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The Missing Death Certificate

Lost Notification 1908 JH Jennings in PA

All of the data found for my great-grandfather's death showed his last day on Earth was March 31, 1908. But try as his descendants might, we were unable to get a copy of his death certificate.

What was the story behind the missing death certificate?

Let's start at the beginning of the story! James Harrison Jennings was born in Swineford, County Mayo in August of 1844 and emigrated to America with his parents and siblings. The family settled into farm life in Monroe County, NY.

In 1872, he marries Elizabeth Carlow, the daughter of one of the founders of Warren, PA., and becomes a butcher. He and Elizabeth had 8 children before she passed away, and he married again in 1887 to Anna Flannigan my great-grandmother. They had five children together (including a set of twins).

The 1908 directory for Warren, PA records that as of the April 2 publishing date that he was retired. Sadly, James would not live to see that phone directory! He mysteriously disappeared on March 31!

Newspaper clipping from 4/3/1908 Warren Evening Mirror

This notice appeared in the "Warren Evening Mirror" about half-way down page 4 in the "Brevities" column. The "Family is Alarmed" and suspects foul play it advises.

A week goes by, and no sign of James. A new article appears in the "Warren Evening Mirror" on April 6, 1908.

Warren Evening Mirror clipping about missing JH Jennings 4-6-1908

Here we have some more details from the police investigation. He was last seen leaning on the iron railing at the Allegheny River having visited some saloons with two other residents of the area. The amount of money he had on him has now grown to $700 - $800 from $500, and although they are suspicious of his two drinking companions, there is insufficient evidence to arrest them.

James' children who have spread across America with their railroad jobs are gathering at the homestead awaiting news.

Sadly, the headline citing "Not the Opinion That His Body Is In the Allegheny" would prove to be untrue. The April 20 issue of the Evening Mirror would bring the update that a "floater" had been spotted passing Oil City, a good 55 miles as the crow flies from Warren, and quite a bit further as the river flows.

The body was found and retrieved on April 26, not in the vicinity of Oil City, but in the river in Warren. An inquest was held on April 27. There were no signs of foul play (after his body had been in the water for a month I would guess not), his watch and a wad of money were found with him. The inquest ruled his death to be from accidental drowning.

So friends, it finally occurred to me, probably in a moment of insomnia as usually happens with most of my flashes of brilliance, that all of the previous and current researchers of the Jennings family had not considered that the death certificate would not have been recorded until the cause of death was determined back in 1908. Now, coroners can file a death certificate with cause of death as "pending" or "undetermined."

I requested a copy of the death certificate from Warren County, and they were glad to oblige now that I finally had the right date!

Death certificate for James H Jennings 1908

Interestingly, we see that the second wife, Anna, believed that his place of birth was Vermont, in this era of No Irish Need Apply, it was a common practice to lie about where you were born. One brother was born in Vermont in 1854, and there was a "Missing Friends" notice for the patriarch James Jennings, posted in The Boston Pilot 1831-1920, pictured here:

Missing Friends Ad from The Boston Pilot for James Jennings

Some of his children also declared him to be Vermont-born including my own grandfather, until the Irish Independence was declared, and his 1920 US Census reads that his father was born in "The Irish Free State."

The lesson learned here, dear readers, is that to be successful family historians, we have to learn to think outside the box. If you are researching in modern times, there MUST be a death certificate somewhere. Be sure you have the right location. If the body had been found in Oil City, Venango County, the death certificate would probably have been filed there. Was there an inquest into your subject's death? When was it settled?

Another important thing to remember, is just because it's on a death certificate does not mean the information is accurate. As far as wife Anna knew, he was from Vermont, but we know he was not from out other sources. Check and double check your info collected, per the Genealogy Proof Standard.

There are five elements per

  1. Reasonably exhaustive research has been conducted.

  2. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.

  3. The evidence is reliable and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted.

  4. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.

  5. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written.

Thank you for joining me for the story of the Missing Death Certificate of James Harrison Jennings. How's your research going? If you've hit a brick wall I'd be glad to take a look to see if I can help you. Always a free evaluation and free quote!

Best wishes for a warm(ish) December,

Leslie Ryan

“World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

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