Genealogical Jackpots

Researching your family history in newspapers is a bit like buying lottery tickets. You hear stories about the jackpot winners and you can’t help but imagine being a big winner yourself someday. So you keep at it, scratching away at ticket after ticket, clinging to hope with nothing but $5 winners to show for it—at best, the occasional two-line death announcement when you already have the full death certificate, or the newspaper ad that you had already found in a city directory. You try to pump yourself up every time you sit down to Chronicling America or GenealogyBank, “Today is the day!” Scratch, scratch, scratch away…

My friends at the Family History Center were all excited about starting newspaper research—they’d heard all the jackpot tales. I put them off as long as I could. There are a lot more productive avenues for online research, I assured them.

But the day came when we were tired of censuses and pension files, familysearch and fold3. So what the heck—let’s have a demonstration of how time-consuming and fruitless newspaper research really is.

So we popped open GenealogyBank and I asked for a name—Ian suggested “Pachter”, and inwardly I smiled. This was going to be a good lesson in the need to think flexibly about search terms. How many different ways could OCR have misread “Pachter,” for goodness sake? I filtered the search to Philadelphia, 1900-1920, and got my trusty “Genealogy is long, tedious work” speech all prepped up and ready to go….

“Woman [Illegible] Eleven from Death in Flames…”[1]

This can’t possibly be…

We opened the image. Page 1, above the fold, right under the banner. A scrap of paper obscured a bit of the headline, but there in crisp black and white it was easy enough to make out:


Carries Children Down Blazing Stair-way in Bare Feet and Rouses Slumbering Occupants of House

Through the pluck of Mrs. Rose Pachter, of 708 Buttonwood street [sic], eleven persons were saved from probable death during an early morning fire at her home yesterday. She was badly burned.

Mrs. Pachter, who occupies the second floor of the residence, with her five children, was awakened by smoke. She found the house in flames, and the bed, in which slept her five-year-old son Paul, completely enveloped by fire. Grasping the boy, she ran downstairs in her bare feet. Placing the child in the street, out of danger, she returned to awaken the other sleepers.

Her feet were scorched and her clothing ignited and she was burned about the face and body, but her injuries did not deter her. She aroused the other children, Jennie, 19 years old; David, 17 years old; Hettie, 20 years old, and May, 17 years old.

Then she ran to the third floor of the building and awakened Benjamin Cohen, his wife and their five children. All succeeded in getting out, though Jennie and May Pachter were burned about the arms, and Hettie Pachter tripped over a water pitcher, which broke and cut her right leg.

After getting the occupants out of the house, Mrs. Pachter started to fight the fire. When the firemen arrived a few minutes later they found the plucky woman, in her burned nightrobe, throwing water at the flames. The loss is estimated at $400.”


Rose Pachter was Ian’s grandmother.


[1] “Woman’ [Illegible] Eleven from Death in Flames,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Sep 1910, p.1, col. 7; digital image, GenealogyBank ( : accessed 25 Aug 2013).

Little Blessings that Inspire

My ancestors were very thoughtful folks. They settled in Massachusetts and stayed there making shoes for three hundred years. Researching their family history is about as difficult as solving a Monday crossword puzzle. Researching southern families, on the other hand, is more like doing the Sunday crossword. The Times Sunday crossword. Sometimes it’s even as bad as the Singapore Straits Times Sunday crossword of 26 January 1941. That’s one where they put in the clues for one puzzle but the grid for another, and kindly printed an apology the next day: “The crossword, as published in The Sunday Times yesterday, was impossible of solution.”

“Impossible of solution.” That could be the motto for southern research. You get a family in the Deep South and dollars for donuts they became Baptists (no infant baptisms with this group!), burned down their courthouses (probate records? land records? court minutes? Ha!), and named every blasted county they lived in after the same three Revolutionary War heroes, no matter what state they ended up in. Legend has it great-grandma’s family came from Marion County? Would that be Marion in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Florida or South Carolina?

But once in a while the genealogy fairy godmother smiles on you, and you stumble across a website like Tennessee’s Shelby County Register of Deeds at You’ll think you’ve died and gone to Massachusetts. I don’t know who is responsible for this website, but if there is a genealogy Hall of Honor, I have a candidate. What an unassuming little page this is! It has all the design pizzazz you’d expect from a county registrar: plenty of Helvetica and not a bit of flash. But, oh my! the databases!

Property records, Partial Indexes and Images from 1812 to present.

Birth Records 1874-1912

Chancery Court Divorce Index 1945-1997

Circuit Court Indexes 1893-2000

Death Records 1848-1962

Marriage Records 1820-1970, with Indexes/Images 1920-1989

Memphis City Directories 1849-1943

Memphis Police Blotter 1858-1860

Naturalization Records 1856-1906

Probate Court Loose Paper Index 1820-1900

Probate Court Will Book Indexes/Images 1830-1980

Did any of your ancestors happen to attend Snowden High School between 1941 and 1995? Well, you can just look up their yearbook then—every one of them is online. Know anyone who might have died in Memphis between 1853 and 1919? Check out the online images (no transcriptions here) of the Daily Burial Records for Elmwood Cemetery. Not buried in Elmwood? Then click over to the database of Gravestone Inscriptions for Shelby County, searchable as well as browsable in both pdf or tiff format.

Why, oh why can’t everybody’s family have come from Shelby, Tennessee?

So I’m thinking, what would it take to get that level of data online in my county? Heck, I don’t have any ancestors of my own down here and my research generally focuses on Alabama and points north and east, but if I can help take care of Santa Rosa County, Florida, maybe someone will be likewise inspired to take care of Marion County, Alabama/Tennessee/West Virginia/Georgia/Texas/Mississippi/Florida/South Carolina. It wouldn’t make up for those piles of courthouse ashes, but if I didn’t have to dig so hard to find the basics (or to find what basics actually survived), I’d have more time to search through those thousands of unindexed manuscripts cataloged on NUCMC and the miles of obscure Record Groups at NARA.

I might even finish one of those crossword puzzles.