Vital Statistics in Newspapers
One of the most useful genealogical applications of newspapers is for vital statistics—as substitutes for or supplements to civil or other sources for birth, marriage, and death information. In older newspapers, notices of births, deaths, and marriages appeared almost anywhere in the publication. Because of their brevity they made good filler items—to fill in a few lines at the end of a column or a page. Unless you read every page thoroughly, you may miss a notice. Column headings can be misleading too. An unsuspecting researcher looking for the death notice or obituary of an ancestor who had died in a construction accident might easily miss the article headed “Blown to Eternity” if the search is concentrated on a personal name. A twentieth-century attitude toward newspapers will not be of much help in reading an eighteenth-century publication.
Because there is a wealth of biographical information to be found in obituaries, family historians generally seek them before doing further research in newspapers. For many individuals, the obituary was the only “biographical sketch” ever written. In addition to names, dates, and places of birth, marriage, and death, the obituary often identifies relationships of the deceased as child, sibling, parent, grandparent, and so forth, to numerous other individuals. Obituaries may even suggest other documentation of an individual’s death. A mention of a hospital in a different county, for instance, might lead you to a previously hard-to-find death certificate. If the obituary records the place of burial or the officiating minister, you’ll likely be able to use that information to find church or cemetery records. Likewise, if the newspaper indicates that the death was sudden or unexpected, you might search for a record of a coroner’s inquest. Of course, the wealth of detail in an informative obituary may open up many other research avenues.
The amount of information on deaths found in newspapers will not be consistent over the years. Practices also varied in different parts of the country, and individual papers and editors had differing attitudes toward obituaries. Very early obituaries tended to limit the account to one or two lines. A typical early nineteenth-century entry stated the name of the deceased, perhaps an age or estimated age (rarely found in other sources), the date of death, and the last residence; mention of the funeral was sometimes included. Further details of the death may have been given, but rarely were survivors named. The fact that a husband or wife was “left with ten children to mourn the loss’’ may be the extent of the help provided in such a notice. Parents’ names were rarely given except in the case of a child, and even these may merely say: “Baby Mary departed this life to live with the angels.”
While older newspapers often disappoint the researcher for their lack of lengthy obituaries, even a few lines like those found in a newspaper clipping dated 14 February 1814 can provide a gold mine of information:
- Died in Licking County, the 6th instant,
- Mrs. Elizabeth Davis consort of Mr. Isaac Davis, aged 26 years. She has left a disconsolate husband and three small children to deplore her loss.
Because official government vital records do not exist prior to the early twentieth century in most places, this newspaper death notice may be the only source for determining the death date of Elizabeth Davis, her age, the name of her husband and that she had three small children. This information may also open the door to possible court, cemetery, land, or other records.
As the nineteenth century progressed, an increasing amount of information was furnished. It is not uncommon to find biographical accounts that include birth dates, marriage dates and places, and children’s and grandchildren’s names. While the small-town newspaper could find space to print details on the deaths of even common people, this policy was not practical for the metropolitan press. Large dailies printed lengthy obituaries only of the prominent, the powerful, the wealthy—those for whom a fee was paid to laud their lives or whose passing was considered newsworthy. In short, there are no set rules on the amount of information that can be expected. You won’t know until you look.
When searching for death information, it’s wise to look for all newspapers that may have served the area in which the individual of interest lived. One newspaper may have included more details than another, so it’s important not to limit the search to one title or edition. Most cities currently have only one or two daily newspapers, but a century ago that city may have had five or six, any one of which might have carried the death notice of the person of interest. Even comparatively small communities had at least two papers—usually, one Democratic and one Republican. Also, unlike today’s papers, which often share a printing plant or even editorial staff, older papers were often fiercely competitive, and each paper had its own strengths of coverage.
If you cannot find an obituary during the dates you would expect to find it, consider a more general search of the newspapers printed around the same time. Searching papers dated before a known death date can help you find news of a serious illness that may have preceded the death. A story of a prominent member of the community falling gravely ill and of family members traveling to be at the bedside often made the headlines in large and small towns. You may find details that you will not find elsewhere, if you begin your search of a weekly paper at least two weeks before the date of death. Also, there may be details published much later than the traditional one to three days after the individual’s death. The news of the death may have reached the paper shortly before the printing deadline and a fuller obituary may have followed later.
The circumstances of the death will often determine where information appears within the newspaper itself. Accidental deaths, murders, and suicides were news items and were therefore placed in attention-getting spots, but the deceased might not be accorded a separate obituary. The word suddenly is a clue that the death was unnatural and that a coroner’s inquest may have been held, even if it was not reported.
When considering possible obituary sources, it is wise to go beyond the community where the individual died and to check the place or places where the individual previously lived. Many people spent their later years with children and died far from where they had lived most of their adult lives. But, if they still had connections with the hometown, there is a good chance that an obituary will appear there, perhaps a more detailed one than will be found in the place of death, where that person was just a new or temporary resident. However, the opposite may also be true, depending on the policies of the individual papers or whether it was a slow news week in a particular community. When the deceased had previously lived elsewhere or had significant links to another city, it was common to see an obituary or death notice requesting that another city newspaper “please copy,” thus providing a lead to earlier residences and perhaps a place to search for additional relatives or information.
The Atlanta Constitution of 16 January 1875 carried the notice that Col. Charles T. Goode had passed away and it provides leads to his previous residences:
- The telegraphic wires yesterday flashed sad news when it conveyed the intelligence of the death, at Americus, Georgia, of Col. Charles T. Goode, the silver-tongued orator, as he was justly termed by all who knew him. Of the nature of the disease that snatched him away in the prime of his manhood, we are not advised. Col. Charles T. Goode was the son of Thomas W. Goode of Upson County. He was born in Upson County about 1834 or 1835, and resided there a short time previous to the war. He married a daughter of Gen. Eli Warren of Houston County then moved to that county.
Death and Funeral Notices
In addition to obituaries, other sources of information for a person who is deceased include death or funeral notices, burial permit lists, and death lists. They may not include the wealth of useful detail that obituaries do, but they can provide important documentation of deaths.
Death or funeral notices were paid announcements. Unlike the obituary, the notice usually stated only the name of the decedent, when and where the death occurred, and, occasionally, the name of a survivor. An example might be: “Dyer, Harry, 26th inst., funeral from St. James at 1 pm, thence by carriage to Greenwood Cemetery.” Even this simple statement can provide needed clues to continue research in church, cemetery, court, and other records. Many ancestors will not be found in paid announcements because survivors either did not deem them necessary or couldn’t afford them. In hard economic times, such as the Great Depression, there were noticeably fewer paid announcements.
Official lists of the dead are commonly found in newspapers. This kind of list gives the meager information supplied to the newspaper from city or county records and was included as a free service to the readers. Other printed lists that provide needed death dates or places include lists of war dead, disaster victims, and deceased members of fraternal organizations. Names of policemen and firemen who died within the year were often published periodically. Sometimes all of the area deaths were noted simultaneously at the end of the year, or as part of the summary of the previous year in a January issue.
Newspapers can also explain why certain death or other vital records cannot be found. The following article from the Brooklyn Daily Union Argus (12 February 1878) calls attention to a problem that was all too common in municipalities in every part of the country:
- Death Certificates
- The untidy bundles of death certificates which have hitherto made an unsightly appearance on the shelves of the record room of the Health Department have been by years in volume, and now appear in the form of a library reference—but not for general reference, as the Board yet holds to the fallacy that public documents do not belong to the public.
Frequently, it is difficult to track cemeteries that have been moved, or to guess where someone may have been buried. Area newspapers may be especially useful in finding answers. Consider the article from the New York Daily Times of 29 March 1854 that explains where the poor of the New York City area were buried.
- NEW POTTER’S FIELD.
- A proposition is before the Board of Governors for the purchase of additional lands on Ward’s Island for the purposes of a City Cemetery, or Potter’s Field. It is time that the remains of paupers were interred in some quarter better fitted for their last resting-place than the one now used on Randall’s Island. A more disgusting spectacle can scarcely be conceived than the trenches filled with coffins, loosely covered with earth and subject to trespass, which now receive the bodies of the City’s poor. The old Potter’s Field was a disgrace to the City, years ago; and continual use has made it much worse. The dictates of propriety point to the obvious requirement of a new location.
Marriage items, like other vital records in newspapers, varied considerably, both over time and from one newspaper to another. The listings range from brief announcements or lists of licenses to full, detailed accounts of the wedding ceremony itself, occasionally including even a list of wedding gifts.
Marriage license notices appear frequently in both city and rural newspapers. Often, these were posted weekly and in many instances noted the age of the bride and groom, as well as their places of residence. The Central Illinois Gazette of West Urbana ran this fairly typical notice on 12 May 1858:
The following marriage licenses have been issued since our last report:
- P. Haynes to Temps Green,
- J.R. Thomas to M.J. Stacy,
- W.I. Traywick to Willella Gray,
- J.Y. Pearce to Cora Pearce
- Charley Weathers to Van King
The best sources for engagement and marriage information are local papers. Generally only the socially and politically elite were newsworthy enough to get coverage in metropolitan dailies. Because couples getting married frequently traveled to the place of marriage—perhaps they eloped or went to the bride’s hometown, or went to another state where there was no waiting period—newspaper accounts can frequently provide the clues leading to an otherwise elusive record. And that account might appear in a paper wherever the bride or groom was known.
Stories of marriages that may otherwise be lost to the ages are sometimes found in newspaper accounts. The following example from the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union of 13 April 1906 included this:
- MARRIAGE FOLLOWS CHANCE MEETING OF PLAYMATES
- A romance which began in Bukranis, Austria, several years ago, resulted, to-day, in the marriage, in the Third District Municipal Court, by Justice Rosenthal, of Jacob Canderer, 23 years old, and Miss Tillie Fried, 22 years old. The husband, who is a jeweler, at 294 Grand street, came to this country five years ago. A year later Miss Fried, who had been playmates in the old country, came to the United States with her parents, who live at 36 Belmont avenue. One day this week Miss Fried happened to go into Canderer’s store to look at some jewelry. They had not heard from each other since he left Europe. It didn’t take them long, however, to renew the acquaintance that had been broken off, and when the jeweler proposed marriage he was quickly accepted. As Justice Rosenthal is a friend of the bride, it was decided to have him perform the ceremony.
As with death information, there’s always a chance that a marriage may have been registered in an unexpected town or county. The clipping from the Arkansas Gazette of Little Rock, Arkansas, dated 8 January 1916 leads one to wonder. At which end of the railroad line was the following marriage registered?
- With the train going the maximum speed allowed by the condition of the track, last night B.B. Rice and Miss Dee Ellington stood up between the seats, faced the preacher, steadied themselves as the car jolted and swerved, and plighting their troth were made man and wife. Rev. S. L. Halloway, pastor of the Baptist church here, performed the ceremony.
When brides and grooms ran across restrictive marriage laws in their home county, they frequently found a place with more liberal legislation. Waukegan, Illinois, was just one of the places where Chicago couples went for a quick wedding. An article in the Waukegan Daily Sun (31 December 1925) stated that “Waukegan, as a marriage ground, more than held its own through 1925, showing an increase of approximately 434 marriages, which is healthy to say the least.” The article noted that a change in the Michigan law, demanding a five-day notice that was also in effect in Wisconsin, had “boomed” the local marriage business. The newspaper article indicated that “scores of Chicago couples who once went to Michigan to get wedded now choose between Crown Point, Indiana and Waukegan.”
Birth announcements, though less common in newspapers, could be found in certain places and in various time periods. Sometimes they appeared in a society column and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Generally, birth announcements did not include details, and sometimes even the names of the parents or the baby were overlooked. Some newspapers, especially in the twentieth century, included hospital lists of babies born, including the names of the parents and their respective addresses. Small town newspapers were likely to provide fascinating tidbits of information about people in the community. Under the headline, “Little Locals,” the 12 July 1889 Carroll County Democrat (Huntington, Tennessee) provides dozens of one-line items under the headline, including a birth announcement:
- Mrs. R. H. Caldwell is reported sick this week.
- These are lovely nights. It is not raining.
- Nath Peoples killed two white cranes this week.
- Hogs are dying in this section of the county with what is called red mange.
- Mrs. Will Collins presented her husband with a fine girl last Monday evening.
- George Woodard, who lives near Bennet’s mill, has a chicken without wings!
While not always written with such detail, the following 1884 article from the Champaign County Herald (Illinois), stories and court recordings of divorces often appeared in big city and small-town papers.
- Mary Smith says she was married to John on May 10, 1881 and that he beat and abused her generally in a manner that indicated that he did not love her as in days of yore. He has willfully absented himself for more than two years and for these reasons she submits to the court whether she ought not to be made a free woman so that she can try it over again.
The Ohio Repository of Canton, Ohio, published on 4 April 1849, presented surprising information for those who think divorces didn’t happen in earlier times. “Divorces crowd, in formidable array, the business files of all our State Legislatures, bearing ample testimony to the fact that ill assorted marriages are a principle of American life. At the late session of the Kentucky Legislature one hundred and ninety-six divorces were granted.”
Wedding anniversaries celebrating twenty-five, fifty, or more years of marriage were of special interest in local papers. For example, the golden wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph V. Parkinson merited two full columns on the front page, including a complete review of their fifty years together, in the Rensselaer Semi-Weekly Republican, Jasper County, Indiana, in 1901. Another anniversary notice that appeared in the pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer of 27 February 1935 provided wonderful details of the 68th wedding anniversary of Civil War Veteran Nicholas Weidenkopf. Complete with a photo of the anniversary couple, the detailed article stated that “Nicholas Weidenkopf, president of the board of the Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Commission and his wife, Kate, today were receiving congratulations on the 68th anniversary of their marriage.” The newspaper account stated that Mr. Weidenkopf, who was ninety-two, and his wife, who was eighty-eight, were observing the event quietly at their residence at 1223 Summit avenue in Lakewood, and that during the day, Mr. Weidenkopf put in the usual amount of time working at his office. Besides being active in the veterans’ organizations, the article mentions other social groups in which the ninety-two-year-old held memberships. Weidenkopt was quoted as saying, “I’m the only living member of the First Ohio Light Artillery. We were on our way to battle twelve days after Fort Sumpter was fired on, and took part in the first land battle of the war.”
While rich details of special events like these can be extremely helpful in understanding the lives of our ancestors, unless it is well indexed, it may be necessary to conduct a page by page search of the newspaper of interest.
Abandonment and Missing People Notices
Pre-dating the “personals” pages of a later era, the Ohio Repository of 7 May 1835 posted a notice that Lydia Cogan anxiously awaited word about her missing husband. It was not uncommon to find physical descriptions of missing individuals such as this in early papers. This newspaper account provides details about Jacob, Lydia, and Imerand that would not be found elsewhere.
- CAUTION: On the 21st inst. My husband, Jacob Cogan, left me with eight children and absconded with another woman. He is about 45 years old, has dark hair, heavy eyebrows, black beard, a scar on his forehead over the right eye, a lump on the right arm and one on his leg. He had on a blue cloth coat and pantaloons of the same, one of his little fingers is cut off. The woman he went off with is named Imerand Shaner, aged about 25 years, has sandy hair, freckled face, and letters marked on her arm. She was born in Germany. This notice is given to caution the public of the character of this pair. Any information as to the place of their location will be thankfully received in order that they may be brought to justice. Lydia Cogan, Sandyville, Tuscarawas County, Ohio. April 25, 1835.