There are times when we find a record that has a few details wrong. Often, it’s easy to think of a reason why. She didn’t know where her father was born. He didn’t know how old his mother really was. But what do we do when the name on the record is wrong? That can be harder to explain.
Elizabeth vs Eliza
Elizabeth Johnson, born circa 1818 in Ohio, was my great-great-grandfather’s sister. She never married and always lived with her parents or a sibling. By 1880, she was blind and living with her brother Eber and his family in Lawrence County, Ohio.
The Lawrence County death records include this entry:
- Eliza Johnson
- Died 28 December 1885 in the “Infirmary”
- Age 67 [which would make her born in 1818]
- Born in Ohio
- Parents’ names not listed [standard for Ohio death records at that time]
The age, birthplace, marital status, and race fit. But there’s the pesky detail of it being Eliza instead of Elizabeth. The person reporting the death was B.R. Lane, who reported all of the deaths in Upper Township that year; it wasn’t a family member who should know her name.
I have 3 choices of what to do with this record:
- Ignore it because the name is different.
- Accept it because everything else fits and presume he made a mistake with the name.
- See what else I can find to either corroborate or refute this record is actually for Elizabeth.
I chose Option #3.
Looking for Other Records
The record I found on FamilySearch was a digitized image of the civil death record — the one that’s kept by the government. There could be other records created at the time of death of “Eliza.” The include things like:
- an obituary
- a tombstone and/or cemetery record
- record of the infirmary where she died
I haven’t been able to find an obituary, nor locate a tombstone. There are no records known to exist for the cemetery where some of her siblings are buried, so I can’t check to see if she’s buried there in an unmarked grave.
Fortunately, the records of the Lawrence County Infirmary still exist and are on microfilm at the Ohio History Connection. In volume 1 of the register is this entry:
- Elizabeth Johnson
- “Reenrolled” 1 September 1885
- Age and birth place not listed
- Died 28 December 1885
The “reenrolled” note is important, as we see Elizabeth being in the Infirmary two other times. In addition, there isn’t an Eliza in the Infirmary register. I feel comfortable saying that the Eliza in the civil death record is actually Elizabeth, based on the Infirmary records.
Of course, with a common name like “Elizabeth Johnson,” there needs to be further research to determine that this Elizabeth is my Elizabeth. Long story short, there was only one other Elizabeth Johnson of approximately the same age as mine in Lawrence County at that time. The other Elizabeth Johnson was married and she died in a different year. I’m confident that the Elizabeth who died in the Infirmary is mine.
Look at What Is in Front of You
I found the evidence I needed by obtaining additional records. But additional evidence isn’t limited just to new records. We also need to fully examine the records we have in front of us.
Let’s say that the reporter on “Eliza’s” death record was listed as “William Johnson, brother.” I would have a much harder time convincing myself that he got the name of his own sister wrong. As it is, the reporter on “Eliza’s” record gave the information for everyone in the township. He didn’t necessarily know them personally; he just gathered and reported the info.
The Key: Don’t Stop
If I had discounted the “Eliza” death record because the name was wrong, I might never have looked at the Infirmary records. But I also shouldn’t accept it simply because the other data fit. The key is to keep looking. Don’t stop with the bare facts in the record. See what you can tease out. See what ideas for other records you can come up with. Dig into the nuances of the record and question it. (Is the informant a stranger or her brother?)
What records have you worked with that had the name wrong, but turned out to be the right person?