Monday, July 10, 2023

Reading Between the Lines:
Old Chicago Death Records


It would certainly have been a gift to family history researchers if local jurisdictions had always gathered the same details they now request at the point of a loved one's passing. Mother's maiden name, for instance, is a particular favorite of mine. That—and so many other such gems—unfortunately did not top official lists at the turn of the previous century.

Thus, in pondering the roots of one Johanna Flanagan Lee, receiving a copy of her 1909 Chicago death record was a disappointment. Hers was one of the first such records I had personally sent away for, long before such records became available through online means. Opening up the envelope—yes, it arrived by "snail mail"—just about crushed any sense of anticipation I harbored when I first saw the envelop in my mailbox.

Now that I'm pulling out every scrap of paper from those past iterations of this ongoing search, I'm realizing how helpful reading between the lines might become, even with what seems to be a useless old government document. Mostly, that's because the missing details prompt questions—but those details which were already provided also can lead to questions. 

Here's what I mean. Johanna's death record, below, indicated the amount of time she had spent in the city of Chicago leading up to her final hours. Likewise for the time she had spent in the state of Illinois. For both, the answer was thirty five years. That might signal to us that her destination, when leaving Ireland, was specifically the city of Chicago. 

Keep in mind the term, might. Likewise, take the line indicating her marital status. I was surprised, after seeing no mention of a husband in her obituary, to note that her death record indicated she was married. Where was her husband John? He certainly hadn't been included in the household listing for the 1900 census. I had assumed that was because he had already died; this little detail tells me otherwise.

While the death record provides the name of the cemetery where Johanna was buried, I had already known that and had previously called the cemetery for a listing of everyone buried in that family plot. However, considering that item in her death record now prompts another question: could there have been any specific reasons why someone would be buried in one cemetery rather than any others? Could it be that one undertaker did business with a specific cemetery? Or that one cemetery was primarily used by a specific church parish?

Since Johanna had been Catholic, her final resting place was designated for those of her religion, of course, but could that have led me to the correct parish where her family attended mass? Cross checking with her address would also lead to further information on the church.

These questions only serve to help me dig further into some less significant details, but perhaps that is how they seem, owing to the fact that I already know the answers to these questions. What I don't know, however, is the answers to the same questions, when they are concerning not Johanna but the man also buried in the family plot, by the name of Edward Flanagan. Repeating this sequence of reading between the lines, can I learn anything further about who that mystery Edward Flanagan might have been? 

The main point in walking through this exercise is to remind me that, even when it comes to documents containing very little information, it is possible to springboard that small bit of knowledge into a fuller picture.

Moving from the few known details about Johanna to examining the unknown Edward Flanagan needs to be our next step, not only because he may have been included in that burial location, but also because his was a name included in the baptismal record we saw last week. Edward is very likely related to Johanna. The question is: can we figure out just how?

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