The Thrill of Discovery

Genealogy is addictive. Yes there are the constant brick walls, mysteries, and puzzles that often seem to have no solution. But once in awhile, things just fall into place and the thrill of discovery is overwhelming.

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to experience that thrill, and it all started with this picture.


My grandmother has had this photograph for years. She knew that her father, Sol, was in it (back row, center), as well as her grandfather, Sam, (seated, third from right). Other than those two people, we had NO idea who anyone else was. I guessed that Sam was probably sitting next to his father and that Sam’s wife, Fannie, was probably the woman standing directly behind him. But there was just no way of knowing for sure.

As for everyone else in the photo, where the photo was taken, when, and why- it was anyone’s guess. The only thing that was certain was that no one in my family knew anything for sure about the picture.

As I’ve researched this branch of the tree, I’ve made small discoveries along the way. We never knew that Sam’s parents had emigrated- I was able to find Sam living with them in the 1900 census- lucky break!! Tracing that couple, Meyer and Chana, I was able to discover Chana’s maiden name from one of their son’s death certificates.

Not too long after I added that name to my tree, I was contacted by a cousin who was related through that line, the Spinners. His 2nd great grandfather was my 3rd great grandmother’s brother. He reached out to me and we talked on the phone and exchanged emails. Gary was of great help- correcting a few mistakes I had made and allowing me to benefit from his research.

A few months ago, Gary had emailed me regarding a cousin and her father’s birth certificate. I emailed this new cousin and hoped that a new connection could be made. I was not disappointed.

Instead, I found that this new cousin, Hillary, had all of the answers to the questions we had regarding the portrait. Not only did she know when the photo was taken (1924), but also where (New York), and why (Meyer and Chana’s 50th wedding anniversary). She was even able to send me a copy of the menu from the event!

And, the proverbial icing on the cake, she had a key, made by another cousin, that not only named every single person in the photo, but also provided a short description of them as well! Her grandfather was my 2nd great grandfather’s brother and is seated, third from left, in the portrait.

What an amazing email to read! Finally, names for all of those faces!!! It was probably the best day in my genealogy journey.

Hillary was able to come to our family reunion and meet everyone- it was truly a great day.

Two weeks later, Hillary and I met in New York to look for the graves of our shared ancestors, Meyer and Chana. They are buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Queens. I was hopeful that we would find them, but also anxious that we wouldn’t. Mt. Zion is a massive graveyard, and many parts of the cemetery are not in the best of shape.But, as fate would have it, we were able to find them without too much trouble.

                                20150629_132049     20150629_132658

It was a very emotional moment. For me, it was the culmination of years of research and the chance to meet a piece of my past. We cried as we read the prayer and cleared the overgrowth from their graves. It was an awesome experience.

But the journey is far from over. I recently contacted another cousin, descended from a family member in the portrait.

I’m hoping to establish friendships with the new cousins I’ve met, and will hopefully continue to find.

It all started with that picture, which thankfully no one discarded despite only knowing it was a portrait of family. I feel that Meyer and Chana would be happy to see their descendants forging relationships with their cousins and keeping that family link alive.

We may be separated by distance, but we all have the same origin. Like a tree, we may have our own separate branches, but we all have the same roots. I am so thankful that I’ve been able to find these ancestors, thankful for the help I’ve had along the way, thankful for the people I’ve met.

I can’t wait to continue this journey and meet more family, make more discoveries, and keep the memory of Meyer and Chana alive.


Chasing the Paper Trail

I guess it proves that I’m a product of the internet age that I never thought to contact the court house regarding records. Only my paternal branch remained in one area after their arrival, so I was able to at least obtain some documents regarding some of those people. 

I have recently met a cousin I didn’t know I had- which was pretty awesome. She had told me that she had emailed the Carbon County court house regarding records and I thought “D’oh! Why have I never thought of this!!”

I received my packet yesterday, but was disappointed to find no major breakthroughs. I did get confirmation of a maiden name. I thought I might have gotten a town origin for my great grandfather, but for some reason, they listed the ethnic name of Hungary as the town. Now maybe it was a town or village at some point, but if you Google “Ungar,” only Hungary comes up. But I was happy to see that my great grandfather had become a citizen- something I didn’t know he had done.

I now have stacks of paper that I need to organize before they got lost, or ruined, or perforated by the kitten’s claws and teeth (he seems to have an affinity for chewing on cardboard and paper). 

My next plan of action is to contact the church that most of my paternal branch attended. I don’t know why, but I am nervous about doing this. I thought about it a while ago, but I’ve put it off for whatever reason.

I noticed that has now uploaded a lot of Pennsylvania death certificates but I was only able to find a few on there and ended up ruining my eyes for an evening going through the indexes of death certificates on the Pennsylvania archive site. Some years, the names are arranged using the Soundex system and then alphabetically by first name. This basically means you have to look through an entire letter for a year (or in my case- multiple years).

After a few weeks, I finally got a reply from North Carolina’s archives. They could not find a death certificate for Sheldon Shaw. I know she was buried in Raleigh, so I just assumed she had died there. But maybe she died in Arizona, where she had been living previously. I looked up the rules for obtaining death certificates from Arizona, and it doesn’t seem that I’ll be able to even try. They have some pretty strict rules about who can obtain documents, regardless of the reason. 

My husband had gotten me a book about tracing ancestors back into Europe. I was looking at it last night and there seems to be some helpful tips I haven’t tried. So I’ll be attempting some of those and I will let you know what works and what doesn’t.

Death Certificate Saturday!

About two weeks ago, my husband found this site to order Death Certificates in Pennsylvania. There are links to indices to search for document numbers, which you will need if ordering the certificates. (Birth certificates are also available- but for limited years.)

$5 each! Wow- what a bargain! Considering how much you can spend on these docs- I was pretty excited about that. And- personal checks are accepted.

I printed out the request form, filled it out and sent it out in the mail. 

Today we got a packet of death certificates in the mail. My husband had much better luck with new information. Me….not so much.

My paternal branch has been in this country only since the late 1800’s- early 1900’s and most of that time in Pennsylvania- specifically Carbon County, because that’s where the coal mines were. I am missing one set of 2nd great grandparents and three sets of 3rd great grandparents- I was hopeful.

But it was not to be. The death certificates I got had “Unknown” listed for parents- there were two fathers filled in- one missing a first name, and the other not even a complete first name. So…what’s a genealogist to do????

A couple of things I did learn.

1. I had best watch out for my kidneys- I’m surprised how many ancestors I’ve found kidney failure to be their cause of death!

2. I finally have a personal link to the 1918 influenza pandemic.



Paul Eremus was my 2nd great grandfather. Until my husband found this site, I wasn’t sure exactly when he died. I knew he was alive in the beginning of 1918 because there is a World War I draft card- but his wife is listed as a widow in the 1920 census. I knew, from the draft card, that he was residing in a sanatorium with tuberculosis. So I figured he died there, but I didn’t know when. Now i know he died on October 12, 1918 from pneumonia and influenza. I’m assuming that the tuberculosis disease would’ve made it impossible for him to survive the influenza virus- especially because that virus was particularly nasty. Considering that plenty of healthy people in his age range died as a result of the pandemic, it’s no surprise that he wouldn’t have had a chance when his lungs were already weakened due to tuberculosis.

Maybe that’s weird that I find that interesting to the point of exciting- but I’ve been studying the 1918 pandemic for years now and the fact that one of my relatives died from it makes it even more real.

In other news, I am awaiting a copy of Sheldon Shaw’s death certificate which I ordered from the NC Bureau of Vital Statistics. They’re a little more stringent with their rules. I had to get a certified check or money order and also send a copy of my driver’s license. Their charge was $24 plus an extra $15 if you want the process expedited (I didn’t). I hope they’re able to find it because I don’t know what name she was using when she died- so I just listed them all. Sheldon Shaw Rigsbee Clifton- hopefully the dates of birth and death will eliminate any possible duplicates. Distant relatives have said she committed suicide- I’d like to know for sure.

If anyone might have a guess as to what Paul’s father’s name could have been I’d appreciate any input!!!

The Jewish Name Game

I just received two of the death certificates I ordered from New York City.

One belonged to my great grandmother which has given me the exact date of death and also the cemetery in which she was supposedly buried. Naturally, as is my luck, I can’t find her listed in the cemetery records. It can never be that easy!


The other belonged to my 2nd great grandmother which gave me a lot of information. Her parents’ names- particularly her father’s name, were on the certificate as well as, bonus- her mother’s maiden name. It also listed her cause of death, address at the time of death, and again cemetery.


Now, regarding Fannie’s certificate, I should have a lot new information to look for. Yeah…well, not really. Searching for Mendel Citron has given me nothing- not even a census record. The same with Sarah Ostrow- although I have found quite a few things regarding birth records in Poland- I have no way of being sure it’s the right person.

Complicating matters is the Jewish name dilemma. Most practicing Jews had two names- their everyday name, and their Hebrew name. So while Fannie might have been known by that moniker- it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the name she was buried with, she may have been buried under (no pun intended) her Hebrew name. I, of course, have no idea what that might have been.

This plays into the fact that I can’t find her parents in any census records- I should at least be able to find them in 1900 or 1910. So either A) they were missed by the census takers, B) the names have been transcribed or originally recorded incorrectly, or C) they used different names, which again, I have no idea what they would be.

I’m assuming that “Washington” listed as the cemetery in which Fannie is buried is the Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, but, big surprise, she’s not listed in their records.

I’m hoping that when Fannie’s marriage certificate comes in it will confirm her parent’s names and maybe, dare I hope, give an origin that isn’t as vague as Austria. With my luck, it will say Russia.

Of course, finding their graves might not be helpful either. 

Multiple people have looked at these tombstones belonging to my 2nd great grandparents



and have been unable to translate the inscriptions. This is because they are in Yiddish, which basically no one nowadays knows how to read. If they had been in Hebrew, it would have been no problem- but apparently there’s enough variation between Yiddish and Hebrew that they are not mutually intelligible.

I’ve been trying to get on to the website, but I’m guessing it’s down for something or other right now. I’m very curious about Sara’s last name Ostrow. It seems there are multiple towns in Poland with that name. Would she have the town name as her last name or would someone just have pinned it on her because that’s where she was from?? And is Ostrow even the original last name? No idea.

We shall see if I find anything today. I’m hoping, but not hopeful. 

P.S. If anyone knows how to read Yiddish, or knows someone who does, hit me up!!!

Camera Shy?

I spent this weekend working on my thesis.

HAHAHA- Of course I didn’t!!

What I did spend a lot of time doing was looking through old yearbooks from Meredith College- which lucky for me, are available online.

I started looking because of this:


(Left column, fifth and sixth paragraphs)

There’s Sheldon Shaw, my great grandmother. 

This clipping is from the Twig, a publication of Meredith College, located in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s dated May 6, 1927. 

I desperately want to find a picture of Sheldon. We have nothing from that branch of the family- no pictures, no documents, no memories- nothing. Besides growing up without her father, my mother also had no connection with his family. I don’t know whose choice that was, and considering most of them are deceased (or in John Rigsbee’s case, presumed dead), it’s really a moot point by now.

So I was in contact with a cousin from the Allen branch (Hazel Allen being Sheldon’s mother) and she told me that those yearbooks were available online. 

My search yielded no results. No mention of her in any of the yearbooks. Then it struck me that she was 14 years old in 1927. I’m not familiar with the format of Meredith College in the 1920’s. My cousin said they used to have high school level classes as well, but they stopped that practice in 1917. So what was she doing there? I have no idea. I looked through yearbooks page by page from 1926-1933 and found nothing.

It seems odd to me that Sheldon was obviously a socialite and I have yet to find a single picture of her. I’ve found articles in newspapers with Miss Sheldon Shaw is going to visit her friend, Miss So-and-So, or Miss So-and-So is coming to visit Miss Sheldon Shaw. I’ve also found that she was presented in the 1931 North Carolina Debutante Ball. So you’d think there has to be a photo of her somewhere!!!

I hate to think that somewhere, in an antique shop is her picture in a box of old photos being sold for a dollar a piece. “Instant ancestors” someone once called them.

I have some emails out trying to get in touch with the archivist/historian/equivalent of Meredith College to try to figure out what Sheldon was doing there. I am also trying to find if the Debutante Ball has any sort of archives or historical records.

Once again I’ve hit a brick wall. Sheldon is one of the ever-elusive leaves on my family tree.

I might as well go back to my paper, at least that’s one mystery that’s already been solved!

Global Family Reunion

A.J. Jacobs is one of my favorite authors. So when I found out his next book was about genealogy I was super-excited. Then I saw that he’s planning on hosting a “Global Family Reunion,” well just awesome!

Jacobs has written books about



reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica,




following all Biblical rules for a year,




using himself as a guinea pig- most memorably (for me) when he outsourced his life for a month,





in which he focuses on health by trying all sorts of fad diets.

Anyways, Jacob’s goal is to beat the world record for largest family reunion, currently held by the Porteau-Boileve family in France. So he needs at least 4,514 relatives to show up.

I don’t know that I would use the sites that he is using for his research (wikitree, geni, werelate) because I have spent way too much time on my tree to allow some random person to change things collaborate. But I suppose it’s fun for discovering distant cousins and putting together a loose genealogical record.

I aim to go to this reunion. We’ve sent Jacobs the information he asked for to prove relationships and I’m hoping to find out that we are, however distantly, related.

New York Times article:

More info at Jacobs’ website:


The Hypothetical Dinner Party


The other day, one of my friends posted on Facebook, “If you could have dinner with four people, living or dead, who would they be?” For a brief moment, I thought about famous historical figures and then I thought- no way! I’d want to talk to some of the ancestors on my tree in the places where I’m stuck!

It would definitely be difficult to pick just four, but first I’d start with Michael Puza (aka Michael Kulis-Puza), my great-grandfather. I know from his ship’s manifest that he came from Austria-Hungary (well that narrows it down!). I suspect that he came from the same area as his wife- somewhere in Slovakia. That branch is the only branch on my tree where I’m stuck at the great-grandparent level, so if I could even get just the names of his parents I’d be thrilled!

Narrowing down the next three would be more difficult. 

It could be my 2nd great grandfather, Paul Eremus (1883-abt 1919). I found his draft card from 1918 that says he is a patient at a sanitorium, but then his wife is listed as a widow in the 1920 census. So obviously he died somewhere in between of tuberculosis. 

Another choice could be Fedor Malatyak (1853-1886) from Ol’ka in what is now Slovakia.

Or maybe Anthony Merlo (I’ve also seen Murlo and Marlo), another 2nd great grandfather, (1876-1954), from the Galicia region, or his wife, Josephine Savinsky (1889?-1949) from the same place. Well, at least that’s where they emigrated from.

And those choices are just my paternal branch!

On my maternal side I could choose from some 4th great grandparents:

Johanna Tuffs (Tufts) born about 1820 in Massachusetts, I don’t know and can’t find her maiden name, as of yet anyways.

Hannah Useted, (abt 1816-1892) from New York.

William H. Shaw, (abt 1814-1883) born in New York, died in New Jersey.

There’s also a 3rd great grandfather, Meyer (Max) Bressler (abt 1851-abt 1930). He was born somewhere in Austria-Hungary and died in New York. His wife was Sobel (Sara) Spinner (abt 1853- bef 1925). She may have been from Tarnow, Poland. I have parents’ names filled in for her- but I’m only about 50-75% sure those are right.

There’s my 2nd great grandmother, Fannie Citron. She was born about 1880, somewhere in Austria-Hungary (family legends say France- but I can’t find any proof of this). I’m not even sure when she died- it had to be sometime around 1940.

Another set of 3rd great grandparents would be David Rabinovich and Jennie Pesha. David, or Dov, was born about 1845 in, what is now, Belarus. Our family records say Delyatitz, but I was able to use to track that down to modern-day Delatichi in Belarus. I know nothing about his wife Jennie. I could guess she was born around the same time in the same area, but I don’t really know.

The last couple in the running would be a final set of 3rd great grandparents, Abram Louis Kantrovitz and his wife, Fannie Fogal. The only thing I know about them is that they were born in the Russian Empire, circa 1840; and that they eventually emigrated to Massachusetts.

It’s kind of a good thing that the “dinner with four people” could never happen because I’d have a really hard time narrowing that list down. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to prioritize that list. Would I start by closest relatives, or most mysterious? Because they’re not necessarily the same people.

Maybe I could even pick the elusive John Rigsbee or his mother, Sheldon Shaw. Those two people fascinate me and were my inspiration to start my family tree research. 

I suppose I would even be really tempted to go with the people I miss the most- my dad and his parents. 

It’s funny how much thought I’ve put into this hypothetical situation. And really, just so nerdy. It’s a sure sign that I’m a total genealogy nerd!