Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Zombie in the census?

My motto when doing genealogy research is "Trust no one, verify everything, and even if it is written in stone it may be wrong." In the case of when I was trying to determine the exact date of death of my 3rd great grandfather, Robert Howe, this motto was my guide.

Robert Howe was born around 1823 most likely in the area of the Parish of Norton, Kings County, Colony of New Brunswick (later Canada). He was the oldest child of nine children of Charles Howe and Hannah Baxter. On 14 Nov 1848 in Kings County, New Brunswick Robert married Sarah E. Pickel. However, the problem with Robert started with what was written on his grave marker.

The Canadian Gravemarker Gallery, digital images ( accessed 15 Sep 2013), photograph, gravestone for Robert B. Howe (1826-1900), Hillsdale Baptist Cemetery, Hammond Parish, Kings County, New Brunswick, Canada.

According to what was written on the stone it was fairly clear that he died in 1900. This was a replacement stone since the original marker had faded away due to the ravages of time and weather.

There was only one minor problem. I found him in the 1901 census of Hammond, Kings County, New Brunswick, Canada living in the household of his son (and my 2nd great grandfather) Frank Howe.

1901 census of Canada, New Brunswick, district 18, sub-district C-1, Hammond, p. 3, dwelling 31, family 31, Robert Howe; RG 31; digital images,, ( : accessed 1 Oct 2011); citing Library and Archives Canada microfilm T-6442

Since I'm fairly certain that enumerators of the 1901 census were not given instructions to count zombies I knew something was wrong and I didn't think the problem was with the census record.

So ... where to start to solve this little mystery?

The obvious place is the Vital Statistics from Government Records (RS141) from the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick website. New Brunswick has digitized and placed online the birth, marriage and death registration images. Even better, you can view and download the images for free! It should be simple to find Robert's death registration ... right? Unfortunately, wrong. His death registration couldn't be found there.

In my collection of goodies I received from various family members was the collected memories of Pearl (nee Howe) Holland, one of Robert's granddaughters. In that collection was the story of Robert's death that she wrote in 1979. Pearl wrote that she was eight years old when Robert died. Oops, that doesn't help to much since her birth was about 1891 and she was writing about an event that took place almost 80 years ago. Next stop?

So off to Library and Archives Canada to see if they have a copy of the Kings County Record, the newspaper that was and still is published in Kings County, New Brunswick, Canada. I got lucky. They did have the years between 1901 and 1911 available. A few clicks of the mouse and I placed an order for the microfilms.

Wait a second ... where did that 1911 date come from? Since Robert wasn't in the 1911 census I was fairly certain he was really and truly dead by then. So an initial upper bounds had been set for this manual search for his obituary or death notice.

I started looking in the Kings County Record edition that came out just after 31 Mar 1901, the date of when the 1901 census of Canada started. Remember, he was supposedly still alive on that date. Fortunately this is a weekly newspaper with not too many pages in each edition. A short time later on the second page in the 25 Oct 1901 edition I came across this little tidbit, "Howe - At Hillsdale, on Oct. 23, R. D. Howe, aged 81 years."

The genealogy happy dance was quietly performed while in the LAC reference room.

However, the real treasure was also on that same page:

"Robert D. Howe an aged resident of Hillsdale died at his son's residence on Wednesday as a result of being severely burned. The deceased had been in rather a poor state of mind for some time past and was ailing with dropsy being confined to his bed. On Monday unnoticed by those attending him, he got hold of the matches and set fire to his bedding which was soon a raging mass of flames. The smoke attracted the attention of the occupants of the house who at once rushed to the unfortunate man's room. The son Frank Howe received severe burns about his face and hands in the attempt to save his father. After a severe fight the fire was subdued, but not until the water supply was exhausted and all the surplus milk about the place was utilized as a fire extinguisher. The deceased was eighty one years of age and leaves a family of sons to mourn the loss of a father."

Everything in this article about Robert's tragic death had been mentioned in Pearl Holland's story. The only thing she was mistaken about was the year. It was 1901 not 1900. A minor little mistake that has confused many researchers of the Howe family tree.

The moral of this little tale? Always verify the dates on the grave markers. Especially if the gravestone is a replacement.


  1. Loved reading the full story particularly because I've walked the graveyard and seen that headstone. A little gruesome but well written, Ken.

  2. No rock not looked under! Well written with a neat sense of humour - a "zoombie" in the family. Love it.

  3. Oh, isn't that irritating? Until I started getting serious about genealogy, I figured that a tombstone was something one could always rely upon to be correct. I found that more often than not, there were always errors! Keeps us on our toes!

  4. Actually, even if the gravestone is the original! I've seen a few of those in error, too.

    I found your blog today, thanks to GeneaBloggers. Your "About" page inspired me to poke around the Internet this morning and see if I could at least untangle one of my Tully family "knots" from Paris, Ontario. Thanks for the inspiration, Ken! And welcome to GeneaBloggers.

  5. Welcome to the GeneaBloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories" and family saga novels in The Homeplace Series such as: "Back to the Homeplace"
    The Heritage Tourist at In-Depth Genealogist: