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Researching the Undead

By Daniel Hubbard | January 29, 2012

In a big project that I’ve been working on, there has been a large cast of supporting characters. People who weren’t goals of the research but who were necessary to the research. Now, as I work on the book that is based on that research, I’ve realized that I have left a few people hanging. Not literally—despite the title, no one was actually hung in the making of this post.

What had happened was that a few people had become integral to the story even if at some point in their lives, they were no longer integral to carrying on the genealogy. It didn’t seem right to simply cast them aside once their usefulness was passed. Any reader worth their salt should want to know just a little about what happened to these people in the end.

One person in particular almost gave me trouble. Her life had been hard. She was poor. She was widowed. Her husband died of disease during the Civil War when she was fairly young and still caring for small children. Not long after the war, she married a former soldier. At that point her life and the lives of the people I was explicitly researching went in different directions. Even so, the more I’ve written, the more the reader will be forced to get to know her. I can’t just leave her by the wayside as the others travel on. I need to research a little more.

Did she remain in the little hamlet where she lived? If not, where did she go? Did she have any more children? When did she die? There was little about her later life but I did find one sad document. A census enumeration that lists her new husband with another wife. So, it would seem that her hard life had been ended fairly early, not long after remarrying, just when life seemed to be improving. She had two more children as well, who were left without their mother.

It was a rather sad ending. Of course such stories abound when you do genealogical research but thinking about how to write it into the narrative made it more real.

“Going too Far”

But it wasn’t real. I sometimes like to ask what records would have been created if a person was not actually dead or if some other event had not really taken place. Looking for records produced by someone who was supposed to be dead may seem like going too far but going too far can be a good thing. Sometimes it turns out that a mistake in genealogical research or record keeping can produce a member of the undead. Zombies may be popular in fiction at the moment but they are not really welcome in family history. New York took a state census in 1892. It is not very information rich but it is far, far better than nothing. With the fate of the 1890 Federal census, and the lack of other information about her, “nothing” was a very real alternative. There she was in 1892 with her husband.

She was “clearly” dead in 1880 when her husband was recorded with another wife but with her children still in his household, some of them his, others his stepchildren. I can only assume that the enumerator in 1880 simply made a grievous error. He heard wrong. He talked to a sister-in-law and assumed that she was the lady of the house. He wrote down his own wife’s name. He simply had one of those moments people occasionally have. Whatever it was, it turns out that she lived for quite awhile after her apparent death in the 1870s. There is no sad story to tell. Going too far, researching someone after they were supposedly dead, turned out to be a good idea.


Thanks to every one who has responded so far to the “half glass” poll from two weeks ago. I’ll post the results and any orders for cheeseburgers next week and probably put up another one since the first poll proved to be rather popular.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods, Research Mindset | No Comments »

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