Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The dead tell the stories of the era in which they lived...

Where do you get your story ideas? Probably from a lot of the places I get mine:
               Newspaper/magazine articles
               People-watching (airports are the best!)
               Old family stories
               Snippets of conversation overheard/remembered
               Personal experience
               Movies/television shows (the ideas they spin off are legion)
               Interesting people you meet        
               Music/song lyrics
               Historical events
               And. . .are you ready for this?. . .death certificates!

Death certificates? Really?
I was prowling around Ancestry.com the other day (I’m an avid genealogist) and happened on one I can’t get out of my mind. But first, a little background.
A window in time
Death certificates are a fairly “new” thing. For example, Texas didn’t start requiring them until 1903. They are filed in the county in which the person died.  If you scroll through any particular year or decade, you’re looking through a window in time.
Some of the information you may or may not find includes:
               Dates of birth and death
               Occupation (blacksmith as opposed to computer tech!)
               Marital status
               Parents’ names and place of birth             
               Place of death
               Place of residence
               Whether there was an autopsy
               Whether death was an accident/suicide/homicide
               Place of burial
               Cause of death
How folks died explains how they lived
It’s the latter--‘cause of death’-- which really showcases the era.
               Early childhood death from now-conquered diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough,   
               Old medical terms (e.g. “apoplexy” for cerebral hemorrhage or stroke, “dementia praecox” 
               for schizophrenia 
               Infirmities of old age
               “Kicked by a mule”
               Simple terms like “no physician”/ “I do not know” say a lot.
               Prevailing causes like tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza
               Peritonitis from simple appendicitis--or the surgery that was supposed to cure it
               Frequent suicides point to the economic/social conditions
“Don’t Know”   
Sometimes whoever filled out the death certificate simply couldn’t spell! Many times the “informants” didn’t even know the names of their parents’/spouse’s mother and father or place of birth.
The one I can’t stop thinking about
Okay, here’s what I was holding back: a young man of 19 with a cause of death listed as “killed by bandits in Mexico”.
What? Really? Okay, it’s 1922, and a quick search of the internet tells me there was political unrest in Mexico and an on-going “bandit problem”. (Nothing new under the sun almost 100 years later in any country!)
But I’m left scratching my head. ..
Unanswered questions:
               What was he doing there?
               Were there eyewitnesses to what happened?
               How was his body recovered and brought back to his hometown?
               And how was a death certificate procured for him hundreds of miles from where he died?
Putting the pieces of the puzzle together
A look at Find-a-Grave tells me he’s buried in his hometown--as are his parents, a sister, and two brothers. I need a city directory to tell me more about his father--if he was well-off and influential. But the 1920 census will do. I find the father was a farmer but had a house in town on a street I know to have been solid at the time. The census also tells me that the young man who was 16 in 1920 had 3 brothers (1 older, 1 younger) and 2 younger sisters, all born in Oklahoma, and he attended school that year. Since the youngest child was 4, the family had come to Texas after her birth in 1916.
Then I jumped ahead ten years--there was a new name, a little boy of 7 born after his brother’s demise--and a 17-year-old boy listed as the ‘adopted son’ of the family!
What next?

Inquiring minds want to know! I have a few more aces up my sleeve:
      an old high school yearbook (Yes, they had them ‘way back when’.)
       a search of Ancestry.com for family trees/stories
        a search of the local newspapers for an obituary and/or a story about his death
        a search of military records to see if he was attached to the military and was ‘on duty’
         a browse in the historical collection in that town

But it sure makes a good story premise
-missing puzzle pieces and all!



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