Clues in a
Death Index (SSDI)
Census Mortality Schedule Index
Reports of Deaths
of American Citizens
Funeral Home Records and Tombstones
Try these challenges to test your research skills.
For someone with such a gloomy last name, William Newman Death brought quite a few bundles of joy into the world. Start by finding William and the names of his family members in West Ham, Essex, England, on the 1911 England & Wales Census.
One of Mr. Death’s progeny went on to marry into another family with an equally grim surname.
What was the surname?
Start by finding William Death in the 1911 UK Census. Collect the names of his family members and search them, one by one, in the Marriage and Divorce collections until you find Daniel N. Death, who married Ms. Graves. When you view the record and click “Find Spouse,” you’ll see her first name was Maud. What are the odds they gave their children hyphenated surnames?
Put on your white lab coat and prepare to save some lives.
It’s the late 19th century and the new California State Board of Public Health is reviewing mortality schedules for each district in the state. As you look over your jurisdiction you notice something interesting about the town of Calaveras in Calaveras County in 1850.
Assistant Marshall John W. Jones reported that “this district is remarkably healthy.” And he was right—just two conditions were deemed responsible for the majority of the 60 deaths there that year.
In your report back to the powers that be, you wisely suggest the district invest in privies and a sheriff as a way to save lives in the future.
What were the top two causes of death in the town of Calaveras in 1850?
Answer: Dysentery, shot
Look at the cause of deaths listed on the 1850 U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedule. “Dysentery” and “shot” take the top two spots, although “stabbed” and the catch-all “murdered” are close behind. Interestingly, while most of the deceased were miners, the second most common job of the Calaveras dead in 1850 was “gambler.”
You might not have heard of Fleetwood Lindley before, but he has a macabre claim to fame—a creepy honor that gives him a special place in history.
Determine Fleetwood’s connection to history (you can find details in the Stories & Publications collections on Ancestry) AND which member of Fleetwood’s family played an important role in earning this claim to fame.
Clue: Sometimes starting with minimal information (in this case a name) can get you the answers you want. Don’t be afraid to look beyond the first page of search results.
What was the historical connection? And which relative helped him secure this claim to fame?
Answer: He was the last living person to have seen Abraham Lincoln’s body. His father helped him.
Fleetwood Lindley, who was born 22 years after President Abraham Lincoln died, was the last living person to see Lincoln’s body. He earned this honor because of his father, who was an honor guard at a 1901 ceremony in which the body in Lincoln’s tomb was verified to be Lincoln.
Monsieur Andre Chenier was a French poet of some renown. But not everyone appreciated his passionate prose. In fact, at the time of his death in France, his words were definitely coming back to haunt him.
How did M. Chenier die?
(Clue: Use his name and location to first find the date of his death.)
Answer: He was guillotined.
You’ll know you have the right Andre Chenier by checking for the occupation on his death index. Then dig a little further using the information in the death index. And in a flash, you’ll discover Chenier’s unfortunate, but fast, demise—by guillotine in 1794.
Before the candles on the cake were even lit, Mr. John Gordon Ramsey’s birthday celebration took a tragic turn. Despite the exotic Brazilian setting of his party, it was certainly the worst birthday he ever had.
Who died and how?Start looking for the answer here.
Don your Scotland Yard hat for this challenge.
Cora Crippen (a.k.a. Belle) has been found dead by poisoning in 1910. The prime suspect is her husband, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. The bad doctor and his mistress, Ethel Le Neve, are rumored to have fled London and have boarded a ship from Antwerp to Quebec, traveling under the names John Philo Robinson and John George Robinson (Miss Le Neve is disguised as a boy).
In order to overtake them and apprehend the dastardly duo, you need to figure out exactly where they are.
What is the name of the ship they are aboard?
Answer: The SS Montrose
Search under the aliases in the immigration and travel collection and you’ll find both a passenger list and a wonderfully detailed manifest in Border Crossings: from Canada to U.S. You don’t have to read far to see you’ve found your men, er, man and woman.
As any good inspector knows, there is more to the story, and if you dig a little further you’ll find it. If you search our death collections, including probate records, you will find Dr. Crippen was returned to England, and died in Pentonville prison, Middlesex on November 23rd, 1910. He left his remaining possessions to his mistress, Ethel Clara Le Neve.
It’s February 6, 1925 and there’s a drama unfolding on the pages of the Charleston Daily Mail. William Floyd Collins is trapped in Sand Cave, near Cave City, Kentucky. He’s been there since January 30.
The country has been riveted by the daily reports on the story—and today is an especially poignant. This was supposed to be William’s wedding day. But instead, his betrothed, Alma Clark, waits at the mouth of the cave for news of his rescue.
How does this story end?Start looking for the answer here.
Frederick Dethlefsen was born in 1866. And that’s all we can tell you about him. Using records on Ancestry, give us the details that could have been included to write his obituary: birthplace, occupation, lodge or organization he was associated with, his sons’ names, and whether or not his wife predeceased him.
(Clue: All the answers can be found in just one record)
Long before you read him in college lit class, Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) had made such a name for himself as a poet and author that his funeral was held in Westminster Abbey. His executor wanted Hardy buried there, in Poet’s Corner, with the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens. Hardy’s own wishes were to be laid to rest in tiny Stinsford, Dorset, England, near his first wife and parents.
Where does Thomas Hardy RIP?
Clue: Be sure to view the image associated with the record.Start looking for the answer here.
Answer: Both Westminster Abbey and Stinsford
Hardy’s ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey, but his heart was buried in Dorset.
To find this remarkable answer, start by entering what you know about Hardy in the search fields — his name, birth and death years, and England for a location. You can narrow down the locations further by entering Dorset, England, as an educated guess. You’ll find the answer in the Dorset, England, Deaths and Burials, 1813–2001, collection. View the record and you’ll see an explanatory line: “His ashes rest in Westminster Abbey, his heart lies here.”
Legendary railroad engineer John Luther “Casey” Jones was the only person to die when his passenger train crashed outside of Vaughn, Mississippi, in the early morning hours of April 30, 1900. His heroism saved the lives of everybody else on board, including his fireman, when Casey told him to jump.
A train crash couldn’t kill the fireman. What could?
Clue: Click here to first find the fireman’s name in the papers at newspapers.com.Start looking for the answer here.
Simeon T. “Sim” Webb died of broncho-pneumonia at the grand old age of 83. Casey’s selfless heroism gave him the opportunity for a long life and the chance to raise a family. The only hint of his dramatic past on his death certificate is his occupation: “Fireman.”
To find the answer, start a search by entering the information you gleaned from the newspaper article — Simeon Webb died at 83. The article was dated 1957, so we know when he died, and some simple arithmetic gives us his birth year. We also have the location of Memphis. His death certificate, found in Tennessee, Death Records, 1908–1958, lists cause of death along with a wealth of other family history details, including his parents’ and daughter’s names.
John Gracsok died of injuries to the skull caused by a blunt instrument. Was it murder or justifiable self-defense? Who was the suspect? What was the motive?
Who cracked Gracsok’s skull?
Clue: It’s always worth looking beyond the first page of a record.Start looking for the answer here.
Answer: Murder, son, property
Gracsok is an usual name. In fact, a search for John Gracsok brings up only one record on Ancestry in the Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1834–1974, database. These records often include both a form and other supporting materials, such as correspondence, and they can be full of interesting details about an ancestor.
The image linked to John Gracsok is the Report of the Death of an American Citizen form. It lists the cause of death as murder. But it is only one page in Gracsok’s file. The two images before the report explain that U.S. authorities learned of Gracsok’s death only after reading about the murder in the local newspapers.
The two images following the report are a translation of the local district office’s report on the murder, which explains that an altercation between Gracsok and his son supposedly began when the son would not stop whistling. The son claimed he killed his father in self-defense after Gracsok attacked him, his mother, and his young son with hot wax, but local authorities believed otherwise, since the blows came from behind. The final page of the report lists the supposed motive: “The son desired that the farm be turned over to him which the father refused to do.”