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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Newspaper Records by Rhonda McClure. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Vital Statistics in Newspapers
Death Notices and Obituaries
When it comes to newspapers, most researchers think immediately about obituaries, but in reality this is just one type of death notice that may appear in the newspaper. The different types of notices vary in information and usefulness, so let’s look at some of the different death notices you might find in the newspaper and the kinds of information that might be included or omitted in each one. We will examine:
- Death notices
- Funeral notices
- Memorials (In Memoriam)
- Official Lists of Dead
Understanding the purpose for each listing makes it easier to understand the type of information you are likely to find. Remember that something is better than nothing. Even if you don’t learn the names of your ancestor’s parents, if you find a death notice, then you at least know exactly when he died.
Death notices are not the same as obituaries. They generally announce the death of the individual. Death notices may include the following:
- Name of deceased
- Date of death (sometimes including exact time of death)
- Age at time of death
- Spouse’s name
The information included varies from day to day, entry to entry, and year to year.
| Died, in Hancock County on the 3d inst., after a short but severe illness, Jesse Pope, Sr., a citizen of said county in the 81st year of his age.
As we can see in the above death notice, despite the shortness of the entry, you know the age of Jesse Pope, Sr. and that he was living in Hancock County. You also know that he died in Hancock County. Remember that the abbreviation inst. indicates that the event took place in the month in which it was recorded, so you know that Jesse Pope, Sr. died on 3 May 1820. That’s a lot of information for a short death notice.
Not all death notices give you everything you would like. Sometimes they don’t include an exact date of death, leaving you wondering, but at least able to cite a source and put a date of sorts.
| Died: lately at NY, in his 22d yr, Jas M Baldwin, midshipman in the US Navy, in a fit, which was occasioned by a wound he rec’d on Lake Champlain on Sep 18.
As is seen here with this example, the exact date is not listed. What you do know is that on September 18, 1814, James M. Baldwin was wounded and that he died in New York before July 8, 1815. When entering such an item on your family group sheets or in your genealogy software, the best course of action would be to put the date in as bef. 8 Jul 1815 and cite the newspaper item, complete with date as the source.
At a later date you may be able to find a more complete date of death, but a part of a death date is better than nothing at all. And by citing the newspaper as your source, it is apparent to fellow researchers that you are investigating this individual as thoroughly as possible.
Do not assume that the death notice tells the whole story. Until you have completely researched the individual, it is possible that the death notice tells only half of the story.
| TYLER—On December 31, 1891, Jane F., widow of the late Presley Tyler, in her 80th year.
It would be natural to assume that Jane F. Tyler was indeed the widow of Presley Tyler, and she may have been. Until you have information to the contrary this is how you would record the individuals in your genealogy database. However, I have seen instances where the woman listed in the death notice was listed under the surname of her first husband because of a divorce from a subsequent spouse. If you do not completely research the individuals in question, you may end up passing along misinformation about a couple, or at the very least not have the complete story for the family.
Like all other records, newspapers, especially the death notices and obituaries often only tell part of the story, primarily because it is being told by someone who is left and who may not know everything about the deceased.
Obituaries in the past were those items that gave great detail about the death of the individual, rather than just a sentence or two about the death. Obituaries can be most useful to genealogists because they often mention surviving relatives.
Many researchers don’t think about looking for an obituary for an ancestor because too often the only individuals with informative obituaries appear to be the well-known or celebrated of the community. However this is not always the case, and as such we should search all newspapers for a possible obituary for an ancestor.
| HUGHES, Lucinda Wheeler: Dahlgren Echo, 21 Mar 1912: b. 16 May 1825, Athens Co., Ohio; d. 12 Mar 1912, home of dau., Mrs. Rachel McPherson. At early age moved to Morgan Co., Ohio. Married John Hughes, 18 May 1851 in Athens Co., Ohio; 8 ch.; 3 d.; Mrs. Eliza Jane Hanks, Lois Ida Hughes, & Samuel D. Hughes, all d.; 5 ch. survive: Edmund Hughes, Cyrus J. Hughes, Mrs. Rachel McPherson, John H. Hughes,and Charles Marquis Hughes. Leaves also: 1 bro. Dorris Wheeler. Family moved to Ham. Co. in 1873.
While the above example was found in a published book, the compiler had abstracted information from obituaries and notices in newspapers published in Hamilton County, Illinois. Had this book not been checked, a lot of information about Lucinda Wheeler Hughes would have gone unknown. For instance, the woman were listed by married names. The location of one daughter was listed. It was possible to identify which of her children had predeceased her. And for the researcher, the mention of a son who survived her actually helped the researcher of this family identify the parents of Lucinda by finding the death certificate of the brother, Dorris Wheeler.
When a person is well-known, it is possible that his or her obituary will appear in more than just the hometown paper. In many instances, a lengthy obituary may appear in The New York Times.
Obituary of William King
In the case of the obituary of William King, you find a lot of information about him and his family in the first two paragraphs. You learn that he died 17 Jan. 1852 at the age of 84, so he was born ca 1768. His father was Richard King of Scarborough, Maine. Richard King was married at least twice and he died in 1775. Richard had, by his first wife a son Rufus King who died before William.
It is important to read the entire obituary though because you learn later on that he died in Bath, New York, and that he had lived there for fifty years. While there is still a great deal of flowering non-information, at least from a genealogical standpoint, his obituary would give any researcher many clues to follow up on.
Sometimes obituaries have to be read a couple times to understand what they are telling you.
| In Greene county, on the morning of the 10th inst., Mrs. Mary R. Whaley, aged 28 years, consort of Thomas Whaley, Esq., and 3d daughter of John Veazey, Esq. of this county. Also departed this life on the evening of the 11th inst. at the residence of his father, Mr. Lemuel B. Veazey, aged 23 years and 11 months. Thus by a stroke of Divine Providence, Mr. Veazey’s family has been bereft of two of its members in the bloom of youth, who are called to experience the realities of eternity.
In reading the above obituary, which could also be considered a death notice, though it does appear to give more information than a traditional death notice, we discover that Mary R. Whaley was the daughter of John Veazey and the sister of Lemuel B. Veazey, who died the day after she did.
Another type of death notice that you may find published in the newspaper is the funeral notice. The funeral notice, while not giving you the exact date of death does sometimes offer insight into the religion of the ancestor. Other times you may find information about the residence of the deceased, which may help you in locating the family in the census.
There are times when the funeral announcement follows the death notice. If you are skimming the paper, you may not read far enough, as it is not highlighted in any way, just an indented paragraph below the original death notice. However, don’t dismiss it because when combined with the death notice, you may learn a lot.
Death and Funeral Notice
Unfortunately there are times when the funeral notice doesn’t tell you much other than the fact that a burial was taking place. Other times there are clues that may lead to additional research avenues.
Of particular interest, I have found is the added mention to copy a notice in papers of another town or county.
HOWARD—Mrs. Lissie H. Howard, Thursday, December 31, at 6 o’clock p.m. Funeral from residence, Second and Guthrie streets, 10 o’clock a.m., Saturday, January 2. Interment in New Albany Cemetery.
While Lizzie H. Howard appears to have died in Louisville, there is a notice that the New Albany papers copy this information. Also note that she was buried in the New Albany Cemetery. New Albany may not be an established city, perhaps it was an unincorporated town or hamlet. A gazetteer may need to be consulted in addition to bibliographies and other finding aids.
| KENNEDY—At the residence of her son, John Kennedy, near Valley Station, Ky., December 31, Mrs. Jane Kennedy. Born March 14, 1803. Died December 31, 1891.
Funeral from residence of John Kennedy, January 1, at 2:30 o’clock. Shelby and Oldham county papers please copy.
In viewing this death notice and funeral notice, there is a lot of information about the deceased, supplying her date of birth as well as listing her son’s name and residence. What is most interesting though is the request that the Shelby and Oldham county papers copy this notice. This is a good indicator that some time be spent researching in these two counties to see if connections can be made with this individual.
Very often we find that funeral notices and death notices are combined, but are listed under some term or heading that more closely identifies them with the funeral portion of the announcement. It is a good idea to always take the time to peruse such items when searching for a death item. Even if your ancestor was not buried in the area or if she died elsewhere, it is still a good idea to read through the items of the local paper. All too often we find entries for the notice of burial once the body has arrived back in the home town. Remember though that very often it took much longer than it does now to get the body back to the place of burial. When working in the newspapers, it is a good idea to go at least three weeks past the date of death before assuming nothing has been mentioned in the newspaper.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
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