Posted by: downtothesea | April 16, 2009

Obituaries: a pleasant way to spend the evening.

Now that I’m done with my program at the university for the forseeable future, I finally have a real, live chunk of free time in which to update my poor neglected blog!

My latest genealogical obsession is obituaries.  If I had only had an inkling of how amazingly helpful they are to the family historian, I would have gotten acquainted with them way back in the beginning.  I guess I was uneager to dig into them because I expected that all obits read like the rather dry memorials we see in the papers today.  True, even the dry ones can provide enough new information to keep the genealogist busy for a good long time, but the old obituaries…ho ho!  They were a different breed all together!  Talk about dramatic!

Here’s an amazing example I’ve found.  This Niagara Falls obituary was for Bridget (Gavin) O’Hara, eldest sister of my great-great grandfather, Michael Gavin.  It is my own transcription of a badly-photographed microfilm item in possession of the wonderful Niagara Falls Public Library.  All mistakes herein are therefore my own: 


16 November, 1897

Niagara Falls Gazette




Mrs. Bridget O’Hara Expired at 8:30 O’Clock While Looking For Her Son




Deceased Attended Two Funerals During the Day and the Strain Was Too Great—Coroner Slocum Was Summoned But Will Not Hold an Inquest



      Mrs. Bridget O’Hara, widow of the late Patrick O’Hara, died very suddenly last night at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Cook at the corner of Niagara and Fifth Streets.  Mrs. O’Hara resided at 354 Fifth Street, which is only a short distance from the Cook home and she walked the distance apparently in good health a few moments before she died.  Yesterday Mrs. O’Hara attended two funerals and the effect brought on nervousness and excitement.  At 8:30 o’clock she left her home and went to the Cook home to look for her son.  He was not there and she grew worried.  As she entered the house she complained of feeling weak and faint.  She sat down in a chair and called for a glass of water.  The water was brought and Mrs. O’Hara drank it.  Some stimulants were then brought, but she could not take them and blood began to flow from her mouth.  She became unconscious and a few minutes later she was dead.


      Coroner Slocum was called for, but it was an hour before he could be found.  When he arrived he ordered the remains to be removed to the family home.


      The news of the sudden death of Mrs. O’Hara circulated with great rapidity and sorrow was everywhere expressed, for the deceased was well known and esteemed.


      She leaves to mourn her loss two sons, James and Patrick, a daughter Annie, two sisters, Mrs. Margaret McMahon and Mrs. John Callihan [sic], a mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Gavin, and a brother, Michael Gavin, all of this city, and a sister, Mrs. Michael Ryan of Buffalo.


      Coroner Slocum will not hold an inquest in the case.  The cause of death is given as internal hemorrhage.


      Mrs. O’Hara was born in County Clare, Ireland.  Upon coming to this country she settled in Albany and later moved to this city where she has resided from the past 25 years.  She had a wide circle of friends and was respected and esteemed by all who knew her.


      The funeral will be held Thursday morning from St. Mary’s Church.


Wow!  If ever the word “thrilling” could be applied to an obituary, this would be the one!  Poor Bridget…I wonder what could have happened to her?  Several other women in the Gavin line seem prone to “brain trouble,” as they put it in those days, which has reached me via my grandmother in the form of debilitating migraines.  Perhaps Bridget’s death was neurological in nature?  Medicine of the 19th century was more apt to describe medical symptoms than to “name” afflictions as we do today, so it’s quite hard to discern exactly what caused Bridget’s hemorrhage.  I’ll probably never know, but it sure makes me want to listen extra attentively next time I visit my neurologist.  And note to self:  attending two funerals in one day is probably not the best idea.

Poor Bridget.  Requiescat in pace.

Niagara Falls, N. Y., 1882: H. Wellge

Niagara Falls, N. Y., 1882: H. Wellge

My final nerdy note:  St. Mary of the Cataract Catholic Church, where Bridget had her funeral, can be seen in the above map from the 1880s.  The church is a white building about halfway up the image, just to the right of the railroad tracks that run through the center of town.  Trying to pick it out is a bit like playing a 19th-century version of “Where’s Waldo?”, but it’s there.  St. Mary’s is still standing today, and still serving her vibrant faith community in downtown Niagara Falls.

Map courtesy of the Library of Congress’ amazing map site.  My own paltry post on this great site can be found here.



  1. They told us about the map site during our tour at the Library of Congress; I must check it out! I’ve also been having fun with obituaries lately. It must be obit season!

  2. We genealogists are a funny bunch, huh? Who else could possibly get so excited about obituaries? Hee!

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