Research in Newspapers


by James L. Hansen

Deaths When many genealogical researchers think of newspapers, they immediately think of obituaries-a natural and understandable connection. The wealth of genealogical and biographical information to be found in an informative obituary certainly makes the effort of searching for one worthwhile. For many of our ancestors (and relatives), the obituary is the only "biographical sketch" that was ever devoted to that individual. In addition to names, dates, and places of birth, marriage, and death, the obituary often identifies relationships of the deceased as child, sibling, parent, grandparent, etc., to numerous other individuals. Obituaries may even suggest other documentation of an individual's death-a death certificate in another county because the hospital was located there; church or cemetery records (by identifying the place of burial or the officiating minister); or records of a coroner's inquest because the death was sudden or unexpected. And, of course, the wealth of detail in an informative obituary may open up many research avenues. The amount of information on deaths found in newspapers will not be consistent over the years. Practices also varied in different parts of the country, and individual papers and editors had differing attitudes toward obituaries. Very early obituaries tended to limit the account to one or two lines. A typical early nineteenth-century entry stated the name of the deceased, perhaps an age or estimated age, the date of death, and the late residence; mention of the funeral was sometimes included. Further details of the death may have been given, but rarely were survivors named. The fact that a husband or wife "is left with ten children to mourn the loss" may be the extent of the help provided in such a notice. Parents' names were rarely given except in the case of a child, and even these may merely say: "Baby Mary departed this life to live with the angels." As the nineteenth century progressed, an increasing amount of information was furnished. It is not uncommon to find biographical accounts that include birth dates, marriage dates and places, and children's and grandchildren's names. While the small-town newspaper could afford space to print details on the deaths of even common people, this policy was not practical for the metropolitan press. Large dailies printed lengthy obituaries only of the prominent, the powerful, the wealthy-those for whom a fee was paid to laud their lives or whose passing was considered newsworthy. In short, there are no set rules on the amount of information which can be expected. In an obituary search, it is necessary to investigate the files of all likely newspapers. It is impossible to know beforehand which, if any, paper is going to have the best or fullest obituary. Today even the largest cities often have only one or two daily newspapers, but a century ago that city may have had eight or ten, any one of which might have carried the death notice of your ancestor. Even comparatively small communities had at least two papers-usually, one Democratic and one Republican. Also, unlike today's papers, which often share a printing plant or even editorial staff, older papers were often fiercely competitive, and each paper had its own strengths of coverage. When searching for an obituary, don't just search for the obituary itself. Begin your search of a weekly paper at least two weeks before the date of death. Your ancestor may have been in a final illness, family members rushing to the bedside-all reported in the paper. Don't assume that the death notice you found in the paper three days after the individual's death is all there is. The news of the death may have reached the paper shortly before the printing deadline, a fuller obituary following later. Also, be sure to check the locals columns for mention of out-of-town family members coming for the funeral. In a weekly paper, check four to six weeks after the date of death before concluding there is no obituary to be found-in that paper; in a daily paper, check seven to ten days after the date of death. If an obituary was to appear in the newspaper, someone had to write it, and that someone may not have gotten around to it until things had settled down a bit. Perhaps the saddest news to the genealogical researcher is the announcement of the "obituary next week" that never appeared because no one got around to writing it. In some areas, particularly around the turn of the century, professional obituary writers were in vogue. The family would provide the basic biographical information, which the writer would turn into a properly flowery tribute. The circumstances of the death will often determine where information appears within the newspaper itself. Accidental deaths, murders, and suicides were news items and were therefore placed in attention-getting spots but might not be mentioned in other notices. These news items often mention that an inquest was held; thus, you might find more information from a coroner's records or from other court proceedings. The word suddenly is a clue that the death was unnatural and that an inquest may have been held, even if it was not reported. When considering possible obituary sources, don't just check in the community where the individual died-also check the community (or communities) where the individual lived. Many people in their later years went to live with children and often died far from where they had spent most of their adult lives. But, if they still had connections with the home community, there is a good chance that an obituary will appear there, perhaps a more detailed one than will be found in the community of death, where that person was just a new or temporary resident. However, the opposite may also be true, depending on the policies of the individual papers or whether or not it was a slow news week in a particular community. The obituary is not the only record of death that can be found in the newspaper. Other possibilities are death or funeral notices, burial permit lists, and death lists. They may not have the immediate payoff of obituaries, but they can provide important documentation of deaths. Death or funeral notices were paid announcements. Unlike the obituary, the notice usually stated only the name of the decedent, when and where the death occurred, and, occasionally, the name of a survivor. An example might be: "Dyer, Harry, 26th inst., funeral from St. James at 1 pm, thence by carriage to Greenwood Cemetery." Even this simple statement can provide needed clues to continue research. Many ancestors will not be found in paid announcements because survivors either did not deem them necessary or couldn't afford them. In hard economic times, such as the Great Depression, there were noticeably fewer paid announcements. Official lists of the dead are commonly found in newspapers. This kind of list gives the meager information supplied to the newspaper from city or county records and was included as a free service to the readers. Also providing needed death dates or places are lists of war dead, disaster victims, and deceased members of fraternal organizations. Names of policemen and firemen who died within the year are often published periodically. Sometimes all of the area deaths are noted simultaneously at the end of the year, or as part of the summary of the previous year in a January issue.