Blog Note: Links tomorrow!

I didn’t forget the links. In fact, there are some rather nice ones this week. Look for them tomorrow.


War Memorial

I had a high school teacher whose behavior could be erratic, to put it mildly. He could be a genial, funny, wisecracking sort of guy. But he could lose his temper with a swift intensity that looked damned scary to a clueless freshman.

Any little thing could do it. I do not remember exactly how I set it off the time I was the target. It might have been something like not responding quickly enough when he called on me. Maybe I was grinning at one of his remarks. In five seconds, he went from calm instructor to red-faced and furious, nose-to-nose with me, screaming at the top of his lungs that I’d better not disrespect him again. When he was done, he continued the lesson as if nothing had happened.

Another time he went around the class asking us about our fathers’ military service. He himself had seen combat in the Marines. Where had our fathers served?

“Army,” said one kid.

“You dad was smarter than me,” said my teacher. “Next?”

“Navy,” said the kid next to me.

“Smarter still.” My teacher was on a roll now. He pointed at me. “What about your father?”

“Coast Guard,” I said.

“Smartest guy of all.” Even the most clueless of freshmen knew that this wasn’t a compliment. And indeed, it was a launching point for a five-minute, acerbically humorous riff on easy tours of duty, as compared to other (unspecified) nastier assignments.

I never mentioned any of this to my parents at the time. I wasn’t programmed to bring problems like that home — it was our business to take what the teachers dished out. But also, it was easy to see that the guy had issues with a capital I. The encounter angered but also disturbed me; I wondered what he was really expressing with it.

And years later, after I’d graduated and heard that he’d committed suicide, I was not terribly surprised. We didn’t have a name for it, but even back in the 1970s we were starting to figure out that you could come home from a war only to find the war came home with you.

Memorial Day is when we remember those killed in combat, but I’d also like to remember the ones who came home and never talked about it, who cracked jokes and blew their stacks for no good reason, the ones whom the wars claim again and again, years after the fact. I wish them peace and honor their service.

Follow Friday: NYC Vital Records

If you think one of your ancestors was born, or died, or married in New York City, this is for you: a database of New York City vital records containing thousands of entries.

Online. Searchable.

This miracle is made possible by the volunteers of the Genealogy Federation of Long Island. According to the site, members of the Italian and German Genealogy groups have scanned more than 30,000 pages of documents and amassed an online database of over 2,760,000 death certificates. That’s the death certificate index alone. There are also marriage and naturalization databases well worth exploring.

The indexes are easy to search by surname. You can specify exact spelling, Soundex or use a wildcard.

If you search the death index and get a hit, you’ll see a chart showing the person’s last name, first name, age, date of death, the certificate number and the borough that issued the certificate.

The date range covered depends upon the type and location of records. For instance, the death index covers 1891 to 1948. The database is a work in progress, so if someone doesn’t turn up in a search, it’s never a bad idea to check back after several months and see what new updates have been entered.

Thanks to this database, you could order a certificate by mail without springing for a potentially costly search. Or you can  go to the Municipal Archives in Manhattan armed with the exact certificate numbers you need, which is a godsend if time is short.

When you click on the link you are initially taken to a page with a stern warning — “No More Databases — Unless.” It’s eye-popping, but makes the point. (Scroll down, and a button takes you to the indexes.) Efforts like this are only possible through goodwill — whether it’s volunteers donating time or well-wishers donating funds.

Link: New York City Vital Records Indexes

Treasure Chest Thursday: Letter Full of Memories

The word is out that I’m a sucker for old stuff, so I’m a leading candidate for a call when people are cleaning out their filing cabinets. Not that I mind. Can anyone appreciate orphaned manila folders the way I do?

Several years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a manila folder labeled LYNCH SURNAME, containing some of my father-in-law’s genealogy notes. It isn’t a thick folder because my father-in-law wasn’t the genealogist of record in his  generation. That would be his cousin Eileen, whose career as a dedicated researcher and volunteer probably warrants its own book, never mind a separate blog post.

The treasure of the folder is a draft of a letter that I presume my father-in-law eventually sent in response to a query by  his genealogist cousin about their Beatty forebears. It contains some interesting notes on the family, along with a couple of priceless anecdotes.

• “I never knew my granddad Beatty except as ‘Dick’ Beatty. He was a singing teacher and used singing books w/numbers instead of the musical symbols as is used today. I have seen some of these books.” (This doesn’t sound exactly like shape note singing, which my father-in-law mentioned his grandfather teaching, and which does use note symbols  — but I sure wish I’d seen these books, too!)

• “I think I mentioned to you the occurrence where Jim Bob crawled up into a hollow tree and Bill having seen his father chop rabbits out of a tree, proceeded to start chopping about where Jim Bob’s head was. Their mother our grandmother missed the boys and went looking for them. She found them before Bill cut too deeply into the tree and almost surely would have killed Jim Bob.”

That last story sounds like it came straight out of a novel, which is not surprising. Stories like that don’t grow on trees. Even hollow ones.

Wordless Wednesday: A New Light

Still a mysterious location, although now there's a clue.

This photo was among a collection my mother brought home after my grandfather John Rudroff died. No one knew what the building was. When I was little I thought it was someone’s house. As I got older, I realized this building was probably not a private residence for anyone in my family — too massive. The handwriting on the back is hard to read but looks similar to that in letters written to us in later years by my great-aunt Maria Pauliana Forster, who was a nun in a nursing order her entire adult life. The inscription isn’t signed but it’s dated: 14 Nov. 1950.

Recently I was looking at it again in the hallway of a music education building (my 8-year-old and I were waiting for her music lesson to start). Under their particular brand of fluorescent lighting, for the first time I could make out some verrrrrry faint ballpoint pen markings on the surface of the photo. (Yes, on the surface of the photo. Note to preservationists: This was before I was born, OK?)

One part of the building (the part in the front) is marked “Krankenhaus” [hospital]; the other is marked “Alterhaus” [home for the aged].  Now I’m almost certain that this photo was sent by Maria Pauliana. (There is a chance it might have been sent by one of my other great-aunts, Anna, who was also a nun in the same order, but left when she was middle-aged. She might have still been a nun in 1950.)

As to where this hospital/nursing home was located, I’ve still got no idea, but at least now I know what it is.

Ancestry Searching: Some 101-Style Tips

A while back I attended an 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!

Links: 5.24.10

This weekend I drove by a historic cemetery near my home, and noticed a team of volunteers with armloads of flags decorating veterans’ graves — a timely reminder that Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day, is nearly upon us. So are this week’s links.

Reading for pleasure: Kimberley Powell shares reading tips from an unusual perspective: recreational reading with a genealogy angle. Her picks — two novels and a personal memoir — sound really interesting. Material for a genealogy book club, perhaps?

Pittsylvania roots: It appears that First Lady Michelle Obama has family roots in Virginia’s Henry and Pittsylvania counties, and a local history center is broadening its research into a connection made by Megan Smolenyak. Experts say all of the First Lady’s maternal line can be traced to this area. Now researchers are contacting many excited distant cousins in search of photos and background.

Digitizing British newspapers: According to this press release, the British Library is launching an effort to digitize 40 million pages of its historical newspapers collection and make them available online. The library’s collection spans three centuries and includes 52,000 titles. The mind boggles.

Gimmicks deconstructed: Blogger Chris Rodda, whose mother is a professional genealogist, explains with biting humor why giving Michael Walshe and his “Historical Research Center” your hard-earned cash is not the smartest genealogy research move.  She also wonders aloud why something called The History Channel is running shows like Ice Road Truckers, along with questionable genealogy ads. An excellent link to pass along the next time someone suggests you order a copy of your coat of arms for the TV room wall.

Enjoy the week!