Friday, November 16, 2012

Problem Solving with City Directories

Guest Author, Pamela Tremé

Like many researchers, I’ve always used city directories as cross confirmation of the location of a family. I locate family members on each census, and then check for city directories. If they are available, I can do a spot check to confirm that the family is where I expect to find them.

In an early city directory, you might find just a person’s name and address, which may or may not be useful. As city directories developed over time, the information they provided became more detailed. In later city directories, you can have any of the following information in addition to a person’s name and home address:
  • The name of a person’s spouse
  • The person’s occupation
  • The name of the company where the person works
  • The person’s business address along with their home address
  • The location to which a person moved if they’ve moved since the last directory
  • The first name of a widow’s husband
  • The name of children when they are listed as students…children you might have no other way of finding out about.
When the years of city directories are consecutive, you can follow family members from one address to another and from one job to another. When the family suddenly disappears, you have an approximate timeframe for when they moved to a new place…a place you may or may not know about.

The problem solving so far has been pretty limited. However, with a little imagination and rooting around, you can mine city directories for lots of information that narrows search criteria.

As I’ve nailed down more and more information about each person in my database, I’ve had to become more creative in my pursuit of additional information. Of late, I’ve been chasing the Anderson family in Biddeford, York County, Maine. One line of Andersons was easy because I could find dates of death and get obituaries from the local library. The other line of Andersons, who start out in Biddeford but wind up in Springfield, Hampden County, Massachusetts, was proving to be more difficult.

As is my usual practice, I located every census entry for the family. The family moves from Biddeford to Springfield between the 1920 and 1930 censuses. One additional event occurs; the father of the family, John James Anderson, seems to die. He is on the 1920 census in Biddeford, Maine but not with the family in the 1930 census when they appear on the census in Springfield, Massachusetts. In the 1930 census, John’s wife, Annie Ellen (Doran) Anderson, is listed as the head of the household and as a widow. Annie is living with her sons Edward and Norman, nephew Samuel Smith, daughter-in-law Elsie, and grandson Edward (Jr.). Previously located records confirmed that John and Annie had two living children, sons Edward and Norman.

In checking the Maine death index, I found that it stopped at 1922 and that John wasn’t on it. So I knew that if he was indeed dead, it was after 1922 and before 1930. A quick check of Find A Grave gave me no easy answer.

In an effort to zero in on a year of death, I turned to the Biddeford and Saco, Maine City Directory.
  • In the 1920-1921 directory, I found John living at 15 Fall Street and working as a machinist.
  • In the 1920-1921 directory, son Edward is living at 15 Fall Street and working as an operator.
  • In the 1922-1923 directory, John is there living at 15 Fall Street and working as a machinist.
  • In the 1922-1923 directory, John’s son, Edward, is noted as having moved to Worcester, Massachusetts.
The 1926 Springfield, Massachusetts City Directory provided additional information. I found John’s wife, Annie, living at 790 Liberty, Springfield, Massachusetts along with her two sons.

With these pieces of information, I knew that John most likely died after 1923 but before 1926. As it so happens, the Biddeford Weekly Journal is one of the newspapers digitized by Google at Google News Archive. I used the advanced search to look for any article that contained the name Anderson in the Biddeford Weekly Journal between 1923 and 1926. Here’s what I found.
Biddeford Weekly Journal, Biddeford, Maine, 18 Dec 1925, Page 7
Norman Anderson, a senior, was relieved of his school duties because of the death of his father, John J. Anderson. The senior class sent a beautiful floral piece and also extends sympathy to the family.
Norman, as noted above, is the younger of the two Anderson sons. Based on this article, I surmised that John died sometime in mid-December 1925. This date of death fits perfectly with the sequence of events compiled from entries in city directories. Unfortunately, further searching of the Biddeford Weekly Journal yielded no obituary. However, there is another newspaper in Biddeford. With at least a target date (probably sometime the week of 18 December 1925), I asked a librarian in Biddeford to see if an obituary was available. The McArthur Public Library provided the obituary.
Biddeford Daily Journal, Biddeford, Maine, 7 Dec 1925
John J. Anderson
Death of Hightly Esteemed Citizen at His Home on Pool Street
John J. Anderson, a highly respected member of St. Mary's parish died at his home, 6 Pool street, Sunday morning, following an extended illness from a heart trouble. His age was about 52 years.
Mr. Anderson was employed for many years in the Saco-Lowell shops. He was forced to give up work some months ago because of his ill health. He was a member of Biddeford council, Knights of Columbus, and had been active in St. Marys parish.
He is survived by a widow and two sons, Edward and Norman, all of this city, the latter a student at Biddeford high school and a prominent athlete.
The funeral will be held at 8:30 o'clock Wednesday morning from St. Marys church.
In addition, the librarian pointed out an online index for the St. Mary’s Cemetery. I used the index to locate the burials for several additional family members, most of whom died as small children.

As my research becomes more detailed, my solutions become less direct. They almost always require the use of more than one set of records to puzzle my way to a solution. As more city directories have gone online, they’ve recently become a principle tool in my problem-solving toolkit.

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