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

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?!

15 July 2012

Genealogy goals: Beyond research

As genealogists, we often have short-term goals (such as find the obituary, gravestone, burial record, will, etc., to provide an end date for an ancestor). But what about long-term goals? Have you considered how to share your years of research with your family?

You can start small, with a genealogy photo book or a collection of family stories. Perhaps you have your great aunt's war-time journal, which you could transcribe and annotate. Or you'd like to write a multi-volume series, covering each of your grandparents' lines. There are plenty of genealogy projects to do.

Tools for Writing

To help you get started, here are a few suggestions for tools to help with writing:

Guide to Genealogical Writing by Penelope Stratton and Henry B. Hoff (NEHGS)

The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Colonial America, 1607-1783 by Dale Taylor (and other books in the series)


Check out my writing/publishing series for genealogists:

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 (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 Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728) 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.
Did your ancestors experience 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 Rotch (1861-1912), 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