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.

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose

I have had some incredible luck  following my hunches when ordering vital records about people who I think are my family members—finding Frieda Brotman’s death certificate and marriage certificates, for example, or finding Susie Mintz and Gustave Rosenzweig and Tillie Strolowitz and their relatives.  But lest anyone think that all my hunches have worked out, I want to give you three recent examples where I just guessed wrong.

The first example involves Gussie Rosenzweig, Gustave’s wife.  Recently I was able to obtain her death certificate and saw that her son Jack had listed her as a widow with a husband named Ben.  I was very puzzled by this as Gussie had not been listed as living with any man in the most recent census reports before she died.  Had she married sometime in the 1920s or 1930s and been widowed in between census reports?  I did a search and found only one Gussie Rosenzweig who had married a man named Benjamin.  I ordered that certificate, and this is what I received:

Rosenzweig - Rosenberg Marriage page 1

Clearly, this is not the right Gussie.  This Gussie was only 27 in 1934, whereas our Gussie would have been in her 70s; this Gussie had different parents who had come from Hungary.  So I still have no idea whether there ever was a Ben who married Gussie after she and Gustave split up.  Strike one.

The next bad guess involved a search for the other children of Gussie and Gustave who did not survive infancy.  I had seen on Rebecca’s birth certificate in 1893 that Gussie and Gustave had had five children, four living at Rebecca’s birth.  Somehow I miscounted and thought there was a missing child, although now when I go back and re-read my blog post, it seems pretty obvious that I had found all four living children (Lillie, Sarah, Abraham, and Rebecca) and the one deceased child (David).  But I thought I had found another—Samuel Rosenzweig—and sent for that death certificate.  Not surprisingly, he was not the child of Gustave and Gussie, as you can see below.  Strike two.

Rosenzweig, Samuel Death

The last example of my bad hunches involved a man named Paskel Rosenzweig who came from Iasi in 1900.  I thought that he might be another Rosenzweig sibling and decided to research his life in the US.  I was able to determine that he had changed his name to Charles and ordered a death certificate, hoping it would show that he was the sibling of Gustave, Tillie, Ghitla and Zusi, but as you can see below, he was not.  Strike three.

Rosenzweig, Charles Death page 1

Perhaps he was a cousin, but it would require some further digging into Romanian documents to see if Charles’ father was related to my great-great grandfather David Rosenzweig.  For now I will accept that my hunch is unproven, if not yet proven wrong.

There are other examples of times I made a bad guess.  Fortunately for the most part these bad guesses are not costly, as the documents usually came for free from the Family History Library.  But even so, every time I open a document, either electronically or in hard copy, my heart is beating, hoping it will provide an important clue or confirm a hunch.  When it does not, it is very disappointing.  Inevitable—what are the odds I will always find the right person?—but nevertheless, disappointing.


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Hyman and Sophie’s marriage certificate

Finally, after almost two months, the Family History Library is back in service. I’ve received a couple of documents that I will post about. First, I received Hyman and Sophie Brotman’s marriage certificate. Although it provides no new information, it is nevertheless an interesting document. Hyman (who was using Herman by this time on official documents) was only 22 when he was married in 1904; Sophie was only 18. Sometimes I am amazed by the fact that people who married so young were able to have such long marriages. Sophie and Hyman were married 64 years.

Herman and Sophie Brotman

Herman and Sophie Brotman

What I found particularly interesting about this document is that Hyman used his father’s middle name, Jacob, on the certificate. I have never seen Joseph referred to on any document as anything other than Joseph. But, as you may recall, Hyman also referred to his mother as Fanny, her middle name, on his Social Security application, a reference no one else ever used. Here he uses Pesel Broht as his mother’s name, not Fanny. Perhaps he was being somewhat secretive, or perhaps there was some family use of those middle names. After all, Hyman was Herman and Chaim, so he had a flexible attitude towards names. (I’ve also never seen Broht spelled with an H.)

Edit:  I just realized that the front of the form has the groom’s name as Haimy!

The other thing that I find interesting about the marriage certificate is the spelling of “white” as “weit” and the spelling of Manhattan as Manahten. It looks like the rabbi might have filled out the entire form since it seems to match the handwriting of his signature. I also think the rabbi filled out the form because Weiss is spelled with one S on the front of the form, but Sophie spelled it Weiss in her signature. Whoever filled out the form also did not understand the box that asks for number of marriages, as the blank area is filled with an address, not a number. I have no idea what that address refers to, as it is not the address of the bride, the groom or the rabbi. At any rate it does indicate that this was someone who was still learning English.

Also of interest is that we now have a record of Sophie’s father’s name, listed as Moses, later changed to Morris, and her mother’s maiden name. It looks like Linz or Livy Gabler? Does that sound right to any of her grandchildren? Can anyone help decipher the handwriting? Later records have her name as Lena, so Liny or Linz might make sense.

Finally, the one thing I cannot decipher at all is Hyman’s occupation. Can someone please help me read what that says? On the 1900 US Census his occupation was reported to be a button hole maker, but this looks like something different. If you can read it, please leave your response in the comments below.

Edited:  The prize goes to my brother Ira, who deciphered the occupation to be a phonetic spelling of “operator.”  Often those who worked in the sweatshops on the Lower East Side were referred to as operators (i.e., machine operators).  Since Hyman had been working as a button hole maker, it makes sense that this was what he was doing when he married Sophie in 1904.  It also makes sense that someone who spelled white “weit” and Manhattan as Manahten would spell operator phonetically as well.

Hyman and Sophie's marriage certificate 1904

Hyman and Sophie’s marriage certificate 1904



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Looking back on the first six months: Seven lessons learned by doing genealogy

As my semester has drawn to an end, as the year draws to an end, I want to take some time to reflect on what I have learned in the last six months or so since I began this project in earnest and what I still want to learn and to accomplish as we start a new year.

So first, what have I learned?

1.  I’ve learned that I had two great-uncles whom I’d never known about.  For at least two months of my research, I was sure that Joseph and Bessie had only had five children: Hyman, Tillie, Gussie, Frieda and Sam.  When I kept running into a Max Brotman married to Sophie with children named Rosalie and Renee, I just figured Hyman had changed his name to Max.  My mother didn’t know about her cousins Joseph, Saul and Manny, but she had met Rosalie and Renee, and I was sure they were Hyman’s daughters.  My mother knew that Hyman’s wife’s name was Sophie.  So instead of looking harder, I just assumed Max was Hyman and that the other Hyman Brotman married to a Sophie was not my relative.  Only when I was able to find Max’s granddaughter Judy and Hyman’s grandson Bruce did I learn that Max and Hyman were BOTH my great-uncles, that both had married women named Sophie, and that Rosalie and Renee were the daughters of Max, not Hyman.  That was a HUGE turning point for me and a big lesson.  Lesson learned? Don’t trust memory alone, and don’t assume that documents are wrong just because family memories conflict with those documents.

Herman and Sophie with sons 1920

Herman and Sophie with sons 1920

2. The second new great-uncle was Abraham, and finding him was also somewhat of a lucky break.  I ran across many Brotmans in my research, but most I assumed were not our relatives because I could not find any document linking them to our relatives and because no one in our family had ever heard of them.  I can’t even remember all the details, but I recall that it was my brother Ira who found Abraham’s naturalization papers—I think (I am sure he will remember and correct me if I am wrong) it was in the course of looking into the Brotmanville Brotmans.  When I saw Max’s name on those papers, I did not assume it was the same Max.  (There were many Max Brotmans living in NYC at that time.)  Once I checked the address for the Max on Abraham’s card against the address I had for Max on the census form from that same time period, I knew it was in fact “our” Max.  That led me on the search that brought me to Abraham’s headstone and death certificate, indicating that his father was also Joseph Jacob Brotman.  Lesson learned? Don’t dismiss any clue.  You never know where one document may lead you, even if in a direction you never expected.

Naturalization of Abraham Brotman Max as Witness

Naturalization of Abraham Brotman
Max as Witness

3.  Contrary to Lesson #1 and Lesson #2, I have also learned that often you cannot trust documents.  Documents lie.  People lie.  People give bad information, and bureaucrats transcribe information inaccurately.  People who transcribe handwritten documents for indexing purposes make errors.  In particular, our relatives were entirely inconsistent when it came to birth dates and birth places.  I now know why one relative found it so easy to lie about her age.  It was family tradition.  So lesson #3: Don’t assume that because it is written on some “official document” that it is reliable in any way.

Sam's Birth Certificate Joseph was NOT 42!

Sam’s Birth Certificate
Joseph was NOT 46!

4. One of my most rewarding accomplishments was finding out what happened to Frieda Brotman. Now we know who she married and how she died and even the name of her infant son Max, who only lived one day.    We even know what happened to her husband Harry Coopersmith after she died.  I never thought I’d be able to track down her story.  That experience is what will keep me going as I continue to look for the answers to more questions.  Lesson #4: Do not give up.  Do not give up. Do NOT give up!

Frieda Brotman Coopersmith death certificate

5. There are more helpful and supportive people in the world than there are mean or evil people.  I know we hear all the time about all the evil in the world, and there is far too much of it.  And even if not evil, there are also many people who are rude, incompetent and unhelpful.  We all know that.  But we often forget that there are also many, many more people who are kind, helpful and competent.  In my six months of doing this research, I have gotten help from many strangers—government employees who patiently helped me find a document, FHL volunteers who helped me track down a document request I had made, JewishGen and GesherGalicia members and other genealogists who have gone far out of their way to teach me how to find documents and how to connect with other researchers, who have photographed gravestones and given me directions to gravestones, who have translated documents for me, who have helped me find a clue when I was sure I had hit a brick wall.  I cannot tell you how much these people have touched me and changed my views on human nature.

I want to express special thanks and deep appreciation to Renee Steinig, who contacted me many months ago in response to my cry for help on GesherGalicia and who has truly been my teacher and is now my friend as I have gone from being a total newbie to a fairly competent novice with her guidance. She is the one who found the obituary of Renee that led to me finding Judy.  She is the one who suggested I post an inquiry on a bulletin board that led me to Bruce.  When I look back, in fact, I know it was Renee who got me to where I am today.  Thank you, Renee, for everything.

Lesson #5: If you ask for help, there will be generous and kind people who will reach out and help you.  Don’t do this alone.

6. I have also learned that I have many second cousins and second cousins once and twice removed—people I would never have discovered if I had not started down this path.  This has been probably the biggest gift of all from doing this research.  What a wonderful and interesting group of people I have gotten to know—by email, by phone, by pictures and stories.  When I look at the pictures and see the distinctive Brotman cheekbones shared by so many of you and your parents and your children, it gives me such a great sense of connection.  This may be the best lesson I’ve learned: everyone is looking for connections, everyone is looking to find their place in time and in the world.  I am so glad to have made these connections with so many of you, people who never even knew my name until this fall but whom I now consider not just cousins, but friends.

7. Finally, and in some ways the point of this whole adventure, I have really learned more than I ever could have hoped about my great-grandparents and their children and how they lived in the United States.  Joseph and Bessie were nothing but names to me six months ago; now they are flesh and blood people, my flesh and blood.  Their drive and courage is an inspiration to me, as it must have been to their own children.  After all, Abraham, Hyman and Tillie all named a son for their father Joseph, and perhaps some of the great-grandchildren were named for him as well.  I was so blessed to have been named for Bessie, as were some of you.  Bessie and Joseph—they are the real heroes of this story.  That’s the real lesson.

Joseph's headstone

Joseph’s headstone

Bessie Brotman

Bessie Brotman

Next post: Looking forward to the next six months

A Brief Introduction to Genealogical Research

Some of you might be interested in how to do genealogical research yourselves, so I thought I’d provide a very brief introduction for those who might want to try.

I would start (and did start) with   You can get a short free trial subscription (14 days) just to see if you are intrigued. (And no, I don’t get a kickback from ancestry if you subscribe!) Ancestry provides digital copies of many documents including all US census reports up through the 1940  census (the later census reports are not yet available), except for the 1890 census which was destroyed in a fire. (That is particularly frustrating and sad for people researching ancestors who arrived in the 1880s.  We will likely never know where Joseph, Abraham and Max first settled, although it appears that all three arrived sometime between 1888 and 1890. )

Ancestry also has many other records available in digital form: some naturalization papers, some draft registration forms, some yearbooks, phone books, directories, and ship manifests.  Many records, however, are not directly accessible through ancestry.  For example, NYC birth, death and marriage certificates are not viewable through ancestry; you may find a record that indicates some of the information found on such certificates, but not the entire certificate.  For that, you have to order a digital copy or a photocopy elsewhere.

I have found the Family History Library to be a great resource for this.  The FHL is run by the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City; apparently the Mormons are trying to collect the names of anyone who ever lived as part of a religious mission to save everyone’s souls.  Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Mormon or support their mission in order to be able to use their services.  I guess the Church sees helping others find their relatives to be part of that overall mission.

At any rate, to request documents from the FHL, you need to find the NYC certificate number[1] and then the FHL film number.  Sometimes will have the certificate numbers, but usually I go to another website,, to locate the certificate number.  It provides an index of NYC birth, death, and marriage certificates, but only for those years for which NYC has made them accessible to the general public.  For example, death certificates only run up to 1948; birth certificates are even more limited in terms of availability.  (I assume this is for privacy reasons, just as with the census reports.)  If, however, the certificate you are seeking falls within the date range, you can find the certificate number and dates through the germangenealogy website.

Once I have that information, I then go to another website,, where I can enter the information into the appropriate boxes, and then obtain FHL film number.  That website also includes a link to the FHL Photoduplication Request form.  By filling out that form with the numbers I now have, I can make a request to FHL for the certificates I am seeking.  There is a limit of five per month, and it can take several weeks to receive them, but it is free.  Amazing, it is free!

For other documents, for example, more recent death certificates and other documents like Social Security applications or immigration papers, the process can be more complicated, involving notarized documents, some fees, and much longer waits.  But starting with and using the FHL process can give you a good start on finding out more about your ancestors.  I found most of the documents that I have used in my research and reported here through those two sources and have only turned to the less efficient means of obtaining information more recently.

Of course, there have been lots of other sources of information: all of you who gave me clues and information, my mentor Renee and other experienced genealogists who helped me dig up clues, and many other websites like and  There are still lots of other sources I have yet to explore, but those will require more time and more training before I can use them very effectively.

[1] This website only indexes NYC documents and some Nassau/Suffolk County documents.  For other locations in New York State and other states, you need to check the appropriate website for vital records for that county or state.

Max Brotman: Who was his mother?

Yesterday I received Max Brotman’s death certificate from the City of Mount Vernon.  It has been quite a task tracking down this document.  Although I knew from Judy and the picture of his headstone that he had died in 1946, I could not find any record of his death certificate.  There is a public index of NYC death certificates that runs through 1948, so if he had died in 1946, it should have been there.  But it wasn’t.  Death certificates dated after 1948 from NYC are much harder to obtain; to get Abraham’s I had to use snail mail (!) and a notarized form and fee and self-addressed envelope sent to the NYC Department of Vital Records.  I was hoping that I could just obtain Max’s electronically through the Family History Library, which is faster, easier and free.  Unfortunately, the FHL does not have non-NYC certificates, and I could not find Max in the NYC register.

I was fortunate to find a volunteer in NYC who checked the paper records and found a reference indicating that Max, a NYC resident, had died “upstate.”   But where upstate?  It’s a big state! I recalled that Max had had a summer home in Congers, NY, and since he died in late May, I thought that perhaps he had died while up there. Image I contacted the town registrar in Congers, sent them a written request, check, and envelope, but they sent it back, saying that they had no record for Max Brotman.

So I was stumped.  I asked Renee, my mentor, for advice, and she suggested calling the cemetery where he was buried to see if they had a record for where he had died.  I called Beth David Cemetery on Long Island, and sure enough, they did have such a record and were willing to divulge where he died without a written letter, check and envelope.  They said he had died in Mount Vernon, New York, not far from where I grew up.

I asked Judy if she had any idea what he might have been doing in Mount Vernon at the time of his death.  She didn’t know.  I wrote to Mount Vernon (yes, a notarized letter, check and envelope), and finally received the long-sought-after document yesterday.Image

So what does it say? Well, it explains what he was doing in Mount Vernon.  He was a patient at the Mount Vernon Convalescent Home, where he was suffering from liver cancer.  It looks like he was there for three weeks, as the doctor who signed the certificate had cared for him from May 6 through May 27 when he died.

What else does it report? It lists Joseph Brotman as his father (phew!), but Adda Browman as his mother.  That conflicted with his marriage certificate which said his mother’s name was Chaye. Image And Browman? Is that just a misspelling of Brotman? Or was her maiden name really Browman? I consulted with Renee, and she said that Chaye was often Americanized to Ida, which is close to Adda.  (She said immigrants tended to Americanize even the names of ancestors who never left Europe.)  So maybe Adda is Chaye? Or maybe Richard Jones, who was Max’s son-in-law and the informant on the certificate, misunderstood or was misunderstood.  I don’t know and probably won’t know until I can learn how to research records from Europe.

The good news is that it’s just one more bit of evidence confirming that Max was Joseph’s son.  The bad news is that the document brings us no closer to knowing the town in Galicia from which they all came.

Research update

I am once again in a holding pattern, waiting for a few more documents to arrive: Max’s naturalization papers (which take 90 days for USCIS to process, so another 75 days to wait for those), Max’s death certificate, Abraham’s death certificate, and a few others from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. My principal research goal right now is to find out where our family came from in Galicia.

I’ve been trying to search for European records, but that is much more complicated than searching for US documents. offers a course online that provides instruction on how to do that, and I plan to take that course when it is next offered in May, 2014. That’s a long way off for someone who is as impatient a researcher as I am. I am meanwhile making inquiries of other researchers who are researching Galicia and searching several genealogy websites, but so far, I’ve still come up empty.
So I figured that while I was waiting, I would learn what I can about life in Galicia in the 19th century and life on the Lower East Side in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. I’ve ordered some books and will provide whatever information or reviews I find interesting and helpful once I have read them. If anyone has any recommendations on books on either of those topics, please provide them in the comment box below.

Meanwhile, I would still love some pictures (hint, hint!) from other members of the family.

Hope you all are well, and I will report back when I get some new documents or have anything else to report.