How to Find Records of an Accidental Death

By Allison Dolan

Q I have a family note that says Robert Samuel Robinson (born Sept. 18, 1877, in Chaffey, Muskoka County, Ontario, Canada), died in “western USA” Aug. 11, 1901, and that it was a work-related death. It had to do with electricity, according to family story. I’d love to get a copy of a death certificate and any newspaper articles about the accident, and then to really push my luck, a photo of his grave marker. (Posted by Tracy on the Forum.)

A You may not be lucky enough to find a death certificate, as most states—particularly those in the then-relatively unsettled US West—didn’t mandate recording of deaths until after 1901. (See our chart of statewide vital-recordkeeping dates.) Occasionally, counties or cities recorded deaths before the state required death certificates, so it’s worth checking with the county clerk where he died.

An accidental death also might have generated other records, including coroner’s reports, coroner’s inquests (if the coroner found negligence or intention), and, as you mentioned, cemetery records and newspaper articles. Depending whom Robert worked for, his employer might’ve had to fill out paperwork for a work-related accident.

It sounds like your first problem is you don’t know where Robert was at the time of his death. You’ll need that information to find coroner’s records, which are kept at city or county coroner offices (they also may have been transferred to the state archives and/or microfilmed by the Family History Library, which has branch Family History Centers around the world).

Finding historical newspaper articles, in most cases, also requires you to know where he lived. You might get lucky and find Robert by searching a database of digitized, indexed newspapers, such as the subscription sites GenealogyBank and World Vital Records (see our news blog for more information on World Vital Records’ newspaper databases). But most newspapers haven’t been indexed and digitized, so you’d need to use a directory such as the Library of CongressChronicling America to find newspapers covering his area. Then you could see if a library near you has the paper on microfilm, or try to borrow it through interlibrary loan.

I’d suggest searching a 1900 US census database to see if you can pin down a location for Robert in that year. Continue your research on his earlier life, which could turn up information on where and when he moved to the United States. You also should examine your research and family papers on his parents, siblings and other relatives—information on them might give clues to Robert’s whereabouts.

Check online cemetery records, such as Find A Grave and Cemetery Junction, just in case he’s in one of them. Likely, though, you won’t find his burial place until you can learn where he died.

It also might help to do a little historical research on electricity-related happenings in 1901, such as cities that were getting electric power. This article, for example, discusses the dangers of electricity between 1901 and 1909.