A Trio of Death Certificates

For a genealogist, any day that brings three new death certificates in the mail is a good day.

Back at the end of April, I wrote about my discovery of my great-great-granduncle, Alexander Dodds, who disappeared from documentary evidence in Canadian records after the 1881 census. Thanks to clues provided by DNA matches, I was able to determine that Alexander migrated to Buffalo, New York where he married Hazel Jean (or Jennie Hazel) McCarroll and had two children, Della and Spencer, prior to his death in 1899. While searching for his death record in the Buffalo, New York Death Index, I serendipitously came across the entry for the death certificate of his brother, Gilbert M. Dodds, who died in 1898. Then, since I was already writing to the Buffalo City Clerk to request those records, I decided to add in a request for the death certificate of their older sister, Isabella (née Dodds) Smith. I’d known previously that Isabella died in Buffalo, but I’d never gotten around to requesting a copy of the record, so this seemed to be a good time to do it. After a long wait, those death certificates finally arrived, so let’s analyze them here, in the context of my existing research into my Dodds family.

Isabella Smith

My burning questions regarding my Dodds family concern the origins of my great-great-great-grandparents, Robert and Catherine Dodds, whom I’ve written about previously. Evidence points pretty consistently to a birth circa 1817 in England for Robert, and possibly a specific date of 28 January 1817 as was reported (probably by Robert himself) in the 1901 census.1 Less is known about Catherine’s place of birth, however, and there’s even some doubt about her maiden name, since it has been reported as both Irving2 and Grant.3 In that regard, the death certificate for Isabella (née Dodds) Smith was most informative, since it was the only one of the three death certificates to mention a maiden name for Catherine. (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Death certificate for Isabell [sic] H. Smith.4

Unpacking the other details from the certificate first, we can see that Isabell [sic] H. Smith of 381 Rhode Island Street in Buffalo, died on 22 September 1917 due to a cerebral hemorrhage which she suffered about 6 weeks previously. A contributing cause of death was chronic myocarditis. Isabella was noted to be a widow, born 4 November 1844 in Canada, and she lived in the U.S. for 24 years prior to her death, spending all of that time in Buffalo. That suggests an arrival in 1893, which is a few years off from the arrival in 1897 which she reported in the 1910 census, but still in the same ballpark.5 No immigration record can be sought to confirm her arrival date since the U.S. did not begin documenting Canadian-born immigrants until 1 October 1906.6 Isabella was laid to rest in the Buffalo Cemetery on 25 September 1917, and the informant on the death certificate was her oldest daughter, Margaret (née Smith) Moorhouse, who lived with her. Margaret reported that Isabella’s parents were Robert Dodds and Catherine Grant, which lends further support to the hypothesis that Catherine’s maiden name was Grant and not Irving. However, Margaret identified both Robert and Catherine as having been born in Canada, and this is almost certainly incorrect in Robert’s case, in light of the substantial body of evidence supporting the assertion that he was born in England.

Alexander Dodds

Next up, we have the death certificate for Alexander Dodds (Figure 2). The image I received is of rather low quality due to faded ink and darkened paper, but it’s nevertheless possible to read that Alexander Dodds died on 13 April 1899 due to pulmonary phthisis, which is more commonly known as tuberculosis. He was buried at Lakeside Cemetery on a date in April that’s difficult to make out, possibly the 23rd. Alexander was reported to be age 49 years, 1 month, and 25 days at the time of his death. Running that information through a date calculator points to a birth date of 19 February 1850, consistent with the expectation that he was born circa 1849-1850 based on his age reported in census records. He was a married laborer, born in Canada, who had been a resident in the U.S. for 15 years, and living in Buffalo for that entire time period. This suggests that he arrived in the U.S. circa 1884. Alexander’s parents’ names were reported to be Robert and Catherine, but no maiden name was given for his mother. Moreover, both parents were reported to have been born in England—a statement which is unlikely to be true in Catherine’s case. Alexander’s last place of residence was decipherable as Auburn Avenue, although the house number (212, perhaps?) is harder to read.

Figure 2: Death certificate for Alexander Dodds.7

The fact that Alexander was buried at Lakeside Cemetery is new information for me. Lakeside is an old, historic cemetery located in Hamburg, New York, about 10 miles south of Buffalo. Lakeside is managed by the Forest Lawn group of cemeteries, and they happen to have a fantastic website where one can search burials and even download cemetery records, such as this burial card for my great-great-grandmother, Martha Dodds Walsh, another sibling of Alexander, Isabella and Gilbert. Unfortunately, the information for Alexander which is offered on the website is much more limited. The service card (Figure 3) barely confirms the information on the death certificate, inasmuch as there is a burial record for an Alexander Dodds, but it offers no details about date of death, or parents’ names.

Figure 3: Service card for Alexander Dodds from Lakeside Cemetery, Hamburg, New York.8

Alexander’s age at the time of death, 40, is also in conflict with the information on the death certificate, which stated that he was 49 years old at the time of death. However, it may have been a transcription error, and in any case, the funeral director, “Geo. J. Altman,” is a match to the George J. Altman who was reported on Alexander’s death certificate as the undertaker.

Gilbert M. Dodds

Last, but not least, we have the death certificate for Gilbert M. Dodds (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Death certificate for Gilbert M. Dodds.9

The image quality here is only slightly better than that for Alexander’s death certificate, but the record states that Gilbert died on 4 January 1898 of pernicious anemia, a form of anemia caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12, with which he had been diagnosed five years previously. He was buried that same month in St. Catharines, Ontario, but the name of the cemetery was not provided, nor is the exact date of burial legible. Gilbert was reported to be age 42 years, 3 months and 25 days at the time of his death, suggesting a birth date of 11 September 1855. Estimates for his year of birth as suggested by census records and other documents ranged between 1855–1860, but the earliest records (e.g. the 1861 census)10 pointed to a birth year of 1855, so this certificate is in excellent agreement. He was married at the time of his death, and employed as a driver. As expected, Gilbert was born in Canada, but had been living in Buffalo for five years prior to his death, which implies an arrival in the U.S. circa 1893, so his arrival coincided with that of his sister, Isabella Smith. His last residence was at 408 Massachusetts Avenue, in close proximity to the final residences reported by his siblings (Figure 5). Finally, the certificate identifies Gilbert’s parents as Robert Dodds, born in England, and Catherine Dodds, born in Canada.

Figure 5: Map showing last residences of Dodds siblings Alexander, Gilbert, and Isabella Smith on Buffalo’s West Side. Google Maps.

Conclusions

Experienced genealogists know how valuable death records can be, especially when they identify the parents of the deceased. They’re also relatively easy to obtain, with just a letter and a check in the mail, so I’m always amazed by the fact that so many family historians only mention them in their trees when the scans are available online. The most significant drawback is that the information on a death certificate was not provided by the individual himself or herself, but rather by a family member or some other individual who was more or less acquainted with the deceased. Thanks to these death certificates, I was able to discover exact dates of birth for Dodds siblings Alexander, Gilbert, and Isabella Smith, as well as an exact date of death for Alexander. I identified Alexander’s final resting place as Lakeview Cemetery, which opens up the possibility of further research in cemetery records, in case they might have anything that’s not online. I obtained corroborating evidence for a number of previously-known facts in my family tree. And, although these certificates did nothing to dispel the confusion over Catherine Dodds’ place of birth, the certificate for Isabella Smith added to the growing body of evidence in support of the hypothesis that Catherine was a Grant by birth. All in all, that was a pretty good day, indeed.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

Sources:

11901 Census of Canada, Ontario population schedule, Lincoln and Niagara district no. 85, St. Catharines sub-district K, division no. 6, household no. 117, James Carty household; database with images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/ : 17 August 2021), item no. 2026840, image no. z000079820, citing microfilm T-6480, RG31.

2 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1935, vol. 820, no. 4549, Martha Dodds Walsh, 11 August 1935; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.

3 “Ontario Deaths, 1869-1937 and Overseas Deaths, 1939-1947,” database, FamilySearch, (https://familysearch.org/ : 8 May 2021), Hannah Carty, 3 June 1914; Deaths > 1914 > no 19125-22410 > image 370 of 1638; citing Registrar General. Archives of Ontario, Toronto.

4 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1917, vol. 273, no. 6001, Isabell H. Smith, 22 September 1917, Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York.

5 1910 United States Federal Census, Erie County, New York, population schedule, Buffalo Ward 21, Enumeration District 206, Sheet 7A, house no. 18 1/2, family no. 27, William Smith household; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/ : 18 August 2021), citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 947 of 1,178 rolls, FHL microfilm 1374960.

6 Marian L. Smith, “By Way of Canada,” Prologue Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Fall 2000), National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2000/fall/us-canada-immigration-records-1.html : 18 August 2021).

7 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1899, Vol. 34, no. 258, Alexander Dodds, 13 April 1899; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo NY 14202.

8 Forest Lawn Cemetery Group, burial records database, Forest Lawn (https://forest-lawn.com/ : 18 August 2021), service card for Alexander Dodds, buried Lakeside Cemetery, block one, grave 142.

9 New York, Department of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, County of Erie, City of Buffalo, Death Certificates, 1898, vol. 21, no. 71, Gilbert M. Dodds, 4 January 1898; Buffalo, New York, City Clerk, 1302 City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo NY 14202.

10 1861 Census of Canada, population schedule, Canada West, Lincoln, Grantham, Enumeration District 4, p 80, lines 1-9, Robert Dodds household; digital images, Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx : 19 April 2021 ), Item no. 1884852, citing Microfilm C-1048-1049.

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