Monday, March 20, 2017

Why Did They Die?

If you go through your family tree, you probably have some individuals who died for reasons unknown to you. They were not old, and you have no reason to believe they'd been sickly. If you can't get a copy of their death certificate to learn the cause of death, you may want to turn to history.

A good place to start if your ancestor died in the U.S. is the List of disasters in the United States by death toll on Wikipedia. The page lists many notable disasters and may be sorted by year, type and location. It also provides links to articles explaining each disaster in detail. As I browsed the list I found the location of Connellsville, Pennsylvania and an article about the 1903 Connellsville train wreck.

I know that many people from one of my ancestral Italian hometowns worked for the railroad in Connellsville, and it is quite possible that my great grandfather Francesco Iamarino worked there at that time. At the bottom of the Wikipedia article I clicked a link to a source for some of the information (it's very important to go to the sources in a Wikipedia article to find out if the info is valid), and there was a list of the dead.

From a Wikipedia article
While carrying out my obsessively exhaustive documentation of every vital record from my grandfather Leone's hometown of Basélice between 1809 and 1860, I noticed that some years the death toll was much higher than others. For example, in this town of roughly two thousand people, about 100 would die each year. But some years that number spiked above 200. This makes me wonder about epidemics and earthquakes.

On the BBC website I found an article titled History of deadly earthquakes that lists earthquakes worldwide from 1906 through 2016. Using Wikipedia again I found a List of earthquakes in Italy. Long ago my Italian friend and family historian Fabio Paolucci sent me a list of 41 people who died in my grandfather Iamarino's town of Colle Sannita shortly after he left his family to come to America. The list was dated 26 July 1804. On the Wikipedia page I see that there was an earthquake in Molise on 26 July 1805, so this must be the same one. (Perhaps I misunderstood the year originally.) On the 1805 Molise earthquake page is a list of towns, and it says that 44 people died in Colle Sannita.

This exercise highlights the value of local resources to get to the bottom of a death for unknown reasons. It was a transcription of a local Connellsville, Pennsylvania newspaper that provided the names of the victims of the Connellsville train wreck. And it was local records that produced the names of the Colle Sannita residents killed in the 1805 earthquake. In the case of my family, it was a trip to the New York City Municipal Archives that let me see the death certificate and cause of death for many of my relatives.

Given enough time, more and more things will be digitized, and given enough genealogical networking, more and more things will be shared to the benefit of us all.

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