The Great Harry Coopersmith Mystery (Almost) Solved!

Back on December 5, 2017, I wrote about the documents I’d received from an Ancestry member named Dale: the death certificate of Frieda Brotman Coopersmith, my grandmother’s sister, and the military discharge papers for her husband Harry Coopersmith.

Thanks to my fellow genealogy bloggers, I re-examined these documents more carefully and observed a few things I’d missed before.

One thing I had not noticed before was that the death certificate was ordered from New York City in 1943, almost twenty years after Frieda’s death. Similarly, the military discharge certificate was recorded in the New York County Clerk’s Office in 1947, something that Cathy Meder-Dempsey of Opening Doors in Brick Walls pointed out to me:

What was happening in the 1940s that would have prompted Harry or one of his sons to order these two documents? As Luanne Castle of The Family Kalamazoo pointed out in her comment on my prior post, there must have been some reason that these documents were ordered and why the military papers were recorded with the city clerk. I’ve yet to figure out the reason, however.

There were also two photographs in Dale’s father’s papers, but neither Dale nor I could identify the men in these two photographs:

In that last post, I went through all the possible theories that Dale and I had discussed about how these papers could have ended up in her father’s possession.  Dale had no idea who Harry or Frieda were; she found me through Ancestry because they are both listed in my tree there.  Dale thought at first the source was her great-aunt Anna Yurdin Haas, but my research and analysis led me to conclude that that was not the likely source as there was no apparent connection or overlap between Harry and Anna and Burton.

Instead, I concluded that it was more likely that the connection was between Dale’s father Howard Halpern and one or more of the sons of Harry Coopersmith from his second marriage: David, Lawrence, and Samuel. Howard grew up in Long Beach, Long Island, New York, just a mile away from Island Park, Long Island, New York, where in 1940 the three Coopersmith brothers were living as boarders in the home of Jacob and Pauline Davis.

After that post was published, I received several suggestions and questions from my readers.  Two, Su Leslie of the blogs Shaking the Tree and Zimmerbitch and Charles Moore of Moore Genealogy, pointed out that sometimes things end up in the hands of complete strangers through random events and that there might have been no relationship between the Halperns and the Coopersmiths.  Others suggested more questions to ask Dale and Harry’s grandson Stan.

I contacted Dale and Stan and asked them some more questions. On the “random distribution” theory Dale told me that her father had been an avid stamp and coin collector and met many people while pursuing those hobbies; he also purchased stamp collections from other collectors. She suggested I ask Stan whether anyone in the family collected stamps. And when I asked Stan, he responded that his father Lawrence had in fact been a stamp collector. Perhaps this was how the papers ended up with Howard? Did he purchase a collection from the Coopersmiths in which these papers had been left inadvertently?

Stan told me that his father had gone to a trade school in Manhattan to become a typesetter and had settled in Seaford, New York, on Long Island after he married.  Stan’s uncles David and Sam owned a printshop in Freeport, New York, and lived with their families in Wantagh, New York, towns that are also on Long Island. Stan also said that his grandfather Harry was living in Bohemia, New York, also on Long Island, at the end of his life.

Learning of these details, Dale pointed out that her father was a reporter for the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, and that her family had lived in Levittown, not far from Wantagh and Freeport. It thus was possible that her father knew the Coopersmiths from work or from stamp collecting.

To see if I could get more answers, I decided to try to contact some of Harry’s other grandchildren, whose names I found in the obituary of one of David Coopersmith’s children. I found two of them on Facebook, and one, David’s daughter, Mindy, was able to provide me with some critical information.

First, she shared this photograph of her father, David Coopersmith:

Comparing this photograph to one of the photographs Dale had sent me, I could see that both photographs were of the same man: Harry’s oldest son David.

Mindy believes that the other photograph—of the man standing behind a Coney Island sign—is her uncle, Larry Coopersmith. Now I knew who the men were in those two photographs—two of Harry Coopersmith’s sons.

Then one of those incredible small-world coincidences occurred. The next day I received an email from my friend and fellow genealogy blogger, Sharon Haimovitz-Civitano of the Branches of our Haimowitz Family Tree and Branches on Civitano Tree blogs.  She had been on Facebook and noticed that I had commented on a photograph that Mindy had posted and wanted to know how I knew Mindy because Mindy was her very close childhood friend. My head was spinning! Sharon said that when she’d read my earlier post about Harry Coopersmith and seen the “mystery photos,” she had in fact thought that one of them resembled her friend Mindy’s father, but she had dismissed the idea, thinking it was too far-fetched—-that Coopersmith was probably a common name and that there was likely no connection despite the resemblance and the fact that Sharon and her friend Mindy had both grown up on Long Island.

I asked Sharon to vouch for me—to assure Mindy that I was honorable and only interested in figuring out who was in the photographs and how they’d ended up with Dale’s father. And she did, and just a short while later, Mindy called me, and we had a lovely chat about our overlapping families.

Mindy told me that her father David had been in the Marines during World War II and that the photographs were taken in the 1940s—consistent with the answer I’d received from Ava Cohn, the Photo Genealogist. Mindy had not known about Harry’s first marriage, and she also did not know who Howard Halpern was or how these photographs and other papers could have ended up with Howard.  Mindy suggested that I speak with her mother Vivian for more information.

The next day I spoke to Vivian, and she confirmed what Mindy had told me and also filled in more of the gaps.  After Nettie was hospitalized, Harry could not find anyone to help him care for his sons, who were all under five years old at that time. He eventually decided to place them in the Hebrew Orphanage in New York City, and the orphanage found the Davis family to act as foster parents. David, Lawrence, and Samuel went to live with the Davis family as small boys and lived there until the two older boys were old enough to join the service during World War II.

Vivian also told me that Harry had himself been a stamp collector and that when he died in 1956, his son David had inherited the stamp collection. David, however, was not a collector so he gave the collection to his brother Sam, who was. Perhaps Sam or one of his children sold Harry’s stamp collection without ever knowing that there were papers and photographs inside.

Vivian and Mindy generously shared with me some photographs of Harry and his family, helping me put faces to the names of this family who were not biologically connected to my own, but whose story was nevertheless tied to my own.

This is Harry Coopersmith during his service in the army during World War I; Vivian said he’d served in Siberia and in the Phillipines:

Harry Coopersmith in World War I
Courtesy of the Coopersmith family

This is Nettie Lichtenstein Coopersmith, Harry’s second wife:

Nettie Lichtenstein Coopersmith Courtesy of the Coopersmith family

And here are two photographs of Harry with his sons, taken after they’d been taken into foster care and thus showing that Harry maintained contact with them during their childhood:

Lawrence Coopersmith, unknown man, Samuel Coopersmith, Harry Coopersmith, and David Coopersmith Courtesy of the Coopersmith family

Harry Coopersmith and his family Courtesy of the Coopersmith family

We may never know how Howard Halpern ended up with the photographs of David and Lawrence, Harry’s discharge papers, and Frieda’s death certificate. It might have been a random event—through, for example, a sale of a stamp collection. Or maybe he knew the Coopersmiths from school or from the community or from work. But somehow he came into possession of these items and kept them safe for a long time.

Thus, the mystery is not completely solved, but the most important questions have been answered. We know the identity of the men in the photographs, and now I can return them to their family. I know more about Harry and his life after Frieda died. And best of all, I’ve found some wonderful people who are connected to me through the tragically brief marriage of Harry Coopersmith to my great-aunt Frieda, my grandmother’s little sister who died far too young.

30 thoughts on “The Great Harry Coopersmith Mystery (Almost) Solved!

  1. Congratulations on your fine detective work! It goes to show that persistence eventually leads to success. I love the old photos. Your post is an inspiration to all blogging friends who do research in the realm of genealogy.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so much for the kind words, Peter! I am always frustrated by unanswered questions, and so many still remain unanswered. But when I am able to find answers, it’s like hitting the jackpot! Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I almost cried seeing the photo of Harry with his boys, what an incredible genealogical journey this was. Mystery (almost) solved, new connections made. I was excited to read you had actually spoke with Vivian. What a blessing to see the pictures of Harry & Nettie. A Hanukkah miracle happened here! and as always perfectly told!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is fantastic Amy. I am so pleased that your detective work and persistence — and the online community — have delivered the most important answers. 🙂

    I had a thought about why Frieda’s death certificate might have been requested in May 1943. It’s a bit of a stretch perhaps but here goes. You mentioned that you hadn’t found a marriage record for Harry and Nettie, but you thought it had happened not long after Frieda died. I also noticed that Harry and Nettie’s eldest son David would have turned 18 in June 1943. Perhaps he was trying to enlist in the military (assuming 18 was the minimum age) and there was some question over his parents’ marriage. His father’s first wife’s death certificate would have demonstrated that his father was legally able to marry (and thus David would be legitimate). Too convoluted?

    As for the discharge certificate? Perhaps that was related to pension eligibility??? Bureaucrats do ask for left-field documentation sometimes, as we’ve discovered in our various visa and citizenship applications (we all have dual UK-NZ citizenship and boy did we have to go through hoops for those).

    Anyway, well done you and the online whanau.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think the second theory is too far-fetched. Harry was ultimately buried in a military cemetery so my hunch is that he needed to show his honorable discharge to be eligible to get a plot there. I have no record of him getting a military pension, but it’s possible.

      As for Frieda’s death certificate, David was born in June 1925, 13 months after Frieda died, so I am assuming that Harry and Nettie married about 9 months before David’s birth, or September 1924, a few months after Frieda died. No one I spoke to knew Harry had been married before—maybe Nettie never knew? So I don’t think David requested the death certificate, I think Harry did. But why? I have no clue!

      Thanks for thinking about it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The photos of David Coopersmith are a perfect match! You do a great job of sleuthing, Amy.
    I had wondered why you did not reply to my comment. I realize now you were off on a run after taking another look at the documents. Thanks for mentioning my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What an amazingly small world, as you and I have already figured out with our mutual friend. And how wonderful to have names to put with those unidentified faces – I dream that someday I’ll be able to have the same experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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