It started with an e-mail from my sister asking for help with a trivia scavenger hunt that my niece was participating in. She needed to find out what food is forbidden to be eaten after 6 p.m. in Newark, New Jersey, without a doctor’s note. After a few tries, I found reference to an odd law that prohibits eating ice cream on Sunday evenings. Of course I couldnâ€™t stop there. Like a child following a butterfly, I strayed from the task at hand (a.k.a., this column) and went off in search of other strange laws.
I learned that here in Indiana, Iâ€™m not supposed to bathe in the winter. (Sorry, Iâ€™m going to have to be an outlaw on that one!) In Florida, if you tie your elephant to the parking meter, you have to pay the meter. Now I havenâ€™t been to Florida in a while, but is this a problem there? I would think if the police came across an elephant tied to a parking meter, the first question that popped into their heads wouldnâ€™t be, â€œHey, did he pay the meter?â€ And besides, where would they put the ticket?Â
And of course, in Idaho, it is illegal to fish from a camelâ€™s back. Consider yourselves warned Idahoans.
The list goes on and on and it got me thinking. My guess is that for the most part, these laws were put on the books many years ago and just never got removed, and that the bath thing goes back to the days when some thought that bathing during the winter was actually dangerous due to the risk of pneumonia. (The reasoning behind the elephant and camel laws continues to escape me.)
There were other laws that affected our ancestors, and in doing so, affect us as we seek out the records that they left. Becoming familiar with the laws of the time can help us be more successful in our searches and not waste time looking for records that donâ€™t exist, or that exist in another place. Letâ€™s take a look:
Naturalization records are among the most prized records by genealogists. But finding them requires a little knowledge about immigration laws for the time period in which the record was created. Will there be a naturalization record for Great-grandma Rose? Prior to 1922, the answer is probably not, because women derived citizenship from their father or husband (although there were exceptions).
If you donâ€™t find a naturalization record for your ancestor in the Naturalization Index from the National Archives that is available at Ancestry, does that mean your ancestor wasnâ€™t naturalized? No, your ancestor may have been naturalized in a local court and the records may be held at the county level. According to They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins,Â Â
â€œFrom 1790 until very recently, any individual could be naturalized in a federal court, although most people went to local courts. After 1906, the vast majority of naturalizations took place in federal courts, although some local courts continued to naturalize long after that date.â€
A year ago, some of you may remember me writing an articleÂ about finding my fourth great-grandmother enumerated in 1870 in the penitentiary at Blackwellâ€™s Island at age ninety-eight. Since it seemed unlikely she was a hardened criminal at that age, I am theorizing that she was there due to some form of insanity. This may have been the result of her advanced age or the fact that most of the family was hat industry. (She may have suffered some degree of mercury poisoning, which was common due to the felting process.)
At any rate, Iâ€™ve done some poking around to see if I could find information that would support that theory and I found an Overview of Mental Health in New York and the Nation on the website of the New York State Archives. This paragraph from the site would seem to add some credence to that theory:
â€œ1870s-1880s: Asylums were gradually placed under the authority of Boards of Charities. Institutions housing criminals, the poor, orphans, and the handicapped were also placed under control of these boards. All of these facilities provided custodially oriented care.â€
Civil registration is a more obvious example of why itâ€™s important to become acquainted with legalities for an area in which youâ€™re doing research. Clearly you want to be familiar with the dates when civil registration became a requirement. Beyond that there are other records related to births, marriages, and deaths that youâ€™ll want to investigate.
Was a prospective groom required to post a bond to ensure that there was no impediment that would nullify the marriage? Or was a consent affidavit required to be filed by the parents of a young bride or groom wishing to marry?
Deaths created records beyond death certificates. If a body was to be moved from one place to another, often a body transit record was required. These records were typically created both for bodies coming into the jurisdiction for burial, those leaving for burial elsewhere, and even those just passing through. New York was one such location that required a transit record for bodies moving in and out of the city. According to Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places,Â a body transit record was created for Abraham Lincoln, whose body passed through New York City on 24 April 1865 on its way from Washington, D.C., to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
When youâ€™re researching your female ancestors, youâ€™ll want to find out what rights they had. Was your ancestress allowed to file a will? What rights did she have if her husband died? Would she inherit or depend on the charity of her children? For men, what were the requirements for military service? What was required to file a homestead claim?
The answers to these questions and many others like them can be found in reference books that line the shelves of many local libraries. The next time you run up against a brick wall, or canâ€™t locate an ancestor in a group of records in which you expected him or her to appear, do a little digging into the legalities. You may find your dilemma is easily explained by some of the laws of the times.
Has an understanding of laws in the areas in which your ancestors lived helped you in your research? Help fellow readers by sharing your story here on the blog.
If you feel like reading more about silly legislation, I found a funny collection of laws at DumbLaws.com.
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.