In my post about Hannah Cohen, I wrote about how difficult it can be to research a woman’s life once her name was changed at marriage. Some women, like some of the Rosenzweig women, I have not yet found at all. Sometimes, as when marriage records are searchable by a bride’s name, it is relatively easy. And sometimes it just takes a little luck and some good hunches to find her married name. In the case of Elizabeth Cohen, the ninth child and youngest daughter of my great-great-grandparents, it took both some good hunches and a lot of luck. It also involved some misdirection and some confusion.
Elizabeth was born on December 25, 1859, in Philadelphia. When I did a search for records for her on ancestry.com, she appeared with her parents on the census reports of 1860, 1870, and 1880. But then I could not find anything for an Elizabeth Cohen after those reports until I happened upon her death certificate. It’s odd to find the death certificate first, to see how a life ended before knowing the earlier years, but her death certificate appeared because it had her father’s name on it. Ancestry.com had the certificate listed under both her birth name (Elizabeth Cohen) and her married name, “Shirzer.” At least, that’s how it was spelled on the ancestry index. I was certain that this was the right person based on her father’s name, his birthplace, her birthplace, and her age. I also thus knew that she had been related, perhaps married, to someone named Bernard Shirzer, the informant on the certificate.
I then started searching for her as Elizabeth Shirzer and also searching for Bernard Shirzer. I found nothing under either name, but wild card searches led me to the 1900 census where they were indexed as Sluizer and the 1920 where they were indexed as Shezer. I stared and studied the handwriting on the death certificate and these two census reports, but still wasn’t sure which, if any, of these were their actual names. I was able, however, to learn the names of their children. In 1900 they were living with three children: Florence (15), Herbert (10), and Mervyn (3). In 1920 Bernard and Elizabeth were empty nesters, living alone. I could not and still have not find them in 1910.
From the ages of the children, I assumed that Bernard and Elizabeth had to have married sometime before 1885. I could not locate a marriage record in the online index, but since the index available online starts in 1885, that did not trouble me.
I decided to search for the two sons to see if I could find something that would confirm which name was the actual name, and since Mervyn seemed relatively unusual, I focused on him, and using again various wildcard searching techniques, found several records, including his draft registration forWorld War II with the name spelled Sluizer that also included his father’s name, Bernard Sluizer. The birth year and place and the first name and Bernard’s name were sufficient clues to confirm that the name was Sluizer.
I then went back to look for Bernard Sluizer to be sure this was the right one and found some early records for him that also seemed to corroborate that this was the correct name and thus Elizabeth Cohen’s married name. But then I found a record on the marriage index showing that Bernard Sluizer had married Elizabeth Heyman in 1892. It seemed so unlikely that there were two Bernard Sluizers married to Elizabeths that I was truly confused. Could the name on the marriage index be wrong? Of course, it could. But how could the date also be wrong? Bernard had to have married Elizabeth before 1885 if Florence was born in 1885.
The other problem was that I could not find any record for either Florence Sluizer or Herbert Sluizer after 1900. Not being able to find Florence was not troubling; I assumed she married and had changed her name. But where was Herbert? I couldn’t find one trace—not a draft record, not a marriage record, not a death record. Nothing. I was mystified.
I figured it was worth a search on genealogybank.com for newspaper articles that might reveal more about the Sluizers. And that’s where luck helped me out. Searching for Bernard Sluizer, I found an article about a charity raising money for the Doylestown Farm School, and listed among the donations was a reference to a donation by Bernard Sluizer in memory of his son, Herbert Heyman. (“$50,000 Donated to Aid Progress of Farm School Donations for Doylestown Institution One Feature of Anniversary,” Monday, June 10, 1907, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA) Volume: 156 , Issue: 161, Page: 4, 1 ) Herbert Heyman? How could he have a son with a different surname? Sons don’t change their names.
When I searched for Herbert Heyman, knowing he had died before June 10, 1907 , the date of the newspaper article, I found his death certificate, which identified his mother as Elizabeth Cohen, but his father as Benjamin Heyman. Who was he??
My search then for Benjamin Heyman uncovered a death certificate for someone of that name who had died of uremia on July 23, 1890, at age 30.
This must have been Elizabeth Cohen’s first husband. It explained both of the confusing records. Bernard Sluizer had married Elizabeth Heyman; that was her married name when she married him, but she was born Elizabeth Cohen. And Bernard Sluizer had been in many ways, even if not legally, the father of Herbert Heyman because he had married Elizabeth in 1892 when Herbert was only three years old. Herbert’s biologicial father Benjamin had died when he was only a year old.
Having finally found all the little pieces of the puzzle, I think I now have the story of Elizabeth’s life. She must have married Benjamin Heyman sometime before 1885 and had two children with him: Florence, born in 1885, and Herbert, born in 1889. Then her first husband died in 1890, leaving her with two very young children. She married Bernard Sluizer in 1892 and had a third child, Mervyn, with him the following year. The 1900 census indicates that Bernard was a salesman; the 1920 census is more specific—a salesman for a pawnbroker. Another relative in the family business.
Having lost her first husband so tragically young, Elizabeth then endured a second terrible loss when her son Herbert died from pneumonia in 1906 when he was sixteen. What a sad, short life he had lived, losing his father when he was not even two years old and dying before he was seventeen years old.
Elizabeth herself died on September 28, 1923, when she was only 63 years old from “cancer of the womb.” Her husband Bernard continued to work as a pawnbroker and was living with their son Mervyn and his wife and children in 1930. Bernard had remarried in 1928, but appears not to have been married as of the time of the 1930 census. He died on September 2, 1944, at age 84.
Elizabeth’s life story, like those of so many other women, would have disappeared, and I might never have been able to figure it out, if not for the fact that her husband Bernard Sluizer made a donation to a charity in memory of his stepson Herbert Heyman. If there had been no such donation, I might never have been able to figure out that Elizabeth had had a first husband who died at a very young age leaving her with two young children. I would never have been able to figure out that the Elizabeth Heyman who married Bernard Sluizer was born Elizabeth Cohen but for the fact that her son Herbert Heyman died and her birth name was on his death certificate. So in a very sad twist of fate, the fact that Herbert died so young enabled me to preserve the story of not only his life but that of his mother, my great-grandaunt Elizabeth Cohen.
You can see the 1907 annual report from the farm school… Mrs. Bernard Sluizer donated $150 the interest from which was a prize in memory of her son Herbert T Heyman. https://archive.org/stream/tenthannualrepor1907farm#page/26/mode/2up
Thank you! I hadn’t thought to look for that.
Good work, Amy!
I have had the same experience-they seem to just vanish. I am still trying to find my great grandmother.
You mean you cannot find her ancestors? Or did she disappear after your grandparent died?
I have not found where she is buried after she died in a state hospital of pellegra. Death certificate says one thing but no trace of her in the cemetery.
Wow, that is frustrating. I wish I could offer some helpful advice, but I am sure you’ve tried anything I could think of. Good luck!
Thanks- I have been looking for her since the early 80’s.
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