Just how much evidence can you extract out of a document? I love to do this! I think it is a fun game. Today we will look at a death certificate. I am using a death certificate of a person I don’t know. I just picked it randomly off of FamilySearch so that I could simply link to the document instead of trying to squish it onto the blog as a jpg. Since Simmons is my maiden name I just picked a Simmons that happened to be in the state of Pennsylvania, a state where none of my Simmons’ are from.
- Charles Henry Simmons was a white male
- He was married at the time of his death
- He was born 26 Apr 1839
- He died on 06 Sep 1908 at 7:00 pm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- He was 69 years, 5 months and 11 days old when he died [this does NOT calculate correctly. If this was his correct age, his date of birth would be 26 Mar 1839 so keep that in mind]
- He died of apoplexy [stroke]
- It appears he had the stroke but didn’t die until several days later. He was attended by a physician during that time, 26 Aug – 06 Sep 1908
- The physician that attended him was Charles W. Coburn of 1308 South 24th Street [Philadelphia]
- At the time of his death he was not working [no occupation]
- He was born in Lynchburg, Ohio [located in both Clinton and Highland Counties]
- His father was Samuel R. Simmons who was born in Ohio
- His mother was Mary A. Clark who was born in Ohio
- He lived at 2712 Latona Street at the time of his death and he died at home. This address is in the 36th ward [Philadelphia]
- He was buried on 09 Sep 1908 in the Mt. Peace Cemetery [Philadelphia]
- The undertaker was J. C. Chew of 2218 Ellsworth Street [Philadelphia]
That is quite a lot of information. What is missing from this certificate is the informant. Was it his wife? A grown child? A sibling? Knowing that would give you an idea of how credible Charles’ date of birth and place of birth is as well as the names of his parents and their places of birth. His date of death and place of death are assumed to be accurate since this is a death certificate. It was created specifically to record his death. The physician is signing off on it stating that he verified the death. In other words, the death date and location are direct evidence (answers the question, “When did Charles die?” directly) given by a primary informant (someone that witnessed the event). They is pretty reliable.
Charles’ date of birth is direct evidence (answers the question “When was Charles born?” directly) but is given by an undetermined informant. Most likely it was given by a secondary informant. The only way it would be primary is if the informant was Charles’ mother or someone that was actually at the birth. Even Charles’ father might not have been present at the birth. You don’t have as much weight with this one.
Every document you examine will have many pieces of evidence on it and each one of them need to be evaluated separately for their weight. You can make a table that shows this. This document (source) is considered original because it is a faithful digital copy of the original record. I have no reason to suspect that it has been altered or unfaithfully reproduced. I will put just a few of the facts in a table to give you an idea.
|married||direct||undetermined (if wife had been the informant then primary)|
|date of birth and place of birth||direct||undetermined|
|date of death and place of death||direct||primary|
|cause of death||direct||primary|
|father and mother’s names and places of birth||direct||undetermined|
Sometimes using a table like this really helps you see things more clearly especially if you are examining several documents that contain overlapping information. I could do tables for each individual fact and that would l look like this:
John Doe’s date of birth
|1844-1845(age 5)||1850 census dated 01 Jun 1850||original*||direct||undetermined (the 1940 is the only census where the informant is named)|
|1860 census dated 01 Aug 1860||original||direct||undetermined|
|1870 census |
dated 23 Jul 1870
|1880 census |
dated 28 May 1880
|Nov 1844 |
|1900 census dated 01 Jun 1900||original||direct||secondary (no one living in the household that could have been present at the birth)|
|1910 census dated 15 Aug 1910||original||direct||secondary|
|30 Nov 1845||death certificate |
dated 02 Dec 1917
|age 71||obituary||original||direct||secondary (probably the same informant as above so not really a separate piece of evidence)|
|30 Nov 1845||tombstone||original||direct||ditto|
|bef. 1847 (if he was at least 16 at the time of enlistment)||CSA compiled service record, enlisted 14 Oct 1864||original||indirect||undetermined (if he was underage, his father might have vouched/lied for him)|
|30 Nov 1844||Mother’s Bible |
copyright 1840, right after her marriage
|original||direct||primary (assuming you have determined that the entry was written by the mother herself)|
*When dealing with census records you can’t be 100% sure that it isn’t a copy. Many times the enumerators went out and wrote down the info as a draft and then came back and redid it. I could have easily put this one as a derivative.
Back to the original death certificate. If this was a new person to me, where would I go next? My first stop is always the census records because they can build you a nice timeline skeleton. I need to know where all Charles was before I can look for records. I have plenty of info here to track Charles from birth to death. I will probably pick up the names of his siblings as well as his wife’s first name. I want to get Charles’ family group sheet under control before I try and go backwards and investigate his parents. I will want to try and find Charles’ marriage record. I should be able to figure out where they got married after looking at the census records, at least down to the state or two states. If I am real lucky I can narrow to the county.
One more thing. Why would I care what Charles’ address was, who the undertaker was or who the physician was? Charles address is important if I am mapping out potential relatives in the area. At the very least it gives a more personal glimpse into Charles’ life if I mention where he lived. I can do some research to see if the actual house is still standing. It brings interest into the story if you can put a photo of the house in your file. I can research the undertaker and find out of any burial records still exist. Did this physician treat other family members? Was he the local doctor that everyone went to? Again, this brings more insight and interest into the story of your ancestor’s life.
Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis