haze.


Ancestry Searching: Some 101-Style Tips

A while back I attended an Ancestry.com webinar on how to make the most of your searches. I know Ancestry’s search engine twists and turns are a hot-button topic. Last fall, for example, Randy Seaver did a succinct rundown of old vs. new interfaces, at least as things stood at that point. (All I can repeat is that in case you didn’t know, you can still use the “Old Search” button at the top right of the “Search All Records” page.)

But this post (like that webinar) isn’t for searchers expert enough to know just which part of the interface annoys them the most. It’s to pass along some basic procedural tips that struck me as useful for those just starting to explore Ancestry databases.  Many might think, “What, this is news?” Well, as we used to say on the copy desk, there are babies born every day who never heard of Elvis. So there.

Where to start: Do not start at the Ancestry home page. Go to the Search All Records form, and use the Advanced Search option. Checking the “exact” box is … debatable. For common given names and surnames it can help — did you know there are more than 800 variations of the name Catherine? For dates, “exact” is problematic, as we shall see.

Useful keys: To spare your fingers, know that: P = preview; J = next; K= previous; N= new form; R= current form.

Three things to do upon locating a record: (A) Read it. Really look at all the information. Scan for clues as to immigration year, time of marriage, total number of children. In census entries, look at the neighbors — some might be collateral kin. (B) Save it online to a shoebox or online tree, if you do online trees. (C) Save it offline however you prefer to do it, by saving it to your hard drive or making a printout, or whatever. I was snickering at this advice until I remembered all the records I’ve re-read and re-saved over the years.

Play with date ranges: The webinar instructors advised beginning with a plus/minus range of 10 years. For example, ancestors didn’t always care about just when they were born; there really was a time when one’s birthdate wasn’t a matter of vital importance. So start with a wide range, narrowing it as you go, depending upon the hits you get.

Use wildcards to play with spelling variations. You can replace as many characters as you want, as long as there is a minimum of three actual characters in the search term. I can pull in lots of  variations on Haigney by searching H*g*y. This can be a real help with a name that goes under multiple spellings.

Look at all types of records, even if you are certain your ancestor would never be in them. Don’t search assuming that he or she: was never in the army/never left their home county/never copyrighted anything anywhere. You may well be surprised. I have.

Bon voyage and good luck!


Genealogy pitfall: When good certificates go wrong

My great-uncle Leo's death certificate (1901).

As a genealogy enthusiast I forget not everyone hears the words “death certificate” with excitement. And truly, some death certificates are always hard to read, like this one for my grandfather’s brother Leo Haigney, who died a little ways past his third birthday, in 1901.

Leo died from tubercular meningitis; there wasn’t much hope in pre-antibiotic days. The doctor was called on February 15; Leo died a week later, on the morning of the 22nd. Convulsions were listed as the secondary cause of death. I can’t imagine what it must have been like as a parent to watch a death struggle like that. More accurately, I could if I really tried, but as a mother, I just don’t want to go there.

Instead,  I will imagine what it might have been like for my great-grandfather Joseph, Leo’s father, giving the information for the death certificate. This is not a task you’d do in a calm state of mind. My parents died twenty-five years apart, but the extreme fog on my brain was exactly the same each time, and it didn’t really lift until about a month after the funerals.

So, I’m not terribly surprised at what transpired on Leo’s certificate:

Father: Joseph Haigney, born U.S.

[Correct, given information from other sources.]

Mother: Mary Haigney, born Ireland.

[Incorrect, according to other sources. Leo’s mother was the former Catherine Connors, born in New York State.]

Why is “Mary Haigney” on Leo’s death certificate? Well, this information fits Joseph’s mother, whose name was Mary and who indeed was born in Ireland, according to census records. What seems likely  is that upon being asked the question, “Mother’s name?” a grieving father responded with his own mother’s name, not the name of the deceased child’s mother.

This little story shows why death certificates, though valuable, must be treated with a lot of caution.

Genealogical material can be divided into two important categories: original and derivative. Original material is based on firsthand knowledge of the people and events being described.  Derivative is everything else. Death certificates can fall into either category. For example, a deceased’s widow can’t automatically be expected to have firsthand knowledge of her inlaws’ birthplaces. But she might, if everyone grew up together in the same town.

So we find ourselves asking, who was the informant, and how likely were they to be right about the information they were asked to supply?

And we also have to factor in the state-of-mind problem. Does the information make sense given what we know from other sources? Even an informant we could expect to be right might get it wrong, as my great-grandfather did.

Here is a frank and informative discussion on how grief and disorientation can affect one’s ability to provide accurate information for death records. And here is another discussion about how to evaluate what’s on a death certificate.


Follow Friday: The Brooklyn Information Page

Are you researching ancestors in Brooklyn, NY? You must have visited The Brooklyn Information Page. If not, click on the link right now. I will wait.

And wait. And wait.

Oh, just come back tomorrow, already. This Brooklyn-centric genealogy page is crammed with stuff, and if you’re a first-time visitor, you’ll probably root around in it for hours, just as I did when I first discovered it — gosh, can it be eleven years ago now? Hard to believe.

The Brooklyn Page was created in 1997 by Nancy Lutz, and continues to be a font of information on all things Brooklyn. It is also a gateway to the NYBrooklyn-L email list, which I might as well warn you will flood torrents of information into your email box, but is always interesting as all get-out. I get it in digest form. I have mostly lurked there, and have learned all sorts of things from the unfailingly patient regulars.  There is no such thing as a dumb question there, trust me. To get an idea, you can browse the archives here.

Back to the Brooklyn Page itself: Brooklyn is a pretty complicated topic. To say your ancestors “came from Brooklyn” may be of  limited usefulness, depending upon the time frame. The entity called “Brooklyn” was once a whole bunch of separate settlements, each with its own rich history. (This helps to explain the fierce neighborhood partisanship  that reigns in Brooklyn to this day.) Here you can find information on old Brooklyn town names, farmlands and street names, so important in narrowing the search for an elusive relative. You can also find information on which churches were located where — also very important in a place where Roman Catholics tend to use parish names as geographic signposts.

One of the nicest things on The Brooklyn Page is Paper Trails, where Nancy has established a home for something everyone has sooner or later — a vital record that doesn’t fit anywhere in the lines they’re researching. On Paper Trails, these orphan records are available for browsing, perhaps to be discovered by someone else who can make use of them.

There are also lots and lots of transcriptions: obituaries, police-blotter stories and directory pages, to name just some.

The Brooklyn Page is searchable, which is how I discovered the identity of my great-great-uncle William Haigney’s wife, Sarah, as well as some of Sarah’s large Dowd clan from Brooklyn. It was also the place where I first discovered the maiden name of my great-uncle Joseph’s wife, Catherine Reilly Haigney.

Consider this a very belated valentine to Nancy and all the Brooklyn list regulars, whose insights, humor and wisdom continue to make my day every day.


The morgue I loved to visit

After college, I had a temporary job as a reporter at the Bridgewater (NJ) Courier-News. It was called a postgraduate internship, which loosely translated as: “We can’t hire any full-timers, but we could use the help for a few months.”

It was mainly fun. Sure, I often had to poke myself awake at municipal meetings, but I also got to cover Ultimate Frisbee tournaments.

And by far, the coolest perk of the job was the morgue.

“Morgue” is newspaper slang for the files of old clippings and photos. Before digitalization, this meant a roomful of overflowing file cabinets. It varied as to how well the morgue was organized, or if it existed at all. There might be an actual archivist on hand, but at small papers, there might simply be a copy editor who got sick of never being able to find reference material, so the morgue was a labor of love.

Pawnbrokers' sales, obits -- the morgue had it all.

I lived for clip file research. Heck, I sometimes made up reasons to check the clips. (I really should have heeded this inner voice and chucked journalism in favor of a career in archiving.)

But today, newspapers are in shrink mode. Papers are closing. Or, like my former employer, they’re moving to smaller, cheaper quarters, with limited space for clip files.

This article, while bringing back memories, is a reminder that in many towns, the priceless resource that is a newspaper archive might be at risk. Fortunately the Courier-News management has donated its holdings to local libraries and historical societies.

But will everybody? What will happen to all that history? Speaking to a Syracuse, NY reporter, author and former newspaper guy Pete Hamill expressed the unique character of the morgues: “They tell you all the detail that historians don’t. How much was a pair of shoes. What did a guy pay to go to the ballpark in 1934 during the Depression. How many people were there.”

Interestingly, at least one business out there has sensed a commercial boon in old newspaper clippings.  A few months back, Kevin Roderick at LA Observed reported on Time Capsule Press, whose owners plan to partner with newspaper managements to package material from their morgues into books. Their debut is a history of the Los Angeles Lakers drawn from the files of the Los Angeles Times.

It’s a definite bright spot of potential for a historical resource that can’t be allowed to disappear.


Armchair time-travel

There is nothing better than a gigantic used-book sale, where you could spend a whole Saturday happily digging. I always expect to come away with a wheelbarrow’s worth of reading.

I don’t always expect to come up with a window into my grandparents’ lost everyday life, but that’s what I found at one book sale.

The window was Daddy Danced The Charleston, a vintage cultural memoir by Ruth Corbett, a veteran ad-agency artist. She also had a huge stash of memorabilia – a perfect source for her history of everyday life, circa 1920-1940.

Writing in 1970, Corbett aimed Charleston squarely at her daughter, a miniskirted mod-squader who giggled at flappers and raccoon coats.   “Maybe she’ll laugh at her getup in 1990!” groused Corbett in her introduction. (No kidding.)

Corbett’s book resurrects vanished fixtures of everyday life, such as:

•     full-service grocery shops

•   irons you had to heat on the stove

•    vacuum-tube cash-carrying systems in department stores

•    oleomargarine you colored yellow with the capsule in the package

These are the details that bring old family stories into clearer focus. Corbett’s book is like the missing text to some of my family photos. Here’s the inside scoop on marcel waves, middy blouses, “Terry and the Pirates” and Fibber McGee’s closet. (If you ever had a mom or grandma tell you your room looked like “the inside of Fibber McGee’s closet,” you now know it wasn’t a compliment.)

Who knew that George VI’s unexpected accession to the British throne touched off a wave of coronation fever that swept everyday fashion in 1937, sparking a vogue for tiaras and brass coronet buttons on blouses?

And who can resist white-hot, now forgotten celebrities like the “girl diva” Marion Talley, “youngest lady to ever trill on the great opera stage”?

I can’t. And the book only cost me a dollar. I guess I got a pretty good deal.


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