Documenting death

110 years apart

It’s funny how it seems that family events tend to pile up on particular days. In my family, we’re heavy on birthdays in one fairly short time period in March (and no, not all of them — or even most of them — can be explained by a bunch of June brides).

Among the living members of the family, we positively pile on in early May birthdays. (And we’re impatiently awaiting yet another early May arrival this year, with bets being taken on whether the young’un becomes the fourth immediate family member to share one birthday.)

Poking around in my database, the 19th of January is one of those pile-on dates. And two events on that day hit home in a big way.

Martha’s birth. Hugo’s death. Aunt and nephew. My great aunt and my father. Both on the same day, one hundred and ten years apart.

And, together, teaching me a lesson when it came to documenting their deaths.

Martha Pauline Geissler, daughter of Hermann Eduard Geissler and Emma Louisa Graumüller, was born on 19 January 1884 and was baptized on 17 February 1884 at Bad Köstritz,1 then part of the tiny German principality of Reuss jungerer linie.2

She married Paul Benschura in Gera, the capital city of the principality, on 31 July 1906,3 after the births of both of her sons (Alfred, on 16 May 1904, and Willy, a year later on 6 May 1905).4 She and Paul were divorced in February 1923.5

Martha arrived in the United States only a month after her divorce. She was listed on the ship’s manifest as a 39-year-old housewife, 5’6″ tall, blue eyes and blonde hair.6

In 1930, she was living in Chicago with both sons; she was shown on the census as head of household, age 46, widowed, a seamstress in a furniture shop.7 In 1940, she and Alfred were living on Lill Avenue in Chicago; she was shown as age 55, an alien, who’d lived in Germany in 1935.8

Martha didn’t make it to the 1950 census. She died at Cook County Hospital in Chicago on 17 June 1949.9 She was 65 years old.

Martha’s baby brother was my grandfather Hugo Ernst Geissler, and my father Hugo Hermann Geissler was her nephew. His parents, my grandparents, had met and married in Bremen, Germany,10 and my father was born there in 1921.11 They came to America in 1925.12

My father was a nine-year-old schoolboy living with his parents in 1930,13 and an 18-year-old college student enumerated in his parents’ household in 1940.14 He married three times, divorced twice (my mother was wife and divorce #2) and fathered a total of eight children between his first two wives.

And on 19 January 1994, 110 years to the day after his aunt Martha was born (and 19 years ago today), he died of a massive heart attack at his home in Utah.15

Now it’s odd enough to have two such important family events occurring coincidentally on the same day, especially given the fact that this was a ridiculously small family by the standards of my mother’s boisterous and prolific clan.

But what really struck me as I was puttering around in the records for this blog post was the difference in the reliability of the information included in the documentation of the deaths of these two family members. Remember: they both died in the 20th century, well after mandatory death recordation began. If anything, the assumption might be that Martha’s death record might be suspect — she died much earlier than my father — but my father’s more recent death record should be reliable.

And that assumption would be dead wrong.

I’d have been just fine accepting almost every bit of detail from my great aunt Martha’s death certificate. The death record says the information came from hospital records, and I can only assume that she herself provided most of the data because it’s spot on with other evidence. It has her birthdate and parents listed correctly, and the only information with even a small issue is the birthplace: the death certificate says Hoestritz (the umlauted o being replaced in English with oe), instead of Koestritz.

But my father’s death certificate? Oy… There are no fewer than four errors in the facts provided by his third wife — two of them fairly minor and two that would give future genealogists running fits. The death certificate gives his middle name as “Herman” (it was Hermann — double n at the end), his city of birth as “Bremem” (it was Bremen, n and not m at the end).

Then it goes on to misidentify both of this parents. It lists his father as “Herman” Geissler (that was his grandfather; his father was Hugo Ernst Geissler) and his mother as Marie “Nukla” (she was Marie Nuckel).

Talk about a lesson for a modern-day genealogist: recent doesn’t necessarily mean reliable.


  1. Church Records, Kirchenbuch Bad Köstritz, Taufregister Seite 34 Nr. 4 aus 1884, Baptismal Record of Martha Pauline Geissler (digital image of record in possession of JG Russell).
  2. (, “Reuß jüngerer Linie,” rev. 12 Dec 2012.
  3. Ahnenforschung Familie Geissler u. a. in Gera, prepared by an archivist at the Stadtarchiv, Gera, 22 Jun 2009.
  4. As to Alfred, see Naturalization petition 71107, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Alfred Benschura, 11 Feb 1929, approved 23 May 1929; FHL microfilm 1468268. As to Willy, see Naturalization petition 171783, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Willy Walter Benschura, 13 Sep 1938, approved 14 Dec 1938; FHL microfilm 2131354.
  5. Ahnenforschung Familie Geissler u. a. in Gera.
  6. Manifest, SS President Arthur, March 1923, p. 125 (stamped), line 2, Martha Benschura, 39; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, ( : accessed 28 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3269.
  7. 1930 U.S. census, Cook County, IL, population schedule, Chicago, Ward 43, p. 116(B) (stamped), sheet 20(B), enumeration district (ED) 1579, dwelling 173, family 538, Martha Geissler household; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 484.
  8. 1940 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 44, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 103-2827, page 40389(A) (stamped), sheet 11(A), household 248, Martha Benschura and Fred Benschura; digital image, ( : accessed 31 Aug 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 1010.
  9. Illinois Department of Public Health, Death Certificate 18330, Martha Benschura, 17 Jun 1949, Bureau of Vital Statistics & Records, Springfield, IL.
  10. Heiraten (Marriages), p. 41, nr. 5, Geißler-Nuckel, 14 Feb 1918; Kirchenbuch (Church Book), Evangelische Kirche St. Jakobi, Bremen, Heiraten 1911-1930; FHL INTL microfilm 953,273. Also Bescheinigung der Eheschließung (Certificate of Marriage), nr. 135 (1918), Geißler-Nuckel, Standesamt (Registry Office), Bremen.
  11. Birth Certificate, No. 2888, Bremen; filed with Application for Certificate of Derivative Citizenship, No. 11A-2840, 3 Feb 1943; USCIS, Hugo Hermann Geissler Naturalization file no. A-47700.
  12. Manifest, SS George Washington, Jan-Feb 1925, p. 59 (stamped, lines 4-6, Hugo, Marie and Hugo Geissler; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, ( : accessed 28 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  13. 1930 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 16, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 17, page 223(B) (stamped), sheet 18(B), dwelling 155, family 386, Hugo Geissler Jr.; digital image, ( : accessed 5 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 441.
  14. 1940 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 13, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 103-867, page 1,429(B) (stamped), sheet 61(B), household 52, Margarite M. Geissler; digital image, ( : accessed 2 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 947.
  15. Utah Department of Health, Death Certificate, no. 143-94-000152, Hugo H. Geissler (1994); Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Salt Lake City.
Print Friendly
This entry was posted in My family. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Documenting death

  1. I guess it doesn’t matter what time period. A death certificate is only as reliable as the informant’s knowledge of the deceased. It can be very frustrating, especially when it’s a child or a spouse who has no idea where the deceased was born or his mother’s maiden name, etc.

    • Ruy Cardoso says:

      Let’s not necessarily ascribe all the errors to the informant; the recorder (if someone different) may well have misheard or misspelled Bremen, Nukel, and Hermann. Granted, it’s more likely that the informant botched up Herman and Hugo, but even that’s not necessarily the case; the recorder may just have had Herman on the brain. Judy, can you tell from the document whether or not the informant was also the recorder?

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        I don’t have the Utah death certificate here with me, Ruy, but my recollection is that it was NOT the same person — that the record was actually written by someone else. I’ll have to check.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      And someone can be griefstricken and not thinking, too, Lisa. Lots of reasons why the error may have occurred… but grrrrrrr… talk about frustrating when it does!

  2. Thought-provoking post! We’ve all seen vital records certificates that boggle the mind in their inaccuracy. Some of us have been at hand when wrong information was being given to the funeral director, reminding us of how important the informant’s state of mind is at the moment.

    The old requirement of three sources comes to mind. Let me add that I appreciate your citing sources for your statements.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That state of mind can be dispositive, Nancy, as can the way the question is asked. If someone says “where was your grandmother from” you may get a very different answer than if someone says “where was your grandmother born?”

  3. Jodi says:

    It’s very true – the information is only as reliable as the person giving it. But when it comes to death certificates, the fact that you probably have a grieved person (even through close to the deceased) giving it probably ups the ante for human error. I made a mistake when writing my mother’s obituary in 2011. I got her birthday off by a few days. Not the end of the world, but it made me realize how fragile all this information really is.

  4. Jeff says:

    You spoke how it seems significant events in your family seem to either repeat or cluster together. My great grand aunt and I were born on the same day, Nov 26th, 91 years apart. She was still alive when I was born, but my branch of the family didn’t know of her branch until the early 90′s.

  5. I went completely blank when the funeral home employee asked me my grandmother’s place of birth. Well, I remembered the county but not the town. Any other time, and I would have been able to tell someone without thinking about it. I had been woken up at 3:00 AM by my mother to tell me she had passed away. I barely slept the rest of the night and took off for a two hour drive to the area where my grandparents lived around 7 AM. I arrived at the funeral home at 9 AM. And keep in mind that even though the death certificate gives the informant as my grandfather, he relied on me for a lot of the information (being the family genealogist and all). So perhaps the informant is not always the true informant on our ancestors’ death certificates.

  6. Great article, Judy. I recently made my first “ancestral” photo calendar and through that process was reminded how many family dates do coincide. The idea was to place family members’ photos on their birth, death and anniversary dates so that my children could become acquainted with those that have passed and that we would remember them on these special dates in their lives. Through the process of making the calendar I came across many cluster dates, as you have. It made it a little bit frustrating since the template I was using only allowed one photo on each date. I ended up filling the dates around that one with the additional photos. A great project to help you visualize those special dates within your family tree!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s wild, Lisa! Makes you wonder what the reasons are for such clustering — or whether it’s just that we tend to notice it more or…?

  7. My husband’s great great grandfather, Alvin George Buchman, was apparently illegimate. So far I’ve been unable to find any record of his birth. In the 1900 Census, he was listed as a ”boarder” in his mother’s household. His marriage license lists his parents as Alvin J. Buchman and Maggie Kiefer. His obituary and cemetery records list his uncle, George A. Buchman, as his father and Maggie Kiefer as his mother. Family history documentation from family members that would have known him, including records from his uncle George A. Buchman, the ”family historian,” list his father as Alvin J. Buchman and make no mention of Maggie Kiefer. Unraveling this mystery has been interesting. I have a lot more work to do. It was interesting to find that self-reported information supports my beliefs, but his death information doesn’t.

  8. christine says:

    Well this could be a lesson well taught I thought about making my own record on paper so that when I do go to the other side. The person only has to fill a few things wala complete. I know this sound morbit but at least it will have the correct date of birth etc.


  9. Carol G says:

    Funny to read this today as we just went through the whole name issue with my father. The mortician needed his mothers maiden name of which there are several spellings within the family. I thought it was Polack, my brother thought it was Pollack. We went with Pollack as that what was listed on dads birth certificate. Going through this process with my mom was an eye opener as to how little I would be prepared, hence, I’m sure many people give less than accurate information during the process.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Hey there, Carol! Yeah, it can be a real issue. Warren’s and my grandmother’s death certificate has her place of birth wrong. Her mother’s death certificate has the wrong father named (stepfather instead of father). Sigh… Hope your family is starting to heal from your father’s death. I’m glad I was able to meet him at least that once.

  10. Carolyn Lea says:

    I found out my father’s birth name from a half sister after the funeral and after the death information had been given for the certificate. She told us he was Jewish and the name I had known was his step-father. If my mother knew she never acknowledged it and I don’t believe she did. My father had said he was part Cherokee. My half sister knew the father’s name – though not the correct spelling. My father’s sister who lived many years after he did would not talk about it. My sister pushed me to prove we were part Cherokee for years – I thought there was no hope of learning anything of my father’s family. When my mother’s families started passing away I began doing some work on them. But, in the end, it was my father’s story that drove me into serious research and addiction. I now know many cousins from his side.
    His death certificate lists his stepfather as father. It does not give his birth name as he and his sister were both using the step-father’s name by 1930.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Wow. Sounds like you’ve got a real mystery on your hands, Carolyn!

      • Carolyn Lea says:

        Now solved. I have all four Schwarzbaum siblings that came to the US in about 1850 and I am in touch with living descendants. But my dissertation took forever because all my research was on family! My challenge now is finding records in Poland/Germany on both maternal and paternal lines.

        Was Zimmerman a Jewish connection for you? I have considered reclaiming the Schwarzbaum surname as there is only one other line that still carries the name.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Sounds like great research work, Carolyn! I’m not sure about my Zimmermanns. On one hand, I’ve been told that the two -n Zimmermanns were not Jewish, while the one -n Zimmermans were, but on the other hand my DNA does show a small fragment of Jewish heritage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>