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.


Link edition: April 5, 2010

OMG Department: Talk about an unsettling post title: I Destroyed My Genealogy Database Tonight. And the author is Dick Eastman! The Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter Guy! Full of trepidation, I clicked through. Yes, Mr. Eastman did indeed fry his database. But being Mr. Eastman, he has a multilayered backup setup that had him completely covered, and besides, this wasn’t even his primary computer. You can never read too many happy-ending backup stories. Excuse me while I go off to make a backup now.

Legend or Family Fact?: Another eye-catching title is “Did Great-Grandpa Ride With an Outlaw Gang?” Here, a Texas newspaper genealogy columnist  gives a succinct primer on Dealing With Family Legends 101. Good basic tips on where to start in the effort to untangle fact from fiction. And may I say how cool is that, having a genealogy column in a local paper.

Open-Source, Genealogy-Style: An often-asked question by genealogy beginners is “What software program should I use?” For those interested in an alternative to the Family Tree Makers and Reunions of the world, check out this article on Gramps, an open-source application that runs on Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. Interesting.

Trains of Thought: Railroads? Genealogy? How about railroads AND genealogy? Somehow I think there will be takers. If you are in northern New Jersey and you think this is your niche, check out the Railroads and Roundtable session this Saturday, April 10, sponsored by the Hudson County Genealogical Society. The morning-long agenda features a presentation on “The Railroad Wars of Hudson County,” followed by “Who Do You Think You’re Looking For?”, a roundtable discussion in which attendees are free to bring up any genealogy questions, answers, tips or strategies they’d like to share.

Here’s to the week ahead — onward and upward.

Good Friday: Crucifixus / Lotti

Here is something I’ll be singing at a couple of services this weekend: the sublime 8-part setting of “Crucifixus” by Antonio Lotti.  This version by the Dordt College Concert Choir of Sioux Center, Iowa, is pretty nice:

Have a nice, safe day.

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.

Celebrity Genealogy Fun (which never happens to me)

So now we see, via E! online, that Madonna and Ellen DeGeneres are 11th cousins. E! thoughtfully includes side-by-side pictures which you can study to see how they totally resemble one another, sort of.

This discovery comes to us courtesy of’s research department, and all I can say is I wish I had that sort of time to work on my stuff. But then, they are doing it for a living. Also, of course, they are the research engine behind Who Do You Think You Are?, with which I recently became current with a marathon viewing. (So far I like Lisa Kudrow’s episode best.)

There’s a kind of trashy glitz to celebrity genealogy stories that makes me roll my eyes. But no, I can’t look away. Maybe someday I too will find an 11th cousin who is a major international star. Although I’m not betting heavily on the possibility.