Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New York Historical Society: Cholera Exhibit

From now until November 2, 2008, the New York Historical Society will run its new Plague in Gotham! Cholera in Nineteenth-Century New York exhibit. For those who cannot visit the society, the NYHS has created a very interesting blog that promises to be updated weekly with material from the exhibit. From the online component you can view documents such as Cholera remedy pamphlets, original sketches of patients, Cholera death counts from the health department in 1832, and much more. The blog also offers detailed accounts of Cholera victims and caretakers, and shows how the plague exacerbated class distinctions and racial divides.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Migrant Mother: Expressive Past

A Picture is worth a thousand words, but what if a picture, speaking for itself and void of explanation, tells only half of a story? Take for instance, the famous photograph, Migrant Mother. In it we see a near starving migrant farmer’s wife staring painfully into the distance as her children cling hopelessly to her sides. It’s difficult to look at the mother in the photo and imagine her ever smiling or laughing. The image is so provoking that we cannot displace her from that time and space of weariness, but yet we feel we know her. We do not. We are witnesses to a moment in Florence Owens’ life, but we do not know Florence Owens. On Mother’s Day, The St. Petersburg Times ran an excellent article about the photo, exemplifying the contrast between Owens’ true persona and the desperate image that encompasses the public perception of her. To her family, to those who really did know her, Owens was far more multi-faceted than the singular moment captured under a tent in a barren field.

The same can be said about our own old family photos. Have you ever stamped a personality to an ancestor based on a picture of them? While there’s nothing greater than putting a face to a name in genealogy, pictures can sometimes be misleading. Take a closer look at your ancestors’ images. What do you see? A scowling, menacing man? A prim and proper young woman? There’s more to your ancestors than meets the eye.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Midwife’s Tale; An interactive website

Martha Ballard lived through most of the 18th century. The infantile cry of early America pierced the quiet throughout this remarkable woman’s life. Her surviving diary unveils her busy life as a midwife in Maine, detailing nuances of the era and the secret world of childbirth during the 1700s. We see from her diary that a midwife’s role not only entailed assisting in childbirth, but caring for the sick and dying as well. Martha Ballard was an incredibly busy woman. The constant pace of Martha’s work is surprisingly similar to modern ambitious lifestyles.

There is a great website hosted by The Center for History and New Media that enriches the book and movie experience, A Midwife’s Tale at http://dohistory.org/. The site offers a magic lens that can be hovered over the diary pages to instantly transcribe Martha’s script. The diary is also broken down into transcribed relevant categories, some of which include her accounts of a scarlet fever epidemic and a murderous scandal. Especially helpful to genealogists, there is a separate section that provides tips on transcribing original documents and other research information.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Dropsy, and Researching Other Archaic Medical Terms

Put Dropsy in Yahoo search and you’ll likely end up with the latest news in aquarium maintenance, which is great, if you need to know what’s ailing your sick goldfish. The search results aren’t nearly as helpful if you were trying to find out what dropsy is because you learned your great-great grandfather died from it.

For genealogists and those researching their family medical history, there are a number of resources that offer information about outdated medical terms. One such source is the Encyclopedia of Genealogy, a free to use collaborative encyclopedia. When I typed in dropsy in their search box, the following was returned.

“Dropsy, now known as edema, is a condition of excess watery fluid in the tissues or cavities of the body; also congestive heart failure from whatever cause.”

While their definition is a little vague, it’s a good starting point. From this information you could ascertain that your great-great grandfather suffered from fluid build up somewhere in his body. But, if your anything like me, that little bit of information wouldn’t be enough to satisfy curiosity. I found a reference to dropsy on Medicinenet.com that was a bit more descriptive, which explains that dropsy is a symptom rather than a cause of disease.

Speaking of symptoms rather than causes, when it comes to terminology of the past, a great deal of reading between the lines is necessary. Causes of death given within the limited scope of our ancestors’ knowledge of disease and illness can often require more than a simple translation from old to new lingo. For instance, we now know dropsy to be edema, and the term on it’s own might suggest an ancestor’s heart condition. But, terms like, “dropsy of the brain,” were also used in times past. If we think of dropsy as excess fluid, or edema, we know that dropsy of the brain might be what we refer to as encephalitis, today. In fact, not only was dropsy used as a general term meaning edema, but also a specified region in the body was given along with it, providing better clues to the actual condition the person suffered from, in today’s terms. I looked extensively within genealogy resources on the web for glossaries of archaic medical terms, and I found many of them, but most that I found did not provide sources for the information therein. After a whole lot of searching on the Internet, a website turned up that provides a wealth of information on outdated medical terms (listing sources.) On the home page of Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms: The Genealogists Resource for Interpreting Causes of Death, the following is stated on the home page.

“Antiquus Morbus is a collection of archaic medical terms and their old and modern definitions. The primary focus of this web site is to help decipher the causes of death found on mortality lists, certificates of death and church death records from the 19th century and earlier. This web site will be updated often and as new information is received. My intention is to collect and record old medical terms in all European languages. The English and German lists are the most extensive to date.”

If you’re looking for information about a cause of death of an ancestor, be it dropsy, consumption, typhoid, or putrid flux, you name it, you’ll find it in Rudy’s Glossary. The web site also offers an extensive collection of facts about alcohol and drug related illnesses pertaining to outdated terminology.

Note: For the record, I have no medical background. The article here is not intended to provide proper medical information; it is meant to be a resource for genealogists researching causes of death.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Are Books a Modern Anomaly?

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer reading a good book or magazine to the vastness of the Internet. The tools of the information age are great and all, and I’ll admit it’s hard to resist the power of universal knowledge at the click of a mouse, but there’s several things I find unappealing about reading material from the computer. One, the monitor taxes my eyes. Two, search engines offer me too many choices at one time. Three, many websites are too busy blinking and showing off their latest gadgets for me to focus on what I came there for in the first place. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not knocking the Internet’s usefulness. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a Google junky, completely addicted to random, absurd searches that serve absolutely no purpose (I was an only child, I’m easily amused.) When it comes to genealogy especially, my computer sees three times more action than my bookshelf. For research purposes, the Internet is more accessible, more convenient, and wider reaching. But, despite all the Internet’s glory, I still go out of my way to run to the bookstore for the latest issue of Genealogy magazine or a historical bestseller I’m curious about. There’s just something special about paper copy, maybe it’s the tangibility of it, the fact that we can posses it, that makes it stubbornly and timelessly appealing.

I’m curious about how many other genealogists buy or borrow paper copy information from libraries or bookstores. Do you buy magazines related to the subject? Do you conduct research solely from the Internet, or utilize both kinds of material? Is there anything you’ve noticed that certain physical resources have to offer that the Internet does not? Please drop a comment; I would love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Where to Start Genealogical Research on the Web

If your just getting started in the world of genealogy, chances are my blog isn’t your first stop on the internet. However, I can tell you where to go to begin your journey exploring the past. Cyndi’s List, the “genealogy starting point online for more than a decade,” is the premier source for guidance in ancestry research. Cyndi’s list offers a painstakingly categorized index of more than 300,000 links to pertinent genealogical resources on the web.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937

Beginning in January of 1937, the Ohio River was on the rise. Relentless rain would engorge an already swollen river, and within two weeks cause possibly the worst devastation along the Ohio River ever recorded. Residents along the river in Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana watched nervously as water tables rose. When evacuation was imminent, they left behind their homes, possessions, businesses, and livelihood for higher ground, some with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. According to Wikipedia, 1 million people would be left homeless, during an era still suffering from the Great Depression.

Towns drowning within the river’s widening grip were left without electricity and clean water. Cincinnati was engulfed; flood levels there reached nearly 80 feet. Many communities within the Ohio Valley were completely cut-off from neighboring towns, and whole city blocks were underwater. An account on the Kenton County, Kentucky Library’s website notes that due to high water the C&O Bridge between Covington and Cincinnati was cut-off. Another interesting reference in the library’s collection mentions 3 babies being born in the hospital without luxury of electricity.

Of course, the most telling references are the personal accounts of the people who experienced the 1937 flood firsthand. Those who returned to their flooded homes, if they were lucky enough to still have one after the water receded, finding their ruined possessions buried in silt and debris, began the laborious process of cleaning up mess and destruction. They painstakingly rebuilt towns and slowly reopened for business. Their experience became the driving force for better levees and reservoirs, along the Ohio River. A common trait within the flood stories is neighbors helping neighbors, a trait undoubtedly rooted in the Depression era. The strength of character it took to endure both the Great Flood of 1937 and the economical drought of the time seems in this day in age, a rare quality.

Sources for this article are hyperlinked.
Picture - Portsmouth, Scioto County, Ohio 1937 Flood- courtesy of The Ohio Historical Society,
permission granted.