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The galvanized…

The Legal Genealogist had a ball yesterday talking about a wide variety of records that exist today because of an unusual set of laws.

In Lincoln’s Laws and the Records of War, a webinar for Legacy Family Tree Webinars that you can now see free online through April 25, we looked at a whole bunch of things that we might not have — or not in the form we have them — if it hadn’t been for the formalization of the laws of war during the Civil War.

Among the neat records we looked at were those involving deserters and spies, the huge volume of records of courts martial, and the records of interactions between the military and civilians.

But — as is always the case in any time-limited presentation — we didn’t look at everything.

One record set came up only afterwards, in a question from my friend and colleague Jill Morelli, about the records of “Union soldiers who were in a Confederate prison and who were successfully recruited by the Confederates in order to get out of prison.”

Now this is a neat question, because the people we’re talking about here — and these folks were on both sides — are the galvanized. Galvanized Yankees were those Confederates who renounced their allegiance to the Confederacy as part of the price of release from capture. It was “an insulting term Confederates applied to individuals who took the oath of allegiance to cover themselves with Union blue.”1 And, it appears, “The term ‘galvanized’ has also been applied to former Union soldiers enlisting in the Confederate Army.”2

There’s a fair amount that’s been written about galvanized Yankees — those ex-Confederates who served in the Union forces — but not nearly as much as about the folks Jill is interested in: Union troops who became Confederates. So, she wondered, what records might there be? Would their names be recorded, for example, in the registers of deserters that are part of Record Group 110 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. that we talked about in the webinar?3

That record group is one possibility for sure and should always be checked. But there’s another source that needs to be checked as well.

From records collected in Record Group 249, the Records of the Commissary General of Prisoners, there’s a single roll of microfilm produced by the National Archives as Microfilm Publication M2156, Lists of Federal Prisoners of War Who Enlisted in the Confederate Army. According to the Descriptive Pamhlet for this item:

The records include several rolls (lists) created during and after the Civil War that name former Union soldiers in rough alphabetical order. Most lists identify each man’s rank, former Union regiment, date and place where captured, date of release, and remarks. There is also memoranda and correspondence created or copied within the Adjutant General’s Office (AGO) from 1882 to 1905, some of which discusses copying information in these records for inclusion in the Union and Confederate Compiled Military Service Records (CMSRs) created by the AGO. In addition, there are several oaths of allegiance to the Confederate Government, 1862-3. ….4

The records may not be not a complete list — as the Descriptive Pamphlet makes clear, there were ultimately three units comprised mostly of foreign nationals who’d been drafted to serve in the Union Army and one that also included native-born Americans, and not all of their records survived, and there may have been individual cases outside of those units.

And no, this microfilm hasn’t been digitized, at least not yet. The NARA website says the only copy is available for review at Archives I, the main Archives building in downtown Washington D.C.

So it’s not perfect, but then what is, in genealogy? And it’s a great place to start if you’re looking for Union soldiers who ended up as Confederates.

Check out the webinar for more ideas about researching records of deserters, spies, courts martial and civilians during wartime. And while this one’s free for now, note again, for the record — truth in “advertising” here — as a Legacy presenter, I do benefit financially if you buy one of my recordings or the whole webinar series.


  1. Michèle T. Butts, “Trading Gray for Blue: Ex-Confederates Hold the Upper Missouri for the Union,” Prologue (Winter 2005), National Archives, Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/ : accessed 19 Apr 2018).
  2. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Galvanized Yankees,” rev. 23 Feb 2018, citing U.S. National Park Service, “The Galvanized Yankees,” The Museum Gazette, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, PDF now available via Wayback Machine (https://web.archive.org/web/ : accessed 19 Apr 2018) (“During the Civil War, in both Northern and Southern prison camps, soldiers sometimes decided to ‘galvanize,’ or change sides, to save themselves from the horrors of prison life”).
  3. See “Records of the Provost Marshal General’s Bureau (Civil War),” Record Group 110, in Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, HTML version, Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/ : accessed 19 Apr 2018).
  4. National Archives and Records Administration, Descriptive Pamphlet, M2156, Lists of Federal Prisoners of War Who Enlisted in the Confederate Army, 1862-1865, PDF (Washington DC: NARA, 2012).
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Women on juries in NY and elsewhere

So The Legal Genealogist did her civic duty on Monday and sat around for most of a day waiting to be excused from jury service.

It isn’t that I wouldn’t like to serve on a jury. It’s the fact that I’m not the most likely candidate to be chosen. I have a law degree. I taught at a law school for 25 years. I still work as a law editor, focusing on issues of law in the state where I live.

The fact that I can be a bit of a smart aleck is only a part of the equation, though I do think the judge I ended up in front of on Monday thought it was a fairly large part.1

But in anticipation of sitting around that day, and since I’m headed off to New York later this week for Genealogy in Bloom, this Saturday’s seminar of the Rochester Genealogical Society, I’d taken a look at New York law on the subject in the blog Monday, focusing on the question of the requirement to appear when summoned.2

Which prompted a friend and fellow genealogist Teri Flack to note, of course, that I wouldn’t have been called at all in New York in colonial or early statehood times. Because, of course, women didn’t serve on juries then.

And she’s absolutely right.

But that raises the question: when did women begin to serve as jurors?

As late as 1880, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was just fine for states to “confine the selection to males, to freeholders, to citizens, to persons within certain ages, or to persons having educational qualifications,”3 and it wasn’t until 1898 that the first state deemed women fit for jury service, and that was Utah.4 That was followed by Washington in 1911.5

As late as 1927, only 19 states allowed women to serve as jurors,6 and most of them exempted women for a wide variety of reasons.

In New York, the first women weren’t empaneled until 1937:

It was reported on this day (5 September 1937) that women had begun serving on juries in New York State for the first time. A New York law permitting, but not requiring, women to serve on juries had become effective on September 1, and the first jury with women had been empaneled in upstate New York. New York became the 22nd state to allow women on juries…7

That law notwithstanding, women still didn’t often serve because New York had wide exemption categories for women — exemptions that were upheld against constitutional challenge by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947.8

Even as late as 1961, the Court said state statutes automatically exempting women from jury service weren’t facially unconstitutional,9 and that didn’t change until — finally — in 1975, the Court struck down gender-based distinctions between jurors.10

So don’t be surprised by those all-male jury lists well into the 20th century.



Image: First woman jury, Los Angeles, 1911, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

  1. I really wasn’t being sarcastic when my name was called and I asked the judge if he was sure he wanted me to sit in the jury box since, as I said, “I don’t expect to be here very long.” You see, the case was a legal malpractice case, I was principal editor for the book generally regarded as the Bible on attorney ethics in my state, I knew one of the expert witnesses who was going to testify, and I’ve known and admired the plaintiff’s attorney for more than 30 years. So I really really really wasn’t going to be there very long.
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “The price of citizenship,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Apr 2018 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 18 Apr 2018).
  3. Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 310 (1880).
  4. Utah Rev. Stat. Ann., Title 35, § 1297 (1898), cited in Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 533 n.13 (1975).
  5. 1911 Laws of Washington, c. 57, cited in Fay v. New York, 332 U.S. 261, 289 n.30 (1947).
  6. See Burnita Shelton Matthews, “The Woman Juror,” 15 Women Lawyers’ Journal (January 1927); PDF, Women’s Legal History, Stanford Law School (http://wlh.law.stanford.edu : accessed 18 Apr 2018).
  7. ‘Ladies of the Jury’ Make First New York Appearance,” Today in Civil Liberties History (http://todayinclh.com/ : accessed 18 Apr 2018).
  8. Fay v. New York, 332 U.S. 261 (1947).
  9. Hoyt v. Florida, 368 U.S. 57 (1961).
  10. Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522 (1975).
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The laws of war

Tomorrow, the 18th of April, is Webinar Wednesday for The Legal Genealogist, and the topic is the laws of war.

And I can just hear somebody out there now: “Say what? What do the laws of war have to do with genealogy?”

So glad you asked — even if you didn’t — because I’m going to answer that question anyway.

You see, there really weren’t a whole lot of written rules of war until the Civil War and President Lincoln’s issuance of a document that came to be known as General Orders 100, or the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States.1

Issued in April 1863 — the document has its 155th birthday this time next week — this code of the laws of law was a revolutionary document, designed as a guide to rules of engagement — how to fight a war, as opposed to how to act like a soldier.

It set the legal framework that persists to this day to govern behavior on the battlefield, towards prisoners of war, and towards enemy civilians and noncombatants. Its provisions were extensive — the code had 157 articles, broken down into 10 sections ranging from martial law to assassinations to treatment of spies.2

Now… think about that scope for a minute from a genealogical perspective. A code that the military was supposed to follow in the field and off the field. What do you think a code like that produced?

You got it in one.


Wonderful, detailed, often priceless genealogical records.

We’re going to talk a bit about the laws of war — and a whole lot about the records resulting from the laws of war — tomorrow, starting at 2 p.m. EDT, in Lincoln’s Laws and the Records of War, a Legacy Family Tree webinar that you can still register for register for here.

Be aware, of course, that the webinar software only accommodates so many people, and many webinars fill up early, so you may want to log in a little early to be sure you get a seat. Seriously, some folks who’ve registered may not be able to get into a webinar if they log in a little late.

If this happens to you, please don’t worry: you will be able to hear the whole presentation. Remember, the great thing about Legacy Family Tree webinars is that each one is available, free, for a few days after the webinar, and the webinar hosts do a terrific job of getting the full recording of each webinar online within hours.

And even after the free period, each recording is then available for purchase so you can review it more slowly, in more depth, at your own pace. Or you can just subscribe to the entire Legacy Family Tree webinar service, and get on-demand access to the entire archived set — some 690 classes of genealogical materials, 900-plus hours of instruction already and new materials added every week. The cost right now is $49.95 for a year, and $9.95 for a month.

Note: truth in advertising here, as a Legacy presenter, I do benefit financially if you buy one of my recordings or the whole series. That being said, I genuinely believe this is one of the best buys in genealogy these days. Just take a look at the upcoming presentations. Tonight, for example, in the BCG-sponsored webinar series, Patti Lee Hobbs is presenting Better Together: Making Your Case with Documents and DNA. Next Wednesday, Marian Pierre-Louis will present a beginner’s guide to Verifying Information You Find Online and you can take your understanding of online research to a higher level on May 9 when Cyndi Ingle presents The Hidden Web: Digging Deeper.

And there’s so much more.

Take a gander at the offerings at the Upcoming Webinars page and make sure your register in advance for any presentation that you want to hear.

Oh… and come early.

Things can get crowded, even online…


  1. See Francis Lieber, Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States (Washington, D.C. : Govt. Printing Office, 1898); PDF, Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov : accessed 17 Apr 2018).
  2. See generally Burrus M. Carnahan, “The Lieber Code,” Essential Civil War Curriculum (http://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/ : accessed 17 Apr 2018).
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Being (sigh) a good citizen

So The Legal Genealogist is off this morning — at the obscenely early hour of oh-dark-thirty — to perform her civic duty.

In my case, that’s going to consist of sitting around for hours in a cold, drafty room on barely-cushioned chairs, for the privilege of being excused from every jury on which I might possibly be called to sit.

The chances that I’d actually be chosen as a juror in any case that might be tried in the county where I live — civil or criminal — are laughably remote.

You see, I have a law degree. I used to work first as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney. I now work part-time for the company that publishes the books relied on daily by lawyers and judges throughout New Jersey. I’m officially retired from teaching at the state’s premier (and state-funded) law school.

And that doesn’t even consider the fact that I tend to be … um … a smart aleck.

Yeah, I’m just exactly the person that every lawyer wants on his or her jury. R-i-g-h-t…1

But I’m here. Sitting in that cold, drafty room on a barely-cushioned chair, because I have to be.

The law says so.

Like every other juror ever summoned, I have to show up.

And the law has said that for a very long time.

Since I’m headed off to New York later this week for Genealogy in Bloom, this Saturday’s seminar of the Rochester Genealogical Society, I decided to take a look at colonial New York law.

And — yup — you had to show up as a juror back then too.

As a matter of fact, if you didn’t show up, the colonial government would be downright annoyed. The first English governor of the New York colony sent an advisory out to local officials: “That Whosoever shall be nominated to serve in a Jury with out Just Cause showen shall refuse it he shall forfeit twenty shillings towards the defraying publique Charge which is to be Levied by the Constable.”2


When New York became a state, its early laws assessed a fine of not more than five pounds to be assessed against any juror who didn’t show up — and, what’s more, if fines were imposed, the court was to “cause public proclamation of such fines to be made by the crier of the court.”3

Ouch again.

By 1801, the fine for not showing up, as either a grand or trial juror, was up to as much as $25,4 and by the 20th century it was not less than $10 nor more than $25 every day.5

As genealogists, we love any record of our ancestors being called for jury duty. If they were called, it should be in any surviving records of that court. If they actually served on a jury, it’ll be in those records. And if they didn’t show up, the assessment of the fine — and any later explanation they offered to try to get excused from the fine — should be in those records too.

As for me, well… I live across the river in New Jersey.

New Jerseyans who don’t show up for jury duty “shall be liable for a fine not to exceed $500, payable to the county in which the person was summoned, or may be punished for contempt of court.”6


Which explains why I’m here, sitting in that cold, drafty room on a barely-cushioned chair.


One way or the other, we all pay the price of citizenship…


Image: “The Jury,” 1861, by John Morgan, via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. I’ve been known to bet with other jurors as to who would be excused first and by which side. One time, I called three of the first four excuses correctly, and my own — by the prosecutor in the case — was number one.
  2. The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution (Albany : James B. Lyon, State Printer, 1894), I: 73; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  3. An Act to punish delinquent jurors…, Chapter 20 in Laws of the State of New York… 1785-1788 (Albany: Weed Parsons & Co., 1886), 2: 47; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  4. §18, “An ACT for regulating Trials of Issues, and for returning able and sufficient Jurors,” 31 March 1801, in Laws of the State of New York (Albany: Charles & Geo. Webster, 1802), I: 381; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  5. §552, New York Judiciary Law, in McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York (Northport, NY : Edw. Thompson Co., 1917), 29: 290; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  6. N.J.S. 2B: 20-14b.
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Needed: one more data point…

Oh! what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!
— Sir Walter Scott, Marmion1

A child was born in 1954 in British Columbia and surrendered for adoption. Fast forward 42 years, and the British Columbia government passed an act to open the original birth certificates to adult adoptees.

That child — now an adult — obtained her original birth certificate and found that the birth mother’s name was shown as — using only the initials here — O.M. No birth father was shown.

The hitch: by 1996, O.M. had passed away and the adoptee — let’s call her W.P. — wasn’t able to find any relatives who had any information about the adoption.

Fast forward another 22 years to the age of the DNA test, and W.P. tests with AncestryDNA then uploads her data to other databases.

But there’s a hitch: two people are in the AncestryDNA database with family trees that show they are the children of O.M.’s brother.

And neither of them shares any DNA with W.P.

“What exactly,” W.P. asked The Legal Genealogist, “does that mean?”

It means, in a nutshell, that W.P. has more DNA testing to do.


Because these DNA results by themselves can’t answer the question of whether W.P. is the child of O.M.

This is yet another case where we need to go back to one basic principle: DNA alone can never be enough to prove a genealogical relationship. In every single solitary case, bar none, without fail, we are going to need at least one more piece of information to be able to prove a genealogical relationship.

I’ve said this before,2 but it bears repeating. What seems, on the surface, to be compelling DNA evidence is in fact compelling DNA evidence — but it’s compelling if and only if it’s properly interpreted.

In W.P.’s case, there are at least three possible scenarios at play:

1. The paper-trail cousins haven’t opted into the matching system at AncestryDNA.

2. W.P. isn’t O.M.’s child.

3. The father of the paper-trail cousins isn’t O.M.’s brother.

And any of these could be true at this point.

First off, the fact that someone has tested at AncestryDNA and has a tree online at Ancestry doesn’t mean that person has opted to be shown as a match to others.3 Each person who tests has to choose whether or not to be shown as a DNA match, and there’s nothing in the system to tell W.P. whether she isn’t showing as a match because she doesn’t match or because those paper-trail cousins have opted out.

Until W.P. knows whether those paper-trail cousins are in the matching system, she can’t draw any conclusions about their biological relationship at all.

That’s one example of that one additional piece of information needed in this case. But there are more.

If those paper-trail cousins have opted in, and are showing as matches to others but not to W.P., then W.P. can go on to the undeniable fact that first cousins inevitably show up as matches in genealogical DNA tests. While it’s true that the odds of a match are rarely if ever given as 100%, it’s also true that none of us in the genetic genealogy community are aware of a single case where first cousins haven’t shared enough DNA in common to show up as matches to each other.

So, while nobody wants to speak in terms of absolutes, in reality the only explanation for W.P. not showing up as a match to those particular paper-trail cousins if they’re all in the matching system is that she and the paper-trail cousins aren’t first cousins at all.

But that fact doesn’t tell her anything more than that: it doesn’t tell her why they’re not first cousins — which of the other scenarios is most likely.

Of course, it’s possible that the woman who gave birth to W.P. used a false name when she said she was O.M. It’s not uncommon for an adoptee to discover that the mother shown on an original birth certificate used an alias or “borrowed” someone else’s identity. It’s at least as common for any father’s name shown on such a certificate to have been made up out of whole cloth.

But it’s also possible that the father of the paper-trail cousins wasn’t really O.M.’s brother at all. Those cousins may themselves be adoptees, in which case of course they wouldn’t match W.P. Or, if O.M. and her brother were paternal half-siblings (not sharing a mother), then a misidentification of O.M.’s father or the father of the cousins’ father would also explain why they don’t match.

In other words, W.P. just doesn’t have enough information right now to draw any conclusions at all. Every explanation has to stay on the table until W.P. gets that one more piece of information necessary to properly interpret the results.

No matter what the reason for the mismatch is, more testing can give her some answers. If the paper-trail cousins aren’t in the matching system, for example, then testing other members of O.M.’s family can help W.P. determine whether she really is O.M.’s child. If they are in the matching system, then comparing their matches to her matches can help them separate out which of them is more likely to be in the M. family at all. And in any case working with her closest matches and perhaps testing more of their cousins can help her narrow down where she fits into the families of those matches.

It’s a tough case, for sure.

But it’s a great case for hammering home the point: DNA alone can never be enough to prove a genealogical relationship. In every single solitary case, bar none, without fail, we are going to need at least one more piece of information to be able to prove a genealogical relationship.

Without that one more piece of information, we’re left with that tangled web where somebody deceived somebody… and we don’t know who.


  1. Sir Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (Edinburgh : Printed by J. Ballantyne and Co. for A. Constable and Co. 1808); digital images, Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “DNA doesn’t lie!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 Oct 2017 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
  3. See “Opting out of DNA Matches,” Ancestry Support, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 15 Apr 2018).
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For a gift beyond measure

At a Lutheran church on the far south side of Chicago at 11 o’clock this morning, she will be eulogized by those who knew her best.

And by those who loved her best.

And by those who — like The Legal Genealogist — owe her a deep debt of gratitude for what she has done for us.

I will not be there this morning in that church.

I would be out of place.

Because despite the deep debt of gratitude I owe Eloys Anderson Geissler — despite being tied to her in an intimate way for half a century now — she was someone I never met.

Someone I never spoke to.

Oh, we were in the same place at the same time a couple of times.

At the marriage of her granddaughter.

At the funeral of her great grandson.

I knew who she was, of course. But she didn’t know who I was. So we never exchanged a word.

And I regret that, this morning.

She certainly is someone I wish I could have spoken to.

To tell her how grateful I was and am and will always be for what she did for me and my family.

To tell her how much we treasure the gift she gave us.

To tell her how deeply we love her son.

Her son.

My brother.

Eloys Anderson was the daughter of a Chicago police officer and just short of her 23rd birthday when she married my father there in the Windy City in the summer of 1943. The marriage produced one child — a son — and then fell apart. It wasn’t pretty. I know. I’ve seen the divorce papers.

My father moved away from Chicago. He met and married my mother. They went back to Illinois once to visit family, and my father never tried to see his son again after that trip. My parents went on to have a whole platoon of kids, and not a single word was ever said about this other child.

Eloys’ son. My brother.

I’ve told the story of finding Evan before in these pages. How, when I was about 10, I found two photos hidden in the attic of my parents’ home. One was a picture of my brother. The other a picture of my father in a tuxedo and a woman in a wedding gown. A blonde woman who clearly was not my dark-haired dark-eyed mother.

That earlier post tells of how I chased down the son of that blonde woman, but how I didn’t remember even wondering much about the blonde woman who wasn’t my mother.

That blonde woman who died this week at the age of 97.

Who is being eulogized this morning in Chicago.

Who I was never introduced to, never formally met, never spoke to.

Oh, it was the right thing to do, to keep the two sides of my brother’s life separate. We all did so out of concern that it would reopen the deep wounds of the bitter life she had had with my father. And that it might hurt her unnecessarily to think that her son had welcomed into his life the children of the man who had been so cruel to her.

But I find myself this morning wishing that once… just once… I had been able to speak to Eloys Anderson Geissler.

To tell her I know how tough her life was with my father.

To tell her that she had our deep and abiding appreciation for the life she made for herself and her only child.

To tell her how thankful we are that she raised a son who could welcome into his heart and his life the children of a man who was his father in name only.

And to tell her how very grateful we are for the gift she gave me and my siblings.

That gift beyond measure: our oldest brother.

Rest in peace, Eloys Anderson Geissler.

Thank you.

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Not a total loss

All that burns is not lost.


Even when it comes to that dratted fire in 1921 that cost us the bulk of the 1890 U.S. census schedules.

So yesterday The Legal Genealogist used the 1908 fire in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to make the point that we need to be on the alert, all the time, in our research to the need to do more research — to go behind things like the census records to the stories.1

In that case the story of the fire was hidden behind the population figures of the City of Chelsea between 1820 and 1910 — figures that showed consistent and often astronomical growth in every decade except the last. And it was the drop between 1900 and 1910 that should alert us to the need to find out why.2

The chart that was used to tell the tale of those figures, however, included Chelsea’s population in 1890, prompting reader Charlie Morgan to ask: “where did you get the 1890 census information? Is that part of the census that survived the fire that destroyed most of that census?”

Great question.

Because the answer is: All that burns is not lost.

Now let’s back up a little to make sure everybody’s on the same page.

There were actually two fires that affected the 1890 census. The first one was in 1896, when many of the special schedules — for mortality and the like — were damaged and then (sigh) destroyed by order of the Interior Department.3

It was the second one, in 1921, that was so devastating. That’s when the fire in the basement of the Commerce Building did the real damage. The 1890 census was outside of the fireproof basement vault and it was badly impacted:

The morning after was an archivist’s nightmare… Census Director Sam Rogers reported the extensive damage to the 1890 schedules, estimating 25 percent destroyed, with 50 percent of the remainder damaged by water, smoke, and fire. Salvage of the watersoaked and charred documents might be possible, reported the bureau, but saving even a small part would take a month, and it would take two to three years to copy off and save all the records damaged in the fire. The preliminary assessment of Census Bureau Clerk T. J. Fitzgerald was far more sobering. Fitzgerald told reporters that the priceless 1890 records were “certain to be absolutely ruined. There is no method of restoring the legibility of a water-soaked volume.”4

That’s bad enough.

What followed was worse.

No real efforts to save the 1890 original schedules were ever undertaken. In 1932, the Census Bureau asked Congress for authority to destroy them all, Congress gave the okay and… sigh… that was that.5

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Except that that wasn’t that, not entirely.

First off, it turned out that not all of the original population schedules had been destroyed. Over the years, fragments from Illinois, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and the District of Columbia have been discovered and microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M407.6 You can find those online for free at FamilySearch.

Second, a whole bunch of the special schedules for Union veterans and widows of Union veterans from 1890 weren’t destroyed in either fire. Most of the schedules for states alphabetically from Alabama through Kansas were lost, but there are some in existence for California (Alcatraz), Connecticut (Fort Trumbull, Hartford County Hospital, and U.S. Naval Station), Delaware (Delaware State Hospital for the Insane), Florida (Fort Barrancas and St. Francis Barracks), Idaho (Boise Barracks and Fort Sherman), Illinois (Cook County and Henderson County), Indiana (Warrick County and White County), and Kansas (Barton County). About half of Kentucky is missing, but the rest of the states alphabetically through Wyoming survived. All of those were microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M123.7 That’s available free on FamilySearch and by subscription on Ancestry.

And that’s not all.

Because long before either fire there were many statistical reports prepared from the data that had been collected in 1890. Those reports, in a collection called the Census of Population and Housing, are on the website of the U.S. Census Bureau.8 There are tons of goodies to be found in those reports — and not just for 1890.

Looking at that one year, “the results of the 1890 Census are contained in 25 volumes, plus a three-part compendium, statistical atlas, and an abstract.”9 The final reports, in 15 volumes, include:

• Volume 1: Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census

• Volume 2: Report on the Insane, Feeble-minded, Deaf and Dumb, and Blind in the United States.

• Volume 3: Report on Crime, Pauperism, and Benevolence in the United States

• Volume 4: Report on Vital and Social Statistics in the United States

• Volume 5: Reports on the statistics of agriculture in the United States, agriculture by irrigation in the western part of the United States, and statistics of fisheries in the United States.

• Volume 6: Report on Manufacturing Industries in the United States

• Volume 7: Report on Mineral Industries in the United States

• Volume 8: Report on the Population and Resources of Alaska

• Volume 9: Report on Statistics of Churches in the United States in the United States (pages 713 and 795-812 missing)

• Volume 10: Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (except Alaska).

• Volume 11: Report on Insurance Business in the United States

• Volume 12: Report on Real Estate Mortgages in the United States

• Volume 13: Report on Farms and Homes: Proprietorship and Indebtedness in the United States

• Volume 14: Report on Transportation Business in the United States

• Volume 15: Report on Wealth, Debt, and Taxation

And there’s more: the abstract of the census, a report on education, another on social statistics and more, plus a whole series of 380 bulletins issued between 1889 and 1894.

No, it’s not as good as having an every-name population schedule for 1890.

But it’s a whole lot better than having nothing for 1890 — and it does give us things like, just as one example, the population of Chelsea, Massachusetts, in that year.

So… really… before you despair, check out what does survive from 1890.

All that burns is not lost.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Behind the numbers,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 12 Apr 1908 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 13 Apr 1908).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kellee Blake, “‘First in the Path of the Firemen’: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census,” Prologue, Spring 1996, online, National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/ : accessed 13 Apr 2018).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., Part 2.
  8. Census of Population and Housing, U.S. Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/).
  9. Ibid., “Census of Population and Housing, 1890: Information about the 1890 Census.”
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The burning of Chelsea

The story is hidden there, behind the numbers.

The population of Chelsea, Massachusetts — a Boston suburb — rose steadily through nine straight censuses, from 642 residents in 1820 to 34,072 in 1900. And the rate of growth in some of those decades was astronomical:

Census Population + / – %
1820 642 8.1%
1830 771 20.1%
1840 2,390 210.0%
1850 6,701 180.4%
1860 13,395 99.9%
1870 18,547 38.5%
1880 21,782 17.4%
1890 27,909 28.1%
1900 34,072 22.1%

And then came 1910 — when the numbers were very different.

The population in 1910: 32,452.

A decrease of 4.8%.1

Now that’s exactly the kind of fact that might help us understand why a family we know was in Chelsea in 1900 wasn’t there in 1910. The population dropped. They must have moved on.

But why?

That’s the real question here, isn’t it? We’re family historians, after all, and we want so much more than just the names and dates and places. We want the stories.

We want to know why.

Looking at those numbers should alert us to the need to dig deeper– to do that reasonably exhaustive research we all know we have to do — and find the answer to the key question: what happened between 1900 and 1910 that changed things so dramatically in Chelsea?

And if we go ahead and do that research, we find that the event that caused that population drop happened in Chelsea exactly 110 years ago today.

The front page headline the next day in the Los Angeles Herald tells the tale: “Fire Rages in Chelsea, Mass.; Millions Are Lost.”2

And, the story said, over an Associated Press dateline of April 12, “An apparently insignificant fire which started among rags on a dump in the city of Chelsea today was fanned by a northwest gale into a conflagration which obliterated nearly one-third of the city. Five hundred dwelling houses and public buildings were destroyed, 1500 families were driven from their homes and 10,000 people made homeless.” There were, at that point, four known dead and 50-100 reported injured.3

Those high winds meant the fire moved fast: “Residents had mere moments to flee fast-burning structures, bundling anything they could salvage in bedsheets and dodging flaming debris and embers carried by the strong winds …. Many escaped with just the clothes on their backs, like congregation members of the People’s Afro-Methodist Episcopal Church on Fourth Street, who were in the middle of a service, unaware that the church’s roof was on fire. Only 20 minutes after the pastor and the congregation evacuated, the building burned down.”4

And the final toll: “the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908, … took 19 lives and leveled nearly half the city.”5

The fire left 85 missing and at least 1500 buildings burned to the ground. The City Hall, Public Library, Post Office and hospital were among the buildings lost. Some 13 churches, eight schools and three banks burned.6 And it took years for Chelsea to rebuild.

That’s why the population fell between 1900 and 1910.

They were burned out.

Out of their homes, out of their jobs, out of their lives.

Not just “they moved away.”

Not just “they were in another city in 1910.”

Doing reasonably exhaustive research means going behind the numbers.

Because the story of Chelsea is hidden there, behind the census numbers.

And the numbers tell the story, if we just discipline ourselves to look.


Image: Central Congregational Church after the Great Chelsea Fire, Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online.

  1. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Chelsea, Massachusetts,” rev. 8 Apr 2018; data abstracted from Census of Population and Housing, 1820-1910, U.S. Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/).
  2. “Fire Rages in Chelsea, Mass.; Millions Are Lost,” Los Angeles Herald, 13 April 1908, p.1, col. 1-8; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 11 Apr 2018).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Katheleen Conti, “When Chelsea burned,” Boston Globe online edition, posted 10 April 2008 (http://archive.boston.com/news/ : accessed 11 Apr 2018).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Great Chelsea Fire, 1908,” Celebrate Boston (http://www.celebrateboston.com/ : accessed 11 Apr 2018).
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Never again

It will be sundown, officially, at 7:31 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time today, April 11, 2018, in New York City.

By then, the sun will already have set elsewhere in the world.

At 7:05 p.m. in Jerusalem.

At 7:12 p.m. in Belzec, Poland.

At 7:16 p.m. in Sobibor, Poland.

At 7:24 PM in Treblinka, Poland.

At 7:30 p.m. in what is today Brzezinka, Poland.

At 7:58 p.m. in Dachau, Germany.

And in all of those places, as the sun sets, and for the 24 hours until the next sunset, we will remember.

We will remember those who perished merely because they were Jews.

Look in their faces. The faces of these members of two German Jewish families, gathering together in 1928.

Image courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

I count 23 faces in this photograph.

Two survived.

Those who perished because they were homosexuals.

Like this man, whose identification picture shows that he arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp on June 6, 1941, accused of homosexuality. He died there a year later.

Image courtesy of the National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Or because they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Image courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Like Helene Gotthold, pictured here with her children in 1936, a Jehovah’s Witness who was beheaded for her religious beliefs in Berlin in December 1944 in Berlin.

Or because they were Romani (Gypsy).

Image courtesy of Archiwum Dokumentocji Mechanizney

Like these Romani (Gypsy) families at the Belzec labor camp in Poland, 1940. A camp where 434,508 men, women and children were exterminated.

Or because they were disabled.

Or Poles.

Or Slavs.

Or Communists, or Social Democrats, or trade unionists, or authors, or artists, or…

Or just because.

Starting at sunset today we remember.

On this Holocaust Remebrance Day, Yom Hashoah, starting at sunset, we remember them all.

And to their memory we pledge this:

Never again.

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As The Legal Genealogist has reported, the black hole of New York genealogy got darker in March when — disregarding essentially all of the more than 5,000 comments it received and all of the witnesses who testified — the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene adopted a rule making birth and death certificates unavailable for long stretches of time.

The new rule — which takes effect on April 17 — means that New York City’s records will be unavailable to ordinary folks like you and me for a very long time:

• birth records will be locked up for 125 years after the birth; and

• death records will be inaccessible for 75 years after the death.1

This is truly disappointing and dismaying.

It’s not just that the collective voices of the community went unheard — essentially nobody spoke in favor of the proposal.

And it’s not just that closing death records makes it easier to commit identity theft since being able to prove someone is dead is the easiest way to stop identity theft.

It’s also because there’s a hint that New York State may follow the City’s lead.

Sigh… Definitely not a good thing.

But there is a glimmer of hope for a little bit of light to be shined on these records if — and only if — we as a community continue to speak out and keep pressure on the Health Department.

Here’s the deal.

At the time the records were closed, the Health Department said it might consider another rule change that would expand the group of family members who can access birth and death records during the years when they’re not publicly available.2

That proposed rule change is now on the table, with a public hearing and deadline for public comments set for Monday, April 23. And we need to make sure we speak out in force as a community to ensure that the Health Department knows two things:

• access to these records DOES need to be expanded; and

• the proposed rule doesn’t go far enough.

As explained by the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society on its website:

While we support the amendment, it does not solve the true issues caused by the new, restrictive access rules.

You often can’t prove relation in the first place without a birth or death record
The fact is, a researcher often needs to view the information on an individual’s birth or death record before being able to correctly assert their relationship to that individual. Genealogists often ask research questions that make identifying a specific family relationship difficult – if not impossible – to determine without access to birth and death records.

The rules exclude modern family relationships
The categories listed above exclude important family relationships that are common today and will become more common in the future. Many families simply don’t fit the traditional approach proposed. For example, the exclusion of step-relationships from the list discriminates against thousands of families living in New York City today. These omissions, alongside the inability for adoptees to access information regarding their family history, create an unfair barrier to access.

The amendment discriminates against non-family research
What about researchers seeking to learn and educate others about families outside of their personal ethnicity or community? These rules may exclude entire groups and communities from having their history preserved. Additionally, the greatly expanded time periods (which are now amongst the most restrictive in the nation) prevent individuals from researching and educating others about important historical information such as military veterans, Holocaust survivors, and immigrant communities.3

NYG&B President Josh Taylor explained on Facebook Live today that many people aren’t adequately covered by the new rule: members of blended and step families, researchers looking into family health history and those helping to research and repatriate the remains of military members who served from NY in World War II, Korea and Vietnam are among those who won’t be helped as they should be, since the records they need most will be unavailable well into the 21st century.

The concern over this issue, and the concern that New York State may follow suit, has prompted various New York groups to join together into a new New York Records Preservation and Access Coalition — NYRPAC — with its own website, NYRPAC.org, to help lead the records access fight.

But NYRPAC can only lead the fight. It needs every one of us to join in, as foot soldiers in that fight.

So… what do we need to do?

Most of the same things we did the first time around:

Sign the petition: Sign on to the NYG&B petition to keep records access open. You can do that right at NYG&B: https://www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org/nyc-vital-records-access.

Send a comment: Don’t just sign the petition. Write your own personal letter explaining why this would impact your personal research. Government agencies sometimes do pay attention when lots of people speak out. Information on how to comment is on the issues page of the new NYRPAC: https://nyrpac.org/the-issues/.

Attend the hearing: If you’re local or you’re going to be in New York on April 23 when the Department of Health is holding its hearing, be there. You don’t have to say a word. Just be there to show support for records access. And, of course, if you do wish to speak, keep it short, to the point, polite — and on message.

Get others involved: Send the info about this problem to others you know research in New York City and all those who care about records access. There’s more on the NYG&B action page on how to do this easily.

Plus one more thing. As Taylor said, “Part of our mission going forward is to educate the Department of Health about what we really do.” So we need to take one more step:

Share our stories: To really educate the Department of Health on why we need access to these records, NYRPAC needs our personal stories as to why it’s so important — what we use them for, what problems we’ve had accessing them, why it means so much to our families, our communities, our health and more. There’s a link on the new NYRPAC.org website to do this easily.

Yeah, it’s frustrating and disappointing when we speak up and aren’t heard.

But it’d be even worse if we didn’t speak up at all.

Let’s keep the pressure on.

Speak up.



  1. See Judy G. Russell, “NY’s black hole gets blacker,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Mar 2018 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 10 Apr 2018).
  2. See Notice of Opportunity to Comment on the Amendment of Provisions of Article 207 of the New York City Health Code, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (http://rules.cityofnewyork.us/ : accessed 10 Apr 2018).
  3. Support Access to New York City Vital Records,” NYG&B (https://www.newyorkfamilyhistory.org/ : accessed 10 Apr 2018).
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