Sunday, March 25, 2012

The 1940 Census Release and Yesterday’s Census 1940 Program at NYPL

I was in New York City yesterday, speaking at a special event at the New York Public Library (above). 

The New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, supported by the New York Public Library and the National Archives at New York City, hosted a special full-day event at the new York Public Library focused on the 1940 Census, called, appropriately enough, “The Road to the 1940 Census.”  

Nearly 500 people attended.  While the event itself was free, the Bartos Forum at the Library can only hold 500 people, so pre-registration was necessary.  Online registration filled those seats in short order.

The morning’s speakers included Arnold Jackson, Associate Director for Decennial Census at the U.S. Census Bureau, who focused on the functions of the US Bureau of the Census, both over time and into the future   After Mr. Jackson, the stage was taken by Constance Potter, the Senior Genealogy Specialist from the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington. A recognized expert in both genealogy and the 1940 census, Connie focused on the unique features of the 1940 census and how genealogists can best make use of that information.  An extensive Q & A period let participants quiz Connie on all aspects of the 1940 census.  

As the morning came to a close, Ben Vershbow, manager of the NYPL labs, described how the Library’s unique digitization of the local 1940s era phone books will make it easier for those who want to zero in on their New York City ancestors’ entries in the 1940 census even before the crowd-sourced census index is completed. This digitization project will appear on the NYPL’s website (for free) on April 2, the same day that the census becomes available.  

Talk about “interactive!!!!”  You will be truly amazed!!!

 I was really impressed that the NYPL programming staff was able to develop this sophisticated app in such a short time.  It’s also a great example of how social media can be used to enhance genealogy.  Even if you have absolutely no NYC 1940s era family, it’s still worth checking out.  I won’t describe it to you in detail here; you can all visit the NYPL site on April 2nd, 2012 (less than 2 weeks) and play with this marvelous piece of software yourselves to your hearts’ content.  I’ll have a blog link to the site as soon as it’s available.  Suffice it to say that if you have a NYC ancestor or two in the 1940s time period, you will be more than a little bit impressed.

After the lunch break, Dr. Suzanne Wasserman took control of the program.  Dr. Wasserman is the Director of the Gotham Center for New York City History and her topic was “Beyond the Census Numbers: Life in 1930s New York.” She provided a fascinating, illustrated look at depression-era NYC and described how the Depression robbed the newly arrived middle class of their economic status, as they suck into the morass of the “newly poor.”

I provided what was the clean-up talk for the day: a talk about the earlier censuses entitled - Hidden Clues, Overlooked Connections: Revisiting Those Pre-1940 Federal Censuses in which I discussed all those things you probably missed in your census research first time around, and why, when it comes to census research, it always pays large dividends to thoroughly check your work and revisit earlier censuses.

Overall, a good time was had by all.  Interest in the 1940 census is high.  People are psyched.  Let’s hope the momentum continues into 2013.

And, for those of you who might remotely care, here’s a link to my new blog, which touches on matters not quite appropriate for this forum (including yesterday’s walk from the train station to the NYPL and back) .  It’s short and anecdotal. In a word, it's about "stuff."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Law of Serendipitous Convergences and Irish Emigration to Everywhere

A number of years ago, when I devised the eponymously named “Wolfgang’s Law of Serendipitous Convergences”, it referred mostly to the fact that whenever I attempted to turn into my driveway from the US highway on which my house was located, there would inevitably be that very rare and only occasional bicyclist leisurely pedaling on the sidewalk across my driveway, thus causing me to wait until he/she had passed. 

This would, in turn, cause me to hope that the 18 wheeler behind me had the good sense to notice (a.) the village’s 30 MPH speed limit and (b.) my turn signal and brake lights.

Had I arrived at my driveway 15 seconds earlier or later, there would have been no issue.   

And yes, statistically, this bicyclist thing doesn’t happen regularly, but, being human, I tend to remember those times when it DOES happen.

The very fact that I’m writing this suggests that – so far – everything has been working out.  However, lately I’ve noticed that the young folks driving behind me while talking on their cellphones (illegal in NYS) are a whole lot less attentive that the folks who drive the big rigs. Thus, things may change soon.

Still, that bit about traffic and bicycles is not really the point of today’s post.

It is, however, about “Wolfgang’s Law of Serendipitous Convergences.”   

So, here we go.

Three days ago, lots of U.S. cities, large and small, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with parades and all manner of silly festivities.  People dressed up in lots of silly green clothes, dyed their hair a silly green, drank silly green beer, wore silly green hats and proclaimed their faux Irishness – even if only for the day.  Over the years, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations have become more and more alcohol-centric and raucous – a kind of sanctioned Mardi Gras in the middle of Lent – and less and less about the celebration of Irish culture and heritage.

But that’s not the issue, either.  Here’s the whole point about convergences:

A few days ago, because it was St. Patrick’s Day, there was a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the high number of “hidden” Francophone (i.e., French-speaking) Irish in the Province of Quebec. Current estimates suggest that 40% or more of all Quebec residents have some Irish roots. Of course, most Quebecers already know about this little twist of history, but outside of the province, it’s a well-kept secret. 

The Irish have been coming down the St. Lawrence River in search of land and wives since colonial times.  A large number of Irish settled in Quebec in the 1830s and 1840s, with some families occasionally spilling over into northern New York and northern Vermont.  Those that stayed in Lower Canada, as it was called, found Catholic French-Canadian wives and settled down on farms to raise large Catholic Irish-French-Canadian families.  Blue-eyed, red-headed and blond French-speaking farmers and their wives – all with Irish surnames - soon spread across the St. Lawrence valley and beyond. 

In fact, Montreal has had a St. Patrick’s Day parade every year since 1823.  Not a bad showing for one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world.

When I was at university in Montreal decades ago, the editor of the major French daily newspaper – Le Devoir – was an impressive politically astute gentleman by the name of Claude Ryan.  Ryan, whose first language was French and who considered himself a French-Canadian, was a descendant of a long line of “Irish” French-Canadians.

But wait…there’s more!

A few days later, my Law of Serendipitous Convergences kicked in.  I got an email from a colleague in Ireland (who is a Spaniard by birth) reminding me that it was time to renew my membership in SILAS

Whatever is SILAS, you ask?

SILAS is the acronym for the Society for Irish Latin American Studies – a scholarly organization that publishes a journal about the Irish diaspora in Spanish and Portuguese speaking parts of South America and the Caribbean.  SILAS has been documenting this migration to South America for a while now, and has built a rather remarkable database of Famine-era Irish immigrants to Argentina, for example.

So that serendipitous convergence of the newspaper story from Toronto and the email from Ireland got me thinking again about the 19th century Irish diaspora and how not every Irish emigrant came to the United States.

When we do research, we tend to take a singular point of view.  For example, when we study the 19th century Irish migration here in the United States, we tend to focus our research on those folks who came and settled in the communities in which we ourselves had ancestors.  We study the Irish in Albany, the Irish in Brooklyn, the Irish in Chicago, the Irish in Omaha and so on, so it looks like the Irish all left Ireland for America. 

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it misses a basic point about migration research.

People migrate to lots of different places for lots of different reasons. Large extended Irish families, migrating out of Ireland over several decades during the 19th century, sent members to Canada, Scotland, England, Australia, continental Europe and, of course, to North and South America. Brothers sought out sisters and nephews sought out uncles all over the world.  More importantly, Irish immigrants quickly assimilated into the cultures into which they moved.  They learned the language and the traditions of the host country.

If we ignore this fact, we miss the possibility of discovering those forgotten cousins and their non-English-speaking families.  For example, the Shanley family members who settled in Argentina in the 1840s to work in the cattle industry ( all listed in the SILAS database) came from County Longford, possibly not far from the area where my great-great grandfather (who came to New York State) was born.  The likelihood of locating Spanish-speaking very distant cousins in Argentina is actually statistically rather high for people like me with roots in the Irish Midland counties, since those are the very people who left Ireland for Argentina.

Without investigating the SILAS website years ago and subsequently joining and supporting the organization, I may never have thought of the possibility of a distant connection in Latin America.

It’s important to remember that research problems can often be solved by changing the position where you’re standing and looking around in other, less obvious directions. 

And as I learned years ago, what you see – and therefore what you discover – depends largely upon where you stand and where you look.  Oh, and by the way, the SILAS database above may be members-only in the near future, so you may want to check it out soon.  

Better yet, join us!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Thought About Birthdays and The “Where Were You Born?” Question

Midwife-assisted Childbirth
Yesterday was my birthday.  That got me thinking.

For genealogists, finding and documenting the answer to the “Where was he/she born?” question is one of the basic building blocks of family history.

As I noted in the last blog post, my mother was born in Brooklyn in her grandmother’s house on Christmas day in 1917. Similarly, my father was born in his grandmother’s house in Albany, New York in 1913.  In that case, it wasn’t much of a journey for his mother – her own mother lived just across the street.   

As the story goes, my father was born on the stairs between the first and second floors, since my grandmother went into what was always described as an exceptionally short labor while walking down the stairs. 

“He was so small, he just about fell out all by himself!” my aunt (his older sister) used to say.

Note: I never took this “fell out” story as anything more than apocryphal, since my aunt was only 18 months old at the time and could hardly be considered a credible witness.

Nonetheless, this “where born” question presents an interesting issue for genealogists. Here’s why:

As far as I can tell, all of my parents’ ancestors were born at home. In fact, for most of human history, home births, attended by family members and midwives, were the norm. If you lived on a farm, chances are, your children would be born there.  However, with the advent of the “professional physician”, childbirth slowly transformed from a sociocultural family event into a “medical” event.   

Even though home births were most common, women who could afford it often sought the advice and assistance of physicians. In fact, in late 18th and very early 19th century cities, hospital births were for only for women who were having out-of-wedlock children and had no “proper” home in which to give birth.  In polite society, home births, physician-assisted or otherwise, were the normal thing.

Before World War Two, the doctors involved in childbirth tended to be mostly family physicians, resembling those avuncular Marcus Welby types who set broken fingers, stitched up gashes and delivered babies.  And as childbirth became more and more of a “medical” event, births themselves moved into a much more “health-industrial” setting: the hospital.

I was born during the waning years of the Roosevelt administration in the same hospital in which my father died in 1961 and in which my mother died last Sunday.  While in labor, my mother was attended by our longtime family physician – the man who was my grandfather’s doctor, my parents’ doctor and my doctor until he died in 1970.  (Turns out he was a very, very distant cousin of my grandkids, several times removed, but that’s another story altogether…)

As late as 1969, you could go to his office, have a thorough physical examination and pay his secretary-nurse twenty bucks for the visit. No insurance needed.  Twenty bucks took care of it all.

Between World War One and World War Two, childbirth changed dramatically. Being born at home became something of a rarity.  In the year I was born, 79% of all babies were born in hospitals, compared with only 39% a decade earlier.  By 1960, that percentage of hospital-born babies had jumped to 97%.  

In addition, in the time period after World War Two, the rise of specialist obstetricians meant that fewer GPs assisted in childbirth, making it even more of a high-tech "medical" event.

Moreover, as hospital births and physician-assisted births increased, infant mortality and childbirth-related fatalities for women declined. Much as advocates for in-home “natural” childbirth in the 21st century would like to dispute the numbers, public health statistics collected and published by state health departments throughout the 20th century are pretty clear: fewer children per thousand died when born in hospitals – that “health-industrial setting”  - than those born at home.

Further, the culture and sociology (for lack of a better term) surrounding childbirth continued to change dramatically over time.  For example, there’s not much evidence around to document exactly how long women who had just given birth in the late 18th or early 19th century were “confined” to bed rest because of their “delicate condition.”  In my mother’s case, a “normal” hospital stay for a childbirth without complications in the mid-1940s in upstate New York was two weeks.  This was usually followed by additional at-home bed rest for a while, often as much as another two weeks.  

 In my case, I apparently sent my first two weeks (post-hospital) sleeping in between my paternal grandparents - something that would be greatly frowned upon today.  My mother always maintained that it was difficult for her to pry me away from her in-laws.  She always maintained that moving in with her in-laws for a few weeks was just part of the natural order of things.  She was expected to do it.  Even in the mid-1940s, women who had just given birth were not expected to resume “normal” activities for at least a month.

So, what does all this mean for genealogists?

Simple, really.   

Perhaps it’s not enough to fill in that family group sheet with just a place name in the “BORN” box.  Perhaps we should strive to make the “industry standard” as precise as possible, especially when we’re documenting our 20th century family members’ place (and circumstances) of birth. 

After all, every bit of raw data can tell us something.  For example, I was born in the old Memorial Hospital, at that time located near the northeast corner of North Pearl Street and Clinton Avenue in Albany, New York.  It was easy walking distance from my father’s work and also easy walking distance from my grandparents’ house.  That explains why I wasn’t born at either of the other two hospitals in the city. The fact that I was born in a hospital at all says something about my parents’ views on childbirth and medicine.  The fact that my grandparents were so closely involved with the whole process also says something.

Knowing that simple locational fact is so much more interesting that just saying that I was born in “Albany, New York”.

Are you collecting specific locational birth data on your family members?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Madeline Frances Hunter (25 December 1917 - 11 March 2012)

You may have noticed that things have been quiet here for a while.  There's a reason for that, explained in the story below.  In a nutshell, family comes first.

Mom and me a while ago
My mother was a wartime Christmas baby.  

The second of two children, she was born Madeline Frances Scott in her maternal grandmother’s house in Brooklyn on 25 December 1917.  Even though her parents customarily lived in Albany, NY, they had moved in with her mother’s mother for the last months of the pregnancy.  Meanwhile, her father Peter found a job as a machinist, working at the Union Metallic Cartridge factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  He commuted back to Brooklyn on weekends.  After all, there was a war on and working in a munitions factory provided good money to a young family.

Soon after she was born, Madeline’s family returned to Albany. All was well until three days after her ninth birthday.  Her mother Rose, who had been sick for months, died at home of a strange and mysterious disease called pemphigus, which, at the time, was incurable.  Now, it’s a disease easily treated with antibiotics, none of which existed then.

The picture below is the last family picture of the Scotts, taken in 1926, about four months before Madeline's mother died. 

Unable to work and also care for his two young children at the same time, her father arranged to send  Madeline and her older brother Walter to Brooklyn to live with his late wife’s sister and her family. She stayed there, part of a large extended family of O’Neil cousins and uncles, until her father remarried and she returned to Albany to enter high school.

In her "looker" days
She met my father while she was still in high school.  She was what they used to call a “looker” and sometimes modeled in local amateur fashion shows. He was a semi-pro basketball player, a local sports icon, and the son of a locally famous major league baseball player. Plus, he was employed and also owned a car, which was a pretty big thing in the 1930s.  They got engaged in 1937.  Theirs was a long off-again, on-again courtship that stretched on for five years.  She told me that she returned his engagement ring several times, for reasons she never revealed.

Still, Madeline and Mel finally married in August of 1942.  She was 24; he was 28.  A little bit more than two and a half years later, I was born.  Then, a little bit more than 16 years later, my father unexpectedly died and Madeline was suddenly a forty- three year old widow with a sixteen year old son.   Fortunately, she had taken a job with the State of New York several years before. It didn’t pay much, but was better than nothing.

After six or so years, while I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, she started dating a man that she had known in high school.  They got married about two weeks after my wife and I got married. A few years later, they both retired, moved to Florida for most of the year, and spent three or so months of every summer back up north in the Adirondacks.

In 1972
We visited them with two kids in tow nearly every weekend of the summer and traveled annually to Florida every winter during school vacations.  She was “Grandma” and he was “Papa” to our two sons, both of whom were magical and close to perfect in their eyes.

Then, in 1982, after thirteen years of marriage, her second husband died after a short illness, and she was once again a widow.  Madeline was now 64.  She decided to stay in Florida for most of the year, coming north for several months in the summer.  I would fly down, collect her and her car and drive north.  At the end of the summer, we’d reverse the trip. Then she’d fly up again for Christmas and New Year. 

This arrangement went on for nearly eighteen years.  Over time, her circle of Florida friends grew smaller as the folks she knew died, moved north or into retirement and nursing homes.  By 1998, her weekly ladies lunch group was down to a handful of women, all aging widows. A health incident convinced her that since she had no family support system in Florida, it was probably time to sell her place and move back north. 

Circa 2000
Madeline moved into a small apartment near Albany and was able to handle living by herself until last year, when her 93 years began to finally catch up with her.  During all this time, we talked every day, went out to lunch or dinner once a week, and spent lots of time together.

Then, one night in mid-December last year, she did not answer her phone when I called her in the evening.  I went to her apartment and found her on the floor, unable to get up.  Although nothing was broken, she had been there alone for more than 10 hours. Apparently she had tripped while making her bed in the morning and couldn’t reach a telephone.

She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, where she spent three days, and then to a rehab center to learn how to walk with a walker.  We spent her 94th Christmas birthday together in her rehab room.  She was discharged the day before New Year’s Eve and moved in with us for seven weeks to further recuperate.  

Christmas 2011
Things did not go well.  She developed a spinal compression fracture that caused her great pain and severely limited her mobility.  Because of the pain, she had no desire to eat.  She lost weight. By mid-February, she was close to immobile because of her back pain.  She ended up back in the hospital.  Again, she spent three more nights there and was sent to yet another rehab center so that she could re-learn what they call ADLs (activities of daily living.)

Last week, as her rehab was coming to an end, she developed an opportunistic respiratory infection that turned into pneumonia.  She was sent to the hospital by ambulance early Sunday morning.  We met her there at 1:30 AM. 

Shortly before 5 PM on Sunday, March 11th, despite the best efforts of the hospital staff, her lungs gave out and she took her last breath, surrounded by her family. 

At 94, Madeline had outlived her two husbands, her brother, all of her cousins, and nearly all of her close friends.  

I wrote her obituary a few hours after she died, knowing full well that there were only a handful of people beyond our immediate family who knew her and were still alive.

The obit I wrote will appear in the local newspaper tomorrow morning.  Tomorrow is also my birthday.  In an ideal world, a person’s birthday and his or her mother’s obituary should never fall on the same day.  The world is, of course, neither fair nor ideal. 

Meanwhile, here’s the link to the very same obit on the funeral home website, with a color picture that I took of her a few months ago when she moved in with us following her first rehab stay.

But, as we all know, to everything there is a season, and thus, those of us who loved her dearly will choose to remember her better days and celebrate the earlier, happier seasons of her life  -  those long and happy years when she was “Midge” to her high-school girlfriends, “Grandma” and “GG” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and simply “Mom” and “Mother” to me. 

Once she turned 90, people often asked her why she still looked so good and how she had managed to live so long.  With a smile, she told everybody the same true thing.

Every night before dinner,” she would say, “I make myself a Manhattan with two ice cubes.”

There’s a lot more I could tell you about her:  how she won a couple of grand on the Irish Sweepstakes in the mid 60s and bought herself a flashy convertible with the winnings; how she taught our kids to play poker; how she hitchhiked in East Africa with me, and lots, lots more.   

On the beach in 1962
  But, as my high school journalism teacher taught me years ago, there comes a time when everybody’s story comes to an end and you just have to say:
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