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The story behind the record

In the ordinary course of things, in a genealogist’s life, getting a copy of a vital record is a cause for rejoicing.

But sometimes there’s a story behind the record…

And so it was for The Legal Genealogist late yesterday when a copy of a California death certificate came in by email.

In reviewing some information recently, I’d realized that I’d never bothered getting a copy of the death certificate of my father’s cousin, Alfred Benschura, since he’d never married or had any known children.

But that also meant I didn’t know who the informant had been at the time he died. It might have been just a medical professional or a friend… but maybe it might be a clue…

I knew that the Orange County California Genealogical Society offers research services, so I reached out and asked if was possible to get a copy of that certificate.

It came in via email early yesterday evening. A cause for rejoicing, right? Because it’s one more piece of evidence that I’ve been absolutely right in my research, confirming just about everything I know about this first cousin once removed.

Name, Alfred Benschura. Born Germany 16 May 1904, died Santa Ana, California, 2 September 1960. Son of Paul Benschura and Martha Geissler, both born in Germany. U.S. citizen. For the six months before his death, a sexton at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah. A resident of California for 12 years and of Orange County for four years. Died at home of a massive coronary1 — the same thing that killed his cousin, my father2 — and the informant, their aunt Mrs. Paul Froemke,3 my grandfather’s sister Elly.

Alfred death 1960

But it’s also a cause for regret. Deep and abiding regret. Because it’s also one more piece of evidence that something was very very wrong on my father’s side of the family.

That certificate says Alfred had lived in Orange County for four years by the time of his death. That puts him there no later than 1956. And that’s confirmed by California voting records: he was recorded as registered to vote in Santa Ana in 1956,4 in 1958,5 and in 1960.6

And for six months out of those four years, my family lived in Marin County, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.7

At least once during those six months, my parents loaded their then-four kids into the car and drove the 500-plus-miles-eight-plus-hours-on-the-road from Marin County to San Diego County to visit my mother’s brother Monte and his family.

And for one glorious week during those six months, they loaded us into the car and drove the 400-plus-miles-six-plus-hours-on-the-road from Marin County to Orange County, where we donned our mouse ears and played in a place called Disneyland.

Orange County. Where Alfred lived.

Checking the addresses recorded for him in Orange County, it turns out that every single place Alfred lived is just down the road from where we were.

Not even 10 miles, according to Google maps. No more than a 20-minute drive.

You’d have thought that it would have been the most routine thing in the world — that we’d have detoured those few miles to visit one of the few relatives my German-born father had here in the United States. Maybe even his two surviving aunts, Hattie (Geissler) Knop and Elly (Geissler) Froemke, could have come in to Orange County from Beaumont, in Riverside County, where they lived.

It would have been the most natural thing for my father to introduce his East Coast family to his West Coast relatives. It was, after all, not even 10 miles. No more than a 20-minute drive.

That’s what families do.

But not my father’s family.

The reality is, I never even heard the names of these people until well after I started doing genealogical research, after my father’s death.

Something split that family apart, at least in my father’s mind, by the time he married my mother. His parents were already dead by then — grandfather, Hugo Ernst Geissler, and my grandmother, Marie Margarethe (Nuckel) Geissler, both died in Chicago in the 1940s8 — and he rarely spoke of anyone else and never of these Californians, the bulk of his few surviving relatives in the United States.

I wish I knew just what it was caused that split. The little I’ve been able to discern in my research suggests that it may have been the war — that my father’s mother never entirely left behind her allegiance to her native Germany while cousins on his father’s side ended up serving in the American forces.

But I don’t know for sure. And there’s no one alive today to ask.

Looking at that death certificate, I can’t help but wonder how much more I would know, how much richer all of our lives might have been, if we just driven not even 10 miles away. No more than a 20-minute drive.

Something back then, in those months when we lived in California… in those days when we were not even 10 miles away, no more than a 20-minute drive… something made that distance an uncrossable divide.

And death, today, keeps it that way.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “An uncrossable divide,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 4 May 2019).


  1. California Department of Public Health, death certificate no. D-60-2647, Alfred Benschura, 2 September 1960; Orange County Clerk-Recorder, Santa Ana.
  2. Utah Department of Health, death certificate no. 143-94-000152, Hugo Herman Geissler, 19 January 1994; Office of Vital Records, Salt Lake City.
  3. Cal. Dept. of Public Health, death certif. no. D-60-2647, Alfred Benschura.
  4. California Great Register of Voters, Orange County, 1956 Official Index, Assembly District 74, Santa Ana Precinct 96, entry for Alfred P. Benschura; digital images, “California, Voter Registrations, 1900-1968,” ( : accessed 3 May 2019).
  5. Ibid., 1958 Official Index, Santa Ana Precinct 44, entry for Alfred P. Benschura.
  6. Ibid., 1960 Official Index, Santa Ana Precinct 47.
  7. See Judy G. Russell, “The stars of California,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 Oct 2016 ( : accessed 4 May 2019).
  8. For Hugo Ernst, see Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 1145, Hugo Geissler, 13 Jan 1945; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield. For Marie, see Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 12011, Marie Geissler, 12 Jan 1947; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield.
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