Getting the Most out of Obituaries, by Michael John Neill

Krebs obituary  8-4-08.bmpAncestry.com recently added 20 million images to their newspaper collection. There are many genealogically significant items one can find in a newspaper, but we frequently turn to the obituaries. This week let’s take a look at an obituary that was discovered in the newly uploaded additions to Ancestry.com and see how it can be analyzed for further clues and search ideas.

Conrad Krebs died in November of 1899 in Davenport, Iowa, and his obituary appeared shortly thereafter in The Davenport Weekly Leader of 21 November 1899 (click on the image to enlarge it). As I looked at this newly found death notice, I was reminded of some things we should keep in mind when working with obituaries.

Read the Whole Page
Some of the newspaper results at Ancestry.com will highlight the name on the page, others will not. Regardless of whether or not this happens, scan the entire page manually. There may be more than one reference to a person on the same page and OCR searches do occasionally miss entries. For Conrad there was an obituary and, on the same page, a notice about the “Krebs Obsequies” (“obsequies” refers to the funeral service). If the obituary had not provided details about the service and I hadn’t scanned the entire page, this information about the church and burial would have been overlooked.
 
Consider the Source
Most information in any obituary is secondary. Many of the details in the obituary are being reported years after the actual events and typically by individuals who were not firsthand witnesses. Even when it comes to “current” information, a newspaper can easily make an error.

Saving a digital copy of the obituary is best, but if you must transcribe, copy the obituary exactly and do not edit it. Include obvious errors as they were written and use the “sic” notation immediately after the likely mistake (e.g., “John Smith was born on February 30[sic], 1900″). This indicates that you were aware the information looked odd, but that it was not your mistake.

Create a Chronology
Ordering the information found in obituaries chronologically makes it easier to spot inconsistencies and opportunities for research. Here’s an abbreviated chronology for Conrad based upon his obituary:

  • 1818 Born in Goldbach, Bavaria
  • 1854 Came to United States, directly to Davenport
  • 1881 Went into paper and bag business
  • 1885 Wife dies
  • 1891 Retires from paper and bag business
  • 1891 Moves in with daughter, Mrs. Herman Hartz
  • 1899 Dies at home of daughter in Davenport

Events in a chronology usually suggest resources to be researched or gaps to be filled.  Generally speaking, it is best to use the chronology as a research tool beginning with the most recent event and working backwards. Each fact can be also be entered into your genealogical database, just remember to cite the obituary as the source.

Approximate Dates
Not only does an obituary tell me who is dead, it also tells me who is alive. Conrad was survived by three children, Mrs. Herman Hartz, Mrs. Mary Handel and Conrad Krebs. Two siblings, Mrs. Thekla Krausert and Joseph Krebs, also survived. In my genealogy database I can indicate they were alive at the time of Conrad’s death and include their residence as well (just cite the obituary as the source).

Take care when making assumptions regarding the spouse of a female based on the way the woman’s name is written. Thekla Krausert is listed with her first name, rather than her husband’s as was often the custom, but was married and living with her husband in 1899. The use of the wife’s first name does after the word “Mrs.” does not necessarily indicate she was widowed or divorced as you might think.

Follow-Up with Other Sources
The death date listed suggests locating a death record for Conrad–both at the county level and possibly at the church as well. His wife’s death date, also listed in the obituary, suggests the same sources should be utilized for her and the chronology also indicates her death took place in Davenport as well. Any moves should be listed in a chronology to avoid looking in the wrong location for a record.

Given the year of death and the year of immigration, Conrad and family should appear in federal census records between 1860 and 1880. There are also several Iowa state censuses available that should be checked as well.

City directories for Davenport may document any changes in residence for Conrad and may provide more information on his paper-selling business. As Ancestry adds more newspaper it is possible Conrad has advertisements appearing in it as well.

Conrad’s obituary provides a year of immigration for him and his wife. Since Conrad died before the census asked any specific immigration questions, this year of immigration should be used as a starting point in any searches of passenger lists. The obituary does not make any mention of a port where Conrad landed, so searches should include all available ports.

Additional Suggestions
When searching the newspapers at Ancestry.com, remember the following:

  • The collection at Ancestry is a work in progress. For some locations and for some time periods not all issues have been digitized. Remember to periodically check the database again and if looking for an item on a specific date, browse the individual images to see what dates are currently available. If that month has not been digitized, even the most creative online search will not find it. 
  • You can search by a location as well. This is especially helpful if there are several newspapers for the same town. It certainly made it easier in my searches as there are several papers on Ancestry.com for Davenport, Iowa. 
  • Remember these are OCR searches. A “u” can be read as an “n,” a “c” can be read as an “e,” etc. This makes it necessary to be creative in considering name variants. 
  • Remember nearby locations. For rural areas, search in towns near where the person lived—not just the town where they resided. Searching the county seat newspaper is also a good idea as they may run death notices for areas within the county as a whole.

Have you made a significant find in an obituary? Tell us your story in the comments section of the blog below.  If it has been a while since you searched the Historical Newspaper collection, give it another try.

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Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website at: www.rootdig.com

11 thoughts on “Getting the Most out of Obituaries, by Michael John Neill

  1. I find this data base very frustrating to use — can someone offer hints as to what I am doing wrong? When I search on a name in specific location, newspaper pages come back; however, after combing the page,there are no references to the name. When I do “edit/find”, the only name occurance it finds is in the seach title. Does it give you newspaper pages of th location whether or not your name is found??

    Any help welcome!

  2. I have found SO much great stuff in obituaries. When I was a newbie, just getting started, they were my bread and butter for getting to know this family– not just the departed members, but the family who survived.

    I am writing a history of the family and am tracing forward AND backward, so this has been a goldmine for me. Because I want photographs of the departed, some of the best part of my research is finding modern day cousins who will share those with me, and obituaries have given me my best glimpses of who was/is living where to be able to contact them.

    Laini

  3. One big problem I have found is the correct spelling of names. The newspaper mispelled my father’s first name and I personally wrote the article. It was corrected , however if the reseacrcher did not get the second copy of the paper, they would not see the correction.
    Thanks for your article and the information.

  4. I would like to recommend an inexpensive but highly useful utility called SnagIt from TechSmith. This permits you to capture and, if you wish, annotate images of all or part of your computer screen (even scrolling window images). These may be stored in a variety of formats such as JPG or PDF. I find it quite useful to be able to store images of selected documents as well as the bits and pieces of information that I have extracted from them.

  5. OCR refers to Optical Character Recognition, where the machine “reads” text, using statistical algorithms to determine the letters. The indexes we use to these newspapers were not created with human eyes.

    In some cases when a name does not appear on a page, it may be that the words are “near” each other, or even in separate locations on the page. Some pages will bring up the search terms with highlighting and some will not.

    Michael

  6. When searching online newspapers, I think we all check every newspaper for a particular location. However, when the newspapers are not online and we request an obituary from a library, it is a good idea to ask the staff if they could please make sure that the obituary is complete, providing funeral information as well as death information. As you mentioned, frequently there is more on the same page or in a subsequent issue.

    Also ask the library staff to check every local newspaper in print at the time of death (well, ones they have copies of, anyway). Often, library staff tend to search only the major newspaper. Frequently, another newspaper may be a more “chatty” newspaper, giving more information on social and other events involving local people.

    Also,

  7. I’m a big fan of finding and using obits. Unfortunately, there appears to be a serious problem with the “Historical Newspapers, BMD Announcements, 1851-2003″ database. Apparently there are some very large “holes” in the coverage of the BMD data, including years prior to the 1960s.

    Here’s a message I sent earlier to the “Ancestry Insider” (back when he still worked for the company). I never got a response on this issue, so I pass it along here (and on the Ancestry Blog->Previous content->US Content Update). I apologize for the length, but I’ve heard specific examples are helpful, so here they are… (All searches done with Old Search; it’s faster, easier and more accurate):

    Recently I learned death-date info on two relatives, both from my Chicago BAKER family, and went looking for their obits in the “Historical Newspapers, BMD Announcements, 1851-2003″ by using an exact search by newspaper title + location + date. Here’s what happened for one of them:

    Subject is Minnie Baker NOLTON, d. Chicago, 4 Aug 1948.

    Searched for her obit in Chicago [any paper, any date] and: Not found.

    Searched for all Aug., 1948 obits in the Chicago Tribune and: No obits at all, for anyone! None.

    So, I searched Chicago Tribune, 1948, obits (no month specified). Result: No obits for the year 1948.

    So, how about ANY kind of BMD records in the Chicago Tribune, 1948? Aha! 818 records: 3 [sic] BIRTH announcements and 815 MARRIAGE announcements! It seems that marriage records have decent coverage (though I don’t know if 815 announcements represents anything close to the total number actually published in the Tribune in 1948 or not). Only 3 birth records and no death records indicate something is amiss.

    So now I’m suspicious, and I ran several searches to see how the BMD records are represented throughout the period 1945-1955.

    Parameters: newspaper=Tribune + location=Chicago + date=1950 (+/- 5 years) + record type=BIRTH.
    Results: 11 (eleven) notices from the period 30 Sept 1945 to 10 Aug 1955.

    Parameters: newspaper=Tribune + location=Chicago + date=1950 (+/- 5 years) + record type=MARRIAGE.
    Results: 17,998 notices from the period 2 Jan 1945 to 31 Dec 1955. (That seems more like it.)

    Parameters: newspaper=Tribune + location=Chicago + date=1950 (+/- 5 years) + record type=DEATH.
    Results: 0 (zero) death notices from the period 2 Jan 1945 to 31 Dec 1955.

    At this point I got angry enough (and depressed enough) that I stopped. I now understood that the “Historical Newspapers, BMD Announcements, 1851-2003″ is—at best—a serious misnomer. After all, one would assume that—as the home page for the search engine states—this database contains 135 years of Chicago Tribune BMD records:
    “Source Information:
    Ancestry.com. Historical Newspapers, Birth, Marriage, & Death Announcements, 1851-2003 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2006. Original data: […] The Chicago Tribune. Chicago, IL, USA: The Chicago Tribune, 1850-1985. […]

    So I decided to click on the “more information” link. Perhaps that link would explain which records are missing for which year? Details? Nope. Just this one nonchalant sentence buried in the paragraph:

    “Note: There may not be records for all three vital events included in this database for each newspaper and year combination.”

    That’s putting it mildly! Now, like many Ancestry users, I assumed that this meant the occasional page of records might be missing, or even a few issues of a given paper might not be in the database, especially in the nineteenth-century editions. And, this being Chicago, perhaps the pre-Fire years (1855-1871) will be spotty. But really, an entire DECADE of post-WW2 obituaries (1945-1955) missing? And only eleven birth records from the same period? From the “newspaper of record” of the largest metropolis between the coasts? And who knows how many other gaping holes exist in the database? I haven’t the heart to check.

    But it seems to me that Ancestry SHOULD check, and should ACCURATELY LABEL the database. After all, if I go to my local public or academic library and look up a newspaper or periodical in their collections, I expect (and will get) an accurate catalog listing with the start and end dates of the item AND a list of missing issues. From this unhappy customer’s view, it seems that either (1) ProQuest has sold Ancestry a seriously flawed database—which must be fixed ASAP—or (2) Ancestry already knows how extensive the problems are and has been hiding that information from its subscribers—which must be corrected ASAP.

    Ancestry needs to speak honestly and plainly to the subscriber/users of the so-called “Historical Newspapers, BMD Announcements, 1851-2003″ database so that we know the limitations of the database. The lack of this information is a serious impediment to our use of the data, may cause researchers to reach false conclusions about ancestors with BMD events in these major cities and, most importantly, it veers awfully close to false advertising, something which any self-respecting business should want to avoid at all costs.

    Sorry for the rant, but I’ve been using this database for almost two years and did not realize how really, really poor the coverage of the BMD image collection is. The gaps in the data must be identified, clearly and conspicuously labeled, and—one hopes—fixed.

    I do appreciate the size and complexity of Ancestry’s operation, but this situation is way beyond what is acceptable.

    Always an optimist, I look forward to a reply from Ancestry.

    —Reed

    P. S. And by the way, Ancestry’s “Historical Newspapers: Chicago Daily News” *collection* is such an extreme example of “false advertising” it would be laughable if it were not symptomatic of this apparently widespread problem of unlabeled-missing-issues of many of the newspapers in Ancestry’s database. In fact, Ancestry’s “collection” of the “The Chicago Daily News, the city’s first penny paper and the most widely read publication in Chicago during the late nineteenth century” [Encyclopedia of Chicago, online] published for 103 years (1875 -1978), consists of the six pages published on 9 October 1879! ONE SINGLE ISSUE! What’s up with that???

  8. I am the Office Manager of the Houston County Historical Commission. I have just finished a data base of scanned obits.
    We have about 8,000 scanned in PDF. I thought I was the only one that had found the wealth of information in Obituaries. Thanks for the article. Roy Smith

  9. I was trying to locate a date of death for my grandfather’s grandmother. I found her name and knew that the reference couln’t be right, because of the date. I checked it anyway and it was one of her slaves who had died. Slaves didn’t have legal names of their own. They more often than not, used their owner’s name. The page told what the slave died of and how old he was and that he was in fact the slave of my grandfather’s grandmother. It was so exciting to learn something new. Thanks to all the people who made these files possible to the amateaur researcher.

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