November 15, 2019

Today would have been my father’s 93rd birthday. Tomorrow it will be nine months since he died on February 16, 2019. Nine months is a long time—long enough for a human baby to gestate and be ready for life outside the womb. And yet it is just a flash in a life that lasted over 92 years.

These nine months have been the hardest of my life—dealing with not only losing my father, but watching my mother decline as well. Life without my father has been just too hard for her to bear.

So today I’d like to dedicate my blog to them both, two people whose love for each other was the key to almost all of their happiness, two beautiful young people who grew to be loving parents, adoring grandparents and great-grandparents and aunt and uncle, and loyal and caring friends to people in their community and elsewhere.

Florence and John Cohen 1951

Boy, Is My Face Red. The Real Story of Milton Josephs’ Death and a Few Important Research Lessons

In my earlier post this morning, I wrote about little Milton Josephs, not yet two years old, whose cause of death was listed as marasmus on the Federal Census Mortality Schedule for 1880.  I was horrified that a child living in Philadelphia in a middle class home in 1880 could have died from starvation.

My medical consultant, whose expertise is in pediatrics and anesthesia (and who is also my brother, for those of you who haven’t figured it out), also thought that it seemed strange that a child would have died from severe malnutrition without there being some other underlying cause such as cancer or some syndrome that prevented him from being able to absorb nutrients.

His questions made me go back to see if I could find the actual death certificate for Milton on line.  My initial searches on both and had failed to pick up Milton’s death certificate no matter how I tried searching or spelling his name.  But this time I realized there was another way to search. had a record for Milton in the index of Philadelphia death certificates, but no image of that actual certificate.  But the record included the FHL film number, that is, the catalog number for the microfilm in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

For some reason, I’d never before tried searching by the FHL number on FamilySearch.   I know to those out there who are experienced genealogists this must seem like a terrible rookie mistake, and I am quite embarrassed that I’d never thought to do that before.

But it worked. Plugging the film number into the FamilySearch search engine resulted in the retrieval of this document:

Milton Joseph's death certificate  "Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 14 December 2014), 004058647 > image 406 of 969; Philadelphia City Archives and Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Milton Joseph’s death certificate
“Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803-1915,” index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 14 December 2014), 004058647 > image 406 of 969; Philadelphia City Archives and Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

It is a bit hard to read, but if you look carefully you can see that on the certificate it says Milton died from bronchial pneumonia, not marasmus.  My brother agreed that this was a much more likely cause of death for a boy living at home with his family in Philadelphia than starvation, and he thought it was unlikely that somehow marasmus led to pneumonia or vice versa.

Then why would the 1880 Federal Census Mortality Schedule have said the cause of death was marasmus? Well, once again I am embarrassed.  I looked more closely at the mortality schedule, and sure, it says M. Josephs, and sure, retrieved it as relating to Milton Josephs, but I should have looked more closely.  Because now that I have looked again, I realize that the schedule says that M. Josephs was 5/12, that is, five months old.

Milton Joseph on the Federal Mortality Schedule 1880

Milton Joseph on the Federal Mortality Schedule 1880

And a little more research uncovered the death of a child name Mike Josephs who died of marasmus in December 1879 at five months of age.  So stupid mistake number two:  I too quickly assumed that M. Josephs was Milton without reading the document carefully and without even stopping to think that Milton had died in November, 1880, too late to have been listed on the Federal Census Mortality Schedule for 1880, which was dated May 31, 1880.

So I apologize for my carelesness and for maligning the reputation of my ancestors whose son died from pneumonia, not starvation.

Do I feel any better about Milton, knowing that he did not die from starvation?  I suppose that I better understand how a toddler can die from pneumonia than starvation, especially in the era before antibiotics.  But no, I don’t feel better.  A little boy died what still must have been a painful death, and his family still lost a beloved child.

And another family, that of Mike Josephs, did lose a five month old baby to starvation.

There is no good news here, but I did learn a few important lessons.  Thanks to my brother, I was able to find my mistakes and set the record straight.

Another day, another death certificate, and more confusion

Sometimes I wonder why we have death certificates.  Just about every single one I have seen has raised more questions than it has provided answers.  I’ve been told by an expert genealogist that death certificates are notoriously unreliable because usually the person providing the information is a close relative still in shock and mourning the death of a loved one.  No wonder Hyman’s said he was born in Philadelphia and Bessie’s said her mother’s name was Bessie.  And so on.

All that leads me to today’s mysterious death certificate, that of Abraham Brotman of Brooklyn.  You may recall that Abraham’s headstone revealed that his Hebrew name was Abraham ben Yosef Yaakov, just as Joseph’s revealed that his was Yosef Yaakov ben Abraham, providing me with the additional clues that helped me conclude that Abraham was Joseph’s son and Max’s brother.Image

(You may also recall that Max was the witness on Abraham’s naturalization application.)

Naturalization of Abraham Brotman Max as Witness

Naturalization of Abraham Brotman
Max as Witness

I had ordered Abraham’s death certificate in order to obtain more confirmation of those relationships as well as to get some information about the place where they were all from in Galicia.

Unfortunately, Abraham’s death certificate confirmed nothing and just added to the confusion.  His birth place is listed as Russia, despite the fact that every census report and his naturalization papers list his birth place as Austria.  His parents’ names are listed as Harry and Anna.


I emailed Abraham’s grandchildren, Paula Newman and Morty Grossman (whose mother Ethel provided the information on the certificate), but neither of them knows anything about Abraham’s parents.  So now what? Do I assume that it’s just another mistake on the death certificate? Is it more likely that the headstone is right than the death certificate? Since the place of birth is wrong, why should I trust any of the information on the death certificate? Perhaps Ethel Grossman was thinking of her mother’s parents, not her father’s parents?   Abraham’s wife Bessie Brotman was born in Russia, so maybe her parents were Harry and Anna? Grrrr…now I am ordering another death certificate to see who HER parents were.  But why would I trust that one either?

Very frustrating! So no new information and just more confusion.

I can’t wait to see what misinformation Max’s death certificate provides.  That should be arriving in a day or so.


I wrote about how I started doing this research and what resources—human and otherwise—I’ve used to do it.  But I’ve given a lot of thought also to WHY.  Why am I doing this?  Why spend all this time, energy, money, etc. doing this?  What is it for?

Part of it is the fun and the excitement of hunting down information and then actually finding it.  Part of it is the reward of learning that I am connected to all these other people I never knew—that we shared ancestors and DNA and a history together, even if we’ve never met. And I hope that part of those rewards will be meeting you all in real space, not just cyberspace.

But it is more than that.  Someone involved in genealogy research told me that most people do not get involved with this kind of project until they are in their sixties.  I turned sixty last summer when I first started doing this.  Sadly, by the time we’re sixty, our grandparents are long gone, so our principal sources of information about our ancestors are not around to help.  But why do we get interested in our sixties? Obviously, as we start to face our own mortality, we must yearn for a sense of purpose.   Will anyone remember us in 100 years? That leads to—where did we come from? Who were the people who preceded us that we no longer remember? We’re all part of a long line of family history, and at some point many of us yearn to figure out what that history was.

I never, ever thought about my great-grandparents until I started this project.  I knew I was named for Bessie, my great-grandmother, but I never wondered what she was like, what was her life like, why did my parents choose to name me for someone who died when my mother wasn’t yet four years old.  I still don’t know the answers to all those questions, but I know more than I did a year ago.  She was a brave woman who married a man with at least two children from a prior marriage, both of whom were young boys in 1881 when she married him.  She had at least five children of her own with him, and probably others who died very young.  She left everything she knew to come with her young children to America, and then she lost her husband not long after doing so.  She picked herself up, remarried and helped raise more children.  She lost a leg to diabetes.  I know she loved animals because the one clear memory my mother has of her was that she played with kittens in her grandmother’s bathroom as a very young child.

And Joseph?  I have learned to admire him as well.  He came to the US before Bessie, establishing himself as a coal dealer.  He worked very hard at back breaking work to support his family and died just four months after his youngest child Sam was born.  From his footstone inscription, we know that his children and wife loved him and appreciated the hard work he did to bring them to the US and support them when they got here.

So what does all that mean to me? It means I came from people who were strong, brave, hard-working and dedicated to their family—all traits I admire and aspire to myself.  They obviously raised children who adapted well to America and made successes of themselves.  Those children, our grandparents, raised Americans, our parents, who moved to the suburbs, owned businesses, became professionals.  And then there is us—the fourth generation.  We are spread all over the US, we are involved in all different types of careers, we are the American dream.  Wouldn’t our great-grandparents who were raised in a shtetl and escaped poverty and anti-Semitism be amazed at who we are today?

So why? Because we need to know how we got here, why our lives are what they are.  We need to be grateful for those who left Europe, avoided the pogroms and Hitler, and gave us all the opportunity to live in freedom and to pursue our own dreams.