Newspaper obituaries often supply loads of genealogically useful information, along with interesting forename and surname spellings.
Here, for example, is the obituary for my paternal great-grandfather Alexander Michael Moran (1871-1939). A fairly standard obituary, which informs readers of the death of A.M. Moran, and supplies practical information about the arrangements for his funeral and burial. But from the perspective of a genealogical researcher, this obituary offers a good deal more.
In addition to listing his birthplace (Huntley, Ontario) and his place of death (231 Armstrong St., Ottawa), it also supplies information about his former employment. (He worked for the Grand Trunk Railway, and then for the Canadian Pacific. My father always told me he was a machinist for the GTR.)
And it names 12 other people:
- his parents, Alexander Moran and Mary Levoy [Leavy] (2)
- his wife, Annie N. [M.] Benton, of Arnprior (1)
- his two sons, Allan J. [Jerome] Moran and Orville A. [Alexander] Moran (2)
- his brother, Thomas E. [Edwin] Moran (1)1
- his six surviving sisters: Mrs. E. Boldman (Mary Ernestine Moran); Mrs. Jule Morris (Julia Amanda Moran); Mrs. Michael Sullivan (Helen Elizabeth Moran); Mrs. M.H. Fagan (Mary Eugenie Gertrude Moran); Mrs. Annie Sullivan (Anna Moran); and Mrs. E.J. Delaney (Mary Emelia Moran) (6)2
There is also a reference to seven grandchildren, but these grandchildren are not named. My father was one of these seven.
There is one obvious typo-type error in the list of names: “Annie N. Benton” should be “Annie M. Benton” (for Anna Maria Benton). And there is also a surname spelling variation (I hesitate to call it an error, since I’m always insisting that spelling doesn’t count in genealogy, and that you mustn’t cling to the notion of a “correct” surname spelling if you want to find your ancestors’ records) which might prove misleading, if I didn’t already know the name. The obituary names the mother of my great-grandfather as “Mary Levoy, of Pakenham.” If I didn’t already know that she was the Irish-born Mary Leavy [Levi/Levy], originally of Co. Longford, Ireland, I might go looking for a French/French-Canadian Marie Levoy.
For me, it is somewhat poignant to read that “the death of Alexander Michael Moran occurred at his residence, 231 Armstrong street, suddenly on Tuesday” (31 January 1939). Poignant because it makes me think of my now-deceased father (who died 14 March 2013), who once told me about the death of his grandfather, some of the details of which he could still recall so many years after the event.
231 Armstrong Street was also the home of my father at the time of his grandfather’s death: my dad, with his parents and his older sister Rosemary, lived upstairs at 231 Armstrong St., while his grandparents, Alec and Annie (Alexander Michael Moran and Anna Maria Benton), lived downstairs and ran a small grocery store out of the front of the house. My father recollected that he used to love to go for car rides with his grandfather, to go with him to deliver groceries from the shop or to make deliveries for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He also recalled that his grandfather played the fiddle, and that he loved to drink buttermilk. “He was a quiet man,” said my father, “and very kind.”
My father (born September 1934) was four years and four months old in January 1939, and was at home when his grandfather died. Some seventy-odd years after the death, he still had a vivid memory of seeing his beloved grandfather lying dead. Apparently my great-grandfather had been outside shovelling snow, and, feeling unwell, had gone inside, where he suffered a massive, and fatal, heart attack.
How much of my father’s memory of his grandfather’s death can be attributed to a direct recollection of a dramatic and traumatic event? and how much of it had been mediated by later retellings of the story over the years? This I do not, and cannot, know. But I’m pretty sure that my dad did remember something of the awful drama surrounding his grandfather’s death, even though my father was only about four and half years old at the time. In the world of my father’s childhood (and it really was a different world, in so many respects), adults didn’t try to hide the reality of death from even very young children, the way we now do.
Anyway, to return to the main idea of this post:
Newspaper obituaries can be extremely useful genealogical sources, but are often riddled with errors and inaccuracies. Follow up on all possible clues (and a close and careful reading of an obituary will often yield important clues), but never, ever assume that because it was printed in the papers, it must therefore be officially, and incontrovertibly, true.
- Two other brothers had predeceased him. John Moran, born 1854, died at Rochester, Minnesota in 1921. James Moran, born about 1858, died at Nepean Township in 1899. ↩
- One other sister had predeceased him. Margaret Jane Moran, born about 1856, died at Huntley in May 1873, at about sixteen years of age. ↩