Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mining Obituaries: The Good, the Bad, and the Irritating

My husband thought it important enough to leave a message for me on my telephone at work: “You have a package. From South Carolina.”

Hooray! Hooray! Christmas in April! Am I going to have fun!

I don’t even have to ask you all whether you would be happy to get what was in that package.

65 obituaries. And 65 more are coming shortly. This is on top of the first 40 obituaries I ordered a few months ago from a researcher in Greenville County, South Carolina for my “Descendants of Samuel Moore” project. I am using obituaries in combination with other resources to identify descendants and add them to my file in Reunion. Each time I find a new person mentioned in an obituary, I check in the Greenville Library’s online obituary index to see whether or not the Library has an obituary on file for them; if it does, I add them to my new list of people to look up.

There are a few challenges, however.

Did you ever have to do one of those logic puzzles in which you had to match people up or associate them based on a few clues, i.e., A is married to a person E who is the sister of D, while B is the brother-in-law of a person who is not related to C, and so on? This very much resembles the mix and match game l sometimes have to play when using older obituaries, which have an irritating tendency to name married female survivors of the deceased by married names only. It often happens that I will know the names of the daughters of the deceased from censuses or other sources but do not know the names of their husbands, so I have to start fiddling around on Ancestry and the Greenville Library obituary index to get enough information to match people up. Based on my trial-and-error experience, I have one piece of advice: do not rush ahead with assumptions that A was the husband of B when you enter these people into your genealogy program.

Oh, and Captain Obvious has another piece of advice on top of this one: make sure you read the obituary carefully. Look for such pieces of “minor” information, such as how many sons and daughters the deceased is said to have had.

To take the example of an obituary I went through just the other day from The Greenville News, 30 September 1938, p. 10:

Mrs. Crayton Shirley

ANDERSON, Sept. 29 – Mrs. Crayton C. Shirley, 66, died this afternoon at the Anderson County hospital following an illness of the last three weeks.

Mrs. Shirley, a daughter of Bruce Moore and Mrs. Mary Shirley Moore, was a native and life-long resident of Anderson county and was a member of the Oakwood Baptist church. She was a resident of the Midway community east of Anderson.

Besides her husband, Mrs. Shirley is survived by five daughters and six sons, Mrs. O. D. Drake, Mrs. Luther Freeman, Mrs. Dewey Poore, Mrs. Fred Fowler and Mrs. Frank Stone; Waymon, Robert, Ansel, J. B., Grady and Leroy Shirley all of Anderson county. She also leaves two brothers and one sister, A. P. and W. D. Moore of Anderson, and Mrs. J. K. Miller of Laurens county.

The funeral services will be held at 5 o’clock Friday afternoon at Oakwood Baptist church with the Rev. E. C. White officiating. Interment will follow in Silver Brook cemetery.


From census information I had the following daughters listed for Bessie and Crayton Shirley: Ruth, Cora Corrine, Mamie, Gertrude, and Lila. I already had Corrine tentatively connected to Dewey Poore due to her distinctive name and soon found Ruth Shirley Drake in the Greenville index. This seemed to indicate that the daughters were listed in order of age, but I couldn’t take that for granted. And on top of that, there was one less husband than there were daughters, so one of the daughters had not married by that time; the question was, who was the spinster daughter?

Before I got too carried away with this line, I reread the obituary and looked back at my notes for each of the daughters. The key phrase in the obituary was “is survived by five daughters and six sons,” because when I went over my notes for Gertrude, I found the following: “Listed as a son, Gady, age 2, on the 1910 census, and as a daughter, Gertrude, age 12, on the 1920 census.” And so I did something you should never do: I made an assumption, namely, that it would have been easier to mistake the sex of a young child than an older one. It was the wrong assumption. And, of course, Grady (not Gady) was listed among the sons.

Well, lesson learned.

And, by way of a wish list, other items in obituaries that could use a little more detail, at least from the perspective of someone using obituaries for research, are: listing of (great) grandchildren by quantities rather than by name; clumping of all the sons’ children (who have the same last name) together; and referring to the appointed day for burial by day of the week instead of by day of the month (though a perpetual calendar is all that’s needed to figure out the day of the month).

One final item that I do not think is too reliably reported in obituaries, especially in older ones: military participation. The particular era that this has involved in my research is the Civil War, and it could very well be due to faulty memories. One relative, who died in 1924 at the age of 73, was reported as being a Confederate veteran. Well, perhaps he had been a young drummer boy near the end of the war, but so far I have found nothing indicating that he was.

This is not meant to be a whine-fest, as I am very grateful for the wealth of information to be found in obituaries, and I actually rather enjoy solving the puzzle they create. Moreover, more recent obituaries do seem to provide a few more details.

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