Thursday, March 31, 2011

Who Looks Like Whom

Every family plays this game.  When a baby is born, the comparisons begin.  "He has his father's chin."  "She has her mother's eyes."  Everyone tries to recognize features and connect the child to the family.  As children get older, sometimes the original comparisons don't hold as true, but there's usually someone in the family they still resemble.  And sometimes what someone sees in you depends on which family members they knew best.

I have been told many times that when I was a baby I resembled my paternal grandmother.  As I got older, I didn't hear that so much; I looked a lot like my father, who looks just like his father.  In my 30's, when I put on weight, I could see a strong resemblance to my mother.  But when I met a cousin, he thought I looked like my grandmother, which I hadn't heard in years.  Then I found out that he was essentially raised by my grandmother -- so those were the features he was most familiar with and the ones he recognized in me.

My brother and my maternal uncle look so much alike they could be brothers, but nobody in the family believed me.  I realized most family members had only seen one or the other recently, so I took a photo when the two of them were in the same spot.  Once I showed everyone the photo, they could see what I was talking about.

A friend was telling me recently that her youngest sister and her oldest sister (19 years age difference between them) looked so much alike in one photo, they actually oriented their faces toward the camera the same way and had similar facial expressions.  These were half-sisters from the same mother, not full siblings.

Recognizing common features can help when you have unidentified family photos.  On a trip to visit my grandmother in Florida she gave me a photo because she didn't recognize the people in it.  It was a photo of a man, a woman, and a small child (the photograph I posted yesterday for Wordless Wednesday).  The photographer's information indicated the photo had been taken in Kamenets Podolskiy, Russia (now Kamyanets Podilskyy, Ukraine), where my maternal great-grandfather was said to have been born, so I thought it must have something to do with my family.  Later I was showing several family photographs to a cousin from my father's side of the family, and when we got to this photograph she said, "We've seen her before."  We went back through the photos and found the photo she was talking about.  That photo my grandmother had identified as her father's sister Sarah.  When we compared the two photos, the two women looked almost exactly alike.  Based on the woman's clothing in the photograh from Kamenets Podolskiy, I had estimated the date to be in the early 1890's.  After a few more photo comparisons, I came to the conclusion that the photo from Kamenets Podolskiy was of my great-great-grandparents and their first child; apparently Sarah looked uncannily like her mother.  This was quite a find, because my great-great-grandmother died in Kishinev in 1908; my great-great-grandfather and all eight children left Europe.  No one else in the family had a photo of my great-great-grandmother.  I had copies made and distributed it to all the cousins I knew.

So who do you look like?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Steve Buscemi

It was very appropriate that I read an article today on how the OED (Oxford Dictionary of the English Language) has added several modern abbreviations, because my reaction to the Steve Buscemi episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was WTF?  Some of the logic leaps made in this program were utterly amazing.

The episode started well enough.  As Buscemi drove to meet with his parents in Brooklyn, he ruminated on how he would like to find "another character where the story is compelling."  When he arrived at his parents' home, he looked over photos with them and talked about what his mother knew about her family, which was the side he had chosen to focus on.  His mother's mother committed suicide, and he immediately made the assumption that there must be a history of depression in the family.  This was WTF #1 -- it is not reasonable to make such a sweeping generalization about a family based on one person.  In addition, nothing was stated about why his grandmother had committed suicide, so even if it was due to depression, we the audience never heard about that directly.

The information Buscemi began with was that his maternal grandmother Amanda Van Dine had committed suicide, her parents were Charles and Jane Van Dine, and Jane died in Brooklyn in 1928.  From that, his first stop was at the New York City Archives to try to find Amanda's death certificate -- not unreasonable.  He met with archivist Joseph Shumway, who said, "Let me show you what I've got," making me think at first that this was going to be another episode where the celebrity merely goes around collecting information from researchers (kind of like a computer puzzle game).  Shumway had Jane's death certificate.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Buscemi actively reading and analyzing the information on the certificate, instead of merely being fed the data by the archivist.  The certificate stated that Jane died of bronchial pneumonia, her parents were Ralph Montgomery and Julia Vanderhof, and her usual residence was 207 7th Avenue, which Buscemi recognized as the address of a restaurant he and his wife like (Sette Enoteca e Cucina, which will probably see a boost in business).  It also stated that Ralph and Julia were born in the U.S. and that Jane had been a resident of New York for 32 years, so Buscemi wondered where Jane had been previous to living in New York.

The next step of research shown was finding Jane in the 1880 census as an 11-year-old in Camden, New Jersey, working as a servant with the Tillman Turner family.  WTF #2 -- if there is no one in the household she is related to, how in the world could they know this was the correct person?  I could be generous and give the WDYTYA researchers the benefit of the doubt and say they did their homework behind the scenes, but with the lingering unexplained blunder of the Lionel Richie episode, I'm not really willing to do that.  The least they could do was make passing mention of, say, other censuses they found Jane in that had indicated what state she was born in.  Why didn't they show her in 1870 with her parents?  This was just unbelievable.  In addition, they relied only on the index to show them which people in the census seemed to be likely candidates for Jane.  Unfortunately,'s indices are not perfect, and I look at other sources when the results don't look logical.

That said, Shumway gave a short history lesson and discussed how poor families might send their children out to work to help bring in some income.  He also mentioned that he had looked for Jane's parents in the area around Camden and had not found them.  Based on this, what did he suggest as a next step of research?  Look for the family in 1870?  Look in city directories?  No!  WTF #3 -- he suggested looking on for people researching the same family tree.  Excuse me?  The trees on Ancestry are well known to be rife with errors because people don't give sources for most of their information, and any sources given are merely links to records on Ancestry.  But Buscemi dutifully typed in Ralph Montgomery and found a family tree listing Jane.  The tree showed Ralph as having been born in Milton, Pennsylvania, which Buscemi accepted as being correct -- "So he was born in Pennsylvania." -- with no documentation.  He also noted that there were living descendants, and Shumway told him he should send a message to the owner of the tree.

So now that a message had been sent to the person who posted the family tree, what was the next step in Buscemi's research?  WTF #4 -- the Pennsylvania State Archives, because he was going to start with Ralph Montgomery's birth and work forward to 1880.  Let's see, the only information we have seen that said that Montgomery was born in Pennsylvania was an unsourced family tree on, so we're going to head to the state archives.  Let's just ignore the fact that the logical way to do research is start with the most recent information and work backward.  Even if they couldn't find the family in the 1870 census, what about looking for Ralph in 1860 and 1850?

But off we went to the archives, where Buscemi met with archivist Aaron McWilliams.  McWilliams explained that a fire in 1880 destroyed most of Milton's early records (what about county records?) but suggested that Buscemi look for Montgomery in tax records while he looked in censuses.  Buscemi found a Ralph Montgomery listed as a dentist (I believe it was in 1856) but with no one living with him.  McWilliams found a Ralph B. Montgomery in the 1860 census, living with people whom he said were "most likely his wife and children" (thank you! this is the appropriate conclusion, because the 1860 census does not state relationships between people in the same household), who was a grocer.  WTF #5 -- they came to the immediate conclusion that these two men were the same person and that Montgomery must have had some tragedy occur in his life to have stopped working as a dentist, and that this was the same Ralph Montgomery from the online family tree, even though the wife and children don't match.  Okay, we know they've done all this research before the episode was filmed, and they probably are the same person, but there is no way someone could reasonably make that connection based only on the pieces of information the audience was shown.

McWilliams now suggested that Buscemi look for more information about Montgomery in newspapers and court records.  While these are excellent sources to research, Buscemi began his search in the 1860 Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph.  Um, why not start in 1856, the last year Montgomery was found as a dentist?  But Buscemi found a short item on November 28 titled "Supposed Suicide" that discussed the discovery of what appeared to be a suicide note signed by Montgomery, found in a bottle in or near the Susquehanna River.  Because Montgomery was known to have lived after this date, the assumption was made that he threw the bottle in and then changed his mind about jumping, and that he suffered from depression.  I'm sorry, but knowing that Montgomery had another family later, my first thought was that he had left the suicide note as a ruse and then had deserted his family in Pennsylvania.  Either idea is a hypothesis that needs to be tested, however, not a proven fact.

Buscemi went out to the Susquehanna, theoretically in the area where the suicide note was found, and mused about how Montgomery must have suffered from depression and felt so badly about how his life was going that he contemplated suicide.  I think this is assuming a lot based on just a tiny bit of information.  McWilliams met Buscemi by the river and delivered copies of some court records he had found.  The first page detailed an 1857 "grand inquest" (maybe the same as a grand jury?) against Montgomery and another man in the matter of the beating of a third man.  A second document showed that the case was dropped in 1859.  From these ensued a discussion of how this case would have had a negative impact on Montgomery's dentistry practice and could have been a contributing factor to his becoming a grocer.  As these documents were used to bolster the argument that Montgomery was suffering from depression, it would have made more sense to reveal them before Buscemi's musings.  Maybe it was just poor film editing.

Somehow we hear next that as of 1861 Montgomery was gone.  I couldn't figure out where that came from.  One would think that court and census records might have been searched?  But this is where we did have another very logical step -- if a man disappeared around 1861 in the U.S., look for him in Civil War records.  Of course, we had the screen (this episode more than others started to look like a long advertisement for Ancestry).  Ralph B. Montgomery was shown as having enlisted in the Pennsylvania 91st Infantry.  Buscemi said he must have left his family behind.  WTF #6 -- lots of men told their families they were enlisting; why assume Montgomery abandoned his family?

Buscemi went to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to meet with Andy Waskie, a "Pennsylvania Regimental Expert" (what kind of title is that?).  Waskie showed Buscemi one muster roll at a time, drawing everything out.  We learned that Montgomery had a rather checkered military history.  He deserted in June 1862; was "gained from desertion", i.e., came back, in August 1862; suffered with the rest of the Union forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg under General Burnside (who truly was incompetent, and who was relieved of duty after the battle); and deserted again in 1864.  The records that Waskie showed Buscemi aren't stored in Fredericksburg; the location was purely window dressing.

And now back to  Buscemi searched the 1890 veterans census and found Margaret Montgomery listed as a widow.  The comments on the page say that Margaret "thinks [Ralph Montgomery] dead."  What they did not state on the show were that the comments also mention the destruction of Milton, Pennsylvania's, records in 1880 (always nice to find corroboration of something) and that Margaret was enumerated in the Home for the Friendless in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.  She definitely was going through difficult times.  Also not stated on the show was what happened to her children, which were Buscemi's great-grandmother's half-siblings.

The next place Buscemi headed for research was Camden, New Jersey.  He was there because Jane was enumerated in Camden in the 1880 census (though I never saw anything definitive that would have made me certain she was the right Jane).  WTF #7 -- Buscemi said it was his "only lead."  What about the 1870 census?  What about city directories?  If the researchers searched and couldn't find the family, tell us that.  (I tried a cursory search for Ralph, Julia, and Jane in the 1870 census on and on and couldn't find them.)  It's irresponsible to present it the way it was done.

Buscemi visited local historian Paul Schopp to "see what documents he's discovered."  Schopp met Buscemi in the middle of an unidentified field and showed him Montgomery's death certificate.  The certificate said that Montgomery died July 14, 1878 at age 44 of tuberculosis.  His occupation was listed as dentist, and his address was given as 207 Arch Street (I would say that address should expect a lot of visitors in the near future, except it now appears to be a government building).  Schopp then showed Montgomery's "death card", which appeared to be an index card, saying that he was buried in 11th strangers row lot 34.  We then discovered that the field the two men were standing in is the indigent cemetery, which has no markers.  Buscemi talked about how he was trying not to judge Montgomery and conceded that the man had a difficult life.

Buscemi headed back to Brooklyn, because he had received a response from the person with the online family tree.  He met Carol Olive, his third cousin, at the address Jane was living when she died in 1928.  Olive told him that after Ralph Montgomery passed away Julia remarried, to Charles Brandenburg, and showed him the marriage license.  She also showed him a page from the 1892 New York State census, with Julia Brandenburg and her children living in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  (They couldn't show this on, because Ancestry doesn't yet have Kings County online for the 1892 census; it's available for free at, however).  Olive didn't mention that Charles Brandenburg is not shown on the census with the family; it's possible that Julia had already buried a second husband.  Also, if you do the math, Jane was apparently a resident of New York for at least 36 years, not 32 years as stated on her death certificate, showing yet again why it's good to do thorough research.

After meeting with Olive, Buscemi headed back to his parents to tell them what he had learned.  He mentioned uncovering a history of depression in the family, but he didn't really do that, or at least it wasn't shown in the episode.  Two individuals two generations apart do not constitute a "history."  Depression is not the only reason people commit suicide or contemplate doing so, and it wasn't definitively shown that Ralph Montgomery actually was considering killing himself.  Buscemi said that it was "not a simple story", and that's true, at least.

A lot of assumptions and leaps were made in this episode that weren't warranted.  As I mentioned earlier, I would like to believe that the behind-the-scenes research supported all the conclusions that were presented, but after the unresolved question of Morgan W. Brown, I just don't feel comfortable doing that.  I was surprised that Montgomery being a bigamist was not addressed at all in the episode.  Maybe the thought was to downplay that because of all the other things going on in his life.  After having seen the episode, I am also surprised that GeneaBloggers Radio talked about this being a "black sheep" episode.  I consider Kim Cattrall's grandfather to be much more of a black sheep than Ralph Montgomery, and the Cattrall episode wasn't touted that way.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Remembering the Triangle Fire and Frieda Welikowsky

One hundred years ago today, the industrial fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company caused the deaths of 146 people and changed labor laws and New York City forever.  One of the employees who died because of the fire was a young Russian immigrant named Frieda Welikowsky.  She had been in the United States for less than two years.

Frieda was born in Liady, Mogilev gubernia, Russia (now Lyady, Belarus) about 1890.  She had three siblings -- Alter, Lea, and Fannie (we don't know Fannie's Yiddish name, only her American name).  All four siblings came to the United States in search of a better life.  Fannie, who was already married and had a daughter, came first with her husband.  Next was Frieda, who arrived at Ellis Island on July 19, 1909.  Her occupation listed on the ship manifest is "tailoress."  Because she was a young woman of child-bearing age traveling by herself, and therefore a "likely public charge" if she did not have someone here to support her, she was detained until someone came to pick her up.  She waited less than a day before her sister Fannie collected her.

Frieda apparently found a job in the garment industry fairly quickly.  In the 1910 census, she was enumerated on April 22 while living with her sister Fannie and her sister's family, and her occupation was "waist operator."  This meant she used a sewing machine and actually constructed garments.  Waists, or shirtwaists, were essentially what we would now call a blouse.  They were a relatively new fashion item (previously women wore one-piece dresses or bodices that matched their skirts) and were extremely popular.

Frieda was working on Saturday, March 25, 1911.  Being Jewish, she would probably have preferred not to work on the Sabbath, but if she didn't work she might have lost her job.  So she was in the factory when the fire broke out.  She was one of the employees who braved jumping out of the building rather than burning to death inside.  The fall did not immediately kill her and she was taken to New York Hospital.  In a New York Times article of March 28, 1911, however, a short note near the end mentioned Frieda and that "little hope was held for her recovery."

On March 29, a Manhattan coroner filled out the death certificate for Frieda, who had died on March 28, the day the Times article was published.  The cause of death was "shock & multiple fractures; jumped from burning building."  Later on March 29, Frieda was buried at Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens.

Lea and Alter, Frieda and Fannie's other siblings, never saw Frieda again after she left Russia.  Lea arrived at Ellis Island on September 23, 1911.  Alter arrived in Boston on August 28, 1912.


Last year, I spoke several times with Michael Hirsch, the amateur historian who worked obsessively to determine the names of the six victims who had remained unidentified after the fire.  He has done an immense amount of research on the Triangle Fire and its aftermath.  He told me that Frieda had given important testimony to investigators before she died.  He at first questioned whether her name was actually Welikowsky, because he said the Workmen's Circle, in whose plot Frieda is buried at Mount Zion, worked closely with the family members of the victims buried there, and her name on the gravestone is spelled Palakofsky.  He could not give me an explanation for the significant difference in spelling, but my research and documentation apparently convinced him that Palakofsky was not correct, because Frieda is in the official list of victims under Velakofsky, a linguistic variation of Welikowsky.

HBO and PBS produced documentaries to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire.  Michael Hirsch was a coproducer and one of the writers for the HBO program, Triangle:  Remembering the Fire.  The PBS program, Triangle Fire, said that only one person survived jumping out of the building, which is misleading.  A few people in addition to Frieda survived for at least a couple of days after they jumped.


I am not related to Frieda.  I researched her and her family as a mitzvah (good deed) for a friend of mine last year.  My friend's brother wanted to do a big family tree project for their mother's 85th birthday, and I agreed to help.  I became particularly interested in Frieda not only because of the tragedy of her short life but also because the story of the fire made me think of my own family.

Joe Gordon
My great-grandfather Joe (originally Joine, pronounced YOY-ne) lived in Manhattan in 1911 and also worked in the garment industry.  He didn't work for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, but the fire could have happened at almost any of the businesses.  He probably knew some of the people who worked at Triangle.  He may have marched in some of the labor protests before and after the fire.

Fast forward to 1980.  My grandmother, Joe's daughter, was working at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  A fire in the building claimed 87 lives.  My grandmother got out, but she always talked about one coworker who had come out with her but then went back inside because she had left her brand-new coat.  The young woman didn't make it back out the second time.  I remembered that story while I was watching the HBO special, which mentioned Joe Wilson, one of the fire victims.  He also had made it out safely, but he went back because he had left his grandfather's pocket watch, a family heirloom from the old country.  Joe didn't make it back out either.  His fiancee identified him after the fire by the pocket watch.

It isn't uncommon for me to learn something that puts my own family history into perspective while researching someone else.  History can tie people together even though they are not related.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Children Displaced During World War II

After the end of World War II, relief agencies photographed some of the many displaced children who survived, in order to help them find their families.  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is now trying to find out what happened to those children.

The Museum has placed online a gallery of about 1,100 photos of children whose photographs were taken after the end of the war.  The gallery can be viewed by name or by browsing.  The Museum's new campaign, Remember Me?, seeks help from the public to learn about these children and what happened to them, and perhaps to reconnect them with family members and with those who provided care at the end of the war.

If you have information about any of the children, you can submit that information online and leave comments.  Even if you don't know any of the children, you can help publicize the Web site.

The Remember Me? project can be found at

Monday, March 21, 2011

How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, March 27

Isaias Wolf Hellman
On Sunday, March 27, Frances Dinkelspiel will talk about her great-great-grandfather Isaias Wolf Hellman at a meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.  The meeting begins at 1:00 p.m. at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way, San Francisco 94132.  Doors open at 12:30 p.m.  There is ample parking around the synagogue.

Hellman left Bavaria at the age of 16 and within 10 years of arriving in Gold Rush-era California founded Los Angeles' first bank.  As an entrepreneur and a financier, he was integral to the founding of Wells Fargo Bank, the establishment of the University of Southern California (my alma mater), and the financing of the burgeoning oil industry.  (But where did he get his money to start with?)

Frances Dinkelspiel is an award-winning journalist.  Her work has appeared in the New York Times, People, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Magazine, and other publications.  She is the co-founder of, a new local Web site about Berkeley, and lives in Berkeley.

There will be time before and after the talk to brainstorm with others about your genealogy questions.  The meeting is free and everyone interested is welcome to attend.

For more information, visit the SFBAJGS Web site.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

StoryCorps Oral History Project

I recently heard about a U.S. program that allows people to record and share their stories.  StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit oral history project that has collected and archived more than 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants since 2003.  Each interview is recorded on a CD given to the participants and is archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.  It has a weekly broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition.

StoryCorps has three permanent locations around the country (New York City, Atlanta, San Francisco) where you can go to record your interview.  It has a mobile recording trailer that travels to other locations.  It is also possible for groups to arrange their own recording sessions.

The Web site has a question generator to help you plan your interview ahead of time.  There are links to information about StoryKits and do-it-yourself instructions, if you want to make your recordings at home.  There's even an iPhone app.

StoryCorps' mission is to "provide Americans of all background and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives."  How many stories would you like to preserve from your family and friends?  How many stories have already been lost?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Jews of the Historic South, March 24

Beth Elohim, Charleston
The Jewish communities in the southern United States tend to be overshadowed by the ones in the northeast, but in the 18th century and early 19th century some of the Southern communities were actually larger.  The first major Jewish settlements in the South were in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.  Two of the earliest Jewish congregations in the United States were founded in 1735 (Savannah) and 1749 (Charleston), and by 1800 more Jews were living in Charleston than in New York City.  I've actually researched a Charleston Jewish family from the Revolutionary War period (though I still haven't proven the connection I'm looking for).

Felix and Sue Warburg will present a slide show highlighting the history of Jewish life in Georgia and South Carolina.  They will discuss Francis Salvador and the Sheftall, Nunez, Minis, and Keyserling families, all of whom made significant contributions to Southern Jewish history.  Even though none of these is the family I'm researching, I'm still planning on attending, because I know I will gain insight into the Jewish community of the period I am interested in.  I'm also hoping the Warburgs will discuss what community records still exist and where they can be accessed.

The presentation will be at 7:00 p.m. at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis Street, San Francisco.  The talk is free and anyone interested is welcome to attend.  For more information, visit the library's Web site.  The San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society is cosponsoring the presentation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

My First Presentation at a National Conference

Actually, not just national -- it's an international conference. I received word today that my proposal to teach my "Newspapers Online" class at the 31st IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy was accepted! I am so excited!

The conference will be in Washington D.C. from August 14-19. I already have my airline ticket booked, and I know where I'm staying. So I have five months to fine-tune my presentation (and get nervous about it!).

Along with teaching my class, I know that I will attend many other talks at the conference and learn a lot. My first IAJGS conference was in 2010 in Los Angeles, and I was amazed at how many classes I could fit into my schedule and how much information I could try to cram into my brain in just one week. I'm looking forward to learning even more this year.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Newspapers Online" Talk in Stockton

This Thursday, March 17 (Happy St. Patrick's Day! Happy birthday, Lar!), I will present my talk on using online newspaper archives for genealogical research at the Cesar Chavez Central Library in Stockton, California for the San Joaquin Genealogical Society.  After the prepared presentation I'll do some live searches to demonstrate the techniques I talk about.

Newspapers can provide incredible amounts of information that will help you in your research. They can also help give you a more complete picture of your family members by telling you more about their lives. Beyond the types of things you'd expect -- births, marriages, deaths -- I have also found information about jobs, military service, moves, hobbies, civic involvement, travel, naturalization, arrests, and more.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Not a Boring Board Meeting

Today was the quarterly board meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society (SFBAJGS).  As the society's publicity director, I am a board member and have the pleasure of meeting four times a year with the rest of the board to plan the activities and direction of our group.

One of the most exciting things we are planning for this year is a series of activities in conjunction with International Jewish Genealogy Month (IJGM).  IJGM is a program of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) and is celebrated during the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, which this year runs from October 29-November 26 on the secular calendar.  The purpose of International Jewish Genealogy Month is to make the public aware of the hobby of genealogy and the fact that there is a local Jewish genealogical society that can help them get started on their research.

The tentative schedule calls for events on the four Sundays of IJGM.  Our plans are to start on October 30 with an open house where people can come to get a general overview of family history research and help in getting started.  Volunteer genealogists will be available to answer genealogy questions and provide individual research assistance.  Presentations on the following three Sundays will cover an introduction to Jewish genealogy, publishing your family history, and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

Some of the other things we discussed today are a possible transcription project of births, marriages, and deaths appearing in a local Jewish newspaper, and participation in Family History Day and Family History Expo in October.  It looks like a busy year ahead!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Write Your Own Obituary?

Justus Fox, d. January 26, 1805
Experienced genealogists know that obituaries can tell a lot about someone who has passed away.  The information can often provide leads for further research.  But the obituary is almost always written during a stressful time, and the person putting it together may misremember facts or omit something entirely.  When my grandmother passed away, my aunt asked me for details about my grandmother's life, but not everyone has a "family genealogist."

Would an obituary be more accurate if the person wrote it for himself?  What would you say about your life if you were asked to write your obituary?

The residents of a small English village have been asked to do just that.  The editor of Lydiards Magazine, the monthly publication of the village of Lydiard Millicent in Wiltshire, England, included a request in the March issue for residents to write their obituaries "in good time."

So far no one has sent an obituary in, including the editor herself.  Perhaps they're too humble to write about their accomplishments.

Genealogists Anonymous

Hi, my name is Janice, and I like to talk about genealogy.  ("Hi, Janice!")

I love genealogy, but I didn't realize just how much I talked about it until recently.  Of course, my friends were the ones who let me know.  But they didn't come right out and say so.  They made it sound like a positive thing.

"Gee, Janice, I've really been learning a lot from listening to you.  It's almost like taking a class."

"A friend of mine was talking about starting to work on her genealogy, and I remembered some of what you had told me, so I told her."

"I decided I'd ask you, because you're always talking about this stuff, so I figured you should know something."

But I could tell.  They were trying to be nice.  They were really just saying, "You talk a lot about genealogy."

I don't really mean to do it.  It just sort of happens.  Something in a conversation gets me thinking about genealogy, and off I go.

Almost anything can do it.  Someone can mention a country for which I've researched records, or a city where I've visited a repository.  It might be a story about a favorite relative.  Or the really loaded question:  What have you been doing lately?

The next thing I know I've spent an hour talking about the research I've been working on lately, or the latest class I took.  I don't always notice the glazed eyes.  But my friends are polite and put up with me, and sometimes even encourage me with questions.

Is there a 12-step program for genealogy addicts?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Free Databases on

While most of the many thousands of databases on require a paid subscription to access, not all of them do.  Most of the free databases, if not all of them, are free due to the licensing arrangements under which the databases, such as those from JewishGen and NARA, are available through  Due to the rearrangement of the Web site, it has become more difficult to determine which databases are free.  The Ancestry Insider (, a blog which calls itself the "unofficial, unauthorized view of and", has collected a list of 260 free databases available on

IIJG Call for Research Proposals

From Mathilde Tagger, Member of Founding Committee, International Institute of Jewish Genealogy:

The International Institute for Jewish Genealogy (IIJG) has issued its annual Call for Research Proposals for original research in the field of Jewish genealogy, to be carried out in the academic year of 2011-2012.  Successful applicants will be awarded grants of up to $10,000.

Proposals are requested by May 31, 2011.  Those meeting strict standards of academic excellence will be judged by the extent to which they broaden the horizons of Jewish genealogical research and/or create innovative tools or technologies to assist Jewish genealogists and family historians in their work.

The CFRP and Instructions to Applicants can be found on the Institute's Web site under RESEARCH/Research Grants.  These instructions should be followed carefully, as only applications in the correct form will be considered.

Successful applicants will be announced on September 1, 2011.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Search for Survivors of Bytom (Poland) Hebrew School

Scholars are searching for child survivors who attended the Hebrew School in Bytom, Poland.  The researchers are working on a project to publish an English edition of Yiddish child Holocaust testimonies collated in the mid-1940's by Shlomo Solomon Czam (also spelled Sahm; born in 1911), head teacher at the Hebrew School.  They are looking for anybody who might have any relevant information on the school, the teacher, or any of the students.

The children whose testimonies Czam collected were (name, age, where from):

B. A., 16, Baranavich; Asher Bikman, 14, Stolin; M. Bochlinski, 14, Klevan; Sonik Brenner, 14, Lvov, 14; G-n D., 16, Ludmir; S. Duranska, 14, Sofiovka, Volyn; Batya Durchin, 17, Pinsk; A. F...g, 15, Derazhnya (near Rovne); Salie Feldman, 17, Ostrovtse (near Lutsk); Rita Frenkel, 10, Skala Podolskaya; Motele G...r, 12, Zdolbunov; Sima Gelerand, 14, Dubno; Rachel Gelman, 11, Rovne; Mina Grinzeid, 14, Podkamen (near Brody); Dora Hazan, 17, Lutsk; Esther Katz, 11, Ignatovka, Volyn; Rachel Koch, 13, Horodenko (near Kolomey [Kolomyya]); H. Kurland, 17, Kolki; V. L., 16, Stepen, Podlese; Gomulko Leibish, 13 Rokitno (Rokitnoye); Gershon Mandelkern, 11, Melinov; Miriam Manis, 13, Tuchin (near Rovne); Salia Markus, 14, Berezhany (near Ternopil); M. Mishalov, 15, Davidgrudok (David Gorodok); H. Perlmutter, 17, Lokachi; Lucia Prifer, 12, Horodenko (near Kolomey [Kolomyya]); Sheindel Prifer, 13, Potek (near Chortkiv); Tzila Rab, 12, Lvov; Sh. S., 16, Senkevichevka Volyn; Sara Schwarzbach, 16, Skala Podolskaya (near Ternopil); Dora Reibel, 12, Korolevka (near Ternopil); G. Shmulik, 16, Rozhishche; Lyuba Suchowitz, 14, Berezovo (near Stolin); P. Tabachnik, 15, Varkovichi; Maniem Teper, 12, Tluste (near Ternopil); Miriam Trastman, 10, Rokitnoye; S. Vatinger, 14, Kremenets; Miriam Wechsler, 14, Lutsvipol (near Ostrog); Yehoshua Weisman, 16, Radekhov (near Lvov); Buzha Wiener, 9, Rokitno (Rokitnoye); Hershel Witlin, 17, Zholkov (near Lvov); Efraim Zeltser, 14, Melnitsa on the Dniester

Please contact Dr. Beate Muller, Newcastle University,, or Dr. Boaz Cohen, Western Galilee College,

"Many Roads" to Online Resources

A relatively new Web site has been adding many useful resources and links on a regular basis.  On the home page of "ManyRoads:  Rabideau-Henss Histories & Genealogy", Mark Rabideau says that "not only do we have information on hundreds of historical documents and genealogical sources, but we also have a library of images and texts that we freely share with our readers."  He isn't kidding!

Rabideau's focus is primarily East and West Prussia, but he also has information about other areas of Germany, lots of maps, videos, photos, transliterating Cyrillic, and more.  Some of the highlights:

Prussian history
Prussian directories
Photo galleries
Old German newspapers

Cyrillic transliteration
Genealogy and social networking technologies

This site is worth bookmarking and checking on a regular basis to see what else has been added.  Almost everything appears to be free.  The only items that currently require a paid membership (life membership for $20) are from 1896, 1902, and 1934.  The site says that payment is required due to copyright restrictions, though I don't understand what copyright could apply to something from 1896.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Lionel Richie

This week's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Lionel Richie was quite a contrast compared to the episode with Kim Cattrall in the approach to the research.  It looked like Cattrall was doing most of the research because the majority of the episode revolved around personal interviews, and she was the one asking people questions.  In Richie's case, there was no pretense that he was doing any of the research.  He went from researcher to researcher and asked them what they had for him to see.  Still not realistic from the perspective of the average person who is doing his own family history research, but refreshingly honest nonetheless.

Almost everything in this episode revolved around research on one person:  John Louis Brown, Richie's great-grandfather.  The narrow focus gave us a more in-depth picture of one person than we usually get on the show.  Apparently Richie's maternal grandmother had never talked about her father, and no one in the family knew anything about him.

Richie started his journey by going to Tuskegee, Tennessee, to visit his sister Deborah, the keeper of the family photos (shades of Rosie's O'Donnell's brother here).  Again, it's always good to start family research by talking to other family members.  Together they looked at several photographs, and then Deborah held up a manila envelope that she said had their grandmother's Social Security application (SS-5) in it, which she had not looked at yet.  If she hadn't looked at it yet, how did she know that's what it was?  Having ordered several of these over the years, I know that occasionally you'll get not a copy of the SS-5 but just a Numident printout, which tells you very little.  Even if Deborah hadn't looked at it, obviously somebody must have, because otherwise it could have been a huge disappointment.

The great revelation on the application was that Richie's grandmother had listed both of her parents' names:  Louis Brown and Volenderver Towson.  (I was disappointed they didn't research Volenderver, because now I'm curious where that name came from.  Google showed only 13 hits, and they all referred to Richie's family.)  Because his grandmother was born in Nashville, Richie went there to begin his research.  At the Nashville Public Library he asked genealogist Mark Lowe how to find information about his great-grandfather.  Lowe had a marriage register at hand, and Richie looked for his grreat-grandparents' marriage.  Instead of using an index (second episode we've seen that happen, grrr), he paged through a couple of years in the register looking for Brown entries.  He found the entry, and his great-grandfather was listed as J. L. Brown.  Then Lowe said, "I have another document."  (How convenient!)  It was a divorce complaint brought by Volenderver against Brown.  In the complaint she stated that she had married Brown when she was 15 and he was 50.  Lowe then produced the final decree, which granted the divorce.

Richie did the math and determined his great-grandfather was born about 1840 and his great-grandmother was born about 1875.  He and Lowe discussed how very different Brown and Volenderver must have been, because Brown had been born a slave and Volenderver had not.  I thought this was a rash assumption at the time, because there were free blacks prior to emancipation.  This came up again later with an interesting twist.

Next Richie went to the Nashville Metropolitan Archive and spoke with Prof. Don Doyle.  They found Brown in two city directories.  In 1885 he was listed as SGA Knights of the Wise Men, and in 1880 he was Editor Knights of the Wise Men.  The 1880 directory was literally falling apart; I really wish they had not shown it being used.  Doyle suggested that Richie find an expert on fraternal organizations to determine what Knights of the Wise Men was.  One of the amusing things about this segment was that Doyle could not stop grinning; it made it even harder than usual to suspend disbelief and pretend that Richie was just finding out about all this.

Prof. Corey Walker, the next researcher, explained that the Knights of the Wise Men had been a black fraternal organization that gave support to the community.  Among other things, it provided insurance.  Brown had been the Supreme Grand Archon (SGA) — the national leader.  He also wrote the rules, laws, and regulations for the group.  Unfortunately, the group suffered financially after a smallpox epidemic in 1891, when it had to pay out many death benefits, and soon after that the treasurer apparently disappeared with the remaining funds.  Brown's marriage to Volenderver fell apart during this period.  During this segment, when Richie was talking about the conclusions that could be drawn from the information he'd been given, he stumbled over his words a lot and it came out very oddly.  It kind of seemed that he started to say more than he would have known if all the research hadn't been done already and then tried to backtrack.

Richie went next to Chattanooga, where the Knights of the Wise Men had been based.  He spoke with historian LaFrederick Thirkill at the public library.  Thirkill had a 1929 city directory ready, which showed that Brown was working as a caretaker at Pleasant Gardens Cemetery.  Richie asked if there was any more information.  Thirkill showed him a small booklet which had a biography and a photo of Brown.  Then Richie asked, "What happened to him?"  Thirkill produced Brown's death certificate.  (I was thinking, "Gee, I wish all of my research questions could be answered that easily!")  Richie looked at the death certificate and saw that Brown's father was listed  as Morgan Brown, but for mother it said, "don't know."  Then Richie said what is probably one of the best lines I have heard on this series:  "Don't you just love records like that?"

Not surprisingly, since he was the caretaker there, Brown was buried at Pleasant Gardens.  Thirkill took Richie to the cemetery, which appeared to be in very poor condition.  The few tombstones that were shown were broken and/or falling over, and the grounds looked as though they had gone to seed.  Brown was buried in the paupers' section, and Thirkill said that as far as he could tell there had been no stone.

Now, back to the question of whether Brown had been born a slave.  Richie returned to Nashville and went to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, where he spoke with Dr. Ervin L. Jordan.  Jordan had found Brown's application for a pension based on his service during the War between the States.  Brown had stated that he served as a servant to his owner, Morgan W. Brown.  Thinking it was too much of a coincidence that Brown's death certificate listed his father as Morgan Brown, Richie wanted to pursue this.

Morgan W. Brown
He headed back to the Nashville Public Library and spoke with historian Jacqueline Jones, where he found out that Dr. Morgan Brown had had a son named Morgan W. Brown.  Dr. Brown's diary, which has survived all these years, had an entry from 1839 which said, "Mariah had a boy child born and named him Louis."  It would have been extremely unusual for a slave owner to note the birth of a child to a slave unless there was some sort of family connection.  Dr. Brown was 80 years old in 1839, and his son Morgan W. was 39.  The odds are obviously much stronger that Morgan W. was Louis' father, but Jones wouldn't commit either way.  She had Dr. Brown's will, written in August 1839, which stated that Mariah was to be freed on his death and that her not-yet-born child was also to be free, and bequeathed her a home if she wanted to stay in the area.  He also directed that the child should have two years of education.  Jones did not state when Dr. Brown died or if Mariah had actually been freed.  I have to assume that the show's researchers couldn't find a probate for Dr. Brown?  Or proof that Mariah had been freed?  Maybe Morgan W. didn't follow through on his father's wishes?  This was one of those times I really wish the show would discuss what they looked for and couldn't find.  This would have been an appropriate episode to do it, as Richie was outright asking the researchers what they had found.

Richie returned to Los Angeles to share his discoveries with "two of my children" (the phrasing sounded very odd) and with his sister Deborah, who must have been flown out for the wrap-up.  He was able to make some strong comparisons between his great-grandfather, who had grown up in somewhat of a protective bubble for the time period because of Dr. Brown's instructions, and himself and his sister, who had been protected by their mother and grandmother from learning about the racial problems going on around them while they were growing up.  He also showed the picture of Morgan W. Brown and told them he was either John Louis Brown's father or half-brother.  His children were pretty subdued, but his sister got very excited and emotional.  I hope the Richies continue to pursue more family history research and maybe find answers to some of the lingering questions.


June 22, 2023

Reader Perry Lake (see below) has sent a composite photo of several shots of Lionel Richie and one photo of Delta Jones.  What does everyone think?  How much do they resemble each other?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Do you have Swedish ancestry?

I wish I were part Swedish!  If you have any Swedish ancestry at all, you could be picked to participate in a new Swedish reality television series, The Great Swedish Adventure.  Meter Television, the producers of the Swedish versions of American Idol and Minute to Win It, are casting throughout the U.S.  They are looking for "fun, outgoing" people with even a drop of Swedish ancestry.  Chosen participants will travel to Sweden and compete in cultural challenges while they learn about their heritage.  The winner of the grand prize gets to meet his Swedish relatives.  Meter will pay for travel and housing during the filming of the series.

An online application form is on the home page of the series' Web site.  I didn't see a deadline, but I would guess that the sooner you send your name in, the better.  A short news item about the series can be found at The Local, an English-language Swedish news site. 

Call for Historical Photos of Napa Valley Jewish Life

From the Jewish Historical Society of Napa Valley:

The Jewish Historical Society of Napa Valley is planning a new book on Napa Valley's Jewish heritage, to be published by Arcadia Publishing.  Jews have been an integral part of Napa Valley since 1848 and have been important in farming, viticulture, banking, community organizations, and social life.  Henry Michalski and Donna Mendelsohn are compiling information for the book.

The Jewish Historical Society is now sending out a call for photos to be considered for inclusion in the book.  Of particular interest are photos relating to the period from 1848 through the 1950's, although photos up to the present day are also welcome.  Photos for consideration should have inscription and/or personal connections with Napa Valley individuals.  Information on or photos of Grossman's and Albert's department stores are particularly needed.

All photos will be treated with respect and will be returned as soon as possible.  They will be evaluated for thematic relationship to the book and will be acknowledged.

Please consider sharing your family history.  The deadline for submissions is May 15, 2011.

For more information, contact the Jewish Historical Society at, (707) 251-9092, or (707) 259-5332, or Henry Michalski at or (707) 812-4812.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Researching City Residents

New York City, 1872
Last Tuesday I attended "Finding Country Cousins in Land and Property Records", the first class in a pair presented by Susan Goss Johnston as part of the Intermediate Genealogy Series presented by the California Genealogical Society and the Oakland Regional Family History Center. This week she presented the companion class, "Seeking City Slickers in Lesser-Known Records." This time her message was that because so many city residents do not own their residences, you will need to use something other than property records to track your relatives. She discussed city directories (later these will be phone books), maps, tax lists, voter registrations, membership lists, and petitions.  I was familiar with most of these, but petitions were something I had never considered for family history research.

Using city directories and phone books, you can follow a family year by year and find clues about children, marriages, deaths, and relocations. Many city directories have been scanned and are available free at the Internet Archive. and also have significant collections of directories.

Voter registrations are another good way to track a person through time.  Registrations used to be done every two years.  The registration commonly included name, age, address, occupation, and party affiliation.  Some include birthplace and naturalization information.  The Family History Library has filmed some voter registrations, and has a small collection, including California voter registrations ranging from 1900-1968.

After you have addresses for where your relatives lived, you can locate them on maps. Current and historical maps may also show nearby churches, schools, and cemeteries, which could be sources of more information. Fire insurance maps, such as the Sanborn series, can tell you building dimensions, composition, number of stories, and more. Many of the Sanborn maps are now digitized and available online, such as the collection available through the San Francisco Public Library (viewable at home with an SFPL card).

Even though your relatives may not have owned real estate, you might find them on tax lists for personal property, poll/head/voting, income, and occupation.  Taxes could be collected at the local, state, and national levels.  Tax records can provide direct evidence of occupation and property ownership, and indirect evidence of age, marriage, death, relationships, and moves.  Most tax records are not available online, though some may be found on and  The Family History Library has filmed many county tax records, however, which can be ordered and viewed at a local Family History Center.  Tax records may also be found at state archives, state and county libraries, and county courthouses.

You may also find your relatives on membership lists -- fraternal organizations (Masons, Knights of Columbus), veterans groups (Grand Army of the Republic), lineage societies (DAR, UDC), alumni directories, ethnic societies.  Society records may include applications, biographies, photographs, memoirs, and activity reports.  Many groups now have Web sites; some have instructions online for how to order copies of their information.

Petitions are lists of signatures from people who wanted to change something.  The lists can document residence, military service, and land ownership.  They can indirectly show age and family relationships.  The National Archives has thousands of original petitions.  State archives can hold local petitions.

Your relatives should show up in at least one of these resources, if not more.  And with each additional piece of information you find, you build a better picture of your family in the context of their time.