Monday, August 15, 2016

Honoring Our Veterans: Coins on Gravestones

This is a guest post from a friend of mine, Diane Furlan, who made a discovery at a faraway graveyard that she visited while on vacation recently.

Earlier this year I was sitting in my dentist’s office and he offered to sell me a vacation package he was unable to use.  When I found out it was to Mackinac Island I jumped at the chance!  Most people never get to visit the island—let alone stay on the island.  In July my husband Steve and I stayed in a lodge at the center of town, right on Mackinac Island.

Stepping off the ferry, after a 20 minute ride across Lake Huron, was like stepping back in time 100 years.  My eyes were as big as saucers!  No motorized vehicles allowed—just horse and carriage, bicycles, or your own two feet.  With six days on an island with a circumference of eight miles, Steve and I wanted to explore as much as we could, knowing we might never get to visit again.  

We thought we would walk the entire eight-mile circumference—but after just four miles in the summer sun we decided there must be a better way to explore this lovely destination!  So one day we ventured out on a multi-speed Trek tandem bicycle.  Now this was the way to travel –me resting comfortably on the back seat while hubby did all the peddling.  (Do you think he noticed?) 

We explored old Fort Mackinac where we had a nice lunch overlooking the town.  When we took a guided horse and buggy tour around Mackinac Island State Park (the majority of the island is preserved as a state park), we noticed an old cemetery.  You see, dear reader, your blog host has recently turned me on to the website!  She has me scouring the countryside for cemeteries to photograph and upload headstones.  

After the tour was over we walked back to the Post Cemetery.  My husband thought it odd—I had to explain my obsession.  I proceeded to drop down low in front of every military gravestone to get the best picture possible to upload.   

Steve and I noticed that many of the headstones had all kinds of coins on them, even dollar bills held down with a stone.  Neither of us had ever seen this before and didn’t know what it meant.  Steve felt bad for the ones that had no coins, so he proceeded to leave a coin here and there—even though we didn’t know what the coins meant!  When we returned home, I got on Google and did some research.

The first website I came to was “Graving with Jenn,” where I found out that coins are left on headstones as a way of paying one’s respects.  There are quite a few ideas as to how the custom began, and one of those is based in Greek mythology.  According to legend, Charon, the ferryman of Hades, required payment of a coin to ferry a loved one’s soul across the River Styx.  People who couldn't pay the fee were said to be doomed to wander the shores of the river for 100 years.

But I was in a military cemetery, so I knew there had to be more to this story—so I Googled some more and came across this from Mix 106 Radio.  I found out that when visiting the grave of a soldier, it is customary to leave a coin to honor them.  A coin left on a headstone lets the deceased soldier's family know that someone stopped by to pay their respects.  I now wish my husband would have left a few more coins on a few more graves!

Upon further Googling (who doesn't love to Google?), my final site was Snopes.  There I found out that some people say that there is meaning to each denomination of coin…  Leaving a penny means you visited; leaving a nickel means you and the decedent trained at boot camp together (I hope we didn't leave any nickels!); a dime means you served with him/her in some capacity; and a quarter means you were with the soldier when he/she was killed.  Nothing is written about the dollar bill, but I say those who received a dollar bill were obviously very much thought of!

Needless to say, this was not just a fun vacation—this was quite the learning vacation.  

Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Dining Room Is Full of Boxes

New client, and this one's really different than most! This lady's mom died a number of years ago... She left behind 10 or 15 boxes of genealogy stuff, in NO order that I can see, that's been in a storage locker. She was a genealogy pack rat! I'm sorting through the stuff (including dried bug parts) and trying to cull the useless and organize the valuable. This is gonna take some time!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Tuesday's Tip: My Favorite Lesser Known Websites

When I do genealogy, I couldn’t live without  Who can argue with 12 or 14 billion records?  I also subscribe to and…  But there are loads of small, lesser known websites out there.  Here are half a dozen of my favorites—all free.

The U.S. Government’s General Land Office Records (above). I don’t have many ancestors who came to the U.S. early enough to be the first private owners of government land (and it was almost all government land back at the beginning)…  But I’ve done plenty of other people’s trees where I found some real treasures here, including ancestors of Amish friends.  And it’s easy—click on “Land Patents” – then choose the state and county, type in the name, and hit “search.”  Often the original patent image is there (similar to a deed), and the images can be downloaded as pdf files for no cost.

Old Time Medical Ailments.  When looking at old death records, one sees causes of injury or death such as “putrid fever,” “lagrippe,” or “consumption,” it’s nice to have a place to consult in order to find out that today we call these same three ailments “diptheria,” “influenza,” and “tuberculosis.”

The Inflation Calculator (above).  Old census records list the value of land and homes.  This website translates those dollar amounts into 2014 dollars.  No calculator can take every factor into consideration, but it’s much better than my wild guesses when trying to figure out, for example, that $300 of land in 1860 might be worth about $77,915 today.

Behind the Name (above).  This is a site with information about surnames, with a twin site for first names.  You can browse the surnames by letter of alphabet, by nationality, or by typing the name into the search box.  The first names can also be sorted out by gender.  This website has been very useful for me when I see a name on an old record which I cannot read (or which was misspelled by the census taker).  For instance, one client’s grandmother was a German immigrant and her first name was spelled a different way on every single record!  But by searching the German female first names on the website, I determined that it was most likely spelled “Ottilie,” since that was a common German first name for girls and none of the other spellings even appeared on the list.

Old Occupations.  Most of time I recognize the occupations appearing on U.S. census records, but occasionally I am stumped by one like “drayman,” “steeplejack,” or “huckster.”  Old English records are even more likely to have occupations I’m not familiar with.  This site lists hundreds of them, with definitions of each.

I hope this list contains something helpful for those of you bitten by the genealogy bug like I am.  What are your favorite lesser-known websites?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Maritime Monday: Steerage

This image of my great-grandmother Christina Bengston’s entry in a 1871 New York Passenger List is the banner I display across my facebook page.  She, like many European immigrants of the 1800s, came to America by ship in “steerage” class, and it was quite different from the Alaska cruise I took with my mother some years ago!

For the following information I am indebted to the book Island of Hope, Island of Tears by David Brownstone, as well as a 1909 government report entitled “Reports of the Immigration Commission,” widely available online.  Agents of the Commission traveled incognito in the steerage sections of twelve different immigrant ships.  They reported that the old-type steerage, described below, was still found on the majority of the immigrant vessels even in 1909.
“Steerage” got its name because the passengers traveled in the below-deck level of the ship where the steering equipment was found.  This level was originally designed for cargo, not people—and  the earlier immigrant ships began carrying passengers on the westbound trip as a way of filling the empty cargo hold after bringing American goods eastbound across the Atlantic.

These cargo holds were never designed for human habitation, and therefore, were unfit for it—particularly in the early to mid-1800s when ships were still powered by sails and therefore could be at sea for months.  Things got somewhat better in the later 1800s as steamships replaced sailing ships, thus shortening the trip from months to weeks—and as new laws required more humane conditions.  But although the passengers stopped dying like flies, the trip was still a traumatic way to begin a new life.  Some of the larger ships carried 1,000 passengers or more in the steerage section.

Typically, steerage had no ventilation or natural light except for the hatches leading above-board—which were often closed due to bad weather.  The ceilings in steerage were just 6 to 8 feet high and fitted with two tiers of berths (bunk beds) which were 6 feet long and 2 feet wide, with 2½ feet of space above each.  Mattresses were straw or seaweed.  All of a passenger’s belongings had to squeeze into their berth with them.  A few ships had an area below-decks with tables for eating, but many did not, so for many immigrants, the duration of the voyage was spent in their berths or in the narrow passageways between them.

In the earlier days, there was no separation of passengers by gender, but in later times, men traveling alone, families, and unaccompanied women were in three separate sections. 

Water was scarce, sanitation was minimal, and privacy was non-existent.  When the weather was good, steerage passengers would crowd onto the main deck for light and air, but in bad weather they were confined to below-decks, where seasickness was a fact of life.  Many were too sick to eat for the entire voyage—which saved them the indignities of the terrible food.  Others were Jewish and kosher and refused most of the food provided.  Without water, sweeping was the only form of cleaning done, as the filth and stench became worse and worse until the cleaning done by the crew on the last day of the voyage, shortly before the inspectors boarded the ship at the port of entry.

Those who died—and disease raged on some of the ships, especially those carrying the Irish escaping the Potato Famine—were thrown overboard.  It was a very different scenario than that of the wealthy passengers in the first and second class cabins above them, with whom they never mixed.  Some of the captains and ship stewards were honest and kind, but others looked upon the steerage passengers as not much more than freight—the lowest rung of Europe’s poor who didn’t deserve any better and wouldn’t know the difference anyway.

The Statue of Liberty must have been a welcome sight as the survivors emerged from below-decks at New York Harbor at the end of their voyage!

Ship image:  S.S. Tunisia,

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Black Sheep Sunday: Cousin Love

I wrote a blog post some time back about the marriage record of two of my husband’s ancestors, John Garver and Mary Anne Overly.  One of the statements that had to sworn to in the State of Ohio in in 1848 was that the spouse was “not nearer of kin to me than first cousin.”

That led me wonder about the legality today of marrying one’s first cousin today…  And what I found out surprised me:  It’s still legal in many states!  I had no idea!

I started out by looking at the National Council of State Legislatures website.  There I learned that first cousin marriage is legal without restriction in today nineteen states and the District of Columbia—although North Carolina does stipulate that double-cousin marriage is prohibited.  (That would be two people who are cousins through both parental lines, therefore meaning that they share both sets of grandparents.)  In twenty five other states, first cousin marriage is prohibited. 

In the remaining six states, first cousin marriage is allowed under certain circumstances.  Five of those states (Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Utah, and Wisconsin) require that the couple be either too old to have children (minimum age requirements of age 50, 55, or 65) or medically unable to reproduce.  The last (Maine) requires that the couple obtain a physician’s certificate of genetic counseling.

Second cousins may legally marry in all states.

So, those are the hard, cold facts…  But the larger question for me was, what kind of person does this?  How does it happen that two people come to the place in life where they fall in love with, and desire to marry, a first cousin?

For that viewpoint, I turned to a website called  The website discusses the legalities, genetics, and history of first and second cousin marriage.  There are also discussion boards where cousins can share their stories, problems, and even wedding videos.  One thing resonates in their stories:  Their friends and families, almost without exception, disapproved.  Some of them say that their ministers had a problem with it, while others were married in their regular church.  Those who live in states where first cousin marriage is prohibited can still legally marry by having the marriage take place in another state where it is allowed.

On the website’s “Facts Page” they report that no European country, nor Mexico nor Canada, prohibit first cousin marriage, and that the frequency of cousin marriages in the United States is about 1 in 1,000.  They also state that “Children of non-related couples have a 2-3% risk of birth defects, as opposed to first cousins having a 4-6% risk.” 

Not much difference?  I found that hard to believe—but the  facts seem to back it up, based on a landmark study published in 2002 in the Journal of Genetic Counseling.  This study was referred to in almost every source I consulted, including a 20/20 television piece presented by John Stossel in August 2004 and a 2009 article in The New York Times.  More recent studies have come to the same conclusion.  The 20/20 article also said that every year in America, about 200,000 first cousins wed.

Statistics aside, bad things can happen, even if, statistically, they usually don’t...  One of my clients who knew I was writing a blog post on the topic of cousin marriage shared this personal story with me:  “My husband's aunt married her first cousin. They had three sons. The first one was born with severe arthritis and was crippled at a very young age, as well as being born almost legally blind. The second son was born mentally impaired and also almost legally blind, and he passed away quite young. The third son was born completely deaf.  The boys also had a very unusual appearance.”

Among notable figures in history who married a first cousin are Johann Sebastian Bach, Werner von Braun, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Edgar Allen Poe, Queen Victoria, and H.G. Wells.  But—with no offense to my first cousins intended—for me it is still definitely too close for comfort!


Monday, December 7, 2015

Military Monday: Dad's War Letters: Part Nine of Nine

April 1945
Late in the war

These Germans are funny.  All of them hate Hitler, and never had anything to do with him, and are glad to see us, etc., etc.  Then we search their houses, and drag uniforms, pictures of Hitler, charter membership cards to the Nazi party, and everything else out.  What a bunch of cheerful liars.

Mom, It is Mother’s Day one of these Sundays, so this is in place of a card...  The news sounds good, and it will soon be over and finished.  Don’t worry about me, as I will be OK.  Got your letter of the 15th today.  You sounded quite worried. Sometimes I think you at home have a worse time than we do. You worry at times when we are perfectly safe.  However, there has been a time or two when I bet you weren’t as worried has you should have been.  One night in October I knew I was going within 5 minutes.  We were completely overrun by Tiger Tanks in an open field with no holes, and I was past being scared.  I was mad.  I said to myself, “I’m going to take as many of these rats with me as I can, because they’re going to hurt my Mom when she gets that telegram.”  That’s what I think of my Mom.

I would like to go home before the Pacific but I don’t know, and rather doubt that I will get to.  If I have a chance I will take the Army of Occupation for a while instead of the Pacific... 
(Note:  He was in the Army of Occupation and stayed in Europe for several months after the war.)

Incidentally, when we crossed the Rhine, our mission was to reach and cut the superhighway (Division objective).  It was 6 miles from the Rhine.  I was one of two Lts. in the platoon and our platoon was the first one in the 9th Army to cross the highway, and this bird was the 3rd man across.  (The other Lt. and one scout could run faster.).

May 7, 1945

It hasn’t been announced to the world yet, but we ceased firing this afternoon, and the lights will shine out windows all over Europe tonite, and no bombs or shells will come.  I am OK and the season on us is closed, so I can really say, “Don’t worry!”  The Captain has a bottle of ancient cognac he has been saving for a log time, so “So long...”

Monday, November 30, 2015

Military Monday: Dad's War Letters: Part Eight of Nine

March, 1945

I’m back with the outfit again.  Seems like getting home.  Met quite a few of my old buddies still here.

You no doubt read in the papers how we spearheaded the 9th Army drive across the Rhine.  We came in shooting and they just couldn’t hold us...  [The papers] probably said “negligible opposition.”  It was, after we shot or captured everybody in our road.

I am sending Dick a belt from a Kraut who should have surrendered but didn’t.  Not only that, he made the mistake of shooting at somebody in A Company.

You have probably read about all the people we have set free. Soldiers of all nations (including U.S.A.) and Polish, Russ, French and other slaves.  And I do mean slaves.  These Germans had millions of slaves in farms and factories.  The English captured at Dunkirk 5 years ago were glad to see us...  All the Germans thought we didn’t have any army, and are surprised when convoys of men in trucks and tanks bumper to bumper for 80 or 90 or more miles roll into their town. They stay in their houses and pout and sulk, while the Poles and Russ are outside celebrating.  We have orders that nobody speaks to a Kraut except in line of duty, and we don’t steal their stuff or kill their kids (unless the kids shoot at us).  They don’t think it is so hot now that the shoe is on the other foot, and it is their towns being taken.  Whenever they try to defend a town we just call up the artillery and they remove the town from the face of the earth.

Here is a picture folder Janet can have.  Got it off a Jerry [German] P.X. truck going west that met a bazooka shell going east.

I wouldn’t worry about me too much any more if I were you.  It will soon be all over, and I ain’t going to get hurt in the last inning with the score in our favor and two out...  I could write a few atrocity stories, but all I will say there is that all of them are true.  These Krauts try stunts like putting 800 Poles and Russ in a barn and covering them with gasoline and setting fire to the whole works.  I saw that while it was still smoldering...  That is why I like to see dead Germans by the heaps.