A Family Mystery Solved

Often, in genealogical research, we encounter things that don’t make sense. Dates don’t match up, name spellings differ between sources, records are incomplete or illegible (you’d think our ancestors would have put someone with legible handwriting in charge of record keeping!) Unfortunately, records are no more perfect than the humans who keep them.

Pa Herman Grave StoneOne mystery from our own family was my great-grandfather, Thomas Herman (“Herman”) Curry. The headstone on his grave indicates that he was born April 20, 1890, and passed away March 5, 1958. Seems pretty straight forward. Except that several sources show a Thomas Herman Curry in Green Turtle Cay who also died March 5, 1958, but was born in 1887.

I  was tempted to just accept the 1890 birth date. After all, you’d think Pa Herman’s wife and daughters – who presumably ordered his gravestone – would know his correct birth date. However, I learned that there existed records showing that Thomas Herman Curry was baptized in 1887. How could a child born in 1890 be baptized three years earlier? For months, I thought this might just be one of those questions whose answer is forever lost to time.

Herman Thomas Curry (1890 - 1958)

Thomas Herman Curry (1890 – 1958)

But then, two things happened…

First, my cousin, Evan Lowe, who writes a blog called Out Island Boy, forwarded a link to an online listing of Bahamian births, deaths and marriages between 1850 – 1950. (Be warned: this is a terrific resource but it takes a great deal of patience.  There’s no index, meaning you have to click through hundreds of pages to find what you’re looking for.)

Then, a few days later, while assembling information about Pa Herman and Ma May’s descendants, I noticed that their youngest daughter, my great-aunt Belle, had exactly the same name – Agnes Mirabelle – as her older sister (known as Mirabelle) who died the year before Aunt Belle was born.

It got me wondering about Pa Herman, so I hunkered down to search the Bahamian birth and death records. A couple of days later, I had my answer.

Turns out there were two Thomas Herman Currys. And, like Aunt Belle and Mirabelle, they were siblings. The first Herman was born to my great-great-grandparents, Thomas Wesley Curry (“Pa Wes”) and Lilla Carleton on August 14, 1887.

Herman Curry Birth - 1887Sadly, the records show that, on June 30, 1888, the infant Herman died from “teething.”

Herman Curry Death 1888On (or around) April 21, 1890, Pa Wes and Lilla had another son, whom they also named Herman.

Herman Curry Birth - 1890This was my great-grandfather, Pa Herman, who passed away March 5, 1958.Herman Curry Death - 1958

I did some digging and discovered that, strange as it seems today, naming a child after a recently deceased sibling was common in years gone by. Parents knew that one or more of their children likely would not make it to adulthood. When a child died, his or her name was simply passed down to next child of the same gender.

In fact, I’ve since learned that professional genealogists suggest that when searching birth records, you not stop when you find the name you’re seeking. Rather, they recommend searching a few more years of records, since the first child may have passed away, and your ancestor may in fact be a subsequent child with the same name.

Related: Out Island Boy: The Unknown Curry

18 thoughts on “A Family Mystery Solved

  1. Great story and great research! My great-grandfather has two different ages on his grave markers. One says he was 63, the other that he was 70—on the same grave! One is a footstone, the other his headstone. All the other records are all over the place—he could have been born anytime between 1830 and 1850, according to his records. Sadly, since he was born in Austria and there are no surviving records, I will never solve that mystery.

    • Hi, Amy. Thanks for your kind words. That’s bizarre about your great-grandfather having two ages on his grave! How frustrating not to be able to confirm the information. Any chance the markers indicate two people? I know that in some places, family members are buried vertically, so that one grave can accommodate more than one person. Could this be a case of siblings…?

      • No, it’s one grave. And he had no siblings with the same name—at least not in the US! He arrived as an adult in 1888 or so. I think the two stones were laid at different times. In Jewish practice you don’t put a headstone up until almost a year after the death. Not sure when the footstone was laid. Maybe in between they realized they had his age wrong? Who knows!

      • That is strange! This is probably grasping at straws, but might the cemetery have any record of who laid the headstone and/or footstone and when? I’m assuming that the “death” date is the same, and that it’s the birth dates that differ between the two stones…? Are you able to find him in any US census records after his arrival in this country? Those records often note a person’s age at the time. Are you able to find his death certificate? Might that have his birthdate or age on it? I do hope that at some point you’re able to solve this mystery.

      • Here’s what I have on Joseph: On my grandmother’s birth certificate dated September, 1895, it said he was 60. On the 1900 census five years later, he is 55. On his son Sam’s birth certificate dated September, 1900, it says he was 46. His death certificate dated January, 1901, four months later, says he was 52. His headstone says 73. His footstone says 67. You can see no one knew his real age. My mother said my grandmother always referred to him as the Old Man. He had children born between 1872 and 1900 so any of those ages are possibilities. Calling the cemetery is a good idea—I’d never thought of that. Thanks!

      • Amy, that’s so strange! I can understand that, if records weren’t kept (or weren’t reliable) in his home country, even HE might not have known his true age. But I would think that at some point in his young adulthood, he’d decide what age he thought he was and proceed forward from there, and that family members would use the same assumption as to his age. What I find most bizarre is that for at least some of the records you have, he would probably have been present or at least nearby to confirm his age (his children’s birth certificates, census results, etc.) And there’s such a wide range of ages, and he gets younger as the records progress. Did he have just one wife throughout his life? If so, and if she were alive at the time of her children’s births, you’d think she’d know her husband’s (real or presumed) age for the records. You really have got a family mystery on your hands! Have you ever seen that show on PBS, History Detectives? This is a definitely case for them!

      • Now that made me laugh out loud!! Yes, he had a first wife and four children with her before marrying my great-grandmother. I think the whole thing is bizarre, but also typical of those times. All my European born Brotman relatives had birthdays that jumped around, though Joseph’s are the most extreme. From what I understand, birthdays were just not a big deal for Jews in the shtetl. But yes, he must have had SOME sense of his age—but perhaps he just liked making it up as he went along! My guess is that his age at my grandmother’s birth could be close—60, making him 66 when he died, close to what it says on his footstone.

  2. I n several of my family lines I have found this naming pattern. I fact on more than one occasion the children were named three or more times before one grew into adulthood. This has caused me much grief in my research.

    • Hi, chmjr2. Thanks for your post. I know the feeling. Clearly our ancestors weren’t thinking of future generations when naming their children. This practice seems so bizarre to me, but I’ve come across it a number of times, both in our own family and others. I guess earlier generations were, of necessity, more practical and less sentimental.

  3. That has happened in my ancestors too. At first it freaked me out, but after seeing it a lot more, I realized it was viewed differently back then. Congrats on your perseverance.

    • Hi, pastsmith. Thanks for your note and your kind words. Yes, I think you’re right — this practice of recycling names was definitely viewed differently by past generations. As I said in another thread below, it seems our ancestors were more practical and less sentimental than we are.

  4. I found this naming of children to be a practice in my mother’s French Canadian ancestry. They had large families and many children did not survive so when the next child was born and of the same sex they simply passed the name on.

    • Hi, B.Barrs. Thanks for your comment. The more I learn, the more I realize that this was common practice in lots of cultures. I guess folks were just more practical back then. Doesn’t make research easy for us amateur genealogists, though, does it?!

Comments are closed.