19 July 2012

A genealogist's reading list: 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?!

10 July 2012

Creating a genealogy photo book

Shortly after my father died, I decided to create a photo book. I started with a theme: The story of my parents, from their childhoods to the early days of their marriage—in photos. The hardcover book I chose had 26 pages. I divided the book into five sections: my father’s childhood; my mother’s childhood; their courtship; their wedding and honeymoon; and their early marriage.
Since I had fewer pictures from my father’s side, it was easier to choose which pictures to include. I wanted equal representation and the same number of pages, which meant I had to use Dad’s 8 x 10 yearbook photo with the crease and blotch on it. I hadn’t quite figured out how to use photo-correcting software, so I left the photo as is. I also extended my father’s childhood to his Army years, because that was uniquely his story, though my parents met while my mother was still in high school.
The amount of text varied depending on the layout I chose for each page. Sometimes I had a sentence, a phrase, a year, or no caption at all. It all depended upon whether I was writing about a group of pictures on a page, one picture in a collage, or a single photo. I wasn’t able to get all the genealogical details I wanted, such as my grandparents’ places of birth. But I did include their birth and death dates in parentheses by their full names. And if a photo had a date or an occasion written on the back, I usually included that detail.
My mother created a scrapbook of her courtship and early marriage, so I added some tidbits such as when and where they had their first date, the date they started “going steady,” and when their engagement was announced in the local newspaper. Without that scrapbook, these details would have been lost. I only wish I had asked my parents how they met!
I included names of the wedding party, and how they were related to the bride and groom; the name of the church and the hotel where the reception was held. I listed some of the places my parents went for their honeymoon, though only a few photos exist that I can match to that “motor trip.” I added pictures of their first homes together, with addresses. And the last page had a couple of favorite photos of my sister and me as well as our studio pictures, along with our birthdates.
I spent many hours happily compiling my photo book. The process helped with losing both parents in their 60s—which was much too young. I learned a lot by creating a photo timeline of their lives. And best of all, I printed two copies, one for myself and one for my sister, so we could share the family photos in a memorable way.
There are numerous photo book printing sites on the web, such as Shutterfly, MyCanvas, and Blurb. Check out comparisons of the best sites at Top 10 Reviews.

06 July 2012

Ancestors weathering the storm

Blizzard of 1978: House on the North Shore, Massachusetts.
Credit: Mass.gov

If you read old journals or account books, it sounds like the people of yesteryear were obsessed with recording the weather. But if you think about it, the weather still is a big conversation topic and its effects can have a huge impact on our lives today.
If you lived through the Blizzard of 1978, you remember how cars were abandoned on the snowy streets, how jobs and schools and services were shut down, how the electricity was off, stores were closed. To our forebears, there were no local forecasters, a national Weather Channel, or weather apps on smartphones. They had to rely on atmospheric pressures, cloud formations, sea change, the Old Farmer’s Almanac, and maybe an arthritic knee to predict the weather.
Here in New England, our weather is different from say, England, so imagine coming to this wild, untamed land only to experience the Great Storm of 1635, the earthquakes of 1638 and 1663, the Great Snow of 1717, the Dark Day of 1780, the Snow Hurricane of 1804, the Year Without a Summer (1816), the Great Blizzard of 1888, the September Surprise hurricane of 1938, or the Blizzard of 1978.
To find out what our ancestors experienced, read Sidney Perley’s Historic Storms of New England (Salem, MA: Salem Press, 1891). Like many books of this era, the subtitle encapsulates the plot quite nicely: “Its gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, showers with thunder and lightning, great snow storms, rains freshets, floods, droughts, cold winters, hot summers, avalanches, earthquakes, dark days, comets, Aurora-Borealis, phonomena in the heavens, wrecks along the coast—with incidents and anecdotes, amusing and pathetic.”
Imagine what it must have been like to experience the Great Snow of 1717, when Cotton Mather talked about not being able to hold religious services for a few weeks. These folks were barricaded in their houses by snowdrifts. Without knowing the storm was coming—or that it would last 10 days—people ran out of food, water, firewood for heating homes, and everyday supplies. Some starved to death, others froze to death. Farm animals perished and orchards were destroyed.
Were any of your ancestors in Massachusetts during any of these catastrophic weather events? Put together a timeline to find out.
Predicting the Weather
In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant established the Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service. It wasn’t until 1885, however, when the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory was privately founded by Abbott Lawrence Roach, that we had “the oldest continuous weather record in North America.” Located at the summit of Great Blue Hill, the observatory is 10 miles south-southwest of Boston in Milton, Massachusetts, with an elevation 635 feet above sea level (which made it an ideal vantage point during the Revolutionary War). Using “traditional methods and instruments,” the center also pioneered the use of kites and balloons for weather observation.
It wasn’t until the media got involved in weather forecasting that everyday people could prepare for heat waves, blizzards, floods, hurricanes, and the like. And for that, we should be grateful.
Links of Interest

15 June 2012

Historical perspective: putting your ancestors' lives in context

1872 Great Fire of Boston: Pearl & Broad Streets
by JW Black/Getty Images
Oftentimes, as genealogists we tend to focus on births, marriages, and deaths. But to see the bigger picture, we need to consider what was happening in the community and the world around them to put our ancestors’ lives in context.
One way to do this is to create a timeline of family events and match it with historic events. That way, you can determine what outside factors may have influenced your ancestors’ lives, from wars, pirates, strikes, politics, religious revivals, and murders to fires, weather, flu epidemics, famines, and other major catastrophes.
For instance, my ancestors, a husband and a wife in their late 30s, died in 1721. From reviewing historic events of the time period, I finally figured out that they may have died in the smallpox epidemic that was ravaging Boston. After all, a few months prior to their deaths, they sent their children to live with relatives in Essex county.
Other relatives lived in Fall River in 1892 when Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother. Did they know the Bordens? Maybe not. But how closely did they follow that sensational news? At the time, one of my relatives was a five-year-old boy, and he grew up to be a policeman. I sometimes wonder if the murders influenced his chosen career and how much inside information he knew from working at the police station.
Below, I’ve included some Massachusetts events randomly collected from the MassMoments web site. Hopefully, a few of them will make you consider how an event may have affected your ancestors’ lives. What did they live through? How may that event have influenced their lives?
Learning about the times they lived in may give you a new perspective into your ancestors’ lives. It may even give your family history research new clues to follow.
1620: Pilgrims and strangers land in Plymouth
1630: Puritans arrive in Boston
1636: Harvard College founded
1658: Quakers outlawed in Plymouth
1659: Christmas celebrations outlawed
1675: King Philip’s War begins
1690: first newspaper published in the Colonies
1692: Salem witch trials
1717: pirate ship the Whydah sinks off Cape Cod
1721: smallpox epidemic in Boston
1733: Boston masons organize first Grand Lodge in America
1746: Abenaki raid on Deerfield
1760: Great Fire of 1760, Boston
1765: Stamp Act protests
1770: Boston Massacre
1775: American Revolution begins in Lexington
1797: USS Constitution launched
1806: first African-American meeting house opened
1812: War of 1812 begins
1820: Maine becomes own state, apart from Massachusetts
1821: Massachusetts General Hospital admits first patient
1837: Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary opens
1844: Millerites await end of the world on October 22
1848: Boston’s first municipal water system completed
1850: first national women’s rights convention held in Worcester
1860: Lynn shoeworkers strike
1861: Massachusetts volunteers join in the Civil War
1872: Great Fire of Boston
1888: blizzard of 1888
1892: Andrew and Abby Borden murdered in Fall River
1897: Boston opens the nation’s first subway system
1903: Marconi relays first transcontinental radio message from Wellfleet
1912: Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence
1919: Great Molasses Flood in Boston
1926: construction of Quabbin Reservoir begins; towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott disappear
1927: execution of Sacco & Vanzetti
1938: hurricane ravages New England
1962: Boston Strangler killings
1978: Blizzard of 1978
: Red Sox win World Series

23 April 2012

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 includes 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.
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!

14 April 2012

Volunteers create access to many genealogy records

When Clarence Almon Torrey (1869-1962) first set out to compile what became known as New England Marriages Prior to 1700, he didn’t expect fame or monetary rewards beyond his imagination. He just quietly and methodically researched many, many records to uncover nearly 37,000 couples married in the 17th century. You could say he was obsessed, like many of us are, with genealogy. And that's a good thing for millions of people who descend from his original list. Imagine what New England research would be without Torrey—or any of the other great genealogists we rely on day in, day out.
In fact, we rely on the contributions of many people to build our family trees. Some are paid, but many are volunteers. To me, it has been inspiring to see so many people volunteering their time and efforts to index the recently released 1940 census. It says a lot about the genealogy community as a whole. As English writer John Heywood (1497–1580) said, “Many handis make light warke.”
So what can you contribute to the genealogy world?
In a recent post, I mentioned how the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists (MSOG) had partnered with FamilySearch to create an index to the Boston Passenger Lists 1820-1891. The group then took on the challenge—like many other groups and individuals—to index the 1940 census. In fact, I decided to try it myself. I signed up with FamilySearch Worldwide Indexing. I found myself transcribing Texas death records, not because I had any relatives in Texas (I don’t), but because the job was marked with high priority. I was so excited to see the Texas index go online at FamilySearch, free for anyone to view, knowing I was a part of making it happen. FamilySearch has a huge vault of records from all over the globe, and volunteers are scouring the far reaches of the world to add more, so there’s a huge need for volunteers to index these records.
Projects Big and Small
I have been a county coordinator for the USGenWeb since 1998. With the goal of providing “free genealogy for everyone,” the USGenWeb volunteers host web sites for every county in the country. Not only is the group looking for more people to “adopt” a county, but each state is looking for people to transcribe materials for the web sites, special projects, and archives. A similar premise is behind GENUKI, a site that covers England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.
Every time I look at Find a Grave, it seems like volunteers have added yet another million more grave listings to the site. Founded by Jim Tipton in 1995, the web site grows daily due to the thousands of contributors who submit new listings and upload photographs of our dearly departed. You can add your ancestors’ final resting places to the site, transcribe cemetery records, or fulfill other people’s requests to photograph their relatives’ graves. Another site, BillionGraves, has volunteers with GPS-enabled smartphones snapping photos at graveyards and uploading them to the site.
Go Local
Besides these big national and international online projects, there are genealogy societies big and small that need your help.
For instance, New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) offers opportunities for volunteers to “work in the library, manuscripts, research, conservation, website, or membership areas at NEHGS headquarters or on special projects from home.” 
Founded in 1980, the  Massachusetts Genealogical Council “is the umbrella organization representing Massachusetts genealogists, historical societies and individuals who are concerned about records preservation and free and unfettered access to civil records.” The council holds an annual seminar every summer, which requires many volunteers to make it a successful event.
As already mentioned, the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists (MSOG) is involved in indexing the Boston Passenger Lists and the 1940 census.
There are many genealogy and historical groups and libraries looking for volunteers. Find one that matches your interests and abilities—and volunteer.