Friday, April 29, 2016

Darned Sketchy Death Certificate

We depend upon records to reveal the “truth” about the past. Yet sometimes records have anomalies. Some are amusing or humorous. Some are interesting or weird. Some are peculiar or suspicious. Some are infuriating, or downright laughable. Records say the darnedest things!

Donna Hoskins Backus was excited when Texas death certificates went online. Her paternal brick wall ancestor died in Texas.

“It took us several decades to find my grandfather’s family,” Donna says.  “Why? His parents divorced before 1902, when he was very young, and his mother moved them to New Mexico from Texas and remarried.”

She was able to locate her great-grandfather’s death certificate. But the information was sketchy:

M B Hoskins death certificate, Crowell, Texas, 21 October 1913

He was known in town only as M.B. (Family lore has it that he went by his initials so as to give more prestige to his position as a lawyer.) His age was unknown. His birthplace was unknown. No information was known about his parents.

The information was so sketchy, the informant seemed compelled to explain why in a marginal notation: “Was a Recluse. No Relatives here.” The informant was the undertaker. Sadly, the only thing that seemed to define M.B. to his fellow citizens was his divorce.

He died alone.

Now in my opinion, the information is not only sketchy, it is sketchy. The date of death has obviously been “corrected” and the date of the doctor’s signature may have been as well.

The cause of death is “Don’t know.” The signature of the town doctor, Hines Clark appears sketchy:

Signature of Hines Clark as it appears on the M B Hoskins death certificate, 21 October 1913.

On other certificates from around this time it appears like this:

Signature of Dr. Hines Clark, Virgina Jineveel Campbell death certificate, signed 29 September 1913

Signature of Dr. Hines Clark, Cora Washburn death certificate, signed 18 March 1913

Signature of Dr. Hines Clark, Mary Belle Allie death certificate, signed about 19 January 1913

Donna’s grandfather was just a teenager when his father, M.B., died. “He was sent by train to attend to his estate, finding on arrival other relatives had come and gone,” Donna says. “Yes, all of the money and negotiables were gone.”

Darned, sketchy records!

Thank you, Donna Hoskins Backus, for sharing this record.


  1. At least the person who filled out the death certificate was honest and wrote "don't know". I went on a wild goose chase for a great great grandmother because the mother and father were filled out with what seems to be a best guess rather than "unknown". It took me years and help from the people at a family search facebook page to finally find the most probably correct names and locations in Sweden.

  2. I also have a similar case, a great-uncle who lived and died without contact with his birth family, divorced and without any known children. He died of tuberculosis in a TB facility near Dayton, OH and his doctor, who had only treated him for a few months, filled out his death certificate, so there is a lot of missing information. Fortunately I already knew my relative's family data, but if I'd been working back from him to his parents and siblings I would have had no help from that document.

    Though clearly not the case here, in my family I've found that often the informant on death certs was a son-in-law. I think sometimes this was a task a S-i-L felt he could perform to help out, one less death-related task for the grieving wife and family. But almost without exception these men didn't know the maiden names of female relatives nor their birth states. In some cases they didn't know the parental female names or anything at about them at all, and given the stress of a death in the family they must have felt it wasn't worth bothering to ask about.

    It's just the kind of deeper family information that someone who marries into a family tends not to pick up, and my research has often been slowed, or even stymied, by it.


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