08 January 2015

Volunteer with Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness

Started in 1999, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RAOGK) is a web-based volunteer organization that provides a wealth of services, from photographing graves to retrieving vital records, finding obituaries, researching in libraries and much more. Volunteers never charge for their time, just for expenses (photocopying or record fees, postage, parking fees, etc.). Each volunteer has committed to making at least one RAOGK a month.

In October 2011, a catastrophic computer failure took down the RAOGK web site. The following month, founder Bridgett Schneider (1946-2011) died. As stated in her obituary, Bridgett had "thousands of genealogy friends around the world." Her dedication, and that of her husband Doc, inspire many of us to volunteer or perform random acts to our fellow genealogists, one at a time.

In March 2012, RAOGK was reborn as a wiki site. It included sections divided by state and country, detailing what volunteers are available to research and the rules of making requests. Volunteers are listed by state and then by county, starting with "all." People who cover more than one county have their entries added more than once.

In January 2015, Dick Eastman posted on EOGN that one of his newsletter readers told him RAOGK was back online, as a web site. I'm not sure what will happen to the wiki site, if the two will be merged or if they are separate.


You can help this award-winning site grow again, by volunteering. What's your niche? Do you research at the state archives regularly? Visit the local history and genealogy room at a major library or historical society every month? Check out deeds in the county courthouse? Visit the National Archives? Or maybe you need an excuse to go? Do you collect history books or have a specific area of expertise? Do you visit your local town hall, public library, historical society, and/or cemeteries in the area—or would if it helped someone else's research? Then sign up as a RAOGK volunteer!


(original post 23 April 2012)

25 November 2014

Expand your research skills with genealogy magazines and journals

Photo by Robin Mason
When you receive a new issue of a genealogy magazine or journal, do you read it cover to cover? Or do you browse through the pages, looking for an article that fits in with your family research plan or contains related surnames? If you’re in the latter group, you may be missing opportunities to increase your research skills or overlooking more than a connection to a collateral line.

Be Prepared


Genealogy publications such as Family Tree Magazine are filled with useful articles ranging from finding Civil War ancestors and German roots, using social media or the latest DNA tests to find cousins, and reviewing the best web sites to how-to ideas for courthouse research or archival storage, and deciphering clues hidden in legal documents or photo mysteries.


Read all the articles, regardless whether you have a Czech ancestor or need new genealogy software. Why? Even if the article doesn’t pertain to you right this minute, you may find out three months later that your German great-great grandfather actually was born in Bohemia or that your beloved database program has been discontinued. Or a good friend—who has never been interested in your hobby, your obsession—has an event scheduled in her Swedish grandparents’ homeland, and she wants to know how to start her family tree.


Besides learning something specific, you may be able to apply what you’ve read to another part of your research. You could learn about using a record group available in the National Archives and turn that knowledge into using corresponding state-level resources. A piece on marriage records may explain why your great-great’s diary mentioned “jumping the broom” or a hand-fast, or it could explain how laws differed in bordering states or countries, making an unexpected wedding ceremony location make sense—or even give you a clue where to search for a marriage certificate or notice.


Apply What You Learn


Scholarly genealogical journals—such as The American Genealogist (TAG), New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly—often feature more in-depth articles, on a specific family or area. An article on an unrelated couple in Connecticut could give you clues about your own family’s migratory path from Essex county, Massachusetts. Or it may mention a name within a four-generation study that ties into your own line—and you may have missed it if you didn’t read page 83 or thoroughly scan the annual everyname index.


You may learn how to evaluate your data in a different way. If you have a tendency to use mostly vital records and census records in your research, reading about how someone used city directories or probate records to distinguish men of the same name could provide you with incentive to learn more about underused resources. It helps to see how people use mapping software or land ownership to solve parent/child relationships. You may even learn historic tidbits, such as military conscription or wedding fees, and how they influenced your ancestors’ lives.


Book reviews, articles, footnotes, and references could include publications, web sites, library collections, or unpublished manuscripts that could help you crack your brick wall.


You never know what you’ll find within the pages of an article that will help your genealogy research. So pick up a magazine or journal. Don’t just browse. Read!



30 October 2014

Ann Putnam Jr. and the aftermath of the Salem witch trials

Danvers Witch Memorial. Photo by Robin Mason
Whether your ancestors took part in the events or heard about them second-hand, the emotional toll and the potential hardships they experienced no doubt lingered well beyond 1692. Consider their roles in the witch hunt and how that may have affected their political, judicial, and religious views as well as how they felt about particular individuals and their communities as a whole. Not surprisingly, some of the accused moved away, to start a new life, while some of the afflicted girls married and had children.

It took a few years before Reverend Samuel Parris finally packed his bags in 1697. He was replaced by Reverend Joseph Green, who helped rebuild the community of Salem Village. A new meeting house was built and the old one abandoned, the excommunication of church member Martha Corey was reversed, and, in 1706, Ann Putnam Jr. was accepted as a full church member.


Though the people of Salem Village probably never forgot 12-year-old Ann Putnam’s role in the witch trials, the church members apparently forgave her—or at least put her fate in God’s hands—when they accepted her confession 14 years later.


“I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father's family in the year about '92; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood; though what was said or done by me against any person I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill-will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan. And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing of Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humbled for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offence, whose relations were taken away or accused.


“This confession was read before the congregation, together with her relation, Aug. 25, 1706; and she acknowledged it.”


The Delusion of Satan


In Ann Putnam’s confession, she doesn’t exactly take responsibility for her actions of 1692. Instead, she repeatedly calls herself an “instrument” of Satan—as if she too made a pact with the Devil and acted on his behalf, much liked the people she accused. Written with the help of Rev. Green and reviewed by Samuel Nurse, son of Rebecca Nurse who was hanged in 1692, Ann’s confession gives little insight into the motives behind her actions that fateful year. From the history books, it does not appear as if she were coerced, but rather prompted, into accusing certain people of witchcraft. Undoubtedly, Ann was well-versed in local gossip, since it appears as if rumors of others’ behaviors (such as Rev. George Burroughs’ verbal abuse toward his wives) as well as unsettled disagreements (including land disputes between the Nurse and Putnam families) influenced who she targeted. At times, her dramatic fits and words seem deceptive, yet family members, neighbors, and magistrates did not call her bluff.


Throughout the 1692 trials, some people openly criticized the court for giving credence to the words, visions, and actions of the afflicted accusers. Reverend Samuel Willard, pastor of Boston’s Third Church, said the accusers were “scandalous persons, liars, and loose in their conversations and therefore, not to be believed.” Several accused witches, including Martha Carrier, chastised the court by saying “it is a shameful thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits.” It seemed, the more a so-called witch complained against them, the worse torment the afflicted showed.


When one of the afflicted girls, 20-year-old Mary Warren, claimed she had recovered and suggested the other girls “did but dissemble,” they accused her of witchcraft. Caught between two worlds, Mary confessed to being a witch and accused others, namely her employer, John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth. Teenager Margaret Jacobs, who was accused of witchcraft and in turn accused others, asked for forgiveness, admitting, “What I said was altogether false against my grandfather and Mr. Burroughs, which I did to save my life and to have my liberty.” Unfortunately, not enough credence was given to these admissions until after Governor William Phipps put a halt to the court proceedings in late fall.


Providence of God


Through her confession, it’s obvious the guilt Ann Putnam feels and her status of a pariah in the neighborhood must have weighed heavily on her. Unfortunately, her recorded confession does not include her Puritan conversion experience—or what turned her from being a sinner into a saint—which was a two-part requirement for becoming a full member of the Salem Village church.



After being the center of attention in 1692 by accusing 62 people of witchcraft, Ann Putnam’s position in society and in her circle of friends no doubt diminished greatly. Five years after the witch hunt started, in 1699, Ann’s parents died within weeks of each other, leaving 19-year-old Ann and several guardians to care for her siblings, ranging in age from 7 months to 16 years. Unlike most girls of her age, Ann never married. In 1715, “being oftentimes sick and weak in body,” Ann wrote her will. She died the following year at age 37. She’s buried with her parents in an unmarked grave in the Putnam Cemetery in present-day Danvers, Massachusetts.

21 October 2014

Psychological stress in 1692 Salem Village

Rev. Samuel Parris. Massachusetts Historical Society.
With a long and difficult winter, political uncertainty, ongoing Indian attacks, religious disagreements, strange illnesses, unexpected deaths, land feuds, and squabbles among neighbors, the people of Salem Village were feeling the pressure of the uncertain world around them in 1692. The beleaguered Reverend Samuel Parris, whose congregants were not providing him with the food and firewood his family needed, preached dark tales of the Devil at the pulpit. Instead of making his listeners do good deeds, like pay his salary, however, his sermons caused them to look suspiciously at each other—and find witches among them. After all, witches would explain away the bad luck that had befallen them.
The parsonage became the epicenter of the witch storm, with Reverend Parris’ daughter Betty and his niece, Abigail Williams, being afflicted or “under an evil hand” first. That center soon shifted to the Thomas Putnam household, more than a mile away, where Ann Putnam Jr. showed the same affliction, and eventually accused more than 60 people of bewitching her. In total, about 70 afflicted accusers displayed symptoms of maleficium (evil magic) or had spectral dreams and visions.

In Witchcraft at Salem (1969), Chadwick Hansen suggested the afflicted showed symptoms of mass hysteria. In her novel Conversion (2014), author Katherine Howe uses a contemporary setting—an all-girls school in modern-day Danvers—to explore the mass hysteria theory, which today would be called conversion disorder, “a condition in which you show psychological stress in physical ways. The condition was so named to describe a health problem that starts as a mental or emotional crisis—a scary or stressful incident of some kind—and converts to a physical problem” (Mayo Clinic).

The people of Salem Village could have different psychological causes, depending on their backgrounds and situations, yet still exhibit physical symptoms that fit under the umbrella term of conversion disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of conversion disorder include:
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Abnormal movement, such as tremors or difficulty walking
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty swallowing or “a lump in the throat”
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Episodes of unresponsiveness
  • Numbness or loss of the touch sensation
  • Speech problems, such as inability to speak or slurred speech
  • Vision problems, such as double vision or blindness
  • Hearing problems or deafness
Symptoms could be persistent or sporadic, and certain stressful conditions—like being a witness in a court case or waiting for an acceptance letter from Harvard—could make the disease worse. Looking at the list, it appears as if most of the afflicted accusers exhibited one or more symptoms of conversion disorder.

And, while Howe offers up the conversion theory, she also suggests, as the Proctors’ maid Mary Warren put it, the afflicted “did but dissemble.”



12 October 2014

Descendants of witch-hunt victims turn to fiction to reimagine history

More than 300 years have passed since the Massachusetts witch hunts in 1692, and yet every year, more books are written to explore theories of why more than 150 people were jailed for practicing witchcraft while 19 were convicted and hung. For genealogists seeking answers about how this turbulent time affected their ancestors’ lives, whether they were participants or not, reading trial records and historical accounts may not bring the past to life. But a good writer can reimagine the past, filling it with characters, dialogue, settings, context, and historic facts. 

Kathleen Kent, a 10th generation descendant of Martha (Allen) Carrier (hanged 1692), doesn’t shy away from her ancestor’s austere and uncompromising personality or her sharp tongue—as shown in actual historical records. She builds it into her novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, narrated by Martha’s young daughter Sarah. From being accused of bringing smallpox to Andover to being accused of witchcraft, Martha and her family’s bonds grow stronger through persecution.


Though Reverend Cotton Mather famously calls her the “Queen of Hell,” Martha Carrier professes her innocence and chastises the judges for believing the words of a few hysterical girls, aware her harsh speeches might lead her to the gallows. But when her three sons and daughter Sarah are imprisoned, she tells them to lie and admit to witchcraft to save their lives, even if it means damning their souls. Meanwhile, Martha’s giant and silent husband Thomas walks miles to the prison to support and sustain his family.


Besides historical sources about the trials, Kent uses family stories passed onto her by her mother and her grandparents to infuse character and details into her novel. Though fictional, you’ll be wishing one of the Carrier descendants has a little red book hidden away.

Katherine Howe, descendant of Elizabeth (Jackson) Howe (hanged 1692) and Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor (sentenced to death 1692 but reprieved), turned to fiction to understand the past. In writing The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Howe asks herself: What if some of the accused were practicing witches? In real life, Deliverance confesses to being a witch to save herself, so Howe turns her into a witch with supernatural but good powers and an in-depth knowledge of herbology. But Howe strays from history by having Deliverance executed in her novel, though she lived until 1735, because it works better for her story.


In Conversion, Howe considers how Ann Putnam Jr.’s 1706 confession came to be. In interludes between a present-day story, Ann tells the rapt Reverend Joseph Green her role in the witch hunt and why she thinks her heart is black. This confession, this humbling before God to admit wrongdoings, is Ann’s saving grace to become a full-fledged member of the Salem Village Church. From Reverend Samuel Parris’ sermon notes, we know he denounced Mary Sibley for suggesting the making of a witch cake. In her novel, Howe expands upon that little detail, putting the required ingredients of the recipe together—making it uncomfortable for the girls, for Tituba, and even for the reader. 


For the present day, Howe weaves the story of girls at an exclusive Catholic boarding school in Danvers, preparing for their last year and moving onto college—and all the stress that entails. These girls end up exhibiting conversion disorder, a medical diagnosis in which psychological stress manifests itself as physical symptoms.


The juxtaposition between Ann’s confession of getting caught up in lies and deceit and the cloistered girls displaying conversion disorder makes the reader ask if one or both were the underlying causes of the 1692 witch hunt.


In their novels, Kent and Howe show in-depth knowledge of the witch hunts. Both successfully use their imaginations to help readers envision what their ancestors may have experienced in 1692.




19 July 2012

Genealogist's bookshelf: Medical miscellany


Besides reference and how-to genealogy books, history, historical crime, memoir, biography, and even fiction can give you insight into your ancestors’ lives—and possibly open up new avenues of research. 

The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen

The discovery of bones in her garden leads Julia to delve into an old murder with the help of an 89-year-old man and a box of documents from the previous inhabitants of Julia’s home. Interspersed with the modern-day story is another mystery set in 1830 Boston, where Norris Marshall struggles to pay for his medical education. This book depicts Boston Medical College and maternity wards. Warning: graphical medical descriptions.

The World Below by Sue Miller

In 1919, Georgia is diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanitarium. She survives and thrives there, while others waste away. Many decades later, her granddaughter Catherine uncovers Georgia’s diaries of that long-ago time and has to readjust what she knows and what she’s just learned about her grandmother’s life.

Tethered by Amy MacKinnon

Set in Brockton, Mass., this murder-mystery describes the inner workings of the funeral business and an undertaker’s job. Warning: graphic mortuary descriptions.

Shortly before his mother dies, the author discovers she had a mentally and physically disabled sister. Luxenberg takes the reader through his exhaustive research to uncover who his aunt was and why she was committed at age 21 to a psychiatric hospital.



17 July 2012

Death in all its details


Obituaries and death records often provide unexpected details that require further research.
Obituaries often give details about relationships, education, memberships, occupations, and even interests, but some gloss over death itself, with words like “after a lingering illness” or “suddenly.” Sometimes you can tell the cause of death by “in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to” a specific charity, such as a cancer foundation or a local hospice.
In some cases, cause of death is the headline, such as “Charlton Girl Dies of Spinal Meningitis.” Interestingly, when I contacted the cemetery for information on the girl’s family plot, I was given an official burial (or removal) permit that notes the cause of death was acute mastoiditis instead. The nine-year-old girl had been at the hospital for two months.
Fifteen years later, the girl's mother died in Connecticut—according to the removal, transit, and burial permit—of “compound fracture skull, laceration of brain (gunshot wound – suicide).” She was 42 and apparently remarried, though her gravestone shows her first husband’s surname. No obituary was written, but there must be police reports that I haven’t tracked down yet.
Over the last few weeks, I have been indexing death records for the FamilySearch Indexing project. Since cause of death is not needed for indexing, I don’t always look at the physician’s notes. However, a few were memorable.
  • A 23-year-old married man died at the local drive-in theater of a severed spinal cord. How? He died of a gunshot wound.
  • A 27-year-old man died of cancer, after suffering from the disease for seven years. At his young age, he already was a widower.
  • In 1937, two men died in a highway car crash. One died of a punctured lung, though the physician also noted he had “broken legs, etc.” The other died of shock, having broken both arms and legs.

Imagine if these were your relatives. You’d be digging into the newspaper accounts, police inquest reports, and probate records, trying to fill in the blanks. And, oh my, what stories would you find?!