Saturday, December 10, 2016

Occupation: Old Lady

The utility of looking at old death certificates for genealogical purposes is not lost upon me. A properly-completed document such as a death certificate can be the researcher's key opening the door to a new generation.

The problem is, it's so easy to get distracted. People say the darnedest things. Even—no, especially—government functionaries.

Take this death certificate I located online while pursuing my Riley roots in northeastern Tennessee. I knew one way to confirm Rachel Teresa Riley Boothe's parents would be to check her death certificate. Unless I encountered the dreaded "unknown" entry, I'd be led back one more generation with the provision of her parents' names.

Finding Rachel's death certificate was a snap on Her name was listed as Rachel T. Boothe, so no surprises there—though a widow for the past twenty years, before that, she had been married to William Alexander Boothe since 1854. At the last census before her passing, she had been living with the family of her next-to-youngest daughter, Charlotte Boothe Pate, in Elizabethton, part of Carter County, Tennessee. So it was no surprise to see Rachel's death certificate filed in that same county on April 17, 1915.

The certificate indicated that Rachel had been born on June 30, 1835, in South Carolina. At least, that was according to the son who served as informant—Charlotte's twenty-years-older brother, William Horace Boothe. As the oldest son, he had come from Knoxville, where he had likely lived since the 1890s, to take care of the grim business of burying his mother.

Dying on April 17 of that year, Rachel had missed her eightieth birthday by barely two and a half months. What had done her in was listed as "La Grippe," an old fashioned way of saying she died of the flu. (While I realize the term is sometimes taken specifically to refer to the Spanish flu, her passing pre-dated that 1918 influenza pandemic.)

Of course, I scoured that government document for every genealogical clue I could find. I was pleased to see that William remembered enough about his family history to indicate that Rachel's father was William Riley and that her mother was "Cassie" Fincher. I felt only a touch of disappointment that their birth places weren't noted. I spotted the box confirming Rachel was, at that point, a widow. All seemed in order—and as completely filled out as one could hope.

It was then that I happened to notice the entry for occupation. Normally, I don't bother looking in that direction when researching my female ancestors; generally, the entry for women in that era is something redundant or uninformative, such as "none" or "housewife."

Not this time. For whatever reason, someone decided to indicate that seventy nine year old Rachel Boothe's "trade, profession or particular kind of work" was "Old Lady."

I'm hoping that government clerk wasn't quoting the reporting party at that point. But it does get me wondering in just what kind of "general nature of industry, business or establishment" that type of occupation would be included.

I noticed they left that subsequent line blank.

Above: Portion of the April 17, 1915, Tennessee death certificate for Rachel T. Boothe, listing occupation as "Old Lady." Image courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives via 


  1. "Old lady" as an occupation. That's one I've never seen before. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Isn't that a keeper, Marian? I couldn't help but laugh when I ran across that one.

  2. Replies
    1. Well, it might feel like a full time job...

      When I saw that listed as "occupation," I couldn't help but think of the town "Yenta."

  3. Or those "arts and crafts" ladies at the Church bazaars...

    1. Now that you mention it, Iggy...could have been...


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