Genealogists are curious individuals whose training teaches them to question everything they see, hear or read. So, it's no wonder family historians are a suspicious bunch.
Researchers learn that documents created close to the time of an event are more reliable sources than those put together years after the fact. Instructors also teach that it's generally OK to accept on face value documents created by officials who don't have a reason to falsify the records.
For example, except in the pages of a mystery novel, a medical examiner or coroner isn't likely to have ulterior motives for falsifying a death certificate. One can reasonably expect that the date of death on the document is true.
Karen Hitz, a former student of mine, was paying close attention in class. She took to heart the need to question everything and recently sent a death certificate she had unearthed. It has obvious errors and is an excellent example of why it's important to examine the entire document line-by-line.
Arthur Schroth's physician signed the death certificate, swearing the patient died at 2 p.m. on July 17, 1936 of diabetes mellitus. But the funeral director signed that he buried Arthur on July 21, 1937 at the Vine Street Hill Cemetery in Cincinnati. Did Arthur's body lie in a morgue for almost a year before he was buried? Not likely.
Karen has found one document that made her wonder whether maybe the doctor was taking too much of his own medicine. At Christmas, Arthur's wife and family ran a small remembrance of their loved one in the local paper, noting he "passed away July 17, 1937."
When a researcher suspects an error in an official document such as a death certificate, he must find as much evidence as possible to confirm that the "fact" is incorrect. The family's holiday remembrance is a good start.
Here's a list of other things that Karen or any researcher can do to shore up her belief that the doctor erred:
•Search local newspapers for an obituary that should have run in July 1936 or 1937, whichever year is correct.
•See whether the funeral home is still in business and whether it has maintained its records.
•Go to the Vine Street Hill Cemetery and see what date of death is chiseled on the tombstone.
•Check the local probate court to see whether Arthur had a will or if his intestate estate was administered. Such action likely would have immediately followed his death and would prove which year he died.
•Contact the folks at the Ohio Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics. Provide Arthur's file number, listed on the death certificate, and see if the department has a way of looking at the sequential numbers for a date on the certificates issued immediately before and after. Another alternative is to go to the Hamilton County health department (whose record base would be smaller) and see if it can do the same. This step is a big one but if it's a slow business day, a clerk might be enticed to help solve the mystery.
USF genealogy interest group
Port Richey genealogist Debbe Hagner will lecture about "Overcoming Brick Walls - Simple Solutions to Your Major Problems" at 9:30 a.m. Friday during the University of South Florida Genealogy Interest Group meeting. The group meets the third Friday of every month at Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church, 2902 W. Fletcher Ave., Tampa.
Guests are welcome. For details, call (813) 977-6484.