Death certificates can add depth to a family tree, but when the parent names for the deceased are documented incorrectly, it can lead research down the wrong path—especially when contending with a common Irish surname.
The only source with direct evidence naming my great-grandmother Margaret’s parents was a death record from Brooklyn, New York, in 1936, listing her father’s name as Patrick Morrissey and her mother’s name as Margaret Powers. The informant for this death record was Margaret’s daughter Marion (Mary Ann) Lilley. Marion would have been an unreliable source to supply the names of Margaret’s parents, since they had died long before Marion was born.2 No birth record for Margaret A. Morrissey, born around 1870 in Pennsylvania, was found to exist. Official Pennsylvania vital records (birth, death, and marriage) registrations were not enacted in Pennsylvania until 1906, and 1896 at the county level.3
The first census record shows Margaret and her family residing in Brooklyn, New York, with my great-grandfather John. J. Lilley was in 1900. The family resided in Brooklyn, New York, from 1900-1930. 4 Research on Margaret’s Morrissey family in Pennsylvania during 1870-1900 did not reveal any Margaret residing in a household with Patrick and Mary Morrissey.5
Searching for other Morrissey family members that might have resided in Pennsylvania uncovered a 1922 original death record for Joseph Morrissey in Allentown, Lehigh County. The informant on his death record was Margaret Leilly [sic] of Brooklyn, New York.6 Joseph’s father was named James Morrissey, his mother’s name was Margaret Liners, and both had been born in Ireland.7 The name of Joseph Morrissey’s mother was initially written as Margaret Liners—then the name ‘Liners’ was crossed out and changed to the surname Powers. Could this Margaret be my great-grandmother, Margaret Lilley?
An unusual notarized, handwritten letter (above) was filed with Joseph Morrissey’s death record, and found attached to the database as an image after the original death record. The letter stated that the author was the deceased's sister, and that Joseph’s actual name was Patrick Joseph Morrissey.8 The author signed her name as Margarit A. Lilley and gave an address consistent with my great-grandmother’s address in Brooklyn, New York.9
These two coincidences lead me to believe that Margaret A. Lilley and Joseph Morrissey may have been siblings. I then found an obituary for James Morrissey in Allentown newspapers, stating that he died in 1901 and was survived by a daughter, ‘Mrs. Margaret Lilly’ and his son ‘Joseph.’ This gave me additional evidence that the name of my second great-grandfather was James Morrissey.10
In the end, different indirect sources were necessary for me to finally learn the name of my second great-grandfather. When looking at any record in online databases, always examine the images before and after the indexed record—because a hidden important clue could be right at your fingertips.
1 Phila. Co., Phila., PA., death cert. #2289, 1922, Patrick Joseph Morrissey; letter from Mrs. Margarit A. Lilley.
2 NYC Dept. of Records & Information Services, NYC, NY, NYC Death Cert., Margaret A. Lilley, #21416. For Mary Lilley, Visitation Catholic Church (Kings Co., Brooklyn, New York), “Baptismal Register”, Certificate of Baptism for Mary Lilley child of John and Margaret Morrissey: 13 August 1905; transcription on sealed certificate paper; 31 Jan 2001, Angela Napolitano, (address withheld). Marion is common Irish nickname for Mary Ann, see FamilySearch Wiki contributors, "England Female Nicknames", FamilySearch Wiki ( https://www.familysearch.org/ : a ccessed 7 October 2021), “Vital Records Reference Dates”.
3 FamilySearch Wiki contributors, "Pennsylvania Vital Records", FamilySearch Wiki ( https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Pennsylvania_Vital_Records : a ccessed 7 October 2021), “Vital Records Reference Dates”. Also "Pennsylvania, Births and Christenings, 1709-1950," database with images, FamilySearch ( https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VF4N-BMK : 13 October 2021), Margaret A. Morrissey, Mar* Mor*sey, has no know birth record in Pennsylvania.
4 1900 U.S. Census, Kings Co., New York, population schedule, Brooklyn, Enumeration District (ED) 166, Ward 12, 178-A (stamped), sheet no. 3 (handwritten), dwelling 18, family number 43, John J. Lilley household; National Archives and Records Administrations (NARA) microfilm T623,roll 1050; digital image, “1900 United States Census” Ancestry ( https://www.ancestry.com/ : viewed 14 October 2021), image 6. For 1910, 1910 U.S. Census, Kings Co., NY, pop. sch., Brooklyn, ED 247, Ward 12, 134 (stamped), sheet no. 9-A (handwritten), dwell. 85, family no. 190, John J. Lilley household; NARA microfilm T624, roll 963; digital image, “1910 United States Census” Ancestry ( https://www.ancestry.com/ : viewed 8 October 2021), image 17. For 1920, 1920 U.S. Census, Kings Co., NY, pop. sch. Brooklyn, ED 164, Ward 12, sheet no.4-B(handwritten), dwell. 39, family no. 76, Johan Lilley household; NARA microfilm T625, roll 1148; digital image, “1920 United States Census” Ancestry ( https://www.ancestry.com/ : viewed 8 October 2021), image 8. For 1930, 1930 U.S. Census, Kings Co., NY, pop. sch., Brooklyn, ED 24-981, sheet no. 2 -(handwritten) A (stamped), dwell. 17, family no. 28, John J. Lilley household; microfilm T626, roll 1499; digital image, “1930 United States Census” Ancestry ( https://www.ancestry.com/ : viewed 14 October 2021), image 3. See also copy of marriage certificate of John J. Lilley and Margaret A. Morrissey, Visitation Catholic Church (Kings Co., Brooklyn, New York), “Marriage Register”, Certificate of Marriage for John J. Lilley and Margaret A. Morrissey: 15 April 1900; transcription on sealed certificate paper; 2 February 2001, Angela Napolitano, (address withheld).
5 See 1870 U.S Census, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Patrick Morrissy household; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm M593, 1761 rolls, database, Ancestry ( http://www.ancestry.com/ : viewed 7 October 2021), searched for Patrick Morrissy, Morr*y, born in Ireland, with enumerated daughter Margaret/Mary/Maggie.
6 Philadelphia Co., Philadelphia, PA., death cert. #2289, 1922, Patrick Joseph Morrissey; Handwritten letter to State Dept. of Health, from Mrs. Margarit A. Lilley, from Brooklyn, NY. Handwritten letter attached to Joseph Morrissey’s death certificate notes Margarit A. Lilley as sister. See Figure 1.
9 1920 U.S. Census, Kings Co., NY, pop. sch. Brooklyn, ED 164, Ward 12, sheet no.4-B(handwritten), dwell. 39, family no. 76, Johan Lilley household; digital image, “1920 United States Census” Ancestry ( https://www.ancestry.com/ : viewed 14 October 2021), image 8.
10 “James Morrissey”, The Morning Call, (Allentown, Pennsylvania), 30 December 1901, pg. 4, col:3; digital image, Newspapers.com ( https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 8 October 2021), page 4.
About Angela Napolitano
Angela Napolitano is a researcher on our Research and Library Services Team. She has a BS in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics from Stony Brook University in New York. She is a certificate holder from the Boston University Genealogical Research Certificate program. For the past few years, she has been volunteering at NEHGS/American Ancestors and assisting with the Catholic Records Project. She has frequently traveled to Italy to research ancestors in the Campania and L’Aquila regions. Her interests include America, Ireland, Italy, and DNA. She currently lives in Boston and contributes to genealogy study groups across the country.View all posts by Angela Napolitano →