About Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

How to Search Graduation Announcements in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary shows how graduation announcements in old newspapers are a good resource for your family history research.

It’s that time of year, when graduation ceremonies abound – but I’d wager to say that few genealogists have thought to search old newspapers for their ancestors’ graduation announcements.

But genealogists really should, because the graduation articles and photos found in historical newspapers are wonderful – and may tell you something about your ancestors you never knew.

Graduation Photographs & Illustrations

Many early graduation announcements include just a few details, but starting around 1899 coverage expanded with photographs, some depicting historical events.

For example, when President McKinley attended Smith College’s Commencement Exercises in 1899, it was national news. This spread from a Massachusetts newspaper includes photos of the presidential party, female graduates in their finery, and a picture of two presidents: U.S. President William McKinley and Smith College President Laurenus Clark Seelye.

photos of President McKinley attending Smith College’s commencement exercises, Boston Journal newspaper article 25 June 1899

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 June 1899, page 3

Many newspaper graduation articles include pictures of the individual graduates, like the following article from an Oregon newspaper. Although small (only three students!), the first graduating class of Goldendale Washington’s Klickitat Academy had their pictures and class rankings published: Miss Mabel E. White, Salutatorian; Edgar Clarence Ward, Composition Graduate; and Miss Beulah B. Morris, Valedictorian.

First Graduates of Klickitat Academy, Oregonian newspaper article 1 July 1899

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 1 July 1899, page 6

Today, medal and prize-winning graduates are honored in the newspaper – and it was no different over 100 years ago.

William Jennings Bryan, a well-known politician and candidate for U.S. president, was the benefactor of several colleges – who bestowed awards in his honor. Some of the William Jennings Bryan Medals were for political science or other subjects, such as this journalism medal established in 1898.

article about the William Jennings Bryan Medal, Cincinnati Post newspaper article 25 February 1898

Cincinnati Post (Cincinnati, Ohio), 25 February 1898, page 3

E. P. Camron, Jr., was the 1900 recipient of the William Jennings Bryan Medal at Missouri State University.

article about E. P. Camron, Jr., being awarded the William Jennings Bryan Medal, St. Louis Republic newspaper article 1 June 1900

St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, Missouri), 1 June 1900, page 6

Lists of Graduates

Search old newspapers for lists of graduates – and not just for high schools and colleges. You might uncover elementary school commencements as well, such as this one from Grand Forks, North Dakota. In 1911, every eighth grade graduate in the city schools was listed in this North Dakota newspaper article – all 129 of them.

Graduates from Eighth Grades, Grand Forks Daily Herald newspaper articles 20 June 1911

Grand Forks Daily Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 20 June 1911, page 8

Honors Such as “Most Likely to Succeed”

You may be surprised to learn that those charming “Most likely to succeed” and other titles bestowed upon the senior class were invented long ago. For example, notice some of the honors bestowed on the Yale College Seniors in 1907:

  • Most likely to succeed in life: Edward H. Hart of Brooklyn
  • Greatest grind: Charles Pomeroy Otis of Andover, Massachusetts
  • Most popular member: Captain Samuel Morse of the football eleven
  • Nerviest and windiest: George Harold Wiess of Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania
  • Most scholarly: L. A. Doherty of Murray, Idaho
  • All around athlete & member who has done the most for Yale: William F. Knox
  • Best natured: Harold Sherman Wells of Scranton
  • Best dressed: Theodore Ives Driggs of Waterbury
  • Wittiest: Jeremiah H. Jones of Haverhill
Yale Seniors' Qualities, Hemet News newspaper article 5 July 1907

Hemet News (Hemet, California), 5 July 1907, page 3

Searching for Graduation Announcements in Old Newspapers

Add graduation announcements to your search list of newspaper article types: perhaps you’ll find an honor bestowed upon your ancestor.

Enter Last Name

However, as with any genealogical search, include appropriate keywords in graduation searches. Terms change over time. For instance, the “annual” is what we now think of as a yearbook, such as this annual published by the senior class that is described in this Indiana newspaper article.

article about the local high school's yearbook, Fort Wayne News Sentinel newspaper article 7 June 1921

Fort Wayne News Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana), 7 June 1921, page 13

Suggested Graduation Search Keywords

Searching on these keywords may help you find graduation announcements about your ancestors:

  • alumna, alumnus, alumni
  • grad, graduate, graduand, graduation
  • commencement, exercise, ceremony
  • candidate, senior, students, pupils
  • certificate, diploma, degree, sheepskin, cap and gown
  • award, medal, honors, accolade, laurels
  • Baccalaureate, Valedictorian, Salutatorian, Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude
  • annual, yearbook
  • “most likely to succeed”

Graduation Announcements in Other Collections

Have fun looking for graduation announcements and don’t forget that they can be found in collections other than Historical Newspaper Archives. For example, be sure to look for graduation ephemera in GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection. There are a number of commencement programs, such as this 1874 one from Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, just waiting to be found.

photo of the 1874 commencement program for Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati

Good luck with your graduation article searches; perhaps you’ll earn this honor:

graphic for "the Diligent Genealogist"

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Passing on Family Heirlooms

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary gives practical tips on how to document and preserve your precious family heirlooms.

Passing on cherished heirlooms is a time-honored tradition – one that predates all of us for as long as history has been recorded. Your belongings may become the heirlooms of tomorrow, but only if you take care of them.

Unfortunately, many family heirlooms become lost through the ages, mostly due to:

  • lack of proper care
  • exposure to harmful substances and environments
  • incomplete provenance
  • overlooking the need for the provenance
  • providing only an oral, not a written history

My Family Heirloom: Box of Lace & Handicrafts

A good example of a family heirloom is a box of lace and handicrafts handed down in my family. The box is full of charming little handicrafts which I adore – and luckily for me, the items have been well preserved.

photo of the contents of a family heirloom box

Photo: contents of the family heirloom box. Credit: from the author’s photo collection.

This vintage heirloom box contains dozens of small treasures, some even with the original price tag. The bundle of dainty lace at the top of the photo has a tag reporting six yards that cost $3.50 from McCutcheon’s of New York. Some of the frilly handicrafts in the box were handmade. There are two crazy quilt blocks consistent with a larger quilt made by my 2nd great grandmother and other garment parts – some partially completed, and others which appear to have been removed from existing clothing. Then there is a lovely little unsigned note which reads:

I bought this Maltese lace in Australia 1900.

When you read a note like this from one of your ancestors, you immediately long for more details.

Luckily I recognized the handwriting, and from other family documents determined which ancestors sailed to Australia in 1900. It was my maternal great grandparents – and fortunately for us, there are several heirlooms and stories connected to their trip.

Enter Last Name

Research Your Heirloom in Old Newspapers

I was intrigued about the note, but didn’t know which object in the box was the “Maltese lace.” So I turned to the old newspaper archives to do further research.

A query of Genealogy Bank’s Historical Newspaper Archives showed that by 1904, this type of adornment had reached the height of popularity. For example, this 1904 newspaper fashion article features a photo of a stylish silk suit. The woman’s garment is decorated with “a narrow edging of gray Maltese lace defining the yoke.”

fashion article about Maltese lace, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 19 June 1904

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 19 June 1904, page 18

I found a good description of Maltese lace in another 1904 newspaper article:

Maltese lace is finely wrought, but very open in pattern, so that the decorative design stands boldly, if delicately, out from a background of fairy-like stitches in an open mesh. Made of the finest of silk threads, it has a creamy glow about it that is exceedingly becoming to the face, and it is peculiarly harmonious when worn with silk and velvet.

article about Maltese lace, Evening Star newspaper article 2 January 1904

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 2 January 1904, page 20

With these clues, the choice of which object in the box is the Maltese lace became obvious. I just looked for something with fairy-like stitching that might also be a scarf or mantilla. Although this picture doesn’t do it justice, I believe this is it.

photo of Maltese lace

Photo: Maltese lace from the family heirloom box. Credit: from the author’s photo collection.

Research Tip: While newspapers are a great resource to research your ancestors directly (their stories as well as their vital statistics), newspapers can also be used to research other aspects of their lives (such as their personal items, their communities, and the times they lived in).

Enhancing the Provenance of Family Heirlooms

Appraisers advise that provenance (establishing the origin of an object, and its past owners) adds value to an antique or heirloom, and a large component of this is writing down the object’s history.

So don’t make the mistake made by many families – if you know the heirloom’s story, don’t just tell it, write it down! Document the heirloom’s time period and ownership, and list yourself as the recorder. Add a note in your own handwriting – or if typed, include an original signature. Here are some suggestions for documenting your heirloom:

  • This (description of the item) was given to me (your name) on or about (date) by (name), who was my (relationship).
  • I was told by (name) that this heirloom was made by (name).
  • This heirloom was passed down through the (maternal or paternal) side of my family and given to me on (special occasion).
  • This heirloom did not pass through the family. I found it at an antique shop in (place) around (year). I love it because (description).
  • This note is believed to have been written by (name) of (location), as the writing is similar to a (letter, will, etc.) written on (date).

Don’t forget that you are part of the provenance. My heirloom lace in the box now has a second note:

This piece of Maltese lace was identified by Mary Harrell-Sesniak, in February of 2015.

Care and Handling of Family Heirlooms

Don’t neglect to learn about the proper care of your family heirloom. If something has broken, make sure modern materials won’t harm it before attempting a repair. Get an expert to fix it, or learn how to use traditional materials for your own repair.

As my family learned with an early American antique chest, it is better to use a traditional, natural glue than more modern products that might contain acid or wood-destroying chemicals.

Enter Last Name

Library of Congress Has Heirloom Preservation Tips

The Library of Congress is the keeper of many of our country’s treasures. As such, they have accumulated much expertise, and have created numerous guides about preservation of works of art, documents, and other objects that might be in your family heirloom collection. Many heirloom preservation tips are found in the Collections Care section of their website.

Here you will learn about determining the material and condition of your heirloom. The material it is made from will determine much of its care. There are different guidelines for different materials, whether they are artwork, paper, textiles, photographs, metal, wood, ceramics or other fine materials.

In general terms, however, there are a few universal guidelines: avoid

  • uneven temperatures
  • materials with acid
  • handling without gloves (your fingers can damage items)
  • light

As the Library of Congress notes in their guide Why should you care about light damage:

Light causes permanent and irreversible damage that affects the chemical composition, physical structure, and, what is usually most obvious, the appearance of the collection item… There are no conservation treatments that can undo light damage.

Expert Advice for Documenting & Preserving Your Family Heirlooms

In addition to the ideas in this Blog article about documenting and preserving your heirloom, be sure to network with experts for further advice – and never underestimate the power of social media. Look for special pages on Facebook, Pinterest and Google+ about family heirlooms. You’ll often encounter an expert commenting on the same social media pages you frequent.

Sources for additional heirloom advice:

  • antique experts
  • appraisers
  • curators
  • fine auction houses
  • historical societies
  • reference guides
  • social media groups

I’ll conclude with this photo of a very fine collection of silverware:

photo of silverware

Photo: silverware. Source: Library of Congress.

Tell us about your own family heirlooms in the comments section, especially any advice you have about documenting and preserving your cherished items.

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Quilting & Genealogy: Treasured Family Heirlooms

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary writes about a family treasure of particular interest to genealogists: heirloom quilts.

Heirloom quilts and coverlets are comfort for the soul. They tell many a tale of family history, so it comes as no surprise that genealogists and quilting go hand in hand.

Perhaps an heirloom quilt has passed down through your family, as some have in mine.

Emalena’s Quilt

One such quilt in my home was made by Emalena, our family baby sitter.

She was a single woman who remained single until late in life. She treated us like her own children, and gave us many of her beautiful quilts. This one, fashioned in the traditional wedding ring pattern, became a present for my parents.

photo of a family quilt from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

Photo: family quilt from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

One has to assume she made a quilt for the kind widower she married. Perhaps one of her quilts “sealed the deal” with the marriage proposal. We certainly hope so!

Jacquard Coverlets

Two family treasures that came through my family were matching Jacquard coverlets.

Notice that this one, which belongs to my aunt, has the name Sophronia W. Seymour inscribed on it, along with the year 1834. Sophronia was my second great grandmother, and in 1834 would have been 20. Perhaps it was part of her trousseau, an old tradition in which items were collected for a girl to take into her marriage.

photo of a family coverlet from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

Photo: family coverlet from the Harrell-Sesniak photo collection

For many years, I thought that a family member had been a talented weaver – but now I know from historical research that this was probably not the case. Around 1820, a special loom was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard which truly revolutionized the world of weaving.

article about the Jacquard loom, Evening Post newspaper article 29 October 1833

Evening Post (New York, New York), 29 October 1833, page 2

As Jacquard’s loom was programmable, it was much like an early computer. Intricate fabric patterns were made much quicker than before, and often in a double weave motif. The coverlet above, and another matching eagle and heart patterned example that also came through the family, are black on white on one side, and white on black on the other.

Not every quilt or coverlet contains names and dates – but when they do, they are wonderful genealogical gems (click this link for examples.)

Jacquard died in 1834, and it is a shame that so many people today do not realize the impact his loom had on the world.

obituary for Joseph Jacquard, Daily Atlas newspaper article 29 October 1834

Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 October 1834, page 2

Textile Research

Newspapers offer a fine opportunity to research heirloom quilts and coverlets. Many of the newspaper articles are rich with detail. Not only can they help you date your treasures, but you can even find patterns to help you make your own family heirlooms.

One of the earliest newspaper reports that I could find regarding a quilt dates to 1752.

Margaret Rogers, a young girl apprenticed to Alice Dodd of Philadelphia, ran away. The runaway ad detailed Margaret’s garments, along with a light blue homespun quilt that she took with her.

runaway ad for apprentice Margaret Rogers, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 12 October 1752

Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 October 1752, page 7

Looking through 19th century newspapers you’ll find various quilting and sewing advertisements, some even detailing the machines our ancestors used.

ad for sewing machines, New Orleans Tribune newspaper advertisement 23 October 1866

New Orleans Tribune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 October 1866, page 3

By the 20th century, quilting had become all the rage. Quilting patterns appeared in newspaper articles, including this pretty Star Center Quilt block “stolen” from a neighbor’s laundry line. News articles frequently detailed color patterns and tips to assemble the quilts. For this one, red, white and blue were suggested:

Any house w[h]ere there are many children would be apt to furnish easily the blues and whites, and even if the red had to be bought for the purpose the cost would be very slight.

quilt block pattern for the Star Center Quilt, Broad Ax newspaper article 18 July 1903

Broad Ax (Chicago, Illinois), 18 July 1903, page 3

A favorite of modern quilters are patterns, of which there is no shortage in newspapers. Many of the famous Laura Wheeler designs were published, including this basket applique quilt design from 1936.

quilt patterns by Laura Wheeler, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 15 January 1936

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 15 January 1936, page 3

This 1937 newspaper article detailed the activities of Miss Minnie Eldridge, a home demonstration agent from Texas. She educated various Louisiana farm women on how to fashion quilts and taught them about the flower pot pattern fashionable among the mountaineers of Tennessee.

article about quilting, State Times Advocate newspaper article 11 August 1937

State Times Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 11 August 1937, page 13

Quilting is no lost art in Louisiana, not even a decadent one, if the enthusiasm and interest registered by hundreds of farm women at a quilting lecture Wednesday morning may serve as a basis for determining the quilting status in the state.

Other Resources for Quilting Examples

Don’t forget to explore social media, and in particular Pinterest, for quilting examples. A favorite of mine is the Library of Congress, where I found this lovely picture of quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

photo of Jorena Pettway sewing a quilt, Gees Bend, Alabama, c. 1937

Photo: sewing a quilt, Gees Bend, Alabama, c. 1937. Shown are an unidentified girl, Jennie Pettway, and quilter Jorena Pettway. Credit: Arthur Rothstein; Library of Congress.

Hope this inspires you to research your textiles, quilts and coverlets in newspapers. Be sure to share your finds in the comments.

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7 Tips on How to Find Elusive Ancestors in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary provides seven practical tips for searching hard-to-find ancestors in old newspapers.

While reading my mother’s Book of Ancestors recently I noticed she had little to say about one of our ancestors, because that person had kept himself out of the public records.

Forebears who didn’t hold public office, own property, or were married in churches or synagogues with lost or private records, are difficult to document. These elusive ancestors can also be difficult to find in historical newspapers, but sometimes they can be found in creative ways. This article gives seven search tips to help find those tricky ancestors in old newspapers.

illustration of Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass

1) Pay Attention to “Please Copy” Notices

When something noteworthy occurs such as a birth or death, news is first printed locally.

If that person has ties to other areas, then other newspapers may carry the story. Newspapers may do this either on their own accord, or at the request of the original publisher. What you want to watch out for is a “please copy” notice, which can be a valuable clue that your ancestor had ties to another part of the country where you might find additional articles or records about him or her.

In the newspaper article below from New Orleans, Louisiana, we see many examples of “please copy” notices.

  • Jesse Sands, formerly of Pittsburg, and his wife Jessie M. Olmsted, passed away within two days of each other. The end of their death notice says: “Newburg, N.Y. and Pittsburg, Pa. papers please copy.” So for these two ancestors, you want to include New Orleans, Newburg and Pittsburgh in your searches.
  • J. West Murphy died in Louisiana, but was described as “late of Philadelphia.” The end of his death notice says: “Philadelphia papers please copy.”
  • The end of Virginia B. Harrison’s death notice says: “Philadelphia and Cincinnati papers please copy.”
  • The end of John Gunderman’s death notice says: “St. Louis papers please copy.”

Because these death notices were originally published in a New Orleans newspaper, you want to search that area for more news about your ancestor. But thanks to these “please copy” notices, you are given additional locations for further searching.

death notices, Times-Picayune newspaper article 23 August 1853

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 August 1853, page 2

2) Know Your Resource: Understanding the Differences between Small Town & Metropolitan Newspapers

Depending upon the population of a town or city, news will vary. Reasons include:

  • Unless a person was well known, there may be inadequate space to present long articles in newspapers from areas of high population.
  • In smaller towns this is not the same issue, so there is a tendency toward longer descriptions of events such as weddings and arrests.
  • In smaller towns, you may also see more “gossipy” news.
  • If a lengthy feature was carried in a hometown paper, another may feel it only deserves minimal coverage, or the opposite may be true. Minimal coverage in one newspaper may result in extended details in another.
  • Some publishers may wish to sensationalize or downplay news. Once while researching a hometown newspaper, I found that a neighboring town paper was happy to publish the lurid details of a person’s arrest. It was not published in his hometown newspaper, perhaps to protect the family.
Enter Last Name

3) Name Variations

People are usually known by a variety of monikers, both formal and informal. Keep in mind that this is the rule, rather than the exception, so don’t ever limit searches to just one version of a name. Include titles, nicknames, initials, middle names without first names, and other variations. For example:

  • John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith
  • J. J. Smith or J. J. J. Smith
  • Jacob or Jingleheimer Smith
  • Mr. Smith or simply Smith
  • Thomas Edison or Mr. Edison
  • The Wizard of Menlo Park
  • Mary Stillwell
  • Dot Stillwell (her childhood nickname)
  • Thomas Edison’s first wife
  • Mrs. Edison
  • Mina Edison or Mina Miller
  • Thomas Edison’s second wife

4) Spelling Variations and Name Changes – Consider Using a Wildcard

One of the most vexing issues occurs with spelling variations, which occur all too often.

An example can be noted with my husband’s birth surname of Szczesniak. Since others were prone to misspelling it, the family had it legally shortened to Sesniak. Unfortunately, that didn’t work as typos are frequent. One of the most common is to change the ending to “ck,” rather than “ak.”

Name changes can be informal. A woman I know was named Jane. It’s a fine name, but prone to various putdowns, including “plain Jane.” Rather than be labeled with this throughout her life, she elected to change the spelling to Jayne.

We see similar variations in the given name of Mary. I use the traditional spelling, but there are many variations including:

  • Mamie, Maria, Mariah, Marie, May, Meg, Merry, Merrie, Moll, Mollie, Molly, Pollie, Polly, etc.

If you wish to search newspapers and databases for similar spellings, sometimes a wildcard will work.

There are two types: an asterisk “*” which searches for any number of characters in a name; or a question mark “?” which replaces just one letter. For example:

  • Merr* would query the database for any name beginning with Merr, such as Merry or Merrie, followed by any combination of letters. If a woman were named Merriweather, it would also find it.
  • Sebasti?n would return both Sebastian or Sebastien.

Also see prior articles on ancestor name research tips for tips on searching for first names, surnames, name spelling variations and more.

5) Overcoming Language Barriers in Foreign-Language Newspapers

Many online collections of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, contain foreign-language newspapers. GenealogyBank, for example, has some newspapers in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

What do you do if you find your ancestor’s name in a foreign-language newspaper, but are not sure what the article is saying about him or her?

There are a number of free online translators available, where you can type in the text from the foreign-language newspaper and receive an English translation.

For example, what if you found this article about your ancestor Georg Clifforeye?

Heiratete seine Grossmutter.

CALAIS, Me., 28 Oktober. Der 18 Jahre alte Georg Clifforeye heiratete seine Grossmutter Rebecca Louise Garnett von St. Stephen N.B., Canada, und begab sich dann mit ihr nach seiner Wohnung, aber kaum war er dort angelangt, erschien Rev. Gaucher, der has liebende Paar getraut hatte und verlangte den Trauschein, wobei er ihm die $10 Traugebühren retournierte und die Heirat für illegal erklärte, wegen der…

By plugging this text into Google Translate or Bing Translator, we uncover a startling story about the young man attempting to marry his grandmother!

wedding announcement, New Yorker Volkszeitung newspaper article 29 October 1922

New Yorker Volkszeitung (New York, New York), 29 October 1922, page 2

6) Social Notices Provide Many Clues

Many newspapers carried social notices, such as the below example from the Dallas Morning News, reporting the comings and goings of many friends and relatives.

Enter Last Name

These social columns in newspapers provide wonderful research clues to track your ancestor’s activities as well as personal relationships.

social column, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 June 1904

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 June 1904, page 10

7) Broaden Your Searches

Lastly, if you are in the habit of narrowing ancestor searches with specific dates, get in the habit of broadening the ranges.

Marriage details can extend for months, if not years. Look for engagement notices, bridal showers, banns notices, wedding descriptions, honeymoon reports and even “the happy couple has returned” articles.

Death reporting can also extend over long time periods. Right after passing, you’ll find death notices and obituaries, but some may be published long afterward. I’ve seen an obituary as long as one year after someone died. Also watch for legal notices pertaining to probate, which can occur many years after your ancestor died.

Don’t forget to think outside the box. Some reports are made in error. Even with their mistakes, they can contain valuable personal information. One of my favorite examples was addressed in my article The Lessons of Daniel Boone’s Obituary: Check and Double Check.

I hope these seven search tips will help you break through some brick walls and find those elusive ancestors who didn’t leave many records behind – but may well be found in the pages of old newspapers. Good luck with your family history research!

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Solve the Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley Ancestry Brick Wall (Part II)

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary follows up on an article she wrote back in January 2013 and, thanks to helpful suggestions from some of her readers, tries to uncover more of the Robert Ripley genealogy mystery.

Early in 2013, the GenealogyBank Blog published my article on Robert L. Ripley (see Solve the Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley Ancestry Brick Wall), and – believe it or not – we’re still working on his ancestry. Knowing that Ripley’s family history was a mystery, in that 2013 article I asked readers to help break through a brick wall in the Ripley family tree. Their answers were informative, although much of his ancestry continues to be elusive.

What I want to do now is provide an update to this genealogical quest to uncover Ripley’s family history. First, I suggest you click on the link to read my previous Ripley article, to see what clues I could present to my readers at that time. Next, read the comments several readers left at the end of that article, providing additional clues. Let’s look at some of those follow-up clues now, to make what progress we can in smashing through this Ripley brick wall.

photo of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley, c. 1940

Photo: Robert Ripley, c. 1940. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Ripley Brick Wall

As I explained in my 2013 article about the Ripley genealogy mystery:

I can’t seem to crack the brick wall in his genealogy. He left no descendants and was only married briefly to actress Beatrice Roberts. I can’t discover his family history any further back than his maternal grandmother.

Prefers “Robert” to “Leroy”

Leroy Robert Ripley (c.1890-1949), (who went by “Robert” or “Robert L.”), did many things in his career, including work as a cartoonist, a sportswriter and amateur anthropologist.

article by Robert Ripley about Honus Wagner and Larry Lajoie, Evening Star newspaper article 18 October 1914

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 18 October 1914, page 64

Conflicting Birth Dates

Ripley’s World War I draft registration reports that he resided at 136 W. 65 Street in New York. He was 25 and recorded his birth on the registration form as 15 February 1892 in Santa Rosa, California. What is interesting about this is that, at other times, he reported his birth date as 25 December 1890 and 26 December 1890 (thought by some genealogists to be his real date of birth). Wikipedia reports Ripley’s birth date as 22 February 1890.

Enter Last Name

Ripley described himself as an artist, writer and cartoonist working for associated newspapers at 170 Broadway. As his mother had died several years earlier, he reported that he supported a brother and was single. He signed his name as Robert LeRoy Ripley. Although recording errors are common, it would be interesting to find his birth record to confirm the actual day and year on which he was born.

article about Robert Ripley, Oregonian newspaper article 29 November 1936

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 29 November 1936, page 62

No Descendants

Ripley was married briefly to Beatrice Roberts in 1919. She was only 14 at the time of their marriage, and the couple separated after just three months. They finally divorced in 1926, and had no children. Ripley never remarried, and died childless.

obituary for Robert Ripley, San Diego Union newspaper article 28 May 1949

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 28 May 1949, page 1

Ripley’s Parents

Robert Ripley was the son of Isaac Davis Ripley (1854-1904) and Lillie Belle Yoka, Yocka or Yocke (1868-1915). His parents married on 3 October 1889 in Sonoma, California (California County Marriages 1850-1952, database at familysearch.org) and are buried at Odd Fellows Lawn Cemetery in Santa Rosa, California (see findagrave.com).

Ripley’s Father

In 1870, the Belpre (Washington County) Ohio Census reports that Isaac was possibly residing in the household of Jason and Phelia A. Stubs (or Stubbs or Stutes). Isaac was 16 at that time and attended school. (See http://ohgen.net/ohwashin/OMP-2.htm, Ohio Historical Society, Newspaper Microfilm Reel # 38487 – marriage license for Jason Stubbs and Phelia A. Hunter of Belpre on 8 May 1865.)

Once he reached California, various Great Registers (see familysearch.org) report that Isaac Davis Ripley worked as a carpenter. His birth place is consistently reported as Ohio, which is confirmed by the 1900 Santa Rosa (California) Census reporting him being born in Ohio in September of 1854.

His Mother and Maternal Grandparents

Lillie Belle was the daughter of Nancy Yocke (1828-?) and an unknown father from Germany.

In 1880, Lillie lived with her widowed mother, according to the Analy (Sonoma County) California Census. Her mother was listed as a housekeeper. She had been born in Tennessee and her parents were both from North Carolina. Lillie was the only child in the household. Her birth was shown as Missouri and her parents as having been born in Tennessee and Germany.

At the time of Lillie’s marriage to Isaac Davis Ripley in 1889, he was 35 and she was 20.

One of the readers of my 2013 article, Donna Bailey, wrote:

Well, this article [Miami News (Miami, Florida), 13 May 1962, from Google News Archives] helps explain a little. It states that Lillie Belle was born on the Santa Fe Trail in a covered wagon on the way to California. And Isaac ran away from home at age 14, which explains why he is at the Stutes home in 1870 already on his way to California, which he does show up in voter lists in Yuba in 1874.

Donna later wrote again, adding more information:

Some more clues. There is a marriage record for a Phillip Yoka and a Nancy A. Card, married in Washington Township, Johnson County, MO, on 4 Dec. 1870. According to her grave at Find a grave [Sebastapol Memorial Lawn Cemetery], Nancy’s middle name was Ann, so this could be our Nancy.

I checked the marriage record and it seems consistent with other records. It does note that the officiant was Justice of the Peace William Fisher, so it is unlikely that a church record exists. I also checked the Miami News article. It gives us the clue that Isaac Davis Ripley was born of old American stock in West Virginia, which differs from records reporting Ohio. Perhaps his roots were from that state.

His Two Siblings

When Robert Ripley died on 27 May 1949, he left the bulk of his estate in trust to his two siblings, Douglas and Ethel “Effie” Ripley. Effie (1885-1965) married Fred Marion Davis (1884-1957) and is buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Francisco next to her husband, who was a veteran of World War II. We still have not located the final resting place of Douglas.

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His Sister

Another reader named Mallory wrote:

Ethel (Effie) Davis was married to Fred Davis – she was alive in 1947 and apparently in 1949 when she and her husband flew back to NY from the funeral of her brother [Robert Ripley]. She and her other brother Douglas inherited the majority of the estate. Effie was dead before 1971. The family home still exists… Ethel was born in 1893, her brother Douglas in 1904. The father Isaac died in 1905. Robert (Leroy) had to work to help support his mom and sister. There are two nephews named Robert and Douglas (not sure who their parents were) – they show up in local newspaper clippings.

The Renewed Ripley Brick Wall Challenge

So readers, there you have it.

With the genealogy research we’ve done since my 2013 article was posted, we have learned that Robert Ripley’s father, Isaac Davis Ripley, ran away from home – and we have learned the probable identity of his Yocke grandfather, a German named Philip.

But that’s about it – so I am opening up the Ripley brick wall challenge again. Can any of our readers help us get back further on Ripley’s family tree?

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Ghost Stories & Séances: History and True Life Paranormal Events

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary searches old newspapers for stories about ghosts, séances and psychics – and tells two related stories from her own family’s history.

Starting in the Victorian Era, séances, psychics and spiritualists seemed to be everywhere, as more and more people believed they could talk to – or receive messages from – the spirit world, and thereby communicate with their departed spouse or child.

photo of a séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872, from the Eugène Rochas Papers held at the American Philosophical Society Library

Photo: séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872, from the Eugène Rochas Papers held at the American Philosophical Society Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The interest in séances and ghosts carried over into the early 20th century. This 1916 newspaper article reports there will be an “independent message séance” at the First Independent Spiritual Church, and another “message séance” at the home of Mrs. Jennie Cook – “held under the auspices of the Ladies’ Auxiliary.”

article about séances, Miami Herald newspaper article 23 July 1916

Miami Herald (Miami, Florida), 23 July 1916, section 2, page 12

Reactions to séances have been mixed throughout history. Some who turned to spiritual psychic mediums were true believers; others went out of curiosity or on a lark. And then there were the doubters who went to great lengths to debunk what they considered outrageous fraud.

Perhaps your ancestors were among those who attended séances; I know mine were – but whatever their reasons, marvelous reports of séances and ghosts filter through historical newspapers!

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Genuine Manifestation Award

In 1937, a $10,000 reward was put up by “medium exposer” Joseph Dunninger for anyone who could provide a “genuine manifestation” – a contact with the spirit world. Spirit Medium Stanley K. Werner struggled and strained to produce a message from the ghost of deceased magician Howard Thurston, but failed. His wife had no better success.

photo of a séance, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 22 July 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 22 July 1937, page 8

Mrs. Huntoon’s Ruse

This historical newspaper article from 1898 reports that Mrs. Huntoon, a well-known spiritualist, put on quite a show. For 50¢, her customers got to see spirits move, tin cans rattling and hands jingling bells from behind a curtain. Sometimes messages from the other side were received. One man heard from his dear departed wife, who wrote on a piece of paper: “My darling husband.” Mrs. Huntoon’s séances were elaborate ruses which many fell victim to.

article about a séance, Argus and Patriot newspaper article 19 January 1898

Argus and Patriot (Montpelier, Vermont), 19 January 1898, page 2

The journalist apparently agreed. He examined the written messages and reported that “the writing was a horrible hieroglyphic and all strangely alike.” The end of the old news article reports:

One of the men attending the séance said that Mrs. Huntoon was not so good now as she used to be.

Got It Wrong

The story from this next newspaper article has a humorous twist. At this séance in 1909, one of the participants asked the medium about his “very good friend who did all our work,” and who had departed several years earlier. He left out the part about this “friend” being in reality an old horse. The spiritualist “made a few mysterious motions and rapped on the table,” then reported good news: “Your friend is still in the west of Ireland and is married to a rich woman!”

article about a séance, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 26 December 1909

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 26 December 1909, page 3

My Family’s Ghost Stories

Now before we end, I have to tell you about two true life ghost stories in my family’s history.

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The first has to do with a condemned government building in Indianapolis, Indiana. The locals believed it was haunted, so they tore it down.

As far as I know, my ancestor, David Macy of Indianapolis, didn’t believe in ghosts. He did, however, recognize a bargain when he saw it. The story is that he purchased the demolished building’s materials and used them to build his own home. Apparently, the ghosts didn’t follow the haunted lumber to his new house. You can see from this photo that Mary Ann (Patterson) Macy and her granddaughter were not a bit afraid to enjoy their front porch!

photo of Mary Ann (Patterson) Macy and her granddaughter

Photo: Mary Ann (Patterson) Macy and her granddaughter. Credit: from the personal collection of Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

The second family ghost story has to do with my Scott ancestors who lived in Saratoga, New York.

Their son was often sent by his mother Sophronia to deliver items to a neighbor named Sally Wheeler. Sally had a reputation for being a stern, old woman who lived with a servant. Once she told Sophronia that if anything ever happened to her, she should look in the clock to find money hidden there.

Well, eventually Sally Wheeler did pass away – but when the clock was examined, the money was gone. Afterward, Sophronia visited the estate’s lawyer and asked him about the money in the clock. The family story is that he became white as a ghost and shortly thereafter committed suicide.

Many years later, my grandmother wrote a letter about this. She reported that the story had virtually been forgotten until she and her parents went to a séance. At the end, the medium turned to my great grandfather and told him that she could see him as a frightened little boy outside the door of an old woman’s house. He knocked, the door opened, and the old woman took the items he was delivering to her. Believe it or not, but that is what my grandmother reported!

Now, as every good genealogist knows, you need to check the provenance of the ghost story.

Were these people real?

Yes, A. H. and Sophronia Scott are recorded living in dwelling house #188 on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census for Greenfield, Saratoga, New York. Eight family members were in the household. He was a farmer, as were two of his sons, including the one from the story.

Sarah “Sally” Wheeler was also real. She was age 52 and living in household #185 with her sister Syrissa Wheeler, age 57. With them were three men engaged in farming, or farm laborers. The sisters each owned $3,000 in real estate and $500 in personal property. Interestingly, Sarah and Syrissa Wheeler are buried in the Scott cemetery, although my Scotts are buried in Bailey Cemetery. (The links will direct you to the Wheeler memorials at Findagrave.)

Was the money ever found?

No, but the clock is real. It was given to my ancestor and is still owned by a family member. We all call this heirloom the Sally Wheeler clock.

Was there an estate lawyer who committed suicide?

There probably was a lawyer in Greenfield, but I have no idea who he was. If a kind reader can locate a corresponding death notice from 1894 or 1895 from the Greenfield area, please let me know.

If you have any séance or ghost stories to share, please send them along!

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The Wizard of Menlo Park, a.k.a. Inventor Thomas Edison

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Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to learn more about the amazing life and accomplishments of the great inventor Thomas Edison.

As you observe your family members enjoying conveniences such as talking on cellphones, downloading music, charging batteries and living in a well-lit house, remind them to give thanks to Thomas Edison. These modern devices wouldn’t exist without him.

photo of Thomas Edison with his phonograph (second model), c.1878

Photo: Thomas Edison with his phonograph (second model), c.1878. Credit: Levin C. Handy; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Edison’s Early Years

Born on 11 February 1847 in Milan, Ohio, Thomas Alva Edison was the youngest of seven children born to Samuel and Nancy (Elliott) Edison. His mother died in 1871 and his father died in 1896 at the age of 91. According to Samuel Edison’s obituary below, the family’s ancestors arrived in North America long before the American Revolution. There’s a good chance many of our readers, including myself through his Beach and Merriman lines, are distant cousins of Thomas Edison. (See famouskin.com and Thomasedison.org.)

obituary for Samuel Edison, New York Tribune newspaper article 27 February 1896

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 27 February 1896, page 7

Home Schooling – and Deafness

Thomas Edison had little formal schooling. After his teachers reported him to be a slow learner, his mother decided that home schooling was a better method to educate her son.

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For someone who made so many inventions involving sound, it is startling to learn that Edison was almost completely deaf. At the age of 12, he either contracted scarlet fever or had an accident which left him severely hearing-impaired. The National Park Service’s Thomas Edison page reports that Edison once wrote: “I have not heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old.” Another story, which Edison himself told, was that he “was picked up by the ears to keep from falling out of a train” and this caused something to pop inside his ears.

The genius behind so many amazing inventions never attended college or technical school. He learned through his mother’s home schooling, his own voracious reading, and constant experimentation. His inventions amazed our ancestors and they continue to impact us today. No wonder he was called the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” the location in New Jersey where he built a laboratory in 1876.

Inventions and Patents

Despite his genius and remarkable inventions, however, most children today are not taught much about Thomas Edison other than a few lines in a history book. Nor can many young people identify his inventions, even though Edison achieved 1,093 or more patents (some report 1,368) in his lifetime.

According to the History Channel’s Thomas Edison page, many of his patents addressed telephony, telecommunications and electricity – so imagine where we’d be without them.

Here are some of his many achievements:

  • 195 patents for telephony, the phonograph, and their improvements, starting in 1876
  • 34 patents for the telephone, beginning in 1878
  • 389 patents for electric light and power, including the first commercially-successful incandescent light bulb in 1879

This is his patent for the telephone of 1883.

drawing of the telephone design patented to Thomas Edison on 27 March 1883

Illustration: telephone design, patented to Thomas Edison on 27 March 1883. Source: Google Patents.

Invention of the Phonograph

In 1877, Edison invented the phonograph – a device to record people’s voices that greatly amazed the public. At that time, people could hardly imagine a machine that can record your voice now, so that your ancestors hundreds of years later can hear what your voice sounded like! It seemed as though Edison was truly a wizard. As this newspaper article reports:

Speech has become, as it were, immortal.

article about Thomas Edison inventing the phonograph, Vermont Phoenix newspaper article 20 November 1877

Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 November 1877, page 2

For his own first recording, Edison recited the beloved children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It is wonderful and almost magical, even in our own age of technological marvels, to hear Edison’s own voice from so very long ago. You can hear him reciting the poem here.

Controversies

Edison arrived at some of his invention ideas simultaneously with others, and in some cases his inventions were based on the breakthroughs of his predecessors. Consequently, you’ll find various reports objecting to giving Edison credit for some of his inventions – controversies that erupted during Edison’s lifetime and in some cases continue today.

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For example, the invention of the light bulb is often credited to Edison, although Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914) and at least 22 other inventors came up with the idea before him. Where they failed to perfect their ideas, however, Edison succeeded, as he always strove to use superior materials and clever marketing to materialize and promote his inventions. His incandescent light bulb can truly be said to be the father of modern lights.

article about who really invented the electric light bulb, Evansville Courier and Press newspaper article 29 November 1929

Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), 29 November 1929, page 7

Another controversy involving Edison resulted from patents pertaining to the movie industry. As seen in this article, Edison strongly protected his inventions in the courts in 1908. In the end, he won.

article about Thomas Edison and legal controversies regarding motion picture inventions, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 25 March 1908

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 25 March 1908, page 3

More Breakthrough Edison Inventions

I could literally write a book about Thomas Alva Edison’s inventions. Many of his inventions that should be common knowledge include these:

  • An early stock ticker machine, around 1869
  • The “Improvement in Phonograph or Speaking Machine,” in 1878
  • A motion picture camera called the Kinetograph, in 1891
  • The Kinetophone, or talking motion picture, in 1912
  • The first steel alkaline storage batteries, 1900-1910
  • The battery which was introduced on the Model T for Henry Ford, in 1908
  • The telescribe, which allowed for recording both sides of a telephone conversation, in 1914
  • Various military devices during World War I, including detection devices for airplanes, submarines, periscopes and guns by sound ranging, as well as ship camouflaging

However, there is one product he didn’t create – and why he didn’t do so is one of the greatest mysteries of all time.

Mysterious Invention Oversight

With his nearly complete hearing loss, why didn’t Edison invent a hearing aid?

The stories of how he coped with his damaged hearing are heart-wrenching. In order to improve the clarity of sound, his method was to place his ear against a phonograph cabinet and bite on wood. Surprisingly, this seemed to improve his hearing. While raising our family in Fort Myers, Florida, we’d often visit Edison’s Winter Estate – and we all remember viewing furniture with his bite marks.

Apparently, Edison’s poor hearing bothered the people around him more than himself. Some theorize he preferred silence over distracting noises. In 1914, his wife Mina located a physician who had hopes of fully restoring Edison’s hearing. He agreed to undergo the procedure, but on the day of the operation Edison told his personal assistant:

By the way, will you telephone that doctor and tell him he is not to come over today: I am not going to have the operation.

article about Thomas Edison refusing an operation to restore his hearing, Boston Herald newspaper article 19 July 1914

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 19 July 1914, page 41

Perhaps Thomas Edison truly preferred to concentrate in a world of near-silence.

Additional Thomas Edison Resources:

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What Were the Real Last Words of These U.S. Presidents?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In celebration of Presidents’ Day, Mary takes a look at the last words our first four presidents supposedly said on their deathbeds.

In honor of Presidents’ Day, I decided to research the last words of our first four United States presidents. You’ll find them quoted in books, in historical documents and in historical newspapers.

What I found while researching was intriguing: some of these accounts of presidents’ last words are noteworthy – and others, well (how do I say this politely), may be historically inaccurate.

I’ll let you be the judge if any of the common lore should be discounted.

George Washington (1732-1799)

portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797

Illustration: portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Many, including Mount Vernon’s website, report George Washington’s final words as “’Tis well.”

These final words were said during a conversation with Washington’s personal secretary Tobias Lear, but interestingly, we do not find it recorded in a newspaper until years later. The Springfield Republican in 1856 published a full account of Washington’s last day, which claims a far more extensive report of Washington’s last words than the Mount Vernon website. Part of this report discusses Washington’s conversations with his physician, and others with his secretary. No family member, including his wife Martha who died in 1802, is mentioned.

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The old newspaper article reports that Washington was ill and asked to be bled, which although gruesome by today’s standards, was an accepted medical treatment at that time. His overseer, Mr. Rawlings, was concerned; his hands trembled and Washington told him: “Do not be afraid. More.”

After this, time was spent with his secretary and Washington indicated where his will was. Then he said:

I find I am going; my breath cannot continue long. I believed from the first that it would be fatal. Do you arrange and record all my military letters and papers; arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than any one else, and let Mr. Rawlings finish recording my other letters, which he has begun.

Between 5 and 6 o’clock, he addressed Dr. Craik, followed by another sentence not much later:

I feel myself going; you had better not take any more trouble about me, but let me go off quietly; I cannot last long! …Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go; I believed from my first attack I should not survive it; my breath cannot last long.

His last recorded conversation was with Mr. Lear about 10 o’clock:

I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead.

Lear nodded assent and Washington asked: “Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Sir,” he replied, followed by Washington’s final response: “’Tis well.”

article about George Washington's death, Springfield Republican newspaper article 19 July 1856

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 19 July 1856, page 8

John Adams (1735–1826)

portrait of John Adams by Asher Brown Durand

Illustration: portrait of John Adams by Asher Brown Durand. Source: U.S. Navy; Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written about the coincidence of the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who both died on the 50-Year Jubilee of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1826.

The Jefferson Monticello website reports that the Adams family recalled many years later that ex-President Adams’s last words were: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” (See Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Memoirs of John Quincy Adams (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1874-77), 7:133.)

Were John Adams’s last thoughts about his friend and the third president, ex-President Jefferson, or were his last words about the 50-year celebration of the Fourth of July? I’m inclined to suspect the Jefferson reference may have been a family joke, since not long after his death, it was noted in the Spectator of 14 July 1826 that Adams’s last words were: “It is a great and glorious day.”

article about John Adams's last words, Spectator newspaper article 14 July 1826

Spectator (New York, New York), 14 July 1826, page 1

Thomas Jefferson (1743- 1826)

portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

Illustration: portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805. Source: New York Historical Society; Wikimedia Commons.

The Jefferson Monticello website  reports that nobody can state with certainty what ex-President Jefferson’s real last words were. Three persons, including physician Robley Dunglison, grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and his granddaughter’s husband Nicholas Trist, gave varying accounts of his final words.

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Trist reported that on July 3 Jefferson enquired: “This is the Fourth?” and upon not hearing a reply, he asked again. Trist nodded in assent, finding the deceit repugnant.

Randolph reported Jefferson made a strong statement: “This is the Fourth of July.” He slept and upon awaking refused a dose of laudanum (an opiate) by saying: “No Doctor. Nothing more.”

Dunglison’s account was that Jefferson asked: “Is it the Fourth?” The doctor responded with, “It soon will be.” Several later accounts mention this, but add an additional statement: “I resign my spirit to God, my daughter to my country.”

About 21 years after he passed, the Maine Cultivator and Hallowell Gazette reported an additional variation in 1847: “I have done for my country and all mankind all that I could do, and now I resign my soul to God, and my daughter to my country.”

article about Thomas Jefferson's last words, Maine Cultivator and Hallowell Gazette newspaper article 13 March 1847

Maine Cultivator and Hallowell Gazette (Hallowell, Maine), 13 March 1847, page 3

James Madison (1751-1836)

portrait of James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816

Illustration: portrait of James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816. Source: White House Historical Association; Wikimedia Commons.

James Madison’s death was only six days prior to the Fourth of July, on 28 June 1836. There is some uncertainty about Madison’s last words as well, but the common lore is that he spoke last to a niece. She asked, “What is the matter?” Madison’s response was: “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.”

However, none of Madison’s obituaries report these – or any other – last words. Typical is this obituary from the Alexandria Gazette.

obituary for James Madison, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 2 July 1836

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 2 July 1836, page 3

So there you have it. The authors of historical accounts do not always agree with what people say – but don’t let that stop you from having fun. Search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for the last words of U.S. presidents and let us know if you can disprove any of what people say they said!

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Valentine’s Day History & Traditions: How Our Ancestors Celebrated

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary tells the history of St. Valentine’s Day, and describes some of the ways our ancestors celebrated this romantic holiday.

Valentines take many forms – from cards to flowers to romantic gestures – so why not take a look at Valentine’s Day traditions from history to generate new ideas of your own?

photo of an early Valentine's Day card, c.1919

Photo: early valentine, c.1919. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Saint Valentine

Our ancestors had many unique ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day, many of which centered on Saint Valentine or Valentinius of Italy.

Surprisingly little is known about Valentine, and the historical accounts of his life and death all differ. Most reports agree that he was a third century martyr who was beheaded on February 14 by the Romans for offering aid to Christians. But accounts differ as to what year he was executed, and by the order of which Roman emperor.

The story below, published in a 1913 newspaper, reports that Valentine rose through the offices of the church, but after becoming a bishop he was imprisoned by Calpernius, the High Sheriff. Roman Emperor Claudius wanted Valentine punished as a heathen, but passed the job onto Deputy Sheriff Asterius, whose daughter was blind. When Valentine saw her, he performed an exorcism which supposedly drove away the evil spirits causing her blindness. Her eyesight was restored and many, including Asterius, converted to Christianity. Unfortunately, Valentine was put back into prison and later beheaded.

article about St. Valentine, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 14 February 1913

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 14 February 1913, page 7

As the old newspaper article reports, the day Valentine lost his head (February 14) is also the day that lovers lose theirs:

The day on which Valentine lost his head – these over-zealous people frequently lose their heads, but not always that way – was February 14, and ever since that time it has been known as St. Valentine’s Day.

Romantic Poetry

Delightful Valentine’s Day poems abound in newspapers, including this excerpt about Cupid from Aesop’s “A Fable: The Wolf, the Sheep, and the Lamb” published in a 1749 newspaper.

a love poem, New-York Evening Post newspaper article 10 April 1749

New-York Evening Post (New York, New York), 10 April 1749, page 2

James Henry Hurdis (1800-1857), an artist and professor of poetry, alluded to the tradition of love knots in this poem from 1818. Love knots take many forms, but were often valentines written on paper or ribbon and tied in elaborate knots (see examples at this Victorian Rituals website).

a love poem, Providence Patriot newspaper article 7 February 1818

Providence Patriot (Providence, Rhode Island), 7 February 1818, page 1

Sending Valentine Cards

One of the most popular forms of celebrating Valentine’s Day, of course, is the sending of valentine cards to express your love. Valentines, in the form of love poems, have been written since the Middle Ages. In the 18th century printed valentine cards, with poetry and sometimes decorations, were produced. Valentine cards became hugely popular in the 19th century when lower postage rates made it affordable to send cards in the mail. Today, billions of dollars are spent around the world on Valentine’s Day cards, flowers, chocolates, jewelry and other gifts.

photo of an early Valentine's Day card

Photo: early valentine, c.1919. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Anonymous Valentines

Sending unsigned anonymous valentines was an annual tradition in our household, and I wonder if my descendants will be puzzled at one of my unusual heirlooms: a large collection of unsigned Valentine’s Day cards. Every February, unsigned V-day cards and chocolate candies would arrive in the mail. We always knew they were from the grandparents, but that didn’t stop us from delighting in the festivities.

I used to think the tradition of anonymous valentines was unique to my family, but after finding comics (such as the 1894 cartoon below) and other references, I now realize that this Valentine’s Day tradition predates my grandparents.

Valentine's Day cartoon, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper cartoon 25 February 1894

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 February 1894, page 18

Courtship Rituals

According to this 1856 newspaper article, gifts between would-be lovers are a long-honored Valentine’s Day practice, and one that the romantic Madame Royale helped establish. As the daughter of Henry the Fourth of France, she frequently hosted balls at her palace near Turin, which was appropriately called Valentine.

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Knights were instructed to present nosegays to their ladies, and in exchange, the belles furnished trappings or decorations for their admirers’ horses. If the knight won the tournament, he then presented the prize to his beloved.

As the historical news article reports:

At the various balls which this gallant princess gave during the year, it was directed that each lady should receive a nosegay from her lover, and that at every tournament the knight’s trappings for his horse should be furnished by his allotted mistress, with this proviso, that the prize obtained should be hers. These pleasant interchanges among the ‘young people’ finally grew into a custom, and thus originated the exchange of love tokens on St. Valentine’s Day.

article about Valentine's Day, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper article 16 February 1856

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York, New York), 16 February 1856, page 14

Bay Leaves, Clay Balls and Hardboiled Eggs

According to this 1874 newspaper article about grandmotherly traditions, our female ancestors celebrated Valentine’s Day by pinning bay leaves to their pillows.

The ritual including dreaming of one’s sweetheart in hopes of being married within the year. Another Valentine’s Day tradition entailed writing lovers’ names on bits of paper, rolling them in clay and then placing them under water. Whichever name rose to the surface first would be the Valentine.

article about Valentine's Day traditions, Daily Graphic newspaper article 14 February 1874

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 14 February 1874, page 2

There was another ritual in this Valentine’s Day tradition which has thankfully died out! The yolk of a hardboiled egg was replaced with salt, and then the egg was eaten – shell and all – without speaking of one’s sweetheart or even “winking” after him.

Hope you have a very happy Valentine’s Day. Please share any favorite holiday traditions with us in the comments section.

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What Were Your Ancestor’s Last Words?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog post, Mary takes a fascinating look at some of the last words people said before they died – both famous and not-so-famous.

When a person breathes their last, the grieving often ask: “What were his or her last words?”

For some people in these final cherished moments of life, their dying wish is to impart memorable quotes or words of wisdom to those left behind. These last words are great fun to read and contemplate.

Many are quoted in newspapers, so if you are lucky you might find your ancestor’s last words.

Religious Expressions

Many obituaries report the deceased’s devotion to, or love of, God.

One example was reported in this death notice for Miss Anna Harmon, who died at the age of 30. She said:

I wish I might – I hope I do resign myself to Christ, for time and for eternity!

obituary for Anna Harmon, Vermont Gazette newspaper article 24 January 1804

Vermont Gazette (Bennington, Vermont), 24 January 1804, page 3

In 1831, Caesar Low told his wife that he was going to die. His death notice reported that “spiritual light seemed to increase in his soul” and noted his last statements just before he died as follows:

“Glory to God – Hallelujah to God, hallelujah – Oh, my dear Father! My Heavenly Father! He is my Father.” Then pointing to heaven, he said: “Yes, I am coming, I am coming!” His final words were:

See Jesus! See Jesus! How shall I act in Heaven?

obituary for Caesar Low, Liberator newspaper article 29 October 1831

Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 October 1831, page 176

Instructions or Words of Wisdom

Although not reported in her obituary, noted abolitionist and suffragette Lucy Stone (1818-1893) left advice for her only daughter with her dying words, Alice Stone Blackwell.

obituary for Lucy Stone, Springfield Republican newspaper article 19 October 1893

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 19 October 1893, page 5

Lucy encouraged Alice to “make the world better,” which she did.

last words of Lucy Stone, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

By the time of her mother’s death, Alice (1857-1950) had become editor of the Woman’s Home Journal and recording secretary for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. During her life she championed many causes, including Russian freedom and world peace – and unlike her mother, was able to celebrate the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 (see the National Archives).

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Alice’s last words were not recorded – but many would like to think she was thinking of her mother when she passed.

photo from the obituary for Alice Blackwell, Boston Herald newspaper article 16 March 1950

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 March 1950, page 27

Appropriate Sayings

Joseph Medill (1823-1899), editor of the Chicago Tribune (who must have read hundreds of last words during his career), appears to have contemplated his own final utterance. Shortly before he passed, his physician heard him comment: “My last words shall be, what is the news?”

obituary for Joseph Medill, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 17 March 1899

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 17 March 1899, page 2

Bat Masterson (1853-1921), another newspaper man, is quoted as having written a lengthy statement. It didn’t appear in his obituaries, but was widely cited years later.

obituary for Bat Masterson, Estrella newspaper article 5 November 1921

Estrella (Las Cruces, New Mexico), 5 November 1921, page 4

Masterson’s last words were:

There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both!

Bat Masterson's last words, Greensboro Record newspaper article 30 September 1964

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 30 September 1964, page 9

How It Feels to Die

Others use their last words to express feelings about death and dying.

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For example, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) responded “beautiful” to a question about how she felt, and William Hunter (1718-1783), the famous Scottish physician and anatomist, said:

If I had strength enough left to hold a pen, I would write what a pleasant and easy thing it is to die.

article about some famous people's last words, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

Jane Austen (1775-1817), author of Pride and Prejudice and other novels, didn’t feel the same. She was reportedly asked if there was anything she wanted. Her reply was:

Nothing but death.

Jane Austen's last words, Oregonian newspaper article 28 September 1986

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 September 1986, page 167

U.S. Presidents’ Last Words

Some of the most-quoted last words are from famous people, such as U.S. presidents.

Modern-day writers like to report that President John Adams, who died on the same day as President Thomas Jefferson on 4 July 1826, said for his final words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

As in all statements about history and ancestry, historical newspapers are one of the best ways to check the facts. For his last words, did Adams say, “Thomas Jefferson survives” or did he actually say “It is a great and glorious day”?

article about the last words of John Adams, Spectator newspaper article 14 July 1826

Spectator (New York, New York), 14 July 1826, page 1

Watch for a follow-up article offering more U.S. presidents’ last words, in celebration of the upcoming Presidents’ Day – and by all means, let us know what last words your ancestors are reported to have said!

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