Friday, January 30, 2015

Bold Escape from Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Jail

On this day in 1902, two brothers escaped from the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. John and Edward Biddle were in prison for the murder of a grocer on Mt. Washington, the neighborhood where my relatives were living at that time.

Genealogy: Pittsburgh Newspaper Article on Biddle Brothers' Escape
The Daily Republican (Monongahela, Pennsylvania), January 30, 1902

While the crime itself was high-profile, when the warden's wife helped the brothers escape from prison after falling in love with Ed, it became a sensational news event. Even decades later, it was considered fascinating enough for a movie about the event to be produced: Mrs. Soffel was released in 1984, starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson.

The Biddle brothers were tracked down by policemen and died after a Butler County shoot-out on February 1, 1902. They are buried in the Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh in Calvary Cemetery, and you can see their headstone on Find A Grave. Kate Soffel was injured but survived and eventually served two years in prison. Her husband divorced her, and I wonder if she ever had any contact with her four children.

The sleigh that the three of them used during the escape is in the Heinz History Center and was featured on the Travel Channel's Mysteries at the Museum (there's a short clip on the show's website). You can read more in the museum's blog post "Mrs. Soffel and the Biddle Boys in the Archives" and see a photo of the sleigh in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Did the Entire Family Disappear?

Genealogy Research Puzzles
I'm sure we've all searched census records and had the experience where we couldn't find the person or family anywhere. I've browsed entire neighborhoods page by page, looking for someone and never finding them. Did they move? Were they away from home, or not want to share their information with the census taker? In some cases, there could be other reasons.

If you were looking for William McClease and his wife Isabelle in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, you would find them living in Upper St. Clair Township in 1870:

        William McClease, 37, Laborer, born in PA
        Isabelle, McClease, 34, born in PA
        John McClease, 12, born in PA
        William McClease, 6, born in PA

In the 1880 census, they would be missing.

The McClease family isn't part of my family tree, but I found them mentioned in a publication listed on the Library of Congress website when I searched for items related to Pittsburgh. Their story made me realize that anyone looking for them today would wonder why they couldn't find them. And then maybe they would give up and move on.

The publication is the Report of the Citizens' Executive Relief Committee of the Cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny, for the Relief of the Sufferers by the Flood of July 26th, 1874. Beginning on page 18, it lists the names of more than 100 people who drowned. Multiple names from the same families can be seen on the list, including the McClease family:

        William McClease, aged 45 years; McLaughlin's Run; body found
        Mrs. Isabella McClease, aged 42 years; McLaughlin's Run; body found
        John G. McClease, aged 16 years; McLaughlin's Run; body found
        William McClease, aged 12 years; McLaughlin's Run; body found
        Rettie McClease, aged 4 years; McLaughlin's Run; body not found

Searching the message boards would lead you to a post that states the family perished in the 1874 flood. But there are many more names in the publication that may not be found by doing an online surname search. By reading some of the historical books related to the town or city where your ancestors lived, you may find a mention that helps with your genealogy research.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Canadian Connection: My Ancestors in Ontario

Genealogy and Canadian Ancestors
Most of my ancestors seem to be from Germany and France so, because it's so different than the rest, one of the family branches that stands out for me is my Baker line. John Baker was born in England and Elizabeth Arthur was Irish. They both made their way to Canada and settled in Seneca, Haldimand County, Ontario. (I still don't know if they were already married and arrived together, or met in Canada.)

Six of their nine children, including my 2nd great-grandmother Mary Baker, were born in Canada:

Sushannah Baker, b. 1853
Mary Baker, b. 1855
Thomas Baker, b. 1857
George Baker, b. 1859
James Baker, b. 1861
Elizabeth Baker, b. 1864

From the 1861 Census, I learned that John belonged to the Church of England and his wife Elizabeth and the children were Catholic. Seneca Township is missing from the 1851 Census, so I was unable to use that source to find out if the couple was living there before their children were born.

Around 1866, they arrived in the U.S. and made their way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the other three children were born. I can't be sure why they left Canada, but I found a short blurb that said families began to move away after one of the largest employers in Seneca Township, Grand River Navigation Company, went bankrupt in the 1860s.

I must say that having Canadian-born relatives has made my U.S. research much easier. Baker is such a common name but, when you can specify that the person was born in Canada, it certainly helps you find the Baker you're searching for. I still have a lot of research to do on John & Elizabeth since I don't know their parents' names and need more specifics on where they lived in England and Ireland, but it's fun to know I have a connection to Canada!

Note: You can see a photograph of two of the Bakers in my post about the mystery that was solved with James Baker's death certificate.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

She Died at Pittsburgh's Columbia Hospital

Genealogy: Pittsburgh's Columbia Hospital
My husband's 2nd great-grandmother, Nancy Gamble Kirkendall, died on this day in 1918. She lived in Saltsburg, Indiana County, Pennsylvania,  but was admitted to Columbia Hospital in the Wilkinsburg area of Pittsburgh for gallstone surgery. She died a few days after the operation.

Nancy was a 75-year-old widow who had lost her husband a few years earlier in 1915 due to a terrible accident. Thomas Roland Kirkendall was riding a horse home to Saltsburg from his farm in Avonmore, Westmoreland County, when he was struck by a speeding car and died of a skull fracture.

I don't know much about Columbia Hospital. In fact, I hadn't heard of it until I saw it on Nancy's death certificate. The Historic Pittsburgh website has a few publications that indicate it opened in 1906. It became part of Forbes Health System and then closed in the early 1980s after a new hospital was built across the street named Forbes Metro. (Since it existed for almost 80 years, I was clearly a self-absorbed teenager not to have heard of it!)

Thomas and Nancy had seven children, one of whom was my husband's great-grandmother, Anna Kirkendall Stewart.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Consider Catholic Newspaper Archives

We know how important newspaper research is for learning more about our ancestors' lives. For those of you with Catholic relatives, there's a list compiled by the Catholic Research Resources Alliance that you may find helpful. It includes various Catholic newspapers from both the U.S. and Canada.

Genealogy and the Pittsburgh Catholic Newspaper
The Pittsburgh Catholic, February 20, 1913: "The management earnestly solicit
your interest and assistance in the cause of the homeless boys sheltered at the
Protectory. If in need of an office or errand boy, apply at the Institution."

My great-uncle Peter LaFianza, whom I was lucky to have met, married my grandfather's sister and eventually lived in the Bloomfield area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While researching his life, I learned that Uncle Pete was an orphan by the age of 14. He is listed in the 1920 Census as a resident of St. Joseph's Protectory for Homeless Boys.

I was curious to learn more about what life might have been like at this institution, so I searched The Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper archive. Here are two paragraphs from an article I found in the September 2, 1920 issue, which would have been the same time my great-uncle lived there:
"Twenty-five years ago when the Diocese of Pittsburgh celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its establishment some project was sought which would give public and lasting evidence of the grateful appreciation of the blessings of heaven bestowed during the half century of Catholic activity then drawing to a close. Realizing the urgent need of an institution to care for the army of homeless destitute and unprotected boys of the city of Pittsburgh and towns of the diocese, the erection of a home to save them from the temptations and sufferings of poverty and from the evil associations and perils of the street was strongly advocated. The project met with the hearty response and generous support of the clergy and faithful alike, and in 1895 St. Joseph's Protectory for Homeless Boys opened its doors to its first inmate. 
At the institution the boys, who must be 12 years of age to be admitted, are clothed, sheltered and educated. A day school is maintained and when a boy has reached his fourteenth year and is sufficiently advanced in his education, employment is sought for him with the business firms of the city. Every endeavor is made to place him where he can acquire the knowledge of a trade and where advancement is possible. Although employed such boys continue to make the Protectory their home, depart each morning for their place of business and return when their day's work is done. During the winter months the working boys attend night school at the institution."
Duquesne University maintains the digital collection of The Pittsburgh Catholic for the years 1844-2001. If you have Catholic ancestors from the Pittsburgh area or need to learn more about the city's past, you should definitely search this archive.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Firemen Switch from Horses to Motor Vehicles 100 Years Ago

The September 1913 issue of Municipal Engineering includes an article, "Motor Fire Apparatus," which describes the benefits that fire departments and cities could gain from substituting motor vehicles for horses. One of my 2nd great-uncles was a firefighter in Pittsburgh during this time period, so it caught my eye.

Genealogy and History
Caption from the article: "Climbing Gunboat Hill, New York, with one of the thirty-
five Mack combination chemical and hose trucks which are used in this city."

Below are a few paragraphs from the article, which I found in The Internet Archive.
"Within the next ten years over $80,000,000 will be invested in motor-driven fire apparatus. The majority of this will be spent within five years. During the last eighteen months the number of pieces of motor apparatus has increased from 600 to over 2,000. There are now in use 20,000 pieces of apparatus drawn by 35,000 horses. Pittsburg is motorizing its fire department and will effect a 50% profit on the transaction. The property loss in Springfield, Mass., was $369,000 less in 1912 than in 1907. The number of motors in use between these dates was increased by 19. Isn't it self-evident that motors will eventually supplant fire horses in the U.S.?
Paris has advanced much further in this direction than American cities, the municipal council of the French capital having decided to abolish horses from all municipal service. Following a test of various types of motor vehicles by the street cleaning department last year, the authorities have recently put into service a large number of combination street watering and sweeping machines and electric garbage wagons. In five of the twenty city wards the horse had been displaced by these machines up to last April, and other wards had made a partial change. ... Doubtless it will be some years before American cities reach the advanced position of Paris, but it is certain that in time all big cities will abolish horses from municipal service, and some will prohibit or restrict their use by private citizens.
Pittsburg is motorizing her fire department rapidly, a process that John H. Dailey, director of the department of public safety, estimates will take about three years to complete. He predicts that there will hardly be a city of any size in the United States in five years where fire apparatus is not mostly self-propelled. His prediction is based on personal experience with the efficiency and economy of motor equipment." 

There are many great photos of the different types of fire vehicles that were used in Tacoma, Washington; Delaware, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; Attleboro, Massachusetts; Tupelo, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and Philadelphia.

Friday, January 16, 2015

San Francisco Advertisement from 1910

I just love old advertisements! This one is from the 1910 Home Telephone Directory for San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville. I found it while browsing the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.

Genealogy and Advertisements
Golden Gate Moving and Storage Co.
Furniture and Pianos Packed, Shipped & Stored

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Did You Make a Mistake or Is the Record Wrong?

Genealogy Wrong Turn?
When I wrote last week's post about my second cousin, Charles Black, it reminded me that sometimes you have to recheck your information. Making mistakes during genealogy research happens to everyone, so when you find a discrepancy, it's a good idea to check your sources again to make sure you have the right person and recorded the information accurately.

But keep in mind that records are only as accurate as the information provided by the informant.

Charles Black was born in Toledo, Ohio, and I remembered that his mother was born in Pittsburgh. To refresh my memory as to where his father was born, I pulled up some of Max Black's records. When I looked at his marriage license application, I remembered stumbling upon this issue before while doing my research. You see, my research showed that Max married Catherine Prill and that her parents were Charles & Mary Jae Prill. But the marriage license application on FamilySearch for Max & Catherine indicates that her mother's name was Emma Rogers. That's not even similar to Mary Jae.

My first thought at the time was that Mary must have been Charles Prill's second wife. But after reviewing the facts, I don't think that's right. Here are the facts regarding Charles & Mary Prill and their daughter Catherine:

  • The 1880 Census page viewed on, which was enumerated on June 14th, shows Charles & Mary living as boarders at 2531 Carson Street in Pittsburgh (the home of Mary's sister). They do not have any children. There is a mark next to their names in the column for "Married during the Census year."
  • On FamilySearch, there is a birth record for a Kate Prill in its database of Pennsylvania Births and Christenings, 1709-1950. While there isn't an image of the original record, it indicates that Kate was born in Pittsburgh on August 31, 1880, to father Chas. Prill and mother Mary Prill.
  • Catherine's Ohio death certificate on FamilySearch shows her parents as Chas. Prill and Mary Jay.

So it appears that Emma Rogers named as the mother on the marriage license application was just a mistake by either the person providing or recording the information. Let me know what you think!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Death of a Generous Man in January 1908

This is a great story about the generosity of a Pittsburgher in the early 1900s that I found on It appeared in The Indianapolis News on January 13, 1908:
Genealogy: Newspaper Article Research
"Karl Schinke, Pittsburg's Santa Claus, is being mourned by hundreds of children in Lawrenceville. Schinke was the friend of every poor child in the neighborhood, and since coming to Pittsburg from Leavenworth, Kas., two months ago, has made himself famous. His little cottage and workshop resembled the Old Curiosity Shop or Toyland.
Schinke was a consulting engineer. On his way home from work the old man stopped at cigar stores and gathered empty cigar boxes. These he fashioned into toys which were distributed among the poor children. At Christmas time he canvassed the neighborhood and left a package of toys in many a poor child's home.
He was found dying by his wife Saturday night. A doctor was called, but the old man expired before he arrived. News of his death spread yesterday, and the little folks passed in a steady stream through the cottage to look for the last time on their friend."
Karl Schinke isn't my relative, but someone out there should feel very proud to have him in their family tree.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

1887 German Obituary: Update #1

Genealogy: Searching Troy NY Newspapers for Ancestors
After help from reader Michael Stephens (Thanks, Mike!), I have a brief update on my last post about the obituary for my 2nd great-uncle, Jacob Nehren. Jacob died in Pittsburgh on November 6, 1887, and his German obituary was difficult for me to understand, but Mike pointed out that it requested that Troy newspapers copy the obituary. I took this to mean that he could have had family there.

After a quick search on, I found a Nehren family in Troy, Rensselaer County, New York. William Nehren was born in Germany four years after Jacob, so it's possible he could be a brother or a cousin. William arrived in the U.S. at least a decade after Jacob and was in Troy for the rest of his life. FindAGrave has a photo of his headstone, which shows he died in 1921.

A search of New York newspapers on shows that William's obituary was printed in The Troy Times:
"NEHREN--In this city, January 23, 1921, William Nehren, at the residence of his daughter, 1817 Francis Avenue, father of Frank J. and James Nehren, Mrs. H. C. Bender and Mrs. Stephen D. Lincoln. Funeral private from the residence Wednesday morning at 9 o'clock; thence to St. Lawrence's Church, where a requiem high mass will be sung."
I will post another update when I find more information to link William to my uncle Jacob Nehren.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Check for Coroner Records

Genealogy: Check for Coroner RecordsWe should remember this for all records but, when you find a death certificate, it's important to take the time to look at everything written. Reading every section could lead you to additional records you should investigate.

If the medical professional's signature indicates "coroner" after it, or it shows that an autopsy was performed, you should check for coroner records. If the death was a homicide, suicide, accidental, or of an unknown cause, there's a good chance that a coroner was called in to investigate and a file exists.

While some coroner files haven't told me anything I hadn't already found in newspaper articles, in the case of others, I learned more about my relatives' lives. For example, the 1938 report for my great-uncle John Stenglein shows that he had been living at 1101 Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh for three years and had been working for the Works Progress Administration for six months. One of the witnesses in the report was his friend, Dan Sheridan, who had known John for "15 to 20 years" and was rooming with him for 3 days before his death (which was ruled as alcoholic gastroenteritis). Since I haven't been able to find John in the 1930 census and the last record I had of him was from a 1925 city directory, these extra details are very welcome.

I've had mixed success with obtaining coroner records. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, access to coroner records varies:

Allegheny County - The University of Pittsburgh Archives maintains a coroner case file database for Allegheny County. You first email its staff to request a free search for the name of your deceased relative. If they find a match, they will provide you with a file number and a link to the request form that you submit along with $12, which includes copying and mailing charges. They responded to me the day after I sent my email. Very impressive! Files I have received from them have been about 10-12 pages.

Westmoreland County - This county allows you to search online for records from the early 1900s to 1996 and provides a one-page summary of the death. The website says "[s]ome older records may not be available as they were lost, damaged or destroyed many years ago." I couldn't find any of my relatives in this database, but you can search by name (make sure you use a wildcard, like smith*) or by date. I randomly picked the date of August 10, 1912, and it retrieved four deaths. When I clicked on the first name, James J. Cushing, it showed me that he resided in New York, was 45 years old and married, and the decision by the coroner was "death due to injuries received in attempting to board a moving freight train on P.R.R. at Bradenville. Trespassing. Died in Latrobe Hospital."

Washington County - This county has been a source of frustration for me. I emailed the coroner's office a year ago and received no response. I tried again, and still no response. The third time, I think I practically begged and finally heard back from them. A woman simply stated that they did not have any records going back to the 1930s. Last month, I decided to contact the Washington County Historical Society to see if they knew if any of the records had been archived. A gentleman told me that I had been misinformed by the woman at the coroner's office and suggested that I email them again. I know you won't be surprised to hear that I'm still waiting for a response.

A quick Google search of coroner records shows that there are other states where you can search these records online, such as the Missouri Coroner's Inquest Database and Cook County [Illinois] Coroner's Inquest Record Index. also has some online coroner records, so be sure to search around to find out what's available for the locations where your ancestors died.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Family Birth: Charles Black in 1901

Genealogy: Researching Family in Toledo Ohio
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
On this day in 1901, my second cousin once removed was born in Toledo, Lucas County, Ohio. His parents were Max Black and Catherine Prill. He had one brother, Walter, who was born 18 months after him.

Charles Black most likely knew his Pittsburgh-born grandparents, Charles and Mary Prill, who were also living in Toledo. They owned and operated a hotel called Prill's Hotel before Charles was born and stayed in the area until their deaths in 1920.

Charles married Nelly Kunzman on August 14, 1923, and they had two daughters. When he got married, he was working as a pricer for Walding, Kinnan and Marvin Company, a wholesale drug company. He retired from this company in 1963 as vice president and buyer, after 44 years with them.

Nelly died in 1989, and Charles died on March 12, 1996, in Riverside Hospital. He is buried in Ottawa Hills Memorial Park in Toledo.

If I have any Black cousins out there, I'd love to hear from you!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Honus Wagner's Surprise Wedding

Genealogy: Pittsburgh's Honus Wagner
(San Bernardino News, January 25, 1917)
The press expected them to marry on New Year's Day 1917, but it didn't happen that way. Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop Honus Wagner married Bessie Smith two days earlier.

A search on shows that newspapers across the country reported on the event. They included the Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona), The Oregon Daily Journal (Portland, Oregon), The Wichita Daily Eagle (Wichita, Kansas), and The Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, North Carolina).

A local Pittsburgh newspaper, The Daily Republican (Monongahela, Pennsylvania), had this to say in its January 1st edition:
"John Henry Wagner, the greatest baseball player of all time, was thrown out by Dan Cupid at the home plate Saturday night. The bride was Miss Bessie Smith, daughter of John G. Smith of 151 Montclair avenue, Crafton. 
Thus Honus retires from bacholerhood [sic] after 43 years. His retirement from baseball is not yet in sight. Barney Dreyfuss, president of the Pittsburgh National League of which Honus has been a member since 1900 raised his hands aloft when told of Honus' marriage and merely uttered: 'By Golly!' 
They were married at 7:30 o'clock by Rev. Dittmer, pastor of St. John's Lutheran church in Pittsburgh. They left in the Flying Dutchman's big auto for a western wedding trip and expect to be home in time for Honus to join the Pirates on their southern training trip. Mrs. Wagner is a daughter of a former baseball team mate of her husband. Hans is just seventeen years the senior of his bride."