Obituaries: Researchers Beware

This blog post is in response to the blog prompt for Week #46 as provided by Amy Coffin at We Tree (via GeneaBloggers): “Comment on obituaries in your collection. Obits come in all shapes and sizes. Share some of the stand-outs with readers.”

My lessons learned after writing, reading and relying on the information made available in obituaries includes that they can be chock full of useful information: next of kin, parents, burial information and of course, major life events, but they are not the most reliable sources.

I am a reporter by training and have written several obituaries, both for relatives and for complete strangers*. Not all obituaries are written by professional journalists, however (and much to my chagrin, even when they are, errors can be edited in later). Many obituaries are written by relatives of the deceased — they may or may not have gone through the rigors of checking original sources of the information listed in the obit. In fact, it’s not impossible to imagine that many may gloss over some facts in remembering the life of their loved one and they may, inadvertently or not, introduce errors into the listing.

Before she passed away, my mother requested that I be the one to write her obituary. This I did, including the names and places of residence for her surviving family members, including her three younger sisters, all in the state of Virginia. Even though I typed the information for the obit and emailed it (in copyable/paste-able form) to the newspaper for inclusion, the state of residence for my youngest aunt was printed as California and not Virginia. Sigh.

Another obituary in my collection is for my great-grandmother, Della Hayes. I had always assumed that her maiden name (Crow) was spelled with an ‘e’ on the end because that is how it was listed in her obituary. All records I have found since then point to a spelling without an ‘e.’ Similarly, her mother’s maiden name also appears to have been misspelled in the obituary (Gorley instead of Gourley, as I have found in other records). Whether these spellings were provided by the family incorrectly or were printed incorrectly for some other reason, I do not know.

Of course, not all obituaries are so error-ridden and they are good starting points for finding facts that should be confirmed through further research.

*Obituaries are often the first things that budding reporters learn to write. Therefore, I found everything had come full circle during my final stint as a reporter (I decided not to pursue a career in journalism shortly after graduating from college). My final article as a general assignment reporting intern at the Viriginian-Pilot‘s Virginia Beach bureau was  the obituary for G. Dewey Simmons, a minister who hailed from that area. He had gained notoriety by performing wedding rituals in unusual places, including one ceremony underwater. On my last day in the bureau–the day the obituary appeared in the paper–I had a voicemail on my phone. It was his daughter, in tears, calling to thank me. She said it captured his life perfectly. I can’t think of a better way to end my reporting career.

Interesting side note: the major news services pre-write obituaries for major public figures so that when these individuals do meet their demise, it is simply a matter of adding the details of death before posting on the wire.  I learned of this practical, if morbid, procedure while touring the Knight-Ridder library at the National Press Building during another reporting internship in college. It’s often the newsroom librarians who compile the facts for these canned pieces, before they are polished up by the reporters.

Surname Saturday: I’m a real WILD child (Virginia, Texas, Germany)

Dear Reader: Do you think you are related to the individuals listed in this post? Please drop me a note! I love hearing from cousins and others researching my family!

My mother’s maiden name was Wild, and I’m sure you can only imagine the jokes made about her and her three sisters as they grew up.

This particular name has German roots. I’ve traced back the line to Aibling, Germany, so far. Rumor has it that we’re somehow related to the original brewer’s of Becker Bier in St. Ingbert, Germany (now a Karlsberg brewery).

My mom and her sisters were Army brats and moved all over the world, but they spent a lot of time stateside in Northern Virginia, where my aunts still live, and in Texas, which is where our ancestors originally settled after leaving Bavaria.

Here are my Wild roots, in all their Ahnentafel glory:

2. Marcia Lea Wild (1949-2003)
6. Col. Herman Bennett Wild (1913-1978; Army accountant — he and my grandma met on the job at the Pentagon)
12. Herman Wild (1876-1928; lived in San Antonio Texas all his life, near as I can tell)
24. Fridolin Wild (1844-?: the German immigrant, from Aibling)

I found Fridolin and the elder Herman in San Antonio directories in the late 19th century, both working as salesmen.

My goal is to trace Fridolin’s family as far back as I can. In my research today, I discovered that his wife’s surname was HOYER and that her parents immigrated from Germany as well.

SNGF: Surname Distribution

Here’s our mission from Randy Seaver at Genea-Musings:

1) Find out the geographical distribution of your surname – in the world, in your state or province, in your county or parish. I suggest that you use the Public Profiler site at http://www.publicprofiler.org/worldnames/, which seems to work quickly and easily. However, you cannot capture the image as a photo file – you have to capture the screen shot, save it and edit it.

2) Tell us about your surname distribution in a blog post of your own (with a screen shot if possible), in comments to this post, or in comments on a social networking site like Facebook and Twitter.

What a great site/blog idea! Everyone’s going to want to see their how their surname is distributed, genealogist or not. Here’s the screen cap for mine (click on it for a larger version).

worldnames-sm

CORLEY Distribution

No surprise that Ireland has such a high distribution (78.86 FPM — frequency per million). You can zoom in on particular areas of the map to see what the distribution looks like in individual countries and states. In the United States, the highest distribution for Corleys is in South Carolina (541.86 FPM). According to my research, I have to delve waaaaayyy back in my line before I see links to those Corleys. In Ireland, Corleys are concentrated in the western counties of Clare, Galway and Mayo. The FPM for Corley in West Ireland is 424.84.

Thanks, Randy! That was fun!

Surname Saturday: HILL (Pennsylvania, Ireland)

Dear Reader: Do you think you are related to the individuals listed in this post? Please drop me a note! I love hearing from cousins and others researching my family!

Brown. Smith. Johnson. Somewhere along the way, almost all of us have an ancestor(s) with a name so common, the task of finding just the right people seems next to impossible. In my case, it’s my HILL line.

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My Grandmother, Ida

My father’s mother, Ida, was the daughter of Irish-American grocer William B. Hill (~1841-?) and his wife, Martha (aka Mattie; ~1847-?), who raised their family in Philadelphia. According to census records, William was born in Ireland, and Martha’s parents were born there as well. I have not found Martha’s maiden name yet.

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Anna S. Hill

William and Martha had seven children total, five of whom were still living by 1910, when Martha was listed in the U.S. census of that year as 62 and widowed (still in Philly). Her daughters Anna (1872-?) and Elizabeth (1874-?), both public school teachers, were still living with her, as was her son, Joseph (an inspector at a glass factory). These three siblings were in their 30s at that time. Interesting side note: on the back of Anna’s photo, her name is written along with a street address that now appears to be part of the campus of Temple University — I will need to investigate if she was a student there or if perhaps the university has acquired the property since.

I have not been able to trace William B. Hill back any further from his time in Philadelphia with his wife and children. I don’t know when or where he arrived from Ireland. I have not found his exact death date yet. I haven’t figured out who the fifth surviving Hill sibling was or when the other two siblings passed away and why. It’s not that I’ve tried and failed to find this information. Since Hill is such a common name though, I’ve been putting off delving into this line. It just seems so daunting to me. Writing today’s post, however, caused me to jump on in and I hope to report back that I’ve found some good leads in the coming weeks.

Surname Saturday: HAYES (Tennessee, North Carolina)

Dear Reader: Do you think you are related to the individuals listed in this post? Please drop me a note! I love hearing from cousins and others researching my family!

Yesterday, I came to the realization that a framed photo I thought pictured my great-grandparents was really too old to be depicting them. Luckily, when I slipped the photo from the frame, the real names of the couple were written on the back — Joseph Smith Hayes and his wife, “Mollie” Taylor Hayes. The helpful relative who labeled the photo also wrote that the couple were the parents of my great-grandfather William Hayes — I had never known his parents names before.

Armed with this new information, I went to Ancestry.com and found the couple listed in the 1930 U.S. census living in Carter County, Tennessee. This is the same county where I remember visiting my Great-Grandmother Hayes (Della, William’s wife) in the town of Elizabethton. The 1930 census listed Joseph and Mollie on Powder Branch Pike, but I don’t think a road by that name exists there any more.

Here is what information could be divined from the 1930 census listing:

  • They owned a home worth $4,000 (not a farm).
  • Joseph was two years younger than Mollie; they were 63 and 65 respectively in 1930.
  • They were married when he was 19 and she was 21. That would have been ~1886.
  • Her parents were both from Tennessee.
  • His father was from North Carolina and his mother from Tennessee.
  • He worked as a laborer doing odd jobs. She stayed at home.
  • He was not a veteran.

But that is the only clear mention of Joseph and Mollie that I can find in census records — at least after an initial search. Part of my challenge is that Joseph Hayes is a very common name, so I haven’t followed up on all possibilities. However, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the Hayeses left Carter County and there are no other sure mentions of them living there in earlier or subsequent censuses.

I did find two possibilities (searching the census on HeritageQuest Online), but the age information doesn’t match up. I found a 29yo Joseph S. Hayes in the 1900 census with his wife Mary (36yo) and several children (including a William E. — that is my great-grandfather’s name). Both of Joseph’s parents are listed as from North Carolina.

I also found a 9yo Joseph S. Hayes in 1880 — his age would match that of the one found in 1900 — so perhaps those two are the same Joseph, but I’m not convinced he’s *my* Joseph. Still, the inconsistencies are subtle enough to leave room for the possibility that one or perhaps all of these census records had errors in them.

I’m assuming that Mollie wasn’t my great-great-grandmother’s real name, otherwise it wouldn’t be in quotes like that on the back of the photo. I understand that Mollie can be a nickname for Mary. I am tempted to assume that Taylor may have been her maiden name, but there is no guarantee.

SNGF: Unique Ancestral Names

Dear Reader: Do you think you are related to the individuals listed in this post? Please drop me a note! I love hearing from cousins and others researching my family!

Here is the topic for this week’s Saturday Night Genealogy Fun by Randy Seaver at Genea-Musings:

1) What is the most unique, strangest or funniest combination of given name and last name in your ancestry? Not in your database – in your ancestry.

2) Tell us about this person in a blog post, in a comment to this blog post, or in a comment on Facebook.

3) Okay, if you don’t have a really good one – how about a sibling of your direct ancestors?

My great-great-great grandparents (Jonathan Cheatham* Corley and his wife, Delilah Basham) apparently had an affinity for U.S. historical figures. My great-great grandfather was Benjamin William Franklin Corley and he had siblings including Henry William Washington Corley (Benjamin’s twin) and Andrew Jackson Corley.

While those are only three of the 12 children that Jonathan and Delilah had together, they stand out to me. Some of the others are named after relatives (their son Caniel would have been named after Jonathan’s father).

Their names may not be unique, but I enjoy reading them as I look over my family tree. Other favorites of mine include Delilah’s, that of her father, Obediah, and the following siblings of direct ancestors:

Salley Finley Corley (has a nice rhythm to it)
Sallathiel Corley
Unity Jane Corley

This post got me thinking of the early nomenclature chapter in Genealogy as Pastime and Profession by Jacobus. He details how the Puritans named their children (Delilah would have been avoided as a name because she fell under the “Scriptural rascals and scoundrels” category (p. 29)). Jacobus goes on to say it was a common practice to close one’s eyes and run one’s finger through the Bible at random to select a name, which could explain some odd names like “Notwithstanding.”

* Jonathan Cheatham Corley’s middle name always makes me smile because it reminds me of this window in Harvard Square (Cambridge, Mass.), the headquarter’s for NPR’s “Car Talk” show, apparently.