In my latest post on the Julia Achard story, “Julia Achard and the Death of Sarah Ahern,” I quoted from some coroner’s inquest records. Are you using coroner’s inquests to fill in your family history? If not, maybe you should be.
If a decedent’s death was under “suspicious” circumstances, a coroner may have been called in to investigate. “Suspicious” could mean some sort of accident, a suicide, or an unattended or unexpected death. The coroner may eventually deem that the unexpected death was due to natural causes, but if the decedent had not been under a doctor’s care, or recently seen by a physician, there might be some question as to the cause of death and require a coroner’s investigation in the matter.
Where can you find coroners’ records? You can contact the county where the death occurred to see if there was an inquest. The coroner might be a branch of the sheriff’s department or might have an office unto itself. When in doubt, do a little digging on the internet, or contact the county sheriff and they can point you in the right direction.
Some coroner’s records are available on FamilySearch. Do a “Place search” in the catalog for the county and state of interest https://familysearch.org/catalog/search). In the catalog section under “Vital records” for that county, you might find “Coroner’s records” listed. Stark County, Ohio is one place that FamilySearch has made the coroner’s records available (https://familysearch.org/search/catalog/1922540?availability=Family%20History%20Library).
When looking at on-line records, you may find that some of the pages have been blacked out due to privacy restrictions.
What might prompt a researcher to look at coroner’s records? Sometimes the death certificate might indicate if there was an autopsy done. A coroner’s report might provide more details. Or maybe you found a newspaper article about the death which hints at an accident, a suicide or something otherwise suspicious. A newspaper article might even mention that a coroner's inquest would be held. Or maybe the only death “certificate” you can locate is a line item in a death register, where the “Cause of Death” column notes “blood poisoning” or “RR accident.”
Though the term "R.R. Accident" might seem self-explanatory following up with a coroner’s report can give you many more details of just what happened. And if you find a young woman died of blood poisoning, you'll definitely want to look for coroner's records - many of these cases, were similar to the story of Sarah Ahern, the result of an illegal operation to terminate a pregnancy.
Some coroner’s reports are more extensive than others. I’ve seen some one-page pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank forms and at the other end of the spectrum, some six-page or longer reports which include transcriptions of the testimonies of several witnesses. But with each one, I came away with more details about the death I was researching.
Here’s one example… I found a brief article on Newspapers.com in The Akron Beacon Journal of 27 January 1896 indicating Andrew McGowan and George Thorn were killed by a train on the Fort Wayne road near Massillon, Ohio.[i] I was able to find their death records on FamilySearch.[ii] For each man, the ledger-style death record showed the cause of death as “R. R. Accident.”
But from the coroner’s records, many more details come to light regarding the death of “George Thorn, whose dead body was found at Newmans Creek Crossing alonth The P. Ft. W. Railway track on the 26th day of January A.D. 1896…” Coroner T. C. McQuate states that after examining the body and heard the evidence “I do find the deceased…George Thorn in company with his friend McGugan were killed while intoxicated and trespassing on the P. Ft. W. R. track. Said Thorn and McGugan were on their way home, going westward on The P. Ft. W. Ry track. Said Thorn got close to a curve in the track about 100 yards above Newmans Crossing, he was struck and killed, said curve hiding view so they could not see east bout train, till it struck and accidentally killed him.”[iii] McQuate reports much the same regarding the death of “Auda McGugan.”[iv]
As you can see, the coroner’s report provides significantly more detail than the “R.R. Accident” noted in the death register. If you haven’t used coroner’s records in your genealogy research, it might be time to have a look at some!
[i] “Miners Killed,” The Akron Beacon Journal, 27 January 1896, page 3, col 1, from Newspapers.com, accessed 5 March 2017
[ii] "Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001," database with images, FamilySearch.org. (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-89ZR-VGKJ?mode=g&cc=2128172 : accessed 5 March 2017), Thornton, Geo. W, 26 Jan 1896; citing Death, Newman, Lawrence Township, Stark, Ohio, United States, source ID v 3 p 534, County courthouses, Ohio; FHL microfilm 897,621 AND "Ohio, County Death Records, 1840-2001," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F665-QQS : accessed 5 March 2017), Andrew Mcgougan, 26 Jan 1896; citing Death, Newman, Lawrence Township, Stark, Ohio, United States, source ID v 3 p 376, County courthouses, Ohio; FHL microfilm 897,621.
[iii] "Ohio, Stark County Coroner's Records, 1890-2002," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9GKR-X9N?cc=1922540&wc=SNB8-SPJ%3A218158301 : 21 May 2014), > image 172 of 209; County Records Center, Canton.
[iv] "Ohio, Stark County Coroner's Records, 1890-2002," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GGKR-X51?cc=1922540&wc=SNB8-SPJ%3A218158301 : 21 May 2014), > image 174 of 209; County Records Center, Canton.
Don’t you just hate it when you search for an ancestor on FamilySearch and you get a hit for what you know is the correct record, and then you see the dreaded “No image available”? Well last week in the Family History Library, the absolute nicest woman, Sister Hays, taught me a nifty little trick that just might get you around the “No image available” roadblock. Here’s how you do it…
In my example I searched for a marriage record for Edward Barrett. I knew from his death certificate his wife’s name was Catherine. He was born about 1855 so I guessed he was married between 1875 and 1890. I plugged that into FamilySearch and the second result looked promising.
I clicked on the document icon and I could see a little more.
Note, the dreaded “No image available.” Well, Sister Hays, sitting right next to me said “I maybe know a way around that. It doesn’t always work, but let’s try it.” And so we did.
Step 1 is to copy the film number, as I’ve highlighted in yellow. Next, go to the FamilySearch catalog search and in the box for Film/Fiche number, paste the film number, like so….
Click on Search, and you’ll get… Search Results. Fancy that!
“Marriage records, 1801-1951” is a hyperlink to the next screen. You’ll have to scroll down to see the film notes, but lookey here, there’s a camera icon. That means pictures!
I got an array of thumbnails of microfilm images. For this particular film there are two batches of marriage records, the first from 1875-1884, and the second batch from 1885 to 1890. Edward and Kate were married in 1887 so I worked my way down to the second set. The first few pages in each set of records are an index, which appears to be alphabetical by the first letter of the groom’s name, and then in somewhat chronological order by the date the marriage was recorded.
Edward’s index entry was found on image 396 of 768.
This told me their marriage record would be on page 420. (Note this is not image 420. It’s the register page labeled 420, which happens to be on image 646.) And look at the fruits of my labor!
It's the sideways one in the upper left corner. And here in all it's glory...
This little trick doesn’t work with every “No image available” record. But thanks to Sister Hays I now know a workaround to try.
I’m certainly thankful for the week and a half of research I’ve been able to do at this wonderful library with its incredibly helpful staff. If you haven’t been here, definitely put it on your research bucket list.
One of these names is not like the others. Can you tell which one? If you guessed Van Horn, guess again. It’s Ahern. Huh? Yeah… Ahern.
For a long time (far too long!) I assumed when I typed the surname, AHERN, into the search boxes on FamilySearch.org that it would pick up not just AHERN, but also some of the common variants such as AHEARN and AHERNE. But recently I discovered that for some inexplicable reason AHERN garners its own set of results.
I did some searches in two New Jersey record sets – “New Jersey Births and Christenings, 1660-1980” and “New Jersey, Births, 1670-1980,” limiting the results to a birthplace of Somerset County, New Jersey and birth years between 1847 and 1900. I was looking for birth records of the children and grandchildren of my great-great grandfather, James AHERN, and his three brothers, all immigrants from Ireland.
With the search for AHERN I received 13 results. In each of the results the surname of the child and the father was indexed with the identical spelling, AHERN. Closer examination of these results, looking at birth and/or christening dates and parents’ names revealed some of them were duplicates of others in the batch of 13 records. Eliminating the duplicates, I discovered six unique children.
When I typed in AHEARN in the search box, I received 67 results. Eliminating the duplicates, I narrowed it to 45 unique children. Not one of those results duplicated any of the results in the AHERN search. But if I searched for AHERNE, HEARN or HERN, I received the exact same list of 67 results. The 67 results included surnames HORN, HERN, VAN HORN, VANHORN, HOHN, HORNE, and O’HEARN. With each of these alternate searches, the resulting names appeared in a slightly different order, but they were the same results and none of them included any from the original AHERN search.
I don’t know what comprises the search algorithm used by FamilySearch.org, and I have not found any guidance on their website explaining it. But my takeaway from this exercise is that I should not make any assumptions about what alternate spellings FamilySearch searches for. Read the results list. If you don’t see at least one example of each alternate spelling you know could be there, experiment with all known surname variants.
For my Tuesday Tips today, I'll cover another indexing scheme for organizing the names you might find in a county record book. These books cover things like wills, deeds and more. As FamilySearch.org puts up more and more image-only historical records, it's important to understand how the indexes work. The records on FamilySearch aren't necessarily searchable via search boxes, but if you know how the indexes work you can find them almost as quickly. as you could with search boxes.
West Virginia Will Index – The example below is from FamilySearch for West Virginia Will Books, 1756-1971 Hampshire Index to wills, v. 01 1907-1969
You can see the index above across the top of every page, they list the letters, so even on the A names pages you can see the S index pages. But let’s look at this. There is S on page 125. Sc is 127. Se is 129, etc. But note this is NOT a straight up alphabetical index. Page 125 is not just the names beginning with Sa and Sb. Page 125 displays the S+ the letters that aren’t specified. So things like Sa, Sh, Sp, Sl. Whoever put this index together for the county saw that there were a lot of SC names, a lot of SM, ST, etc. so those letter combinations got their own pages. There aren’t so many SA-, SP- and SH- surnames so those names have been combined on their own page.
The list progresses roughly chronologically by date of probate through the surnames, but notice that it goes up to 1968, but then a 1964 and a 1964 name have been added at the end. Word to the wise - read all the way to the end just to make sure a name hasn't been added out of order
Once you locate the name of the person you're looking for, read to the right of the name where you will find the Will Book and Page Number where their will can be found. Check FamilySearch to see if they have the images for that book digitized. If not, you may be able to borrow a microfilm with the will on it, or you may need to write to the county to get a copy of the will, but now you have the book and page to tell them where to look.
County record for things like deeds, probate records and others often have the surnames somehow indexed to make it easier to find them. Rarely are these indexes a straight alphabetical sorting, however. When you begin to research in a particular record set in a particular location, spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with how the index works. Those few minutes will save you time in the long run. This rule applies whether you are searching an actual roll of microfilm at a family history center or browsing the digitized images of these records on FamilySearch.org.
A case in point involves the deed indexes for Erie County, New York. Many of these records have been digitized by FamilySearch.org. They are not necessarily searchable, but they are browsable. I was recently looking for a deed in which James Lawson purchased some property in Buffalo, Erie, NY. Erie County uses the Graves Tabular Initial Indexes for its land records. These tables classify surnames by the first three letters. In my case I was looking for LAW for Lawson. As the image below shows, I use the table for “L”. I find the second letter, “A” under the bold “L”, and then follow across until I see “W.” In the “A” line under the “W” is the number 466. I will find all entries for Lawson on page 466. If I were looking for Lewis, those entries would be on page 468.
I then need to scroll forward to find page 466 for my Lawson entries. There may be multiple pages numbered 466, depending on how many Lawson, Lawrence, Lawlor, etc. transactions there are for the time frame covered by the index. Once you find page 466 in the grantee index, you can see there are 6 columns representing the first letter of the grantee’s given name. ABCD appear in one column, EFGH in another. It’s a simple matter to scan down the IJKL column until I see a J and then look to the right to see if that is a transaction for James Lawson. If there is a transaction for James, I write down the Liber (Book) and Page numbers. It is an easy matter then to find the Deeds Volume for the Liber number shown on the index, and then find the right page and, voila! there’s the deed I want.
I have found that in a particular set of indexes, the tables hold constant across the years and between grantor/grantee. If I find that Lawson will be found in the index on page 466 for Grantees in Erie County in 1885, Lawson will also be found on Grantors in 1840 in the same set of land records. I don’t need to look it up every time. Here’s a tip – if you have a lot of a particular surname in an area, make note of their page number for the index. You won’t have to look it up every time you’re working on deed research. One more tip – sometimes the index tables cover several letters – J,K,L&M. The microfilm, or digitized film might be A-K and L-Z, so to find your table for L, you might have to go to the start of the J’s. And if you can’t find for your year in the grantee index, look for the table for a different year or in the grantor index – because the tables work across time and grantor/grantee, it will still work.
There are several other types of indexes besides the Graves Tabular Initial Index. I will cover others in upcoming Technique Tuesdays blog posts.
Remember the Lay’s Potato Chips slogan, “Betcha Can’t Eat Just One”? You should think the same way about newspapers. If you find an article from one newspaper, check other newspapers in the same town, adjacent towns and perhaps the local large city to see if one of them might also have covered the story. You may find additional details, or an alternate spelling of a name.
Here are two newspaper articles about the same event, a skin graft operation for Phil Redmond, a fireman with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, who was badly scalded in a 1908 train wreck near Novato, California. Phil received skin grafts from over 200 men, and here is some detail on the brave men who stepped up to donate skin for one batch of donations.
You can see from the date and a comparison of these two clippings that they refer to the same event, but they have different spellings of almost every name. The Chronicle article refers to Burns by his first name and initial, William P., while the Call just names him W. P. Burns. Having the Chronicle article gives the researcher a much better clue as to who the donor is. Another man is named Spinney according to the Call and Stinney in the Chronicle article. Without having the two articles to compare, one would have no clue that the names in one article are not the correct names of the parties involved. But seeing multiple articles from multiple sources provides much information to help the researcher.
When you're doing newspaper research, don't "eat" just one!
I have used newspapers extensively to learn more about my ancestors and fill out my family history, but if I could offer just one tip for newspaper research, it would have to be to read the entire paper. Oh, how that one tip could have saved me years and years of research.
I traveled to California to go to a library which held microfilm of my ancestors’ local newspaper, the Petaluma Courier. I found the obituary I was looking for, that of my great-great uncle, John Ahern. It was short and to the point: “AHERN – Near Oakland, June 18, 1896, John C., youngest son of J. Ahern of Petaluma and brother of James Ahern, a native of Sonoma county, aged 22 years.” The obituary mentioned only his father and one brother, making no mention of another brother, Henry, and three sisters, Sarah, Belle, and my greatgrandmother, Mary Bradley . There was nothing to indicate how or exactly where he died. Of course I followed up with Alameda County to secure a death certificate for John, but came up empty. I’d theorized that maybe he was always sickly (his mother died in childbirth delivering him) or perhaps some sort of an accident.
Fastforward a few years, again to another trip to California, this time to the Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley, where I searched in the Oakland newspapers for an obituary for John. I didn’t find an obituary for John Ahern, but I found a surprise – an obituary for John Lockren. “LOCKREN - In this city, June 18, 1896, John C., beloved son of Ann Lockren and James Ahern, brother of Charles and Mary Lockren, Henry, James and Sarah Ahern, Mrs. Belle Green and Mary Bradley, a native of Sonoma, California, aged 22 years, 9 months and 17 days.” This was my guy, but why was Ann Lockren listed as his mother? James Ahern only had one wife, Jane. And who were these additional siblings, Charles and Mary Lockren?
I read additional issues of the Oakland and San Francisco papers trying to find more about the railroad accident which caused the death of John Ahern/Lockren. One brief article concerning the coroner’s inquest stated “It developed at the inquest that the correct name of the young man was John Ahren (sic), he having taken the name of his step-father.”
Over time, of course, I did my due diligence, getting the death certificate for his “mother,” Ann Lockren. No help there, but a clue came in the death certificate for Charles Augustus Lockren, which stated his parents were Michael Lockren and Anna Graham, both natives of Ireland. Graham was the maiden name of Jane Ahern, John’s mother. She must be his aunt!
If only, if only, if only I had read further in that original newspaper, the Petaluma Courier of June 24, 1896, I would have seen on the very next page a three-paragraph article all about the death of John Ahern, containing the significant tidbit, “He lived with his aunt and other relatives at Oakland.”
Of course the aunt wasn’t mentioned by name in the Courier, so I guess it was a good thing I found the Oakland newspaper as well, but I could have saved myself a lot of head scratching and a lot of time if I had read just one more page of the original newspaper!
 The Petaluma Courier, June 24, 1896, page 2
 Oakland Enquirer June 19, 1896, page 4
 Oakland Enquirer June 20, 1896, page 5
 Death Certificate for Charles Augustus Lockren, 11 January 1911, California State Board of Health, County of Alameda. Certified copy in possession of author
 The Petaluma Courier, June 24, 1896, page 2
Sometimes finding someone on the census is easy, but often you need to strategize, be open, and hope for a little luck.
The census images we look at today are not the original working copy of the enumerator. After a day in the field, knocking on doors and collecting information, the enumerator sat down and copied the data onto the final forms to be turned in. Perhaps it had been a long day, and the enumerator was a bit tired when he copied the names and details for the household of Douglas and Margaret Church onto page 31 for Sonoma Township, Sonoma, California of the 1870 census. He certainly appears to have been off a bit when he entered the information for lines 15 and 16 for James Church and Mary Laughlin.
Could it really be true that Douglas Church was born in Pennsylvania and his wife Margaret and their four-year-old daughter, Anna, were both born in California, but their son, one-year-old James Church, was born in England, and had a father and mother of foreign birth? Oh, and how about the tick mark in column 15 - that he attended school within the year? Little James must have been some Einstein! Either that or our census taker made a little booboo when he made his final copy.
That error, mixing up a few tick marks and a birthplace, is what made it particularly troublesome for me to find Mary Lockren, already a difficult surname to search for. Poor penmanship aside, common spelling variants include Lockren, Lockran, Lochren, Lochran, Loughren, Loughran, Laughran as well as Locklin and Laughlin. Basically it starts with an L, has a hard C in the middle and ends in an N. After that it’s anybody’s guess. I knew from later census records that she was born about 1856 in England. As you can see from the census, using England as a birthplace, was most decidedly unhelpful in this case, so I did a simple search using just a name - “Mary L*N” - and an approximate age – 14. No birthplace. As a genealogist, it seems hard not to put in the information that I “know” is right. But sometimes less is more. And without that birthplace, Mary popped right up.
A few pages away I found her mother, Anna “Locklin”, living in the household of James and Maria Kennedy. Digging a bit further, I discovered Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Maria Kennedy. Connection! And the Kennedys and Churches lived just over the hill from Anna Lockren’s sister, my great-great grandmother, Jane (Mary J) Ahern, in whose household lived one more “enumerator mistake” - Anna’s son, Charles “Lucking.” Yep, sometimes the census taker was wrong, and it takes a little more than “luck” to connect the dots – try a less is more strategy.
 Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Year: 1870; Census Place: Sonoma, Sonoma, California; Roll: M593_91; Page: 446A; Image: 459; Family History Library Film: 545590
 Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch Year: 1870; Census Place: Sonoma, Sonoma, California; Roll: M593_91; Page: 443A; Image: 453; Family History Library Film: 545590
 Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. 1870; Census Place: Vallejo, Sonoma, California; Roll: M593_91; Page: 456A; Image: 479; Family History Library Film: 545590
I recently presented my “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way…” lecture to the Belfair Chapter of the Puget Sound Genealogical Society. Here’s one of the stories I shared.
In 1873, my great–great-grandfather, James Ahern, suddenly found himself a 42-year-old single father with a house full of children. His wife, Jane, died delivering baby number six. James died 25 years later but never remarried. For a man in that day and age, a farmer with not only six youngsters to raise but a 160-acre farm and a barn full of dairy cattle to tend to, it’s quite unusual to not have found a helpmate to marry. But research into the will of his next-door neighbor shed a little light on how he might have managed to get his kids raised without taking another wife.
The 1880 census begins to tell the tale. James appears with his six children, from Mary Agnes, age 20, down through Henry, James, Sarah, and Jane to John C, age 7. I think Mary Agnes was probably pretty capable of taking on much of the responsibility for her younger siblings. She was 14 when her mother died, and she went on to raise a large family of her own.
Right next door are Isaac and Mary Ingram. Isaac and Mary had no children of their own. But on October 20, 1871, Isaac and Mary served as godparents to Jane Isabella Ahern, so clearly the Ingrams had a close relationship with the Aherns. I can see among the farmhands living with the Ingrams in 1880 is one Patrick Bradley, a 32-year-old Pennsylvanian. About a year and a half after that census was taken, Mary Agnes Ahern married Patrick. I can just see Mary Ingram finding excuses to fix these two up – “I baked a cake, Patrick, why don’t you take it over to the Aherns?”
Just on a hunch, when I was visiting the courthouse in Santa Rosa, I looked up Mary Ingram’s will, and in it I found a few more details to confirm my theory that Mrs. Ingram likely played a pretty active role in the lives of the motherless children next door. She had three nieces and a nephew who were remembered in her will with specific bequests of $1000 each and additional named beneficiaries included “my friend Lizzie Bradley” (Patrick and Mary Bradley’s oldest daughter) who was bequeathed $200, “my friend Mary Bradley,” given $200, and “my friend Sarah Ahern” who was given $100. Once the specific bequests were made and the final expenses paid, Mary divided the residuary of her estate two-ninths to each of her nieces and nephews and one-ninth to Lizzie Bradley. Lizzie was deaf, and perhaps this disability led Mary Ingram to be particularly generous toward her.
Wondering about how it was that a widower with a whole passel of children could manage to survive without a wife… imagining what kind of an influence Mary Ingram might have had in bringing lovebirds Patrick and Mary together… these thoughts led me to look for the will of my ancestor’s neighbor. I don’t think many genealogists have the next-door-neighbor’s will on their list of “must get” documents, but I’m glad I thought to put it on mine!
 Sonoma County California death records, 1873-1890, Volume 41, page 1, Jane Aheran, October 9, 1873
 US Federal Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Vallejo, Sonoma, California; Roll: 84; Family History Film: 1254084; Page: 23D; Enumeration District: 121; Image: 0049
 Baptismal records of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Petaluma, Sonoma, California
 Marriage records of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Petaluma, Sonoma, California
 Sonoma County, California Record of Wills, Volume J, page 252
Optical Character Recognition, OCR for short, has been a great boon to genealogists. Using OCR technology, organizations have scanned and digitized an array of printed material and made it available on the internet. It is definitely a timesaver to have the computer read a newspaper for you and locating all instances of the name you’re searching for. But just how good a reader is that computer?
OCR by its nature reads letters one by one. If just one letter in the word you’re searching for was poorly inked, either too lightly or too heavily… if there was even a tiny smudge of dirt on the sheet before it was scanned… if the newspaper was first microfilmed, and then scanned… all of these things can adversely impact the computer’s ability to correctly read the words.
Spend a bit of time learning about OCR using newspaper and book sites that display the OCR interpretation alongside the actual page image. These include the California Digital Newspaper Collection (www.cdnc.ucr.edu) and the Hoosier State Chronicles (newspapers.library.in.gov). Even if you don’t have ancestors who are likely to be mentioned in these collections, you’ll begin to learn that a lowercase “y” is often misread as a “v” or the letter combination of “rn” is misread as “m” turning the word “Ahern” into “Ahem.” Then when you go back to searching in those collections that do hold the newspapers from your ancestor Henry Ahern’s hometown, make sure you search for Henrv Ahem as well.
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.