Monday, April 9, 2012

Doing the 1940 U.S. Census Victory Dance!

Anticipation ran high as April 2, 2012 dawned with the release of the 1940 United States Census.

In a previous post I shared my number one priority to solve on that banner day. The riddle of conflicting information on my husband's grandparents death certificates had caused many a hair pulling incident.

Our tale begins with Francis Starr, my husband's grandfather, a traveling salesman residing in Chicago, Illinois during the 1920's. Legend states Francis headed out one day in search of an employment opportunity. At that point Francis disappeared from the family never to return.

Slowly I have gathered various documents detailing the lives of Francis and Mary Starr.

Luckily, I discovered a trunk full of family documents in the attic. Among the various books, photographs and mementos I found papers with birth and death dates recorded. This is where I located the death date for my husband's grandmother, Mary Starr.

On receiving her death certificate an interesting and educational journey began.

Mary Starr death certificate - date of death 9/18/1950 - widowed

Above we see the death date of September 18, 1950 and marital status widowed. How did the family know Francis had died? From all indications there was no contact after he departed.

The next piece of information discovered was this California Death Index for Francis A. Starr. The birth date and birthplace matched those of our errant ancestor.

What gave me pause was the death date of June 15, 1964. If Mary was widowed when she died in 1950, how could this possibly be her husband?

The only way to answer this question was to send away for this Francis A. Starr's death certificate.

Francis Starr death certificate - date of death 06/15/ 1964 - divorced

Ripping open the envelope I was stunned to discover this was my husband's grandfather! Now I was thoroughly confused.

Which record was correct? When Mary passed away Francis was still among the land of the living. How could she be widowed? Was there a divorce?

This is why the census release was so important to my research. Each day I waited on pins and needles in hopes of finding Mary or Francis.

Using the address listed on Mary's death certificate I headed over to Stephen Morse website. Plugging in the information I was directed to the following record.

Mary Starr 1940 Census - marital status divorced

There I discovered this 1940 United States Census surprise. Mary Starr lists her marital status as divorced!

What can I deduce from this record? It appears the information my mother-in-law placed on her mother's death certificate was incorrect. She most certainly knew her parents were divorced, being in her twenties at the time.

On a side note, my husband's reaction when learning this news was to laugh out loud. He could imagine his mother firmly stating her father had passed. From all indications what occurred many years ago left a lasting impression.

My next course of action will be to track down the possible divorce decree. On the census record Mary lists her address during 1935 as Chicago, Illinois. Looks like I will be spending time researching that area for new leads.

The most important lesson learned during this process is to NEVER take vital records as gospel. There could be many incorrect or misleading facts. For years we took the information on Mary Starr's death certificate as fact.

Thanks to the 1940 United States Census I am one happy family historian! Finding the answer to this riddle has been an exciting and memorable experience. Still doing the genealogy victory dance!

I will keep you posted as the story of Francis and Mary continues to unravel. Anyone with advice on obtaining a Chicago divorce decree please leave a message.


  1. What a great story! I'm glad the census was able to clear up the confusion on their marital status. I wish you luck on tracking down the divorce decree!

  2. Hi Deb! Great stuff you found, and oh how I know about the interesting ways in which our ancestors 'massaged' the truth. The divorce record you're looking for should be found in the Cook County Clerk of the Courts Archives, since it's pre-1964 (anything after 1964 'should' be in the electronic docket). Here's a link to the site, but let me know if you need help since it's my hometown!

  3. Great post! The 1940 Census has given many answers and more questions in some cases.

  4. Wonderful story, thanks for sharing! My 1940 search also led me to new discoveries and new questions... just can't get enough!

  5. Hi Deb, great find. Can't wait to hear the next chapter in this story!

  6. Hi Deb, Wonderful discovery! Looking forward to hearing more. That divorce decree should be interesting reading, to say the least!

  7. Great find! Now I wonder if you can find Francis in 1940? You may want to wait for the census index, but you could also try a lookup of L.A. city directories. Some are digitized here:

  8. Deb,
    I love this. You wrote it up so well. What a great case study! I have found over the years that Death Certificates are some of my least reliable documents. It seems as if they constitute one last chance to rewrite history. In some cases, it was obviously accidental. In others, it was intentional. My favorite "lie" is the man listed as the father of my grandmother who was in reality DEAD two years before my grandmother was born! I know the reason behind the deception, but it took me ten years. I can definitely identify with your happy dance.

  9. Don't you love it when you get that one more piece of information? Great post.

  10. Massaging the truth appears to have beeen quite common. The 1940 census has revealed that a great-grandparent, who was marked as giving the census info, and/or the enumerator, who happened to be the younger 2nd wife of my great-great grandfather (mother-in-law of my great-grandmother), marked her as widowed on 1940 census. Have copy of 1942 "old man's draft" registration, w/ great-grandfathers's y.o.b., & signature matching an earlier document, which seems to that verify he was alive in 1942. His death date on SSDI and on a personal letter from an older family member to me says he died several years after 1942.
    Could it have been the social stigma of divorce, or the fact that the 1940 census required more financial questions (he was a businessman), or did it have anything to do with the upcoming entry of the U.S. into WWII? Thoughts, anyone?

  11. I just came across your information. Seems like walking away from past is a Starr grandfather was a Starr and he did the same but only after having two step parents. I am finding stuff that my dad never knew about
    his dad's family history. I have been surprised, shocked and sadden and humored in all I have found of my family's histories and above all ... proud of them. Keep up the makes us who we are. JS