Primary Sources: Finding stories in US Death Certificates

In my last post/video, I looked at U.S. death certificates, pointing out that the genealogical information therein could have mistakes, depending on the person reporting that data. In this post/video, I’m looking at other areas of U.S. death certificates that you should pay close attention to.

First off, cause of death. Most of the time, it’s going to be something common such as myocardial infarction, but occasionally you’ll find some interesting stories.

Sometimes, you’ll encounter a dated explanation, such as Pthisis or Apoplexy. It’s always worth running a web search to discover the modern variants—Pthisis is tuberculosis, while apoplexy is a stroke. I had one 2nd great uncle, Michael Gallagher, who was in his mid-twenties when he died in 1904. His death certificate read “general paralysis” as the cause of death. I dug in a bit, and discovered that was a term for late stage syphilis. I can only imagine how scandalized his widowed, Irish Catholic mother and siblings were.

Even better is the rare cause of death that could lead to stories in the local newspaper. My wife knew that her 2nd great-grandmother, Minnie Plummer, was killed by her own son in 1929, but no one in the family had the whole story—my wife’s great-grandmother wasn’t forthcoming about the story, for obvious reasons.

When we saw that her cause of death was “strangulation by son” and that the medical examiner could only guess when she had died, we realized we had a shocking murder in the tiny farming village of Crofton, Nebraska. I immediately searched for a repository for the local papers, and found they had covered the story extensively, listing all the gruesome details of the murder-suicide. None of it was pleasant, but the raw emotion of it transformed Minnie and her kids from a few dry, unrelatable facts on old documents into living, breathing people.

Second, check where someone died. This goes back to my principle of reading everything. Again, most of the time, there’s not going to be anything interesting here—people tend to die at home. But sometimes… take a look at Emmett O’Neill’s death certificate. His place of death was the Hamburg State Sanatorium, and it was stamped rather than handwritten. So was Emmett’s cause of death: “tuberculosis of the lungs.” The 33-year-old spent 11 months dying in a state hospital, over ninety miles from his wife and three young boys.

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