More than One Way to Relate Life and Death
When my wife and I encounter the inevitable errors in daily newspapers — or, beginning our career as reporters, lapse into them ourselves — we often trot out my teasing twist on a saying (from somewhere): “History went and got itself up in a great… big… damn… hur… ray.”
To put it more coarsely, in the course of reporting a story and turning it around on a daily news cycle: shit happens.
Bad enough when this is part of the fluid daily record, working up dispatches on city council meetings and business transactions and arrest warrants and base hits. Somehow, pathetically, worse still when publishing those items submitted by the public for posterity, for the milestone sections of births, graduations, weddings, funerals.
In my first gig as entertainment and features writer for the Sandusky Register, I also manned the Saturday obit desk. And it was impressed upon me — right away — to follow a template, type it up slowly and triple-check my work.
Oh, and when gathering the info yourself, never to trust a single-only, no matter how well-meant, source. “If your mother says she loves you, CHECK IT OUT.” In other words, verify all info.
Well, leave it to life to allow shit to keep happenin’.
And we encounter these maxims time and again in genealogy, too. The yeoman volunteers who pore over countless census pages of centuries-old script, deciphering names that do not belong to their family tree, and doing so… erratically. Over-zealous neophyte researchers who, in their breathless haste, mistakenly prune a branch here, graft an alien trunk there, yielding cascading crops of ill-gotten family fruit. Or those who trot out a sweet, but still quite often dead wrong reasoning: because grandma said.
Remember? “If your mother says she loves you, CHECK IT OUT.”
Newspapers are wonderful troves of info. And certainly, they have been indispensable in helping to decipher what it is our case study on genealogy in my family: untangling the life, death and descendants of my great-grandfather Vance Cleveland Foutz’s oldest brother, Sherman Foutz.
When I first looked into Sherman’s story, starting in 2008 and documenting for the first time in 2010 in this blog, we had far more questions than answers. Slowly, painstakingly, we made the necessary connections, in the public record and in person with distant relatives, to fill in many missing pieces. By last year, and a series of posts tracing the family’s life in Pennsylvania through several newspaper articles, we’d put the wraps on many a mystery.
One useful tool: not just settling for one clipping of a newspaper article, but combing through related editions in the dozens of active newspapers in the early part of the 20th century. Just like in the maxim for checking out what your darling, single source says, relying on multiple versions of a milestone event can assemble a full, richer composite of the life and times you’re researching. Once, of course, you weed out the red herrings.
On Sherman Foutz’s life, I started with the yellowed clipping reporting his death that my great-grandfather had kept for nearly 55 years before his own passing. Due to the hands which cut into the newspaper, there was no month, day or year, no attributed publication. That data was to be gained from other sources — the gravestone, the death record from Denver, Colo. Curiously, though, one mystery was brought about by a simple omission — this first obituary, which I later identified as from the Harrisburg Telegraph, listed his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Grace, but no mention of his son, Oscar; daughter-in-law, Florence; or local grandsons.
A few years and a paid subscription to newspapers.com later, I dug up a death announcement, published the day after Sherman’s death, also in the Telegraph, which yields additional clues: age at death, address in Harrisburg, a sketch of his career with the Knights of the Maccabees and recent job change, and — voila! — mention of Oscar and his son’s address… in Arizona!
The other day, not looking for any info on Sherman, but still trying to trace more on Oscar, who doesn’t pop up again for us until his mother’s death in 1945, I found a curious third obituary. This one published in the Harrisburg Daily Independent, also on the day after Sherman died. From that Tuesday, April 6, 1915 edition:
William (sic) S. Foutz Prominent Maccabee Succumbs From Long Illness
Word was received here of the death of William (sic) S. Foutz, 135 North Summit street, who died near Denver, Col., yesterday where he had been ill for some time. He was 47 years of age. For seventeen years he was deputy and organizer of the Maccabees of the World.
For the past year Mr. Foutz was unable to attend to any business and on January 1 he left for Colorado. He is survived by his wife and daughter, Grace, of this city, and a son, Oscar, of Arizona. No arrangements for the funeral have been made, but interment will be made at Bowerstown (sic), Ohio.
So, some significant errors in the printed record here, most notably Sherman’s renaming and the misspelling of his hometown of Bowerston. But had I stumbled upon this article first, perhaps through some creative searching of the archives, I would have still gotten the tid bit on Oscar’s western location, and some additional details on how his work had suffered from his illness. No update on his change in career — for all we know, he still could have been working for the Maccabees, according to this record — and thus, I view with skepticism the specific “seventeen years” summation of his duties. But between the sources, we get a richer picture, provided we’ve done a bit more gathering of wool and smoothing out the rough parts.
“If your mother says she loves you, CHECK IT OUT.”