My grandmother Katheryn Ogle Record (1914–1993) was a dead head. No, surely not that kind of dead head, but one who collected those lifetime addenda we all hope someone will afford each of us someday. We call them obituaries, and at a very early age my grandmother began collecting them. In some ways my grandmother was the consummate family historian. While I never saw her record births or deaths in a family Bible, or transcribe items from a census, she did keep records – and actually very good ones.
When she passed away in the mid-1990s her photographs and scrap books made their way into my safekeeping. It’s true that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to these – and this was especially true of one very yellowed and crumbling memory book full of newspaper clippings. I really had little idea of who these people were, so I stored the book, putting it away – safely – but put it away nonetheless, and all but forgotten.
In the early 2000s I discovered (by accident and providence) that there might be a Mayflower passenger associated with my family tree.[i] Not believing that this could be possible, I immediately dove into looking for sources that would help me verify this ancestry. In those days there were very few online newspapers to assist in the research. Then I remembered that I had inherited a book of old newspaper clippings… I wondered, would it help?
I like to think that maybe my grandmother knew or could see down the road that these newspaper clippings might prove important to her future descendants – even if her descendants weren’t bright enough to immediately realize it. Whatever her reasons, my grandmother carefully glued her collection of obituaries one by one and en masse in a book weaving her way through the decades of her life. I can almost see her there with her bottle of LePage’s glue pasting them in. The collection spans obituaries from the late 1890s through the early 1970s.
These obituaries read like the “Who’s Who” of my grandmother’s life. And while the book is replete with the death notices of many cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, it is also beautifully evocative of the passing of a “lady who lived down the street” (whoever she was…) and a girlfriend from her high school days in the 1930s – a friend who died all too young. The book is also somewhat newsworthy. There are clippings of train crashes, floods, auto wrecks, explosions, and other terrible calamities. However, the book is not just about death and tragedy. Amongst the many (and there are many) obituaries there are wonderful clippings about graduations, golden wedding anniversaries, building dedications, charity drives, job promotions, and yes, even some of the most ordinary announcements of daily life.
Strangely enough, as I wound my way through this scrap book of death and her life’s events I discovered that many of the clippings in the book pre-dated my grandmother’s own birth in 1914. Evidently, my grandmother had inherited these from her mother, making them even more irreplaceable.[ii] There is indeed something so very genuine about the original yellowed newsprint and the care with which they were saved, and then held for safe-keeping.
Yes, grandmother was a collector. Perhaps “deadheading” is a poor expression for her avocation, but not entirely. There are three particular pages showing that my grandmother rejoiced in new life as much as she grieved in the passing away of the old. You see, in addition to obituaries, my grandmother also collected dozens of birth announcements, generally with the newspaper clippings to confirm them by.
My grandmother’s collection of obituaries greatly assisted me in my research and understanding of my relationship to several Mayflower passengers. I don’t think I would have ever followed up on some of these lines without these items to help.[iii] I’m pretty sure I would have taken another road, and perhaps never discovered any connection to the Mayflower at all. In looking back, a lot of my family history would have been lost had my grandmother not gone to the trouble of making sure to capture and preserve “the news” of the lives and events important to her.
Now it’s up to me.
[i] Electa Atcelia Newcomb 1852–1920, wife of Reider Kraus, and a great-great-great-granddaughter of Hezekiah Newcomb and Jerusha Bradford. John Bearse Newcomb, Andrew Newcomb, 1616-1686, and his descendants, a revised edition of “Genealogical Memoir” of the Newcomb family…, published 1874 and 1923, p. 456.
[ii] Mary Elizabeth Kraus 1886–1970, daughter of Electa Newcomb, wife of Daniel S. Ogle, ibid.
[iii] Vital and family records of Katheryn Ogle 1914–1993, daughter of Mary Kraus, wife of Howard J. Record.
[iv] Deadheading: Per the freedictionary.com – “to remove dead or withered flowers…to promote new blooms or prevent the setting of seeds.”
11 thoughts on “Deadheading”
Wonderful story. I too inherited not only the “stuff” from my grandmother (some of it dating back to HER grandmother) but also the “keeper” gene. LePage’s glue — wasn’t that an amberish liquid in a bottle with a rubber lid, cut on a diagonal, with a crosswise slit halfway down the diagonal part, that when you pressed the tip onto the paper, the glue came out, then you spread it around with the tip? I haven’t thought about it in decades!
Great column this morning Jeff. When I started researching family histories, the “textbook” genealogies seemed cold and impersonal. So I rely on newspaper articles I come across because I want to tell a story of the family, not just name, born died buried. It’s really amazing what you can get out of an obituary. Of course, they tend to be sanitized versions of a person’s life. And in telling these stories, I think the most important questions is “why?” What caused these people to do what they did. Immigrate from the Netherlands, Scotland and England in the 1630’s. Why load all your worldly goods in a covered wagon and head west and so forth and so on. One of my most productive trips was a local drive to Napa California and research the local newspapers of the mid to late 19th century and the stories of my maternal great grandparents and particularly my great grandfather, the local blacksmith.
I’m always asking those questions of why…? What happened to trigger this event. I do become quite frustrated searching, and always leave my question in the “mystery” pile.
Excellent writing again Jeff with a warm and gentle style with words. Connecting the dots seems to open 40 new beckoning investigations and the maze begins! I finally sent my DNA in so time hill honor or dishonor my “tree” and perhaps give us a few insights. Thank you Jeff as the Family Scribe is such an important and responsible endeavor that reflects spirit, love, and caring. Thank you…..for being a deeper soul!
We inherited from my husband’s family two old books that became scrapbooks. Pasted over the pages of obsolete books were newspaper clippings. The most recent book made by his grandmother is from the 1910s through 1940s. The other book minus its covers has clippings from 1870s through 1900. We don’t know who collected the earlier clippings, but they cut them from several newspapers. Most seem to have no connection to his family. This person cut the daily or weekly lists of the Died and Marrieds. Also collected interesting or horrible stories, weddings, etc. They must have collected them for some time and then pasted in whenever. They are not in chronological order. Before online newspapers I knew these would be helpful for others. I spent weeks indexing the names on 3×5″ cards, over 10,000 of them. I must say the online newspapers with search engines have made it all so much easier.
Thank you for the idea to index my collection that I received from my great grandmother. I am going to scan the pages into my computer that dealt with my family but now I’ll scan all of them and put them into a database for ease of refererral.
For most, the obituary is the only written record left behind of descriptions of that person. I have written my husband’s and mine, starting with an interesting ancestral line/s, short historical notes, and when they emigrated to America, making references to Colonial, Mayflower, Plymouth Rock and Gateway ancestors where applicable.
This is for our progeny.
Wonderful article that we genealogists can all identify with. As a board member of our local historical society I’d like to encourage you and your readers to donate scrapbooks, photos, and loose clippings to your local historical organization. In our case we have scanned and indexed all the clippings and pictures we’ve received and put them into our online database. They’re invaluable for figuring out which Smith family little Johnny belongs to and why a family from Saint Louis is buried in our town cemetery.
I’m so grateful to the people who collect, label, save, and donate and to the volunteers who spend long hours making it all available.
My mother, at 87, does that too. She inherited obits and funeral cards from her family, keeps them in a place we call The Dead Box. Whenever we go to funerals for people she knows, we get a memento of the event. Just did that 2 weeks ago after going to the wake of an elderly neighbor we had growing up.
My grandmother didn’t keep a scrapbook, but we’ve found several old stationary boxes full of birth and death notices and other interesting articles.
My mom, and now I also, clip obits, and keep the little leaflets from funerals along with wedding invitations and birth announcements. I keep birthday party invitations from the kids in the family in a “family” folder for future generations to ponder over.
The days of this paper trail may be coming to a close. With so many ecards, and evites, there may not be much to clip and keep in the future.
Even though it’s said that once it’s on the internet it’s there forever, I’m not sure these electronic files will be accessible once the original links are broken.
I’m glad to learn I’m not alone in keeping and respecting all these little scraps of crumbling, yellowed newsprint.
Thank goodness for newspapers – scanned, microfilmed or in transcribed excerpts. Especially from the heyday of the local paper and its items of interest. Of course the births and funeral attendees are invaluable, but so are the school attendance reports, visits from named relatives on trains to forgotten stations, sleighing & hunting parties, descriptions of wedding gowns in ‘mausseline desoiee’ & honeymoon plans.
Wonderful discoveries of the article on the high chair made for my great-great grandfather’s children when it was offered to my 2-year-old father or the one on my grandfather the “Oldest Cumberland Grocer Recalls the Cracker Barrel”.
Still another reason to deplore the lost info of the email, the SMS, the tweet!