I have been working on a huge project, along with many volunteers, of cataloging all the deaths caused by the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 in Kentucky. One state out of many, and many countries also, this one epidemic took up to 50 million lives – the total count will never been known.
To do this, we have been reading death certificates for that time period from digitized copies on-line and from photocopies of the documents. And, I have found that we are human. We make mistakes as did the physicians and those who indexed the ones on-line.
I have often reminded you that genealogy is not a scientific process. We have to allow for mistakes to be made along the line. In reading these death certificates I have found the following problem areas:
1 – Handwriting. My apologies to the physicians of the past and present, but I wish you would have printed! The individual’s name sometimes looks like Greek or worse.
2 – Incomplete forms. Many death certificates were not completed. Sometimes no age is shown or date of birth. The cause of death is many times left blank. Many times the parents’ names weren’t known or entered if they were known.
3 – Faded forms: I realize that these forms, dating back to 1911, have seen their wear and tear. But some are so faded out that they are unreadable.
4 – Incorrect indexing for those on-line. Now I DO appreciate the volunteers who have worked unknown hours indexing these death certificates. I know it is a thankless task and sometimes it is just impossible to decipher the names. I often wish that the indexers resided in the state or county they were indexing so they would be more familiar with the names. However, there are ways to help:
A – if a male or a single woman/child, look down at the father’s name. If filled in, sometimes the name is much more clearly written.
B – check a census record. I know this is time consuming, but if near a census year, the death certificate shows the town and/or county, try to find them on a census record.
C – Find-a-Grave. At the bottom of the death certificate, should be shown the date and location of burial. Check Find-a-Grave to see if that cemetery has been entered and if the individual can be found buried there.
5 – Mixing up last and first names. I know one can almost go blind reading these certificates, but in a LOT of instances, I have found the surname and the first name reversed. Solomon Jones for instance (made up name) could be shown as Jones, Solomon and the indexer entered them as Jones Solomon. This is particularly true in military deaths. Most, but not all, deaths of soldiers listed the surname first, separated by a comma from the first name.
In the same military man’s death, I have found the name indexed with the rank as the surname! As an example: Private John Solomon. It is indexed under Private for the surname.
6 – Spellings of names. OK, you can read the name but the spelling of the surname or first name is wrong. These physicians, especially during times of a heavy death toll did not know most of these people. They spelled the names as they heard them – or as the informant told them it was spelled. So, if you find Petinee – likely it’s Petunia. It is maddening to see a woman’s name indexed as Marybell but shown as a male. Sometimes the gender will help you determine the name!
So, when working with death certificates, or any old document, you need to be aware that there will be errors and you might have to play detective to determine the names, dates, cause of death or other information for which you are looking.