Family History Mystery: Casket Case

Family History Mystery: Casket Case

A mystery photo snapped at a funeral started this family history sleuth on a search that solved a long-standing genealogical mystery. Here's how she did it.

The mystery man propped up in a casket in an unidentified family photograph piqued my interest. He was surrounded by several family members, pallbearers and a priest. But who was he? How did he die? Who were the mourners by his side?
I circulated the photograph to several of my relatives, but no one could tell me the deceased man’s name. Finally, one day I received a letter from my second cousin Mary Zavacky, who recognized her father as one of the pallbearers, and promptly identified the man in the casket as Michael Sivak, the husband of my maternal grandmother’s sister Mary Straka.
Cousin Mary told me that Michael had been a widower with three children and that she had seen a picture of Michael once and recalled that he had a big mustache. She also identified all of the other people in the photograph, including my paternal grandparents, John and Elizabeth Alzo. My grandfather was the Sivaks’ neighbor, and he also served as a pallbearer. Unfortunately, though, my cousin didn’t know how Michael Sivak died or what year.
It took a bit of sleuthing, but I finally found out the cause of death. I knew that my relatives had attended Saints Peter and Paul Byzantine church in Duquesne, Pa., so I contacted the church to find out if it had a record of Michael’s burial. The church’s records revealed that he died Oct. 26, 1921, and was buried Oct. 30. His cause of death was cited as “accident, Carnegie St.” The church also had a marriage record for Michael Sivak and Mary Straka, who tied the knot in 1913.
Using the information from the burial record, I ordered Michael’s death certificate from the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The certificate confirmed the cause of death: “Body crushed due to iron charge box falling from buggy in mill.” The accident occurred at the Carnegie Steel mill in Duquesne.
Some additional sleuthing turned up an obituary headline: “Is Crushed to Death Under Buggy at Mill” in the Oct. 28, 1921, Duquesne Times. The newspaper reported: “Mike Sivak, aged about 47 years, was caught in a wreck on the railroad in the Duquesne steel works Wednesday afternoon and so badly injured that he died five minutes after having been removed to the emergency hospital.” The obituary included a description of how the buggy on which he’d been riding overturned, threw him off and then rolled on top of him. The article also noted his injuries and provided a few other family details, along with the announcement of the interment in Saints Peter and Paul cemetery.

Michael’s death certificate included a notation about an inquisition held upon the body Oct. 27. Fortunately, the

University of Pittsburgh’s Archives Service Center (ASC) holds 870 boxes of records from the Allegheny County coroner’s office, dating from 1887 to 1976 (with a gap in years 1933 to 1938). A trip to the ASC yielded a file for Michael that included a coroner’s jury verdict confirming that the death occurred accidentally; a proof-of-identity form signed by Michael’s son, Andrew; an accident report from the Carnegie Steel Co.; and a press report.
From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine

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