Losing My Census in Search of a Brother That Never Was

Have you ever looked at a genealogical record and seen what you expected to see rather than what was actually there? Recently I started organizing data in anticipation of the 2012 release of the 1940 Census, and that includes reviewing addresses and enumeration districts from the 1930 Census.  This is how I realized that for nearly the last ten years I’ve misread one of my family’s entries.

By 1930, my grandmother’s parents were deceased.  My grandmother, Margaret Bergmeister, was only 17 years old and the youngest in the family.  Her siblings included a sister, Marie, and three brothers: Joseph, Max, and Julius. When it came to researching my families, the Bergmeister’s were the easiest. My father remembered a lot of information about his aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Unlike some other branches of my family, the Bergmeister’s didn’t try to hide from the census-takers or make up information. But after reviewing the 1930 entry, I’m left with another mystery on my hands.

Julius, Margaret, Max, Joseph, Marie - October 10, 1959

I’ve already indicated that my grandmother is nowhere to be found in either the 1920 or 1930 Census. The reasonable theory is that she was living with her aunt or visiting at the time of the Census and was simply left out of the family’s lineup (this includes by her own father in 1920). In 1930 she may have been living with the aunt or her sister, but neither household included her. Her oldest brother, Joseph, was 27 and married with two children in 1930. Also listed with his household were his two brothers. When I first found the entry, and in all the years since, it was a “given” to me that they were Max and Julius.  The names that were enumerated, however, were Julius and Gustav.  Since there are many errors on the census, I never thought much about this mix-up in names.  Until now, that is…

As I reviewed the 1930 entry, I realized that Julius is listed with the correct age, followed by “Gustav” who was a year younger.  But Max was older than Julius, so how could that be him?  Then I realized that Max’s daughter, my dad’s cousin, was born in 1930 so Max was likely already married and living on his own.  After a new search, I found 25-year-old Max (indexed under the surname Bergmuset) living with his wife, Sophia.

When did Joe get a brother named Gus?

Back to Joseph and his brothers…  Um, Gustav who?  He is listed as 21 years old, one year younger than Julius.  There’s just one problem…the Bergmeister’s didn’t have a brother named Gustav.  Or did they?  Census paranoia has now set in…could there be another brother that probably died in his 20s and therefore wasn’t know by his nieces and nephews or talked about by his brothers and sisters?

I went off on a wild goose chase to see if there may have been another brother. I’ve encountered plenty of mis-information in census records before, but I always blamed the fact that my ancestors were immigrants and likely spoke in heavily accented English.  But in this case, Joseph and his brothers were all born in Philadelphia – understanding the language would not have been a problem.

After consideration, I’ve determined that the entry for Gustav is likely a mysterious mistake and not a previously unknown sibling. First, there is no oral history of this brother – I’ve met many of my second cousins, and the family stories all have the same information. My father and several of his cousins who are older than my father have no recollection of another brother. There is no sibling named Gustav listed with the family on either the 1910 or 1920 census (but then again, my grandmother, born 1913, is fully absent from both the 1920 and 1930). If there had been a brother who died before my father and his older cousins were old enough to have known and/or remember him, that brother would have likely been buried with his parents.  That grave, purchased in 1919 upon the death of the mother of the family, had room for six, but there is no Gustav buried with them.

Finally, the most compelling reason that I doubt the existence of this brother is that there were two other children born in between Julius and Margaret that would make the birth year of 1909 (based on being 21 in 1930) impossible.  The Bergmeister’s had two premature infants who died on the same day they were born: Charles in July 1909 and Laura in November 1911.  Julius was born in June, 1907, so it is conceivable (pun intended) that another child could have been born in 1908 – but not in 1909.  But in the 1910 census, mother Marie is listed as having borne 5 children, 4 of whom are living – this would include baby Charles’ death and the births of Marie, Joseph, Max, and Julius, but no Gustav.

So young Gustav remains a mystery.  I even considered that perhaps his is the brother of Joseph’s wife, Helen Pardus.  After a quick search of Helen’s family in the earlier census records, I found many siblings – but no Gustav or any brother for the approximate year.  Joseph Bergmeister has a cousin named Charles Bergmeister who was born in 1909, but he is enumerated with his mother in Elizabeth, NJ and there is no indication that either branch of the two families were ever in touch after the deaths of their fathers, the brothers Joseph and Ignatz Nicholas Bergmeister (Joseph died in 1927 and Ignatz in 1919).

I chalk Gustav up as yet another census error. Although my grandmother is missing, I’ve found others counted twice and now a phantom brother.  I’m confident that there is no brother Gus…but as a skeptical genealogist, the parish church were the Bergmeister family was baptized will be getting a call this week!


10 Things I Learned at Jamboree

After hearing all of my genealogy friends talk excitedly about Jamboree for the last three years, I finally had a chance to attend the big event. Jamboree 2011, also known as the Southern California Genealogy Society’s Genealogy Jamboree, has been going strong for 42 years. The conference draws not only attendees from all over California, but others like me who traveled a long way just for the opportunity to hear some great speakers and meet some great genealogy friends. I’m glad I went – not only did I have a great time, but I learned a lot! Here are the top ten things I learned at Jamboree 2011:

1. From Warren Bittner, I learned that I’m not the only one who has to go back and research some more after I thought I found the “right” answer. In a great lecture on “Elusive Immigrants”, Warren provided great examples on how to perform exhaustive – or exhausting – research.  With great humor, he reminded us that that’s why we call it “REsearch” and he gave me some new ideas for old research problems.

2. From Lisa Louise Cooke, I learned that I need to update my version of Google Earth.  In her session on “Google Earth for Genealogy”, Lisa showed how this awesome tool can be used to aid your family research and learn more about your family’s neighborhoods.

3. I was very happy to finally attend a lecture by one of genealogy’s true “rock stars” – Stephen Morse – who has the unique ability to explain complicated ideas so that everyone can understand them.  But I was shocked to learn how many other attendees in the audience had never heard of Mr. Morse’s One-Step Webpages! Seriously? Experienced genealogists need to shout Steve’s name from our rooftops (or blogs) to make sure everyone getting started in genealogy knows his name.  I feel a blog post coming on…  The One-Step site started out as a tool to help find immigrants, but it does so much more now that every genealogist can find at least one of Steve’s tools useful.

4. The Photo Detective herself, Maureen Taylor, expertly explained “Advanced Photo Detecting – Cracking the Cold Case”.  She makes me want to dig out all of my photographs and hunt for clues.  If you ever have the opportunity to hear Maureen speak – go!  You won’t be disappointed.

5. I attended several other interesting lectures, but many of the most useful things I learned came from sidebar conversations with my fellow genealogy bloggers that took place in between lectures at either “Bloggers’ Island”, the hotel lobby, or literally beside the bar.  From these knowledgeable friends I learned several new things about new computer technology, writing, self-publishing, and researching Polish records.

6. I learned that peer pressure is alive and well as the Pointer Sisters (also known as Tonia Kendrick, Caroline Pointer, and footnoteMaven) convinced me to join the Twitter revolution. You, too, can follow my inane and/or insane comments @donnapoint if you dare.

7. I learned that pinatas don’t come pre-stuffed, and that you can’t fill them with nearly as much candy as you think you can.

8. I learned that genealogists are resourceful and well prepared.  From whom else could you get a pinata-whacker, some string, a corkscrew, and a spare pair of pajamas at a moment’s notice?

9. I learned that occasionally you know as much as the lecturer and you realize that you could have given a talk on the same topic equally well. I don’t mean this to sound snobbish; rather, sometimes you know more than you think you do.  Rather than be disappointed that I didn’t learn anything new in those lectures, I was happy to realize all my years of research has taught me something that even I can share.

10. Finally, I learned that genealogists make the best friends! I was so happy to spend some time with friends I met before, friends that I’d known online for a while but never met in person, and new friends I met for the first time.  As I said after my first genealogy conference last year, there are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met.  I won’t list all of the bloggers here as the list is lengthy, but I do want to offer some special shout-outs.  First, to my traveling companion, Lisa Alzo, thanks for putting up with me, laughing with me, and sharing your wisdom with me.  To Steve Danko and Kathryn Doyle, for the hospitality, being great tour guides, and making our trip to San Francisco so special. To Denise Levenick, for being our chauffeur, Hollywood tour guide, and provider of donuts, wine, and other goodies as needed.

Some of my non-genealogy friends and family members wonder what “new” things I could learn since I’ve been researching my family for so many years. But I came home with so many ideas…ideas for new blog posts (which this blog has lacked for months!), articles for magazines, lectures to present at other conferences, new avenues to pursue to climb over my research “walls”, and even an idea for a new business.  I have so many new ideas that I’ve had a headache for days, so for now it’s time for a nap.  But let it be a lesson learned (call it #11) – if your brain becomes bored and you lack new and/or creative ideas, go hang out with friends at a Jamboree!