I don’t know when the practice of having an official “obituary” section in the newspaper began. I guess I always assumed that there were obits. Until today.
Today I went to the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, KS, which houses the Kansas State Archives, in search of proof of my great, great grandmother’s (Gertrude Koenen Vanderstay) death in 1907. I had two paths of research: a) the death register, and b) the newspaper. When the records in the death register mysteriously did not exist from 1906 to 1911, my last hope was the newspaper.
Obits in the Body of the Paper
The newspapers in Atchison, Kansas looked and read very much like the Wall Street Journal. Tight columns, little or no pictures. Worse yet, there were very few headlines, and minimal section headers. If I was looking for the “Sports” or “Comics” section I would have been sorely out of luck. More to the point, there wasn’t an official “obits” section.
So, I wondered, did they even list deaths and funerals at this time? I would have thought so, but I was really struggling to find anything. On a whim – maybe an educated guess – I started reading all of the very brief entries in the “Personal” section. And this is what I found: Someone was in town for a visit. Someone else was having a party. Another, was not well. One person left for Germany and will be back in 3 weeks.
Good grief, I thought, if this level of detail rises to the importance of newsworthy, surely a death would make the paper. I kept scanning. And a full five days after the known death of my great, great grandmother, there was a “personal” article. I guess you could call it an obituary. You can judge for yourself.
Mrs. Mary Vanderstay died in Waukeegan, Illinois, on Friday last, an hour before the arrival of her son, Wm. Vanderstay, who went to Waukeegan in response to a telegram announcing her critical illness. She died at the home of her daughter, Mrs. Jim Walters, with whom she had been living for the past three years. Mrs. Vanderstay was 82 years old and the widow of John Vanderstay, who died four years ago. Her son, brought the body to Atchison for burial, reaching here at 10 o’clock yesterday morning. The funeral occurred from St. Beneditct’s Church at 9 o’clock this morning. Father Ferdinand [Smith], of Leavenworth, a relative of the Vanderstay’s conducted the services. Peter Vanderstay of Sheridan, Barber County, Kansas, and Mrs. Frank Watson, of Wichita, son and daughter of the deceased, came here for the funeral. Atchison Globe, April 15, 1907
The article doesn’t reflect on her life as we might expect in an obituary, but it provides a tremendous amount of genealogical information. Noteworthy among the facts is that she lived and died in Waukegan, Illinois! Both new facts to this researcher! Further, now I’ll be able to order her death certificate from Illinois!
What I’ve learned today is to look beyond obituaries in older newspapers for life and death information. The “Personal” section is a treasure of genealogical information just waiting to be uncovered.