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 Love, March 1

Among this week’s links: a worrisome report about NARA – sorry! – a pair of apologies and an inspiring genealogy search story. (I had to end on an up note.)

Records access: Concerns are growing about changes at the New York facility of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In 18 months, NARA/NYC will move from Varick Street to a 5,000-square-foot space in the Customs House. It is possible that only about 20 percent of NARA/NYC’s current holdings will move there too, according to one report. Much of the remainder may end up in a storage facility in northeast Philadelphia, to be pulled by request to be transported to New York for researchers. Read this report by Jan Meissels Allen of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. The IAJGS’ Public Records Access Monitoring Committee has a lot of interesting material about records-access issues at the federal and state levels; click here and go to “Alerts Page.”

Mistakes were made: A pair of governmental apologies last week shed renewed light on two traumatic historical episodes, and might interest some family history researchers.

• First, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized for a British program that sent children from London overseas to labor in British colonies. About 100,000 “home children” journeyed abroad from the 1860s to 1939 to Australia and Canada to serve as cheap farm and domestic labor; working conditions were often harsh. “It’s a beginning,” said one Canadian “home child”  descendant.

• Another apology concerns the community of Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a mostly black neighborhood which was dismantled in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal. (Students of Robert Moses’ highway projects in New York neighborhoods might find this story sadly familiar.) Unfortunately the apology by the city of Halifax doesn’t seem to have ended disagreement among heirs over how best to move forward. However, the Africville Genealogy Society backs the current plans for financial and civic restitution, saying it’s what the former landowners would have wanted.

The uplifting part: I promised we’d go out on a high note, didn’t I? Well, it doesn’t get more inspiring than the story of Susan Hadley, a Washington D.C. psychologist and genealogy buff who became determined to unravel the mystery of what happened to her mother’s sister Elinor, the relative nobody talked about.  Elinor was institutionalized in 1936 with a diagnosis of “postpartum psychosis,” and remained so for four decades before being released to live in a group home. Amazingly, Elinor was still alive when Hadley finally tracked her down in Ohio in 2008, and what happened next is just fantastic.

Makes you feel good to have this as a hobby.


First-name basis: You wish.

The other day my second grader came home very excited after sharing a family tree chart with her classmates and teachers. The Spanish instructor even complimented my daughter on her grandma’s pretty set of Iberian names: Theresa Mercedes Cecelia.

Which made me giggle a bit, since the grandma in question (my mom) was the daughter of German immigrants.

First names, which you’d think would be basic signposts in figuring out ancestors, can tie you up in knots. They might make you guess at the wrong ethnicity; they might lead you on a wild goose chase to the wrong person. They might not be real first names at all.

Fortunately, first-name stories, while difficult to unravel, can make fantastic anecdotes. Here are some examples from my own tree:

My father-in-law: First came older brothers Floyd, Lloyd, Boyd and Coyd. And then came … Renzo Alton. (Please don’t tell me you saw that coming.) His mother wanted something different, and a local schoolteacher suggested Renzo. On his mail, he was R. A. Lynch. His family called him Al. I am not making any of this up, but I bet some future descendant will swear I must have been.

My dad: He was baptized Peter Jerome, but his mother never used his first name. She referred to him as Jerome, or “Sonny.” In the 1930 census my dad is listed as Jerome. As an adult, he used the name Peter. If you didn’t know the story, or didn’t weigh all the facts, you might assume the census taker missed him in 1930, or that perhaps there were two children, one named Jerome who died young, another named Peter who lived to adulthood.

My grandfather “Francie” Haigney: Well, actually, he’s Raymond Francis, but in the 1910 census, he’s Francie. If you didn’t know better, you might think the census taker got my grandpa’s gender wrong.

My mother’s name changes: She was baptized Therese Mercedes — Therese for St. Therese of Lisieux, and “Mercedes” in honor of the nun at the hospital who cared for my grandmother after the birth. Mom disliked Mercedes, and as an adult used her confirmation name, Cecelia, as her middle name. Also, she tended to spell her first name with an “a” instead of an “e”. So in a few places she’s Therese Mercedes, but more often she is Theresa Cecelia.

Those are some of my quirky naming stories, which are peculiar to the people and the circumstances. But I can think of two other common naming situations that might leave a researcher puzzled:

Nicknames: Some nickname logic has become blurred with the generations. “Liz” for “Elizabeth” is one thing, but what about “Lillie”? And not everyone immediately connects “Daisy” with Margaret, or “Mamie” with Mary.  Here’s a chart of common nicknames and their possible equivalents.

Americanizations: Just as with surnames, first names and first-naming conventions can change with immigration. Some translations are obvious, as with my German grandpa (Johann/John). But a trickier case is Grandpa’s sister Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1907. In some records she is simply Kunigunde; she has also been listed as “Kuni.” And I also wouldn’t be surprised to find her in future as Anna, or even “Ann” or “Constance.” Here’s an article about immigrant name-changing.

My own name-changing stories, while amusing, also serve as a caution. Much as I’d like to think I’m on a first-name basis with my ancestors, I know better than to jump to any premature conclusions.


Link love, Feb. 15 edition

I guess this is the week in which you’re officially living under a rock if you still don’t know that the U.S. version of  Who Do You Think You Are is premiering on March 5. Yesterday, Lisa Louise Cook unveiled her  Genealogy Gems podcast interview of  actress and series subject Lisa Kudrow, which can tide you over until the show gets here.

In all the Who-pla, please don’t lose track of Faces of America, PBS’ excellent series with Henry Louis Gates. Episode Two is coming up on  Wednesday, Feb. 17. You can search for local broadcast times at the show website.

More link love:

Database digging: Black History Month is a useful time to consider resources of interest in African-American genealogy, such as a recently launched database of 83,000 individual slave names in the Digital Library on American Slavery at the University of North Carolina/Greensboro. UNCG has more on the database and its contents here.

On a completely different note, I was tickled by this news item from the Newberry Library, in which expert knowledge and deft database searches unearthed the genealogy of an accordion. You never know when genealogy will come in handy.

Gadget Corner: I’m always a sucker for online mapping tools, and a poster on the NY-Irish genealogy list spotlighted a nice one this week. Map viewer Virtual Turnpike incorporates Google maps and area photos from Panoramio and Picaso. The site is cleanly designed, easy to use and read, with generously scaled type and graphics. Fun and potentially informative in mapping ancestral locations.

Event Corner: If you’ll be in Washington, D.C. in the spring, it’s never too early to start planning for a visit on April 14-15 to the Sixth Annual Genealogy Fair at the National Archives and Records Administration’s headquarters. At NARA’s main site they have pictures from last year’s event, which looks as if it was a good time indeed.

Closer to home (for me, anyway), I was wondering when the next NARA orientation was coming at the New York City Northeast Region headquarters. Turns out it’s Tuesday, Feb. 16 from 1:30 to 4:30 PM. According to program notes, it includes “an overview of some of the lesser known genealogically pertinent holdings of the Archives.” NARA staff and members of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society will be on hand to assist with research questions.  Here is more information on this and  other New York City area genealogy events in February and March.

Now I’m off to set my DVR and put on my podcast headphones … see you later!


Will 5 aliases fit in my genealogy software?

On a trip to Kings County Surrogate Court a few weeks ago, I opened up a typical, boring-looking probate folder.

Inside, I discovered that my one of my great-aunts (by marriage) had five aliases.

Now, I was aware that my great-uncle Joseph C. Haigney was married to Catherine Maude, nee Reilly. Given the overstock of Catherines in the family – including Joseph’s mother, a niece and a cousin – it wasn’t surprising that his wife needed an alias. But five?

My great-aunt’s probate file named her as Maude Haigney, a k a Catherine Maude Haigney, a k a Miss M. Reilly, a k a Maude Reilly, a k a Mrs. M. Ridley, a k a Miss (A) Farrell.

Two of these names are variants of Catherine Maude’s married name, and two are variants of her maiden name, which makes some sense.

Reading the file, I learned that my great-aunt had two sisters, Margaret Miller and Mary Ridley. That might explain the reason for the “Mrs. M. Ridley” alias, although the file had nothing to indicate how the sisters’ identities became entwined. As for “Miss A. Farrell,” it’s anyone’s guess how that name came up.

Finding an alias on your family tree does not automatically mean you’re dealing with criminal behavior. There are many historical reasons for aliases, including:

• Changes in marital status (where “alias” indicates “formerly,” as in a woman’s marriage or remarriage).

• To indicate foster children or stepchildren.

• To indicate a nickname. (Well, of course.)

• To indicate illegitimacy. (Under a practice beginning in 17th-century England, a person born out of wedlock might adopt the surnames of both parents; i.e., Green alias White. Either the father’s or the mother’s surname might be first; there was no firm custom.)

• To avoid persecution. A striking example is that of the Sephardic Jews of Portugal, who adopted aliases to conceal their Jewish identities.

So why did my great-aunt end up with five aliases in her probate file? I’m thinking her case is probably one of sloppy forms more than anything else, but only more research will tell for sure.

As I was packing up, I asked the clerk in charge of the records room if aliases crop up often in Kings County probate records.

“Oh, sure. Two, sometimes three, even.”

“What about five?” I asked.

Five? That’s weird.”

More about aliases:

• Schelly Talalay Dardashti at Tracing the Tribe has an interesting discussion of Sephardic aliases.

• A site maintained by John Palmer of Dorset, England lists many reasons for aliases in English parish registers.

• And here is advice on how to record aliases in your family tree.


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