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The records of a life-changing event

Her name was Lucy Ridsdale. She lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and 107 years ago today she lost a gold English watch, a silver tea pot, Spanish lace scarves and more, amounting to more than $3,000 in value.

His name was Emilio Portaluppi. He lived in Milford, New Hampshire. And, 107 years ago today, he lost a picture of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian general and nationalist, that Garibaldi had signed and presented to his grandfather. That and other personal effects were all lost, valued at more than $17,000.

Her name was Anna Gowan. She lived in Chicago, Illinois. And, 107 years ago today, she lost personal effects valued at $612, and suffered personal injuries.

His name was Stefo Pavovic. He was a citizen of Austria-Hungary. And 107 years ago today, in the cold waters of the north Atlantic, he died.

One hundred and seven years ago today.

When the unsinkable ship sank beneath those cold ocean waters.

When the Titanic went down after having struck an iceberg.

The Legal Genealogist can relate these facts not because they’re in a book somewhere about the sinking of the Titanic. Not because of a magazine article. Not because of newspaper accounts of the day.

No, I can relate these facts because they’re in court records.

I know. I know. It’s such a surprise that I’m such a fan of court records.1

The simple fact is, every one of these stories is recorded, in detail, in Record Group 21 of the National Archives of the United States. Record Group 21 — the Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2009.

Titanic claims

They’re part of the Admiralty Case Files, 1790-1966, held by the National Archives regional repository in New York City, in a case entitled In the Matter of the Petition of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, Limited, for Limitation of its Liability as owner of the steamship TITANIC — a case “initiated to limit the liability of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, Ltd., for loss of life and property resulting from the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage” and in the case file for which you can find “court papers, evidence, and claims of survivors and representatives of the deceased.”2

And these claims — and so many others from that horrific night — are digitized and available online at the National Archives website.

It’s there that you can read about Anna Gowan’s travails:

… claimant was unable to leave said vessel in life boats because of her inability to obtain access to any one of them before they left the vessel while it was sinking, and that after the life boats have all left the vessel, and it was sinking, she jumped from the sinking ship and landed in one of the life boats… where she remained for some hours and whereby she sustained injuries through the fall, shock and exposure to the elements, which injuries she has been informed and verily believes will be permanent: … claimant has suffered from nervous prostration almost continuously, her eyesight and hearing have been seriously and permanently injured and the face, hands, feet, and limbs of claimant have been … affected by reason of having been frost bitten during the exposure after the sinking of the vessel…3

It’s there that you can learn that Stefo Pavovic left a widow and three children, and that his claim was brought by and through the Consul-General of Austria-Hungary on their behalf.4

It’s there that you can learn that Carrie T. Chaffee of Minneapolis, Minnesota, lost her husband when the ship went down.5

That Patrick O’Keefe of New York City was “obliged to jump overboard to save his life … was in the water a considerable period until rescued by one of the life-boats … suffered bitterly from the cold” and was rescued by the steamship Carpathia.6

That Youssif Ibrahim Shawah was a native of Syria, a painter, and left behind a widow and four infant children when he was “carried down with the said ship and drowned.”7

And yes you can even see the amended claim in the amount of nearly $28,000 filed by Margaret Brown, also known as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”8 — “an American socialite and philanthropist … best remembered for encouraging the crew in Lifeboat No. 6 to return to the debris field of the 1912 sinking of RMS Titanic to look for survivors.”9

No matter what the event, no matter how big or how small, no matter whether those involved were famous or unknown, always always always check the court records.

You just never know what you might find.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “In Record Group 21,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 15 Apr 2019).


  1. You do recognize sarcasm mode when it’s turned on, right? I thought you would…
  2. See In the Matter of the Petition of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, Limited, for Limitation of its Liability as owner of the steamship TITANIC, No. A55-279, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York; Admiralty Case Files, 1790-1966; Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2009; National Archives, New York City.
  3. Ibid. Claim of Anna McGowan, Individually; digital images, National Archives Catalog ( : accessed 15 Apr 2019).
  4. Ibid.,
    Claim of the Beneficiaries of Stefo Pavovic.
  5. Ibid., Claim of Carrie T. Chaffee.
  6. Ibid., Claim of Patrick O’Keefe.
  7. Ibid., Claim of Susian Shawah for Youssif Ibrahim Shawah.
  8. Ibid., Amended Claim of Margaret Brown.
  9. Wikipedia (, “Margaret Brown,” rev. 30 Mar 2019.
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