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Archive for the ‘Philadelphia Records’ Category

“One hour, okay?”  He looked at me skeptically. “Then you have to come back to me. We have places to go!”

“One hour – got it!” Wow, even time travel has restrictions. I turned on the machine and within a minute I was back in 1940 and walking the streets of Philadelphia. I didn’t have much time, but fortunately I had a good idea of where to go. I was a bit nauseated at first, but my focus became clearer and I could see where I was – Thompson Street. I needed to turn down Venango Street to get to Mercer Street, my first destination.

The weather in Philadelphia on April 4, 1940 was warmer than the previous day – nearly 63 degrees and dry. People were going about their daily business and the streets were not deserted – people were out walking. Cars were few. I could hear faint sounds of Big Band music coming from a house fortunate enough to own a radio. The music was great, but I also love the fashions of the 1940′s – there’s a guy in a suit and a fedora walking down the street. I look great dressed up in a skirt, blouse, and pumps – and only in 1940 could I get away with wearing a hat!

I quickly found Mercer Street. I knew the real census enumerator had been there the day before; I was just an interloper. I hoped my plan would work to avoid any suspicion as to who I really was. I tried to look official and get to know the neighbors on my way to almost the center of the block – 3553 Mercer Street. As I passed by #3505, a young girl came out carrying an even younger girl.  Were they sisters? I heard the older say, “Come on, Peanut, I’ll get you home.”  Oh my, I thought, that’s Rita Mroz and – no way!  Rita lived with her 3 sisters, 2 brothers, and Polish-born parents, but the little “Peanut” she was carrying was definitely not her sister. In fact, she was heading right towards my destination!  I watched while Rita safely delivered the young girl back home.

There it is!  3553 Mercer Street.  A 7-year-old girl sat on the front step, looking quite unhappy that her younger sister arrived back home.

Wow, this is too much! If I could only tell Aunt Joan about this, she would laugh so hard!  “Hi!” I said, “I love your curly hair.”

“I’m not allowed to talk to strangers,” replied the girl. And with that, she ran inside.

I knocked, and a handsome man came to the door. I was momentarily stunned, but I quickly recovered. “I work for the Government,” I stammered. Well, at least that’s not a lie. I explained that although the census enumerator had been there the day before, I was a supervisor performing a spot-check to ensure that the responses were recorded properly.

“Sure,” said the man, “come on in.”

As I sat down, I tried to look around without looking like I was casing the house for a future robbery. I could smell something wonderful – Oh my God, it’s Nan’s chicken soup! I silently wondered how I could ingratiate myself to the point of being invited for dinner. I heard a female voice call out from the kitchen, “Henush, who is it? Whoever it is, we don’t want any.” I thought, Hi, Nan! If she only knew…

The Pater Family, circa 1937

Her husband yelled an explanation back and I saw her take a peek from the kitchen. She looked so young! And pretty!

“Now, let’s see,” I said. I acted professionally and began asking all of the enumerator’s questions. “Name?”

“Henry Pater.” Boy, I thought, Mom was right about those grey eyes! He’s so much more handsome than any photo I ever saw.

“Age?”

“Twenty-eight.” Wow, kudos for telling the truth, Grandpop. Once we got to the same question for his wife, Mae, I heard her yell, “Twenty-seven!”  He looked over his shoulder and whispered, “I told the enumerator yesterday 31, but she’s really 32. Just don’t tell I told you!”

I learned about 7-year-old Joan and 4-year-old Anita, the “peanut” I saw earlier. Upon hearing her name, she appeared and hid behind her father’s leg. “This is Anita,” he said, “but I like to call her Chick!”  Anita giggled.

Finally, Henry told me his father-in-law, Joseph Zawodny, also lived there. Henry told me that Joseph was married. I didn’t need to ask where his wife was – I knew she was in a mental hospital. I would visit her on another trip back to the past. Where are you, I thought.  As if he heard me, I saw an older man peer out of the kitchen and ask Henry something in Polish. If only I could answer back or get the chance to talk to him! There is so much I want to know, and I’d like to know him so much.

I knew my time was running out.  Reluctantly, I thanked the Pater family and took my leave, waving bye to little Anita on my way out. I’m off to see your future husband now.

How do I get from the Port Richmond neighborhood to Northern Liberties fast? Sometimes future technology has its advantages, and I found my way more quickly than I thought possible.  Suddenly I was walking along Germantown Avenue. I couldn’t go up and down every street with my limited time – when I saw the meat packing plant on the corner of 3rd and Thompson, I knew I was in the right place. The census-taker wouldn’t walk these streets for two more days, but fortunately my destination was right on the corner so I didn’t have to fake my way through several houses.

Right on the corner at 1300 Germantown Avenue, I spotted a young boy sitting on the front step. I was stunned and forgot where I was. “Nick?” I asked.

The Pointkouski Family, circa 1938-9

The curly-haired boy looked up at me and smiled. “No, I’m Jimmy and I’m 5. I’ll be 6 this summer,” he said proudly, blue eyes sparkling.

“Oh,” I said, “it’s nice to meet you, Jimmy! I have a nephew named Nick – he’s 4 going on 5 this summer and he sure looks a lot like you!”

Suddenly a woman came to the door and she didn’t look happy that I was talking to her son. After I explained about the census, she invited me in and once again I tried to look around the home’s interior. This house rented for $5 more than my last stop, and I wanted to see if it was worth the extra money.  I also couldn’t stop looking at the woman, Margaret Pointkouski.  As I took down the information she provided, I questioned the spelling. “That’s with a U, not a W?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “that’s right.”

Margaret looked so – what was the word? Young! She was 28 years old – well, that’s what she told me, but I knew her 28th birthday would actually be the following week!  Just then the door opened and a young man entered. “Well, hello!” he said as he tipped his hat and leaned over to kiss Margaret.

Just as with Henry, the 29-year-old James looked so much more handsome than any photos I had ever seen. I couldn’t help but smile back.  When he heard who I was, or at least who I was pretending to be, he commented that he didn’t know there were “lady census takers”.

At that, Margaret rolled her eyes, “Oh, Pop!”

I said, “They thought some people might answer more questions from a woman.”

“Sure,” the elder Jimmy said, “I’ll tell you anything!”  He added, “I hope you get all of your info recorded.”

“Oh, I will,” I assured him. Just maybe not today.

The Pointkouski household was small with only the couple and their young son, Jimmy. I was bursting to tell Margaret that she would get pregnant late the following year and have a daughter, but I knew it wasn’t my place to speak of such things.

I asked my questions – not the ones I wanted to ask; I could not ask those questions. Like where are your siblings living right now? I hadn’t visited them yet. Oh, there were so many questions I could not ask. But I asked the “official” questions and I was very happy to hear the answers. All I kept thinking was: this is so cool!

I said my good-byes to 1940 and powered down the machine. Suddenly my boyfriend appeared, “Time’s up – let’s go out to eat. Did you find everyone you were looking for?”

“Not everyone, but it’s a start.  They’ll all still be there when I go back.”

###

[Written for the 117th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: 1940!]

I actually wrote this the night before the carnival topic was announced. I’ve told a few stories on this blog, but I never presented factual information in such a fictional way.  Technically, I’d call this creative non-fiction. To me, talking about finding a genealogical record (on my “machine”, aka my laptop) can sound a little boring, at least to non-genealogists. But how could a science fiction lover like myself resist seeing that search for the record as time travel! The idea took hold and would not let go.  Face it – bringing up those images, walking through the neighborhoods, reading all about the families – it is the closest thing we can get to time travel!

The Census facts came from the actual 1940 Census (source citations upon request, I used Ancestry to access). I saw the path the enumerator took and learned about the neighborhood layout from a combination of current maps and a 1942 map of Philadelphia courtesy of the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. What was the weather like on those April days in 1940? Well, I learned about temperature and precipitation totals from The Franklin Institute! I knew about fashion from the movies and my parents. I have an idea what the characters looked like from photographs. As for the personalities of the individuals – everything I know, I learned from my parents. Of my grandparents, I knew my maternal grandmother the best.  Second would be my paternal grandmother, with my paternal grandfather third.  Least of all, I knew, or rather didn’t really know, my maternal grandfather – he died when I was five years old and I only met him a few times. I’m glad I could get to know them all in the 1940 Census!

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Recently Ancestry.com put up a new set of records called “Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records.” The collection contains a wide variety of miscellaneous records from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  I actually found a few items of interest in the collection.  One subset of records comes from the Wackerman Funeral Home, a funeral home which still exists today but is no longer in its former location.  In these records, I found information on the funeral arrangements for my great-grandmother, Marie Bergmeister, who died in 1919 at the age of 43.  Marie (or more usually, Maria) left behind a husband, Joseph, and five children – including my grandmother Margaret, the youngest, who was not quite six years old.

The funeral home record for the costs of Marie Bergmeister's funeral, 1919.

I knew that my grandmother’s family was poor, but it was interesting to compare the bill for my great-grandmother’s burial to some of the others who died at the same time.

Casket

  • $55 – Gray crape
  • $65 – Chesnut
  • $90 – Square chesnut with ext handles
  • $125 – Solid maple
  • $200 – Solid mahoghany

Case

  • $14 – Pine
  • $35 – Chesnut

Hearse

  • $10.50 to $13.00

Service

  • $5 – Low Mass
  • $25 – Solemn Requiem

A more costly funeral found in the same records.

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Update 2/8/2011 – see the follow-up to this post for more info!

Sometimes waiting to receive copies of records is worth the wait.  But sometimes it’s not.  Such was my adventure with USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  As I wrote in The Waiting Game in September, I requested a copy of my great-grandfather’s naturalization info. I did this despite the fact that I already knew his naturalization date and had a copy of the papers. But I was curious if there was anything else in the “file”.  I had two goals in mind.  First, I wanted to see if there was a photograph.  Many naturalization records contain photos, but my great-grandfather’s did not.  Did I have the complete package?  Since I only have one photo of him, it was worth finding out. Next, I had a mysterious addendum to his naturalization that I received from another agency – would the USCIS file contain it?

Let me start at the beginning.  Early on in my research, circa 1989-91, I found the naturalization papers for my great-grandfather, Louis Pater, at the Philadelphia City Archives.  He was naturalized in 1925 at the local level in the Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court.  These local naturalizations were not available at the National Archives (and still aren’t, nor are they available online).  The City Archives had a file of index cards, and the archives’ personnel would photocopy the Declaration of Intent and the Petition for Naturalization for any name you found.

For reasons I can’t quite recall, in late 1992 I submitted a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the Department of Justice, where the naturalization information was then held.  Perhaps I was looking for that elusive photo.  I didn’t get a photo then, either, but I got the previously received declaration and petition.  The difference was that this time, the birth dates of Louis’ children listed on the petition were blocked out for “privacy” concerns as the data was considered “personal”.  In addition to these two documents, they sent me a comical series of papers that was supposed to be Louis’ passenger arrival record…only every line on the manifest was blocked out.  This included his sister and brother-in-law’s lines above his.  If you are familiar with passenger arrival records, you know that if a family is traveling together, the persons listed underneath the first person usually get ditto marks for the repeated info.  Without the first family member, Louis’ passenger arrival record was a bunch of ditto marks.

I should point out that in 1992 when I received this, all five of his “children” were deceased anywhere from 20 to 50 years.  In fact, some of their birth dates were publicly available in the Social Security Death Index, one of the few sources of online information back then.  And, even though the Ellis Island web site was not yet operational (nor was Ancestry), the passenger list was fully available via the National Archives.

But I digress…  The DoJ file contained one additional piece of information – a barely legible typewritten letter from 1940.  It seemed to indicate that my great-grandfather committed a crime and was sentenced to two to four years in prison.  I can’t quite read the entire letter, but it was apparently meant to let the naturalization service know that they may have give citizenship to an unsavory character.  I assume that if he had committed further crimes, they would have deported him.

It was my inability to read this letter that led me to try the USCIS search.  After all, they talk about receiving a “file” so I didn’t know what other information might be included.

First I paid for an index search, which was unfortunate since it turned out that the “index number” was his naturalization number, which I already had.  But they don’t really tell you that and make it seem that the index search must precede the file search.  The index number cost $20 and took five months to receive.

Once I received the number, I submitted a Record Copy Request for $20.  Two months later, I received the “file”.  I received the Declaration of Intent, the Petition for Naturalization (shrunk to 8.5” x 11” or half the size of the original document), and his certificate.  The children’s birthdays were also blacked out on the Petition.  I had also received the certificate from the DoJ, but this copy was easier to read.  No photo.  No mysterious letter about his arrest.

With the above, I also received an amusing letter explaining that they “completed the review of all documents and have identified 3 pages that are We have reviewed and have determined to release all information except those portions that are exempt.”  I’m an employee of the U.S. Government, too, and we actually use spell-check and grammar-check.

The letter goes on to say that “certain pages contain marks that appear to be blacked-out information.  The black marks were made prior to our receipt of the file.” Which makes me wonder…where did they get the files from?  And where are the originals?  Apparently, the City Archives has unmarked copies, but the federal agencies do not.  Do the originals exist?  If the new USCIS agency (part of the Department of Homeland Security) does not have the file that the Department of Justice had, where did those files go?

I end my quest seven months later and $40 short.  My great-grandfather didn’t need a photo for his naturalization, and I received no additional information.  Are you looking for your ancestor’s naturalization?  If I were you, I’d stick to either online resources like Ancestry or Footnote.  Or, it pays to find out if there are naturalizations at the local level.  In my case, 2 of my 3 great-grandfathers were naturalized in the Philadelphia Quarter Sessions Court.  These records are kept at the City Archives.  There is an index, but it is not online.  In fact, it’s not even computerized on site – at least not twenty years ago when I was there.  It pays to review the courts used in your area and looking at the federal courts that have been indexed.

USCIS may still be worth it to some researchers, however, because in addition to naturalization records they also hold alien registration files and visas.  Even if your ancestor was not naturalized, alien immigrants were required to register with the Government in the early 1940’s.  I still may pursue this for some of my non-naturalized relatives.

As for my hard-to-read letter detailing the alleged incarceration of my great-grandfather, I never would have known about it if I hadn’t tried the FOIA request years ago.  But where those files are now is anyone’s guess.  Since scanning has improved in the last two decades, I will try to scan the photocopy and see if I can sharpen the faded text to uncover the next part of this mystery.

For more information on Naturalization Records:

 

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I’ve long admired DearMYRTLE and Ask Olive Tree Genealogy for answering so many questions from their readers.  But I’ve been a little jealous too, because I wished that *I* had some questions to answer.  Today I received a question via a comment to an earlier post, so I’ve decided to play the “Dear Abby” role perfected by Myrt (aka Pat) and Lorine and answer the question as a new blog post (especially since I’ve been quite slack in new blog posts lately)!

In two previous posts, I discussed finding Philadelphia Marriage Records: Philadelphia Marriage Indexes Online looked at the Family Search Labs site with the indexes from Philadelphia marriages from 1885 to 1951.  Then, When You Can’t Find Grandpa’s Marriage Record explored alternative marriage locations around the Philadelphia area if your ancestors lived here but the record is nowhere to be found in the above mentioned index.  But today a reader asked a very good question that I hadn’t fully addressed in either post: what about pre-1885 marriage records?

Brad asks:

What was the case with Philadelphia marriages prior to 1885? Were marriage certificate required at any point? I’m trying to find out more on my 2nd great grandparents and was wondering if I should be trying to hunt down their marriage certificate (they married in 1884).

Good question, Brad!  Cities and states had different requirements as to when civil registration began.  In Philadelphia, civil registration of births, deaths, and marriages was required beginning on July 1, 1860.  Records from that date through December 31, 1885 are available at the Philadelphia City Archives.  According to the Philadelphia City Archives site:

The marriage records give the date of marriage, names, ages, races, generic places of residence and birth for both the bride and groom, minister’s name and address, and denomination of marriage performed.

Most of the indexes are arranged alphabetically by first letters of last and first names, and then by year. If one of the parties to the marriage was Thomas Green and the marriage occurred on 31 August 1873, then one would look at the “G” volume, open to the section which included all people whose first names began with the letter “T” and then look at 1873. There are no separate indexes for men and women – all names are filed in the same index. Most of the indexes of this type stop between 1877 and 1880 so one would then have to look at the yearly indexes for the years 1877 – 1885.

All marriage indexes, registers and original returns have been microfilmed.

The Philadelphia City Archives is located at 3101 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104.  They can be reached by phone at 215-685-9400 (messages only) or 215-685-9401 (receptionist).  If you do not live in Philadelphia or are unable to visit the archives in person, they will search the records for you.  Send a written request with as much information as possible.  If you know the exact date of the marriage, the fee is $10.  If the exact date is unknown, a search will be made for $10 per each 3-month period searched (includes the certificate cost). Note that these fees are current as of today per the Archives’ FAQ page at http://www.phila.gov/Records/Archives/FAQ.html.

Brad, as you can see, the time period for your 2nd great-grandparents is covered with existing records.  If you can’t come to Philadelphia to perform a search yourself, the fee to search the entire year is a bit steep at $40 – so you may want to seek alternative means for look-up such as a local researcher.  Another option is to subscribe to a genealogy mailing list specific to Philadelphia such as Philly-Roots hosted by Rootsweb/Ancestry.  Often someone will ask other listers for help and you can make arrangements offline at less than the archives’ cost.

That might help Brad, but the question remains for others with roots that are deeper into Philadelphia’s history than either Brad’s family or my own: What about earlier records before July 1, 1860?

Since there was no formal registration required by the city (or state) before that date, there are few options when searching for marriage information.  One could try the following resources:

  1. Church Records – Try using city directories and old maps to determine possible churches.  If your ancestors were Catholic and you are lookingfor a record prior to 1920, one useful resource is the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center, which is located on the grounds of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary at 100 E. Wynnewood Ave in Wynnewood, PA.  Contact them at 610-667-2125 for more information and fees for research.
  2. Newspaper Announcements  – Very few old newspapers have been indexed.  Genealogy Bank has some Philadelphia papers from 1719 through 1922.
  3. Marriage Registers exist for some years, but they can be difficult to find for the pre-1860 era.  Try the Historical Society of Pennsylvania or search through the FHL catalog.

I hope this has been helpful to other Philadelphia researchers.  If anyone else has any research questions, I’ll try my best to help so please don’t be shy about asking!

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I enjoy highlighting unusual genealogical resources – records other than vital records, passenger lists, naturalizations, and the federal census.  Recently I entered some of my “usual suspect” names into Ancestry and discovered a resource previously uknown to me: immigrant bank records.  The historical background about these records is described on Ancestry.com as follows:

In the port cities on the east coast of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, many charitable organizations aided immigrants arriving from Europe. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was one of those organizations. There were “ethnic” or “immigrant” banks in many port cities, usually conveniently located in the Jewish neighborhoods where newly-arrived immigrants tended to settle. These banks were commercial enterprises, started mainly by established German Jews, as a place where recent immigrants could save money and arrange to purchase steamship tickets to bring their families to the United States. HIAS preserved the original records of some immigrant banks formerly operating in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Blitzstein, Rosenbaum and Lipshutz/Peoples Banks.

Today, the record books of the Blitzstein Bank, Rosenbaum Bank, and Lipshutz Bank are housed at the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center (PJAC). They offer unique kinds of information, including the name and U.S. address of the person who paid for the tickets, port of entry – usually, but not always the port of Philadelphia – and intended final destination (again, not necessarily Philadelphia).

The person I found in the index was Zofia Mach, but not much info is provided from the index alone.  It simply provides her name as the Passenger, as well as the Account Open Date (24 March 1929), Purchaser’s Name (Carl Mach), the Bank (Lipshutz/Peoples Bank) and the Order Number.  To obtain an actual copy of the record, instructions are provided on the JewishGen site with a separate page for each of the 3 banks that are indexed.  For the Lipshutz/Peoples Bank, a copy of the record can be obtained from the Philadelphia Jewish Archives (see below for more info).  I knew from my research that Carl and Sophie Mach lived in Philadelphia, so it was likely the correct family.  I was curious enough about what other information could be obtained from these bank records to send $9 to find out.  Here is a copy of the record I received:

SOURCE: Lipshutz/Peoples Bank Passage Order Book Records, Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center

SOURCE: Lipshutz/Peoples Bank Passage Order Book Records, Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center

I already knew Carl’s address and relationship to Sophia/Zofia.  Normally, one would expect that Zofia’s passenger arrival record would be easy to find without this record as a resource.  However, in this case, Zofia’s record is indexed incorrectly in Ancestry.com’s database: she is listed as Sofia Wach although her name in the passenger list itself is Sofie Mach.  Because of the mis-indexing, I used the ship name and date on this bank record to find her arrival record and may not have found it without the extra info. (Although the typewritten info shows departure from Hamburg to Philadelphia, the ship and date noted in handwriting at the bottom traveled from Copenhagen to New York.)

Two other interesting tidbits came from this record.  First, it lists Sophia’s address in Żyrardów, Poland.  Although I could not find it on a modern map of the town, the information could still come in handy for research in Poland.  Second, it’s the first time I’ve seen the cost of a ticket to America on any of the records I’ve found.  A second class ticket cost $143.  In the 1920′s, that was a significant sum of money – note that her husband had this bank account for five years before she made the journey.

The records of the three Philadelphia banks are also available on microfilm through the LDS Family History Library., and you can search the records via the JewishGen site if you do not have access to Ancestry.com.  See the detailed pages at JewishGen on their US databases page under Pennsylvania.  Be aware that the family I researched was not Jewish!  One did not have to be Jewish to have an account at these banks.

In total there are approximately 138,000 records among the three banks ranging from 1890 through 1949.  If you had relatives living in or near Philadelphia, it may be worth a quick search – especially if you have had difficulty locating their passenger arrival record.

Although the sites indicate that the records are held by the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center, they wrote in their response that they are moving to the Temple University-Urban Archives Center “in late Spring”.  So if you are planning to request a record, you may want to call either archive first prior to writing.

In the case of Sophia Mach, this was actually her second journey to America!  Since Mach is not one of my family surnames in the sidebar, I’ll write more later this week on why they are a subject of my research.  Are they related to my family?  More to come…

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One of my more popular posts has been Philadelphia Marriage Indexes Online.  As that post indicates, the FamilySearch site’s collection of Philadelphia Marriage Records is great online tool for searching for marriage information.  The collection is a listing of marriage licenses issued in Philadelphia from 1885-1951.  While these records are technically an “index” they are not searchable – to find a particular person, you must browse through the records.  This is easy for the years 1885 to 1938 because the list is alphabetical.  For the remaining years, the last names were entered in the order of application, so it takes some manual searching to find a particular person.

In my previous post, I lauded the availability of these records – not only can we search online, but they are free!  But I’ve also come across some comments on mailing lists and message boards from some disappointed individuals who were unable to find their ancestors’ marriage records in this index.  When you know a couple lived in the city, and you have an approximation of when they married, why can’t they be found in the index of Philadelphia marriage license records?  Simply put, many Philadelphia residents went elsewhere to get married.  This occurred mostly due to marriage laws that differed from state to state.  These laws that govern how marriages may be entered into and officiated are at the state level, not federal, so the rules vary.

For this reason, some couples married out of state, or at least outside of the borders of the city of Philadelphia.  The Pennsylvania rules that they may have been circumventing usually involved age or the waiting period.  In the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a law was passed on October 1, 1885 that required marriage licenses to be obtained prior to a couple marrying.  The county clerk of the orphans’ court was required to keep the records.  At this time, the information required by the couple was rather simple and included the names of the couple, birth dates and places of birth, occupations and current residences, any previous marriage(s), and if the parties are related or not.

On September 11, 1885, the New York Times printed a short article about the new law that was excerpted from The Philadelphia Times:

Some of the interrogatories will be embarrassing in special cases, but the law is inexorable and they must be answered.  The clerk of the court will be liable to fine if he fails to enforce the law to the letter, and parties answering falsely will be subject to the penalty of perjury.

One of the requirements of this new law made the marriageable age 21.  For anyone under 21, the consent of the parents was required.  Suddenly, an out-of-state marriage market was born!

Camden, NJ

One of the earliest locations for Philadelphians to marry was one of the closest and easily reached: Camden, New Jersey, located directed across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.  By 1888 the newspapers were complaining that Pennsylvania’s marriage license law was creating a “knot-tying business” for “love-sick couples” in Camden, “where impertinent questions are not asked, and where the performance of the marriage ceremony is not hedged about with restrictions.”

By 1891, Camden was called “the Gretna Green of the Union”.  Gretna Green was a small town in Scotland known for runaway weddings.  A New York Times’ article explains that those “unable or unwilling to procure a license” in Philadelphia simply traveled to Camden for a quick and quiet marriage.  The statistics cited in the article show that only 634 marriages were performed in Camden in 1885, the year that Pennsylvania changed their law.  By 1890, the entire state of New Jersey had 15,564 marriages with one-third performed in Camden – “although the population of that city is less than one-fifteenth of the population of the State.

My great-grandparents were Philadelphia residents who contributed to the booming marriage trade in Camden.  In 1910, Louis Pater celebrated his 17th birthday on August 24th.  Three days later, he married Elizabeth Miller.  On the marriage certificate, Louis’ age is listed as 22.  Elizabeth is listed as 20 although she would only turn 19 in another three months.  Elizabeth’s parents were in Poland – she had only immigrated the previous year – but her brother Emil served as a witness.  It is assumed that Louis did not think his parents would approve of the marriage at his young age.

Although Ancestry.com has marriage records from “Camden County, NJ, 1837-1910″ it is likely that these are moreso county records than those from the city of Camden.  Not only did I not find my great-grandparents’ marriage in this database, but it consists of only 6,000 records.  Given the marriage boom in Camden after 1885, it is assumed that the city of Camden’s records are not included here.

The city of Camden’s web page indicates that “Birth, Death, and Marriage Certificates can be aquired (sic) for anyone that was born, died, or married in the City of Camden. These certificates can be picked up in room 103 of City Hall or mailed directly to you.”

Elkton, MD

Another town famous for out-of-state marriages was Elkton, MD.  Located in northern Maryland, the town is situated close to Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  Until 1938, there was no waiting period required between the marriage application and the ceremony, so the town became known for “quick” weddings similar to Las Vegas decades later.  The following sign recognizes Elkton’s role in the history of marriage in the Northeastern US:

Historical Marker in Elkton indicating that the town was the "Marriage Capital of the East"

Historical Marker in Elkton indicating that the town was the "Marriage Capital of the East"

I do not have any direct ancestors who got married in Elkton, but I’m sure there are some collateral relatives who did.  If you can’t find a marriage record, try Elkton.  Records can be searched through the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cecil County, Maryland.  See their site for more information.

Other Pennsylvania Counties

It makes sense to travel across state lines to marry if Pennsylvania had “restrictive” laws regarding the marriageable age and a waiting period.  However, there was another option – the couple simply didn’t tell the truth on their applicatoin.  But, sometimes they did not want to lie about their ages in the city of Philadelphia.  In my own family history, both sets of grandparents got married in Delaware County – despite the fact that it is in Pennsylvania and therefore governed by the same laws as the city of Philadelphia.  Perhaps they were afraid that the city could “look it up” and discover their fib?  All I know is that both towns are a bit out of the way for me today and I have a car and highways; my grandparents did not.

In the Pater family, history repeated itself with another 17-year-old groom.  My grandfather, Henry Pater, was two months shy of his 18th birthday when he traveled to Broomall, PA with his intended, Mae Zawodna.  On the license application, Henry lists his birth year as 1907 instead of 1912, therefore making himself almost 23 years old.  Mae, who actually was born in 1907 and was five years older than Henry, listed her birth year as 1908 – making herself appear to be 21 rather than 22 and a half.  Neither family looked kindly upon the wedding, and in fact in the 1930 census a few months later they are each enumerated with their own parents – living a few doors away from each other.  Eventually they told their families they were married, and in June of the same year their marriage was blessed in a Catholic church.

My other grandparents traveled to Media, PA for their wedding in 1934.  James Pointkouski accurately reported his age as 23, but Margaret Bergmeister makes herself one year older – reporting her age as 21.  In reality, she would turn 21 a few months later.  She also provides an address for her parents; however, both had been deceased for some time.  They may have feared someone in Philadelphia confirming her birth record, which would have made her ineligible for marriage without the consent of her guardian.  But they also did not want to wait an extra few months – their son would be born seven months later.

Couples had many reasons to marry in seemingly unlikely places.  If the law required parental consent, a waiting period, or even proof of either a divorce or death of a prior marriage, some couples traveled to avoid the hassle.  Or they traveled to the next county to avoid the neighbors seeing the marriage notice published in the newspaper.  This was by no means unique to the Philadelphia area – Elkton, MD received couples from up and down the East Coast, and other states have similar “Gretna Green” locations such as the Kentucky and Ohio River Valley border. If you have trouble finding Grampa’s marriage record – look around the neighboring counties or states!

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FamilySearchLabs has made Philadelphia Marriage Indexes available for 1885-1951.  This is great news for those of us searching our roots in Philadelphia!  It should be noted that these are the indexes only, not the actual marriage licenses.  Also, you are not yet able to search the records with the name search since they have not completed the indexing, but you can browse the collection.

The collection is divided into several groupings:

  • 1885-1916
  • 1917-1938
  • 1939-1942
  • 1943-1946
  • 1947-1951

If you are researching the years 1885-1938, you’re in luck – the record groupings that span those years are alphabetical (and typed, so they are easy to read).  Simply to to the first letter of the surname you want to search and click on the number of images available and the records will appear on screen.  Then, jump forward in the alphabet until you find the name you are looking for.

What information will you see?  Simply the last name and first name of either the bride or groom, the last name of the spouse in parentheses, the year, and the license number.  You can then cross-reference the spouse’s name to get a first name for that person.  While this may not seem like a lot of information, it did help me track down some maiden names and the year of marriage for quite a few couples.  Of course, you can find out much more information by getting a copy of the actual marriage license, and now that you have the names, year, and license number it should not be too difficult.  See the Philadelphia Marriage License Bureau for more information.  For older marriages (pre-1915), you can obtain copies at the Philadelphia City Archives where the records are available on microfilm.  Some of the older records are available at LDS Family History Centers as well.

For the indexes from 1939-1951, the records are not strictly alphabetical, and they are printed instead of typed (printed very neatly, I might add).  They are grouped by year, then by the first letter of the last name, then by the first letter of the first name.  So, you’ll find all of the Pinto’s, Pater’s, Parker’s, Petruzzelli’s, and Portnoy’s jumbled together, but if you know the person’s first name, you can jump right to the section for that letter (so all of the Joseph’s, John’s, and Jacob’s with a last name beginning with “P” are together).  Because of this, the indexes for these years will take more time to look through.  But, the fact that they go all the way up to 1951 means that I should be able to find the marriage records for many cousins to help fill in some bare branches on the tree.

My only “pet peeve” is that I can not seem to access one record group.  For the years 1917-1938, the surnames beginning with X-Y-Z simply will not come up.  I can’t access the records for Zawodny!  I’ve sent a message via the “Feedback” form, so I’m sure the smart folks at Family Search Labs will fix the link soon. Update: As of 25 July 2008, this problem has been fixed on the site and the X-Y-Z records can now be accessed!

One word of caution: if you can’t find a couple listed in the index, try elsewhere.  All four of my grandparents were born and raised in Philadelphia, yet both couples got married – and therefore got their marriage licenses – in Media, PA (the county seat for Delaware County).  My only great-grandparents to be married in the U.S. chose Camden, NJ – despite the fact they both lived in Philadelphia.  Also, one of the most popular “marriage destinations” back then was Elkton, MD – apparently the legal age for marriage was younger here, so you didn’t need your parents’ permission as you would in PA!

You never know who you might find in these records – and you may not even realize it’s someone famous!  I already have this particular marriage record, but I looked the groom up in the index anyway.  It’s also a good example of what the 1939-1951 indexes look like:

Future Famous Couple

Future Famous Couple

Did you know that actor Gene Kelly was married in Philadelphia?  He and Betsy Blair (that’s her “stage name”) chose a spot “in the middle” for her New Jersey family and his Pittsburgh family.  They were literally on their way to Hollywood where Gene would begin his career (bonus points if any readers know which film was his first…without snooping on the net).  At least I finally found a way to combine my two GENE hobbies!

Related articles: When You Can’t Find Grampa’s Marriage Record (alternate locations) and More on Philadelphia Marriage Records (pre-1885 records)

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Today I decided to try my luck with FamilySearch Labs latest offering, Philadelphia City Death Certificates 1803-1915.  There isn’t much available online for Philadelphia, especially post-1900 when my families were living here, so I was pleased I’d at least have a few years worth of records to search.  I entered in the usual surnames, and I quickly found death certificates for siblings of both of my grandmothers.

In the Bergmeister family, there were five children.  The first four were all born within 2-4 years of each other, but the gap between my grandmother, Margaret, and her next oldest brother, Julius, was 6 years.  I found death records for two children born in between Julius in 1907 and Margaret in 1913.  The first was a boy, Charles, who lived for 15 hours on 17 July 1909 and was listed as a premature birth.  A sister, Laura, was also born premature on 05 November 1911 and died the same day.

The Zawodny family had six children, and again there is about 2 years between each child until a 5 year gap between my grandmother’s siblings Kazimierz (known as Charley) in 1911 and Zofia (known as Dorothy) in 1916.  My grandmother used to say that she had two brothers who died as infants, and I confirmed that with the records.  Bolesław was born on 04 August 1912 and died six months later on 08 March 1913.  The cause of death is listed as acute gastroenteritis, although my grandmother seemed to remember her father slipping on an icy sidewalk while holding the baby, who then fell and died later of a head injury.  Another son,  Władysław, was born on 18 January 1914.  He died just over a year later on 27 March 1915. This time the cause of death coincided with my grandmother’s memory.  He developed infections in his mouth caused by his teeth not developing and growing properly.  My grandmother called the boys William and Walter, which roughly correspond to common English names used for those Polish names.

I’ve looked at many records in my genealogical research, and I’ve seen numerous deaths of babies in those records, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.  But these four records were different, and I was saddened to view them.  These children’s deaths were closer to me because they would have been my grandmothers’ siblings, my parents’ aunt and uncles.  How difficult it must have been for my great-grandparents to suffer these losses.  In both cases, the children died one after the other.  Also in both cases, each family then had one more child, a girl in both cases. The next generations would occasionally have miscarriages, stillborns, and infant deaths, so living in “modern” times is no guarantee of a healthy baby.  But I’m glad I found these records so their very short lives are not forgotten.

FamilySearch Labs appears to be a wonderful site.  It is easy to use, and the records were mostly transcribed correctly (my one great-grandmother’s maiden name was incorrect both times).  Another benefit is that it is FREE for all to use.  For folks that can’t afford Ancestry, this is a good alternative for a small group of records.  My only complaint is that there aren’t enough records available yet!  If enough genealogists volunteer to transcribe records, this could truly be the future of online genealogy.  I’m very excited to see that another project in the works is Philadelphia Marriage Records from 1916-1951 – I’m sure this will help me fill in even more gaps on my tree.  If you’ve tried this site and had success filling in your family’s gaps, be sure to leave a comment.

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