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Never Leave An Ancestor Behind!

The Trouble With Harry

The Trouble With Harry
by Silver RavenWolf

When Mick and I first sat down together to work on his family history, I said, “Okay, let’s start with what you know.”  He listed the names of his mother and father, then the names of his grandparents, amended with “I believe.”

I frowned.  “What do you mean — you believe?  You don’t know?”

My husband grinned.  “Can’t you just plug their names in the computer and all sorts of good stuff pops up?”

I have this cocked eyebrow thing I do when I’m irritated?  Yeah.  I was doing that right then.

“Its not my fault,” he said defensively.  “My Dad’s father died before I was born and his wife passed away a few years after my first or second birthday.  I didn’t know them, so I’m just not sure.”

I sighed.  “And there isn’t anyone you can think of that you might be able to ask for more detailed information?”

“Nope.  We weren’t a particularly social family to begin with.  I do know that they lived in Wellsville — if that helps.”

I sat back in my chair, brain-wheels spinning as I tossed around genealogy sleuthing options.  “Okay, then,” I finally said, feeling a little more hopeful, “this shouldn’t be too hard.  At least we have a general time frame on when they passed away.  We’re talking about the early 1960’s, so they may be in the Social Security Death Index, and their obituaries should be available…somewhere.  Maybe the Bulletin — that paper serviced that area at that time…”

Thus began the search for the elusive Harry and Margaret.

The first option for us because of our lifestyle (busy) is always the internet, and that’s where we began.  Mick and I took turns searching for Harry and Margaret.  Although I love, without a decent birth or death date, there were no little leaves for us, just dried up sticks that lead to nowhere.  After seven paid-for on-line services, a plethora of free ones and a good twenty hours of searching we came up fairly empty handed.  Through on-line census records, we could trace Harry as a child and young adult, but came up empty handed after 1920.  The same for Margaret, stopping at 1930.  We moved on to other resources.  From a business directory listing in 1928 we discovered that, for a time, Harry was helping his Aunt Annie with the shoe business in Carlisle, which is most likely why he wasn’t with Margaret in 1930.  From we netted a few interesting articles on Harry.  On January 31, 1937, Harry was mugged and lost $100 and two checks, in 1951 his son was killed in a motorcycle accident, and in 1956 his grandson died in a trailer fire (another story).  In 1957 Harry went into the hospital for a few months and then was released.  Nothing after that.

The Social Security Death Index was a bust.  We discovered later that neither he nor Margaret appeared in that index because they didn’t collect any benefits.  I even called the funeral home that took care of his son, hoping for information.  They were less than helpful, promised to get back to me, and then never did.

At this point I was getting irritated.  I knew that Harry’s obit would get me the dates I needed and most likely his cemetery of eternal rest; but, not having either birth or death dates, trying to find that elusive little news item in the archives of the dailies at the county historical society would take me loads more time than I had.  I was hopeful that a weekly paper at the time might net us the information we needed, and so I pursued my original idea of The Bulletin, only to find out that some idiot at the library threw them away, and that the microfiche of this paper was supposedly at the town historical society.  When I asked to view the microfilm I was told that it was in such poor shape that I would have to go to the state archives.  At the state archives they told me they didn’t carry any newspapers and that I would have to go to the state library, which by the way was only open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday thanks to Pennsylvania state budget cuts, which had also hit the archives to the tune of dangling ceiling tiles, leaking roof and duck tape holding the women’s bathroom stalls together.  No kidding.

Needless to say, I was not a happy camper.

Had this been just any old ancestor, I probably wouldn’t have been so irritated (okay, so maybe I would have) but, it truly bothered me that this was my husband’s grandparents for pity’s sake, and he should be able to at least find the graves to give his respects if nothing else.

Finally, one night I sat down at the computer and said, “Harry.  Enough is enough.  It’s time to find you!”  I spent several hours cruising those same services I used before, hoping I’d missed something, when I happened across a message board.  Five years ago, someone in their quest for information on another person, mentioned Harry — and gave his birth and death date.  Whoopppeeee!  I was on a roll.  Where there was a Harry, there had to be a Margaret!

The following weekend, Mick and I drove to the York Historical Society.  While he headed off in a different search I asked a library helper what newspapers were available in Harry’s time period.  She led me to a cabinet and pulled out the York Gazette Daily (a newspaper I’d never heard of) handed me the microfiche and told me how to use the machine.  At first, I was elated because I found the obit; but, my heart sunk as I eagerly scanned the page.  The obituary didn’t state where Harry was buried and I could tell the family was totally unprepared for his death because the article indicated that place of internment had not been chosen.  I made a copy for our files, sighing as I plopped my fifty cents into the machine.  I felt like I was never going to find Harry (or Margaret).  What made it worse, Harry had the unmitigated gall to drop dead at 3:20 in the afternoon on a Friday.  Although York had a Saturday paper, they didn’t have a Sunday paper.  By Monday, Harry was old news, and his place of internment never made print.

I trudged out to the main room of the library.  “I’m going outside for a break,” I said to my husband.  He looked at me quizzically and followed after me.

“What’s the matter?” he asked after we got outside.  I leaned against the brick wall of the building and told him I’d found the obit; but, it had little to share.  Harry (and Margaret) were still among the missing.

He nodded and we just stood there, enjoying the beautiful day.  “You know,” he said, “when I was a kid, York had more than one newspaper.”

“The helper only showed me the one set of file cabinets,” I said.  “Maybe there was only one paper in that time period.”

“I don’t think so.  I’m sure I remember the Dispatch.  I never heard of the one you looked in.”

We talked about other things and then retreated back inside.  Once again, I headed for the microfiche room.  This time I examined all the file cabinets in the room.  Sure enough, there was a row that held the York Dispatch.  I pulled the fiche and once again slogged through the reel.

Bingo!  I found Harry, and I found where they laid him to rest. I was ecstatic!

In that moment I learned several valuable lessons in genealogy.  First, never give up.  Your ancestors, I think, take great pride in making you work for it.  Second — never take what you are told by anyone at face value (the helper only showed me one paper even though I had originally asked for all papers in that time period).  Third, not all newspapers run their obits, death and funeral notices in the same way.  For example, a death by injury often is posted as a news item that turns into an obituary all in the same article.  There are straight obits (one’s that you would expect) and many times a few days later Funeral Notices (that give less but can help just the same).   Dates of death and print dates of the event can vary widely.  If you can’t find the obit, always look a week before and two weeks after the death date, especially in the older papers.  And, finally, not all obits are printed the same — different newspapers due to press times, space, and policies may not share the same information.

With gusto I slapped my fifty cents into the machine with a big fat smile, printed my copy and peered at the obit.  I frowned.

I found Harry, alright, and I’d discovered where he was buried.  Prospect Hills.


Prospect Hills in York, Pennsylvania is a beautiful cemetery.  There is one small, teeny-tiny problem…it is super big.  It is a dillion times bigger than any cemetery I’ve ever seen.  You’d never be able to walk it and find someone in a day, let alone a few hours.  I trudged out into the library section with the obit dangling from my hand.

“Well?” asked Mick, looking up from a file.

“I found him.  But…”

“Don’t tell me…”

I nodded.  “Yep.  He’s in Prospect Hills.”

Mick laughed and shook his head.  “Now what?  We can’t walk that graveyard.  We just don’t have the time.  Its too big.”

“Right, ” I replied, “but we’re lucky that they are still operating and adding landscaping and monuments.  That means that they will have some type of record keeping.  Now we call Prospect Hills.  We will find Harry, and when we do, we’ll find Margaret and their headstone should tell me her date of death, and if we’re lucky, her birth year.  Then we can consider this bit of mystery closed!”

Lesson number ninehundredandfortythree — never assume anything in genealogy.

The people at Prospect Hills were marvelous on the phone.  After explaining that Harry was Mick’s grandfather, they pulled the card file and found him.  As a note, had Harry not been a direct family member the price for searching their records is $45.00 an hour.  “He’s in a plot that holds eight.  There are five family members there,” said the secretary enthusiastically.  “Come out on Friday and one of our employees will take you to the gravesite.  I see there’s a big headstone.  That’s nice.”

“You’ll escort us to the gravesite?” I asked in wonderment, thinking of all the hours Mick and I had already spent searching lonely, sun scorched graveyards this year in triple digit heat.

“Absolutely!” she said.  “The cemetery is very large, it is the least we can do.”

I was so excited that I forgot to ask who all rested in the plots before I hung up.  Maybe we would find Robert Francis, too.  He was the son who died in a motorcycle accident in 1951 and up until this point, we hadn’t been able to find where his estranged wife stuck him.  (And yes, there is a reason that I worded it just that way).

Bright and early Friday morning Mick and I headed for York.  I had my camera and notes (just in case) and felt a sense of accomplishment.  One mystery, I hoped, would finally be solved.  We would find Harry and Margaret, discover her birth and death dates, take a picture of their final resting place, record the information and move onto the next mystery (which was Robert Francis).  I smiled and my heart beat faster in anticipation of our accomplishment.  We drove into the well maintained circular driveway, met with the employee, and drove down the winding roads of Prospect Hills, surfing through a sea of tombstones.  Finally, we pulled over to the side of one of the long lanes and scrambled from Mick’s truck.  I almost dropped my camera I was so excited.  I chattered to Bill-the-employee as we walked, bringing him up to speed on our mystery of the elusive Harry and Margaret, which probably bored him to tears.

“Its over here,” said Bill, holding a piece of paper and pointing to the back of a large headstone as we hurried to the gravesite.  I rounded the stone and stood there blinking.  What the?  This was the headstone of Mick’s great grandparents, not his grandparents.  I looked around at the nearby stones.  They all represented other families.  I stared, simply not comprehending.  No Harry.  No Margaret.

Don’t get me wrong, we were happy to find his great grandparents, but…where the heck was Harry?  Margaret?  Mick looked crestfallen.  My camera dangled limply in my hand as I looked from the tombstone to Mick, to Bill-the-employee, and back to the tombstone.

Bill reviewed his paper.  “Wait,” he said, “they are here.”  He held out the paper which showed a neat diagram of the original purchase and indicated who was where.  Harry was there.   So was Margaret.  In unmarked graves.  And I happened to be standing on Harry.  Ooops.  I took a step back and smiled weakly.

Mick closed his eyes and opened them again.  I knew what he was thinking.  Why hadn’t any of Harry’s children stepped up to the plate and put in headstones for them, or at least footers?  “You know,” Mick said sadly, “if we had come out here alone, on our own, and even found this grave, we would never have known that my grandparents were in here.  We would have believed we somehow made a mistake in our research.”

I knew there was nothing I could say, and Bill obviously didn’t know what to say either — so, we just stood there in silence.  Finally, Bill handed me the paper and said, “You can keep this.  It has the dates the family members were interred.  This will help you find his grandmother’s obituary.”  Oh!  So he had been listening!

I nodded and examined the paper.  “Robert isn’t here,” I said to Mick.  “Just your grandparents, your great grandparents and one of your great aunts.  No Robert.”  Silly me thinking we could knock out two mysteries with one tombstone.

Bill offered to look in the cemetery records to see if he could find Robert; but, I already knew Robert wasn’t there.  I had an idea of what happened in that scenario, and now wasn’t the time to discuss it.  Bill gracefully extricated himself from us and hurried off to escort another family.  Mick and I hung around, giving him time to sort out his feelings.  I took pictures of the gravesite for our records, then wandered up the hill and took other photographs (I collect pics of interesting statues and tombstones) and found my first DAR medallion.  After a bit Mick caught up with me.  “You know I’m not happy that they didn’t bother to mark the graves.”

I sighed.  “Yeah, I know.”

“But, at least we know where they are and have the right dates.  We can swing around tomorrow at the historical society and pull my grandmother’s obit.  Maybe later we can think about marking these graves.  Ask a few questions.  Get a few quotes.  Is that okay with you?”

“Fine by me.”

Smiling, he said, “When I was looking on-line?  I found quite a few Boeckels in here.  Let’s drive around.  See who we can dig up!”

I shook my head and checked my camera batteries.  The hunt was on again.


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5 thoughts on “The Trouble With Harry

  1. MagikalKat on said:

    Wow, Silver! This story brings me to the same problem i have am having trying to locate one of my great grandfathers, Thomas Brinck (Brink)! I found info on him from the 1920 and 1930 censuses per, but can’t find any birth or death certificate! Not even anything on the SS index!
    At first i thought i was going crazy! I kept thinking..ok this is impossible…how could this man NOT have birth or death info, it’s like he doesn’t exist.. this is silly! But now after hearing YOUR story about harry, now at least i have REASONS as to WHY I may not be able to find him.
    Don’t worry though! I’m not giving up that easily! I found a person in the 1910 census that fits Thomas’s approx. birth year, yet this person goes by “T. Cecil Brink” So i’m wondering if maybe this is him. I have to dig into this further obviously, but at least now i know why i might having such issues locating his certificates and such, and that i’m not going completely crazy!

    • Nope, don’t give up!!! It is highly possible, too, that the T. Cecil Brink in 1910 is the right person. You’ll find all sorts of strange thing on those census records! Keep going. I KNOW you will find him!

  2. This was a delightful read. It makes me more determined than ever to do a thorough job of documenting what I can for our little Township. Bless the guys that take care of our cemetery. They know where everyone is, and every now and then take a little extra care of a grave no one else seems to care about.

  3. I really enjoyed reading about your adventure!

  4. Sharrison on said:

    WOW, what an interesting story… I would love to hear (read) about the other mysteries that you encountered while doing this research such as Robert and his estranged wife!

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