Flirting with Disaster

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium

History is rife with disheartening tales of devastation and loss, and our personal family histories are no exception. At one time or another we all come across an ancestor (or maybe several) who perished in an accident or from some horrible epidemic, or who died as a result of a flood, fire, transportation mishap or freak circumstance.
Although you can’t avoid bad news, you can learn from it. If you have an unsolved mystery in your family tree, such as your Great-great-uncle Gus, who left home one day never to be heard from again, or the elusive Aunt Edna, whom you just can’t find in the 1930 census no matter what, perhaps your ancestor met an untimely demise. Our five tips for tracking disasters can help you find out what happened.

1. Follow up on family lore.

You may have heard stories about how your grandmother’s sister perished during the 1918 flu pandemic or a great-uncle was killed in a coal mining accident. Until you can find proof through official records and historical documents, however, stories such as these remain just that—stories.
Try to validate them by gathering as many details as you can from relatives: When and where did your ancestor live? How old was he when he passed away? Then begin to put his life in historical context by creating a timeline; you can use a free online tool such as, Lifeblob or Timeglider; your favorite genealogy software program; or Genelines timeline software. Cross-reference the personal dates with the dates for historical events to narrow down the time frame you want to investigate and to make sure that the story your relatives have told you makes sense.

2. Identify the disaster.

Without the benefit of family lore, you may have no idea why Great-great-grandpa suddenly disappeared from the record books—or never appeared in any documents in the first place. Again, learn as much as you can about his life, including his occupation and hobbies. A natural disaster, epidemic or work-related accident could explain his absence. Consider these possibilities:
Natural disasters: Over the centuries, good ol’ Mother Nature has wreaked havoc on mankind. Seismic activity in particular has accounted for countless lives lost around the world: For instance, in 1556, what’s believed to be the deadliest earthquake in recorded history devastated China’s Shaanxi province, killing or injuring an estimated 830,000 people; in 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in US history, took the lives of more than 1,800 Americans; some eight months before Katrina, the deadly “Christmas Tsunami” swept across the Indian Ocean, killing more than 225,000 people in a dozen countries.
Cold-weather events, such as blizzards, nor’easters and ice jams, also have caused deaths. For example, 1816 was dubbed “the year without a summer” after unusually cold temperatures in the eastern United States ruined crops and heavy snows blanketed New England—in June. The blizzard of 1888 dumped snow across the East Coast in mid-March and caused more than 400 deaths. Cooler-than-normal weather also contributed to crop failures in Canada and Western Europe during the 1800s. But the “storm of the 19th century” occurred between Feb. 1 and 14, 1899, when a cold wave caused a huge East Coast blizzard and bitter temperatures that gripped two-thirds of the nation.
A decade earlier, on May 31, 1889, a poorly constructed dam and a phenomenal storm led to a different type of disaster—a flood that destroyed Johnstown, Pa. More than 2,000 people lost their lives (see <> for details). Cyclones, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions also have taken their toll through the years.
Fires and explosions: In September 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of that city. The worst fire in US history happened in Peshtigo, Wis., Oct. 8, 1871—coincidentally, the same day the Great Chicago Fire was ignited and separate fires leveled much of Michigan. The fires—fueled by unseasonably dry, warm and windy weather conditions in the Midwest—claimed the lives of at least 1,500; one in five Chicago residents became homeless. Numerous other fires have sparked coal mine and factory explosions that have caused immeasurable loss of human life and property.
Diseases and epidemics: Did your ancestors succumb to smallpox, cholera or the Spanish flu (cause of the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than 600,000 Americans and an estimated 50 million people worldwide)? Plagues and pestilence have been responsible for the demise of many of our ancestors. Knowing which ones were prevalent in previous centuries may help you confirm causes of death. Cyndi’s List provides links to information about historical epidemics. Learn more about researching medical history in the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine or at <>.
Occupational accidents: Just going to work could prove dangerous. A Dec. 6, 1907, explosion at a coal mine in Monongah, WV, killed a reported 362 men and boys (unofficial estimates exceeded 500 deaths), marking the largest coal mining disaster in US history. Between 1900 and 1910, more than 20,000 coal miners died on the job.
But coal miners weren’t the only workers who faced occupational hazards during the 19th and 20th centuries. Steelworkers often were burned by hot molten metal or crushed to death handling other machinery, and many lost their lives. In Allegheny County, Pa., alone, 526 workers—including 195 steelworkers—died in work-related accidents from July 1906 through June 1907.
Tales abound of factory workers who lost limbs, were killed by fires or equipment malfunctions, or died from lung illnesses, and fishermen who perished at sea, were electrocuted or suffered other fatalities. Learning more about your ancestors’ occupations can help provide some insight. Try Cyndi’s List and the Glossary of Old Occupations and Trades.
Transportation accidents: Travel posed risks, as well. The story of the ill-fated Titanic has been romanticized in movies, but more than 1,500 people lost their lives when the vessel sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Countless shipwrecks occurred on the Great Lakes and other waterways.
You can learn all about these disasters by visiting the Shipwrecks and Maritime Tales of the Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail website <>, which features photos, stories and and maps. Accidents involving planes, trains and automobiles also have been well-documented. You may find useful resources online at <> and <>.
Animal attacks and other mishaps: Who could forget the horror when illusionist Roy Horn of the duo Siegfried and Roy was mauled on stage by a Bengal tiger during a 2003 Las Vegas performance? Run-ins with animals aren’t just modern-day occurrences; nor have they happened only at circuses and carnivals. Pioneers and rural-dwelling ancestors had to contend with all sorts of creatures, of course, leading to incidents such as one reported in the Dec. 3, 1900 New Haven (Conn.) Register: “A small party of settlers was attacked by a pack of wolves while engaged in burying a child near Roseau (Minn.).”

3. Work the web.

Once you have a hunch about how your ancestor met his demise, consult Cyndi’s List for a roundup of disaster-related websites that may provide statistics about accidents, memorial tributes and more. You also can use a search engine such as Google to locate historical data, books, photograph collections, videos and other resources (see our January 2009 Family Tree Magazine article on Google tips). To find information about a particular locale, try the USGenWeb Project, a network of state- and county-specific websites with all sorts of useful genealogical information contributed by volunteers.

4. Look for news clues.
Catastrophic events always make headlines, so be sure to scour old newspapers for accounts of disasters and possible connections to your ancestors. You’ll find papers on microfilm at libraries and archives as well as online—both on free websites and on subscription services such as , GenealogyBank and World Vital Records.

Using the Google News archive search, you can find three types of content: free archival materials from websites that Google has indexed; free content from various publishers and repositories with which Google has partnered; and pay-per-view materials, which require a fee to access. A search for Chicago Fire, for example, will turn up mostly pay-per-view articles, including those published by the Chicago Tribune. By clicking on the timeline above your search results, you can call up articles published during a specific time period. In addition to searching on the event, you also should try searching on just your ancestor’s name. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across an obituary.
Another free resource is the Chronicling America newspaper directory, which lets you search and view articles published between 1880 and 1922. The site also provides information about newspapers published from 1690 to the present. Search for newspapers that were published when and where the disaster you’re researching took place, then look them up online or on microfilm.
If you’re lucky enough to find a newspaper account of the disaster, don’t just focus on those who perished; note the “narrow escapes,” as well. The names of “the lucky ones” who escaped a tragedy or disaster are just as important as the names of those who didn’t. After all, they’re the ones who lived to tell about the event. You might find their survival stories in diaries, journals, books, audio or video.

5. Revisit records.

You’ve probably already searched for your elusive ancestor in census and vital records. Once you’ve identified a disaster that may have claimed her life, take another look. Search US census records (available for the years 1790 to 1930, with the exception of 1890) to account for ancestors through the decades and to note who’s missing in a particular household (starting with the 1850 census, each member of the household is named). Don’t forget to check available mortality schedules, as well. Most of the mortality schedules for 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1885 are available for research.
You can search and view census records on or via Ancestry Library Edition, free at many libraries. HeritageQuest Online, also free through many libraries, has searchable head-of-household indexes for most censuses, and you can browse the unindexed records. FamilySearch’s Record Search Pilot Site provides free access to the 1850 to 1870 and 1900 censuses, plus indexes to 1880 and 1920. Many libraries also have census records on microfilm.
Death certificates should provide more details. Use Joe Beine’s Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records to find out how to get them. If you can’t access the civil record, try church burial records and local cemeteries, as well as the listings at and Find a Grave. Death or burial records may indicate whether your ancestor went to a funeral home. If the funeral home is still in business, call and ask if it has any records for your ancestor. If not, perhaps another funeral home took over and has the records, or a local historical society may have inherited them.
You also should check for coroners’ records for anyone who died young, in addition to those who died accidentally, violently or suspiciously. While coroners’ records may not have specific genealogical details, they might point you to the next of kin, provide testimony from relatives, or list an ancestor’s residence or occupation. Finding coroners’ records can be a challenge. Start at the county level—checking first with the county clerk’s office, where coroners’ files may be included among probate records, justice of the peace records or the local court system’s records. If you don’t have success on the county level, then go to the state level—some coroners’ records have been transferred to state libraries or archives.
You’ll want to check local courthouses, libraries and other institutions for additional records. Family Tree Magazine’s State Research Guides ($34.99 book, $49.99 CD and $3 single-state downloads from <>) can point you to available records. The Family History Library has a huge collection of records on microfilm, which you can rent for a fee and view at your local Family History Center (FHC). Download our directory of FHCs

Town and local histories, available at libraries, also may mention disasters and those who died. You may find that a town has a memorial tied to a disaster; for example, the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester, Mass., memorializes those lost at sea. Union or company records also may provide information. For instance, the AFL-CIO website lists memorials dedicated to workers; visit <>.

Of course, you probably wouldn’t wish a tragic death on your worst enemy—let alone your ancestor. But do a little digging, and you might find that a heart-rending backstory explains a perplexing family history mystery.
Disasters Timeline
1793 An estimated 5,000 Philadelphia residents die from yellow fever
1832 Cholera epidemics hit New York City and New Orleans, killing thousands
1853 First major US rail disaster kills 46 at Norwalk, Conn., in May
1878 20,000 die from yellow fever in Mississippi Valley
1869 108 miners die in a coal mine disaster in Avondale, Pa.
1871 Hundreds die in the Great Chicago Fire and fires that rage across Peshtigo, Wisc., and much of Michigan
1876 A train disaster near Ashtabula, Ohio, claims 83 lives
1881 A hurricane hits Georgia and the Carolinas, killing 700
1884 Several tornadoes on Feb. 19 kill hundreds in Southeastern states
1888 A blizzard strikes the Northeastern US in March, resulting in some 400 deaths
1889 Massive flooding destroys Johnstown, Pa.; more than 2,000 lose their lives
1898 On Palm Sunday, an avalanche near Sheep Camp, Alaska, becomes the deadliest event of the Klondike gold rush
1900 Hurricane in Galveston, Texas, kills more than 6,0000
1906 Earthquake rocks San Francisco and kills hundreds
1916 America’s worst polio epidemic results in more than 6,000 deaths
1918 Spanish influenza kills more than 600,000 in the US and millions worldwide
1919 Great Boston Molasses Flood kills 21 and injures 150
1925 Tornado kills nearly 700 in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri
1937 The Hindenburg explodes and crashes at Lakehurst, N.J.; 36 die
1944 In Hartford, Conn., 168 people die in a circus fire

From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine