Fun Family Folklore: Are These Superstitions Fact or Myth?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott decides to add some of his family’s superstitions to his family tree to make it more complete—and searches old newspapers to find more information about those superstitions.

I would not be surprised if every family that ever lived had one superstition or another that was “believed in.” Maybe not 100%, but at least to the point that the superstition cropped up each time the subject was broached. For instance, when my wife was well overdue with our first child, she was told: “Eat Chinese takeout food and your labor will start.” I also well remember my grandmother’s constant admonition to “Find a pin and pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck,” and her commandment “Sing at the dinner table and you’ll marry a drunkard.”

My family folklore included many superstitions and my wife’s family added a few more that I was not familiar with, so I thought to make my family tree even more interesting and complete, I’d look into a couple of the superstitions that were amongst the strongest in our families. So off I went to GenealogyBank.com to see what I could discover and add to our family tree.

Fact or Myth? Snakes Don’t Die until Sundown

First up was a superstition that still haunts me to this day. It is that a snake does not die until sundown. Actually, the way it was related to me by my father was this: “The only way to kill a snake is to cut off its head and then leave it be, since it will not die until sundown.” Well, let me tell you, that was more than enough to instill a fear of snakes that exists in me to this very day, which you can see in this photo.

photo of Scott Phillips holding a large snake in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil

Photo: Scott Phillips and his uncomfortable “close encounter” with a large snake in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: from the author’s collection.

My father’s “wisdom” about snakes was imparted to me frequently back in the 1950s. Imagine my surprise when I found this 1906 Pennsylvania newspaper article that addressed my dad’s snake superstition.

Killing Lies about Snakes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 25 November 1906

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 November 1906, page 13

In this old newspaper article a zoologist debunks many of the myths regarding snakes, and there in the list at #12 is this: “It isn’t true that when snakes are killed their tails do not die until the sun goes down or until it thunders.” Good grief! If I had ever heard that “thunder” part I might still be in my old backyard waiting!

Open the Doors & Windows before Midnight on New Year’s Eve

I then recalled the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated when I was dating my future wife. Just before the stroke of midnight she began going around my parents’ home opening the windows and doors—during a Minnesota winter! As we all stood there shivering, watching our breath indoors, she explained her superstition that in order to have a good New Year, you needed to let the old air, spirits, year, etc., out and the new year in.

I married her anyway and then, 38 years later, I found this 1954 Washington newspaper article that gives instructions for doing exactly this. It was interesting for me to learn that my Italian wife had evidently picked up a Danish superstition, which we still follow.

notice about midnight superstitions, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 19 December 1954

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 19 December 1954, page 95

No Hats on the Bed or Chair!

Next up, I took on another one of my wife’s oft-cited superstitions from her Italian family. I can still hear my wife’s grandparents saying “Don’t ever put your hat on a bed or a chair!” While there were some strong rules in my home about never, ever wearing a hat in the house, I was not aware of anything like this Italian hat superstition that it is bad luck to lay your hat on a bed or chair. Then I found this 1938 Nebraska newspaper article, in which the columnist not only discusses this mysterious hat superstition—he also explains how he and his family still don’t abide seeing any hats on a bed.

notice about superstitions, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 22 May 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 22 May 1938, page 39

Bury a Statue of Saint Joseph to Sell Your Home

Then I laughed out loud at myself as I came across an article in a 1991 Alabama newspaper. It verified that I am as “guilty” of following superstitions as anyone else!

notice about a superstition involving real estate and St. Joseph, Mobile Register newspaper article 7 April 1991

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 7 April 1991, page 18

You see, just as this newspaper article explains, my wife and I have always buried a statue of St. Joseph in our yard every time we were in the process of selling a home. I’ll just add here that with my wife being an architect/designer, this burial ritual happened fairly often! It did my heart good to see that this tradition started, according to this article, “hundreds of years ago in Europe.” I take issue with the company selling these St. Joseph statue kits, though! While they do get the part right about burying him on his head and facing the street, he must be buried in a piece of linen from your house!

After reading the “error” in this newspaper’s account of a superstition that I personally follow, I became all the more resolved to add our folklore and superstitions to my family tree. Someone has to be sure everyone gets it “right” in the future!

What kinds of superstitions have been handed down in your family? Post a comment and let me know about your traditions and rituals rooted in superstition. I’d love to learn more about your family’s folklore!

New Year’s Genealogy Resolutions for Genealogists in 2013

It’s the start of a new year, a time when many people think about making some changes. Here are four suggestions I have; I hope that genealogists take to heart these New Year’s resolutions for 2013.

Use Newspapers for Genealogy Research

Search through historical newspaper archives for each of your ancestors and find those old stories that over time have been lost to the family.

Family stories like the one in this obituary, containing the riveting recollection of Hannah (Clark) Lyman (1734-1832), who recalled the earthquake of 1755 so vividly all her life that it was referenced in her obituary when she died—77 years after the earthquake struck!

Hannah Lyman's Obituary in the Hampshire Gazette March 21, 1832

Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Massachusetts), 21 March 1832, page 3.

Resolve this year to find your family stories in old newspapers: document these stories, preserve them and pass them down.

Scan Your Family Photos and Documents

Every day we read about storms that destroy homes and wash away treasured family photos and papers. Don’t let that happen to you. Resolve this year to scan your family’s documentation and put it online. Secure it so that the information is there regardless of tomorrow’s storms or other disasters. Set up a reasonable schedule that you can stick to, such as putting up five documents/photos every week. Keep plugging away, and at the end of the year you’ll have over 250 items preserved for future generations online. Start now.

Put Your Family History Online

As a dedicated genealogist you’ve likely spent years researching your family—you don’t want all that hard work to be lost. Preserve your genealogy research by resolving to put it online. There are lots of terrific websites where you can post your family history. It’s a good idea to put your family history on multiple sites. I strongly recommend that you create a family tree on Ancestry.com and on FamilySearch.org; these are both good genealogy websites for hosting family trees.

Upload your family tree onto the genealogy sites you’ve chosen, setting the upload so that it excludes the current, living members of the family. Then add scans of your family photos and documents.

Make sure that as you add new genealogical data, you update the information on all your online family trees.

Resolve to do this today to preserve and pass down your family’s heritage.

Print Your Family History and Put a Copy of the Printed Document Online

To accomplish this, use Scribd.com, a handy, free online site for publishing and distributing your family history.

You probably have your family history on one of the many excellent family history software programs like: Legacy, RootsMagic or PAF.

Simply use the report function on these family tree software programs to print out your family history, being careful to not include the current, living members of the family.

By putting these reports online, every name becomes easily searchable via Google, Bing, etc. I have had many breakthroughs on my family tree by using Scribd.com.

Resolve to use Scribd.com to preserve and pass down your family’s history—that’s a New Year’s resolution you won’t regret.

edward and mary rutledge genealogy records on Scribd.com

Edward & Mary Rutledge’s Genealogy Records on Scribd.com

How to Do Genealogical Research: Damon Family Case Study

Sometime during the next few weeks, as we continue to add new content to our online archives, GenealogyBank will reach a milestone: we will have 1 billion more records than the total we launched our website with five years ago. Wow, that’s a lot of additional genealogy records!

I wanted to see what I could find in GenealogyBank with all this added material—so I chose a family at random and set out on a genealogical research investigation.

Researching the Family of Minnie M. Damon

I picked Minnie M. Damon who married James W. Wright on 31 December 1890 in Keene, New Hampshire. With Christmas still in the air and New Year’s Eve approaching, the couple was married by the Rev. C. E. Harrington.

A search in GenealogyBank found their marriage announcement in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 7 January 1891, page 8.

wright damon marriage notice new hampshire sentinel newspaper january 7, 1891

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 7 January 1891, page 8

This marriage announcement is a great genealogical find. It gives terrific details about the wedding.

And—what about those “white silk slippers” the bride wore, the same ones her mother wore when she got married 38 years before? Does someone in the family still have them?

Hmm…they were married “at the home of the bride’s mother.” Why no mention of the father? Had he died? Was there a divorce?

Genealogical Research Find 1: George Damon (Minnie’s Father)

The next step in our genealogical research is to find out even more about Minnie’s dad. Digging deeper into our online archives I found the death notice of the bride’s father. He had died just six months earlier.

george damon death notice new hampshire sentinel june 4 1890

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 4 June 1890, page 8

George Damon was “aged 68 years 8 months and 27 days” when he died on 2 June 1890.

Next we want to subtract those figures from his death date to see when he was born.

George’s date of birth works out to 6 September 1821.

There is a handy site for calculating these dates: see TimeandDate.com

time and date calculator

Time and date calculator

Genealogical Research Find 2: Lucy Bowker/Damon (Minnie’s Mother)

Digging deeper into our historical newspaper archives I found the marriage record of her parents: George and Lucy (Bowker) Damon.

damon bowker marriage notice weekly eagle newspaper september 20, 1852

Weekly Eagle (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 September 1852, page 3

Their marriage announcement was published in the Weekly Eagle (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 September 1852, page 3.

Whoa—hold on: their marriage announcement was published in the Weekly Eagle, a Brattleboro, Vermont, newspaper?

But they lived in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. The newspaper even said that they were “all of” Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.

So, why did a Vermont newspaper publish the announcement of their wedding?

map of fitzwilliam new hampshire

Map of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire

Because newspaper editors wanted to sell papers, that’s why.

Brattleboro is only 40 miles from Fitzwilliam, and the Weekly Eagle was regularly bought and read by the residents there.

Genealogical Research Find 3: Elijah Bowker (Minnie’s Maternal Grandfather)

And here is a newspaper article about Lucy Bowker’s father, Captain Elijah Bowker, praising his life of service. It was published in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 June 1877, page 1.

elijah bowker tribute new hampshire sentinel newspaper june 28, 1877

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 June 1877, page 1

What else could I find out about the Damon family in my genealogical research?

Branching Out the Damon Family Tree

I decided to do a broader genealogy search by searching on only the surname (Damon) and their hometown (Fitzwilliam).

screenshot of genealogybank's search form

GenealogyBank search form

Both “Damon” and “Fitzwilliam” are uncommon words. It is likely that all Damons from Fitzwilliam are related, but we need to sort them out to make sure.

This broad genealogy search produced a few hundred surname record results.

That is a reasonable amount of genealogy records to sift through, so I started reading through all of them.

Genealogical Research Find 4: Martha Damon (Minnie’s Aunt)

One death record in particular caught my eye. It was published in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 April 1826, page 3.

martha damon death notice new hampshire sentinel newspaper april 28, 1826

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 April 1826, page 3

There in the third paragraph: “In Fitzwilliam, an infant daughter [Martha Damon, 1825-1826] of Mr. Geo. Damon.”

This little girl was the aunt of Minnie M. (Damon) Wright—the woman I started my investigation with.

Genealogical Research Find 5: George Damon and Deacon Oliver Damon (Minnie’s Paternal Grandfather and Her Paternal Great-Grandfather)

The “Geo. [George] Damon” named in this death notice was Minnie’s paternal grandfather [George Damon, 1796-1840] and the “Deacon Oliver Damon” [1758-1837] also named was her paternal great-grandfather.

OK. This newspaper obituary was for a two-year-old infant, and it would be easy to assume that such a notice would have minimal genealogical clues. But, I like to read every document.

As it turns out this obituary gives us lots of critical genealogical information:

“Deacon Oliver Damon and wife have lived in Fitzwilliam 42 years, and this [is] the first instance of mortality that has occurred in his family or among his descendants, (25 in all) during that time. Printers for Massachusetts are requested to notice this death.”

As of 1826, there were 25 descendants of the family in that area and none of them had died over the previous 42 years.

Digging deeper into GenealogyBank’s online archives I found more details in Deacon Oliver Damon’s obituary, published by the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 9 November 1837, page 3.

oliver damon obituary new hampshire sentinel newspaper november 9, 1837

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 9 November 1837, page 3

He was a Deacon of the Congregational Church, and he fought in the Revolutionary War. Clearly there is more genealogical research that we can do on this family.

Do you remember seeing in these obituaries the phrase “Printers in Mass. are requested to notice this death”? This note from the newspaper’s editors gives a strong indication that the Damon family has a family connection to Massachusetts.

So, the next steps in our genealogical investigation are to sort through all of the “Damon” references in and around Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, and extend that search out to Massachusetts.

Damon?

The only “Damon” I ever heard of is the actor, Matt Damon.

I wonder if Minnie M. (Damon) Wright and Matt Damon are actually related.

Tracing the Damon family tree: to be continued…