In this series: I am tracing my Irish roots and trying to pinpoint what part of the Emerald Isle my ancestors hailed from. Learn more here.
The year, location, and parents’ names were all a fairly good match, making the person a prime candidate to be my 2x great-grandfather.
However, the mother’s maiden name on the record was a different spelling and the birth year was a few years off from census records.
I needed more information and evidence to connect the person in the baptism record to the John McDermott of Newark, NJ.
In this post: With a possible baptism record for John in hand, I needed to gather more information to conclude I had the correct John. I wanted to find John’s death certificate, which would most likely list his parents’ names.
From there I’d be able to compare his mother’s maiden name to the names listed on his baptism and marriage records.
Missing certificate, missing person
John lived most of his life in Newark, New Jersey, so finding his death certificate should have been an easy task.
But after spending multiple days knee-deep in microfilm at the State Archives, I couldn’t find a death certificate. I had hit a dead end.
Here’s what happened.
John’s wife (Annie) and two sons (John Jr. and James) were listed in the 1900 census living at 109 8th Ave in Newark2.
But there was a problem.
John was not living in the household, nor could he be found living anywhere else in Newark.
Annie was the head of the household and identified as being a married woman, so the most obvious conclusion was that John was still alive at this point.
However, the 1900 census did not specify the informant. The informant could have been Annie or one of her sons, or it could have been a neighbor or someone who did not know the family well.
There was always the chance the informant could have mistakenly thought that Annie was married when she was actually a widow.
The 1895 NJ census had the family living together in Newark3. So I knew that something must have happened to John sometime between 1895 and 1900.
Digging into directories
I wanted to see if I could narrow this timespan even further. I turned to the city directories for Newark, which I found on Ancestry.com.
Since the 1900 census was taken in June and “moving day” in Newark was in May, I started with the 1901 directory to make sure I had the right family at the right address.
Moving day in large cities such as Newark was always on May 1st. It was the day leases would end, and many people would move.
The 1901 directory had Annie, John Jr., and James living at 109 8th Ave4. This was the same place as the 1900 census.
John was not listed at this address in the directory, which was consistent with the census.
Moving back in time, the 1900 directory had Annie, John Jr., and James living at 14 Newark Ave5.
Neither directory had John living in the home. In this time period, it was typical for directories to indicate if a woman was a widow, but neither listed Annie as a widow.
So I went back another year to the 1899 directory. This time I found John living with the family at 14 Newark Ave6.
This was the same address where Annie and her sons were listed in the 1900 directory.
I had narrowed down the timespan to roughly 1898-1900. To be safe, I went with 1898 instead of 1899, because I couldn’t be certain when the information for the directory was collected.
If it was published in 1899, then the information was likely collected in 1898.
The case of the seven-year gap
Before heading to the microfilm room at the archives, I wanted to check more directories after 1901 to see when/if Annie was listed as a widow.
I found that 1907 was the first year that Annie was listed as the widow of John in the directory7.
I now had a seven-year gap where Annie was living alone with her sons. How strange.
A few initial possibilities occurred to me:
- John and Annie divorced or separated.
- John was forced to relocate to find employment. He was a shoemaker, which could have taken him to New York City. But why didn’t his family go with him?
- John died around the time of the 1900 census, and the directories up until 1907 were wrong.
- John was in the hospital when the census was taken and died not long after.
- John was admitted to an asylum.
- John went to prison (and did not pass go or collect $200)
All of these scenarios were plausible. But since Annie was first listed as widowed in the 1907 directory, I thought the most likely possibility was that John died between 1906-1907.
But when I searched through the microfilm of death certificates for both these years, I found no record of John.
Then I searched each film from 1898-1907. Nothing.
Then, out of sheer desperation, I searched each film from 1908-1910. Nothing.
Something was wrong. I started to wonder if he didn’t die in New Jersey at all. If my guess that he left to find work in New York was correct, maybe he died there?
I then searched the NYC Municipal Death Certificates on FamilySearch. There were plenty of John McDermotts, but none of the right age.
A long walk in the cemetery
I was at a loss. Still at the Archives, I located Annie’s death certificate, which indicated her burial place: Mount Olivet Cemetery in Bloomfield, NJ.
Annie died in 1915. Her death certificate stated she was widowed at the time of her death8.
Thinking the couple would be buried next to each other (or at least in the same cemetery), I called and spoke to the caretaker.
If John was buried at this cemetery, there would have been a burial record with the year of his death.
The caretaker gave me the location of Annie’s burial plot where several other McDermotts were buried.
He told me that her son James was the plot owner and that James and John Jr. were also buried in the plot. He had no record of Annie’s husband, John.
Surely John was buried in this family plot with his wife and two sons!
But the caretaker had no record of a John McDermott in the plot–other than John Jr. who died in 19369.
After (politely) pressing the caretaker further, he admitted that the record-keeping in this early period left a lot to be desired.
Convinced that John was buried in the family plot, I sped up the Garden State Parkway to exit 150 – Bloomfield.
If John was in this plot there might have been an inscription, stone, or
But there was no inscription, stone or marker to be found.
There were stones for Annie, John Jr., and James Jr., but nothing for James Sr. or John Sr10.
I started walking up and down the rows near this McDermott plot thinking there might be other
There were none.
I looked at the cemetery boundaries and then at my watch. I hesitated
A few hours later, I gave up. There was no other plot with a stone for any John McDermott.
So John was either never buried in that cemetery, or his burial record was lost/destroyed.
Will the real John McDermott please stand up?
I knew that neither of these resources had papers online for the time and place I assumed John died (Newark).
But since it was likely John wasn’t living with his family, there was a chance he died in a neighboring city that did have searchable papers online.
After searching with every query and wildcard I could think of, I still found nothing.
So let’s recap:
- No death certificate,
- No burial record or marker in the most likely cemetery
- No death announcement in the newspaper
I was definitely missing something.
Thinking back to my research at the archives, I remembered that I did come across a few records for John McDermott’s whose information (mainly birth years) did not quite match with my 2X great grandfather.
With few places left to turn, I drove back down to Trenton to pull every death certificate for every John McDermott who died between 1898 and 1910 in New Jersey and whose birth year was +/- ten years of my John’s.
The idea was to make one long list and eliminate each candidate one by one.
I also included any John MacDermotts, MacDermitts, McDermitt’s and even Demotts and Dermitts.
I was at the point where I was ready to try anything–including a misspelled or misfiled death certificate.
I automatically eliminated
I was left with only a handful that I couldn’t rule out–the ones with very little personal detail.
With the few remaining certificates, I needed to fill in the missing details myself.
Because I had the date and location for each death, I knew the best way to find what was missing was to search newspapers for death announcements and/or obituaries.
Luckily the NJ State Library, which has a nice collection of old newspapers on microfilm, is right next door to the Archives.
That was my next stop.
After locating and reading each John McDermott’s obituary, I eliminated every John McDermott on my list.
I was back to square one.
Time to meet the FANs
With nowhere left to look, I knew I needed to stop searching for his actual death event and start searching for what happened to him after 1900.
For all I knew, he could have moved to California to pan for gold and died there. It was unlikely, but would explain why there was no death certificate in New Jersey.
So where did he go and why did he leave his family behind?
Who was he living with after 1900? Other family members or friends?
Did his parents ever come to America? In my last post, I mentioned a baptism record for his brother Michael. I wondered where Michael ended up.
These were all questions that needed to be answered. I needed more information. It was time to build out his FAN club to search for more clues.
- St. Patrick’s Gowel Church (Gowel, Ireland), Baptisms: June 1835 – Feb 1866 [no cover], p. 72, John McDermott baptism; church office, Gowel, Ireland.
- 1900 U.S. Census, Newark, population schedule, Ward 15, enumeration district (ED) 0149, p. 269 (stamped), dwell. 64, fam. 109, Annie McDermitt; digital images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 29 January 2019); NARA microfilm publication T623; FHL microfilm 1,240,967.
- 1895 New Jersey state census, Essex County, p. 28 (penned), dwell. 120, fam. 195, John McDermott; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 29 January 2019.
- Holbrook’s Newark City Directory: Year Ending May 1st, 1901 (Newark: Holbrook Newark Directory Company, 1900), p. 822, Annie McDermott; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 February 2019).
- Holbrook’s Newark City Directory: Year Ending May 1st, 1900 (Newark: Holbrook Newark Directory Company, 1899), p. 766, Anna McDermitt; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 February 2019).
- Holbrook’s Newark City Directory: Year Ending May 1st, 1899 (Newark: Holbrook Newark Directory Company, 1898), p. 760, John McDermitt; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 February 2019).
- Newark Directory 1907 (Newark: The Price & Lee Co., 1907), p. 945, Annie McDermott; digital image, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 February 2019).
- New Jersey, Bureau of Vital Statistics, death certificate 11,277 (penned) (31 December 1915), Annie McDermott; State Archives, Trenton.
- New Jersey, State Department of Health, death certificate 896 (5 February 1936), John McDermott; State Archives, Trenton.
- Mount Olivet Cemetery (Bloomfield, New Jersey), James A. McDermott, Annie McDermott, John M. McDermott, St. Joseph’s section, path 3; personally read, 13 April 2018.