Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Chicago Fire: Was Your Ancestor Insured?

My husband's ancestor, James Ayer Smith, arrived in Chicago in the spring of 1835 with plans to open a hat and cap store, and in August of that year, his father sent him a letter with some very detailed advice on how to succeed.

In closing, he wrote, "There has been a heavy fire at Cleveland & I hope you will not fail to have insurance made on your stock immediately to the full amount Your affectionate Father Chas. Smith." James appears to have taken that advice.

When he lost business property in a fire in 1857, he received a $3000 settlement, with payments shared by six insurance companies. And in 1871, when The Chicago Fire hit, he was once again well insured. For example, James A. Smith & Co. had a policy from Washington Insurance Company purchased in August, 1871 in force through November of the same year "against loss or damage by fire ... on Furs manufactured or unmanufactured, also on Wearing Apparel manufactured in whole or in part of Furs or manufactured entirely of any other materials, Fur and Buffalo Robes and Lap Blankets left with them for safe keeping and for the deliver of which to the owners, they have made themselves responsible, loss or no loss, contained in the fourth story of the four story brick building with stone front known as Nos 34 and 36 Washington Street Chicago Illn." The policy was sold by Miller & Drew on La Salle in Chicago and the $10.00 premium provided $2500.00 worth of coverage.

Based on a list of policies held, goods covered, and settlement amounts, James appears to have had at least twenty-eight policies in effect at the time of the fire. But what about your ancestor? Was he or she insured?

Because extensive damage meant an unusually high number of claims, many insurance companies filed for bankruptcy and court documents related to these proceedings include lists of creditors--people with claims.

For example, creditors of The Republic Insurance Company of Chicago, Illinois listed in papers published by the District Court included the following:


John Cronin $250
Charles E. Crandall $500
C H McCormick $27500 (one of many entries for him)
Mrs. K Fishback $200
Patrick Murphy $381.06
Methodist Book Concern $2500
Gilbert Hubbard Co. $453.22

And the list goes on--three pages, four columns each, with tiny type. And that's just one insurance company. There are similar documents for many other companies included in the James A. Smith papers.

Unfortunately, the names on the lists aren't alphabetical. It would take some time to search for a particular name, and if the name was common, "Patrick Murphy," for example, it would be hard to determine whether or not the person listed was actually an ancestor. But if you are researching a unique name, it might be worth taking a look.

Lists of creditors are available from documents included in the James A. Smith papers, held by the Minnesota Historical Society, but they may also be available from the courts which handled the bankruptcy proceedings. Two of those mentioned in the James A. Smith documents include the District Court, Northern District of Illinois, and the District Court, Northern District of New York.

[With the exception of the letter from Charles Smith to James A. Smith which is held by the Chicago Historical Society, all other documents mentioned and/or shown in this post are from the James A. Smith Papers held by the Minnesota Historical Society.]

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gleanings from "Legal Friend of the People"

In January, 1911, the Chicago Daily Tribune began publishing a column called “Legal Friend of the People.” Readers wrote in to ask questions about legal matters and topics ranged from what to do about a neighbor’s bothersome ducks to marriage, probate, and citizenship. For genealogists, this column is a rich source of information about the laws of the times.

Below are some examples of the kinds of things I've learned from the Legal Friend. (I have access to the Chicago Tribune Historical Archives online--the source of the columns mentioned below--using my Chicago Public Library card.)

4 Mar 1912, p. 8: The legal age of a woman is 18; legal age of a man is 21.

11 Mar 1912, p. 8: Illinois law states that a divorced person must wait one year before remarrying; in questionable cases, couple should be remarried

11 Mar 1912, p. 8: Common law wife has same rights as any other wife, but definition of common law wife is strict; best to have legal marriage performed

18 Mar 1912, p. 10: Indiana marriage license is not good in Illinois

28 Mar 1912, p. 10: Nevada laws permit remarriage within months of a divorce; marriage there under those circumstances would be considered legal in all other states.

1 Apr 1912, p. 10: Nieces and nephews would inherit if unmarried uncle dies with no living parents or siblings

8 Apr 1912: Legal name change can be done through Circuit Court for about $15; Slight change in spelling wouldn’t require legal proceedings

12 Apr 1912: Aliens who have served in the United States military can receive citizenship with petition (no previous declaration of intent) and have only to prove a one-year residence

15 Apr 1912, p. 10: Wife desertion punishable by a fine or imprisonment; husband cannot be brought back from another state

29 Apr 1912, p. 10: If a man marries under an assumed name, he should obtain another license in his real name and be married again

6 May 1912, p. 4: Statute prohibiting marriage in Illinois during the first year after divorce went into effect 1 Jul 1905

3 Jun 1912, p. 6: Seventeen year old girl married without parental consent, lived with husband four months then went home; he cannot support her; marriage can be annulled

17 Jun 1912, p. 6: Statue prohibiting common law marriage went into effect July 1 … [year is difficult to read; probably 1900 or 1909]

19 Jun 1912, p. 6: If a spouse leaves for more than two years, it is grounds for divorce

5 Jul 1912, p. 6: If a father gains citizenship before his son turns 21, the son automatically becomes a citizen; if the son reaches 21 before the father gains citizenship, the son can file his own petition

8 Jul 1912, p. 4: Illinois divorce cases usually called within a couple of months of filing

27 Nov 1916, p. 8: Minister visiting from another state can marry an individual who has obtained a Cook County marriage license

22 Oct 1917: Man married in Florida, wife left him in England, and he is back in the United States; he would have to get a divorce before remarrying here

17 Dec 1917: Law making it illegal for divorced persons to marry until a year had passed went into effect 1 Jul 1905

24 Dec 1917: Woman divorces in Illinois, goes to Michigan to marry an Illinois resident and returns; “Evasion Act” might make marriage invalid

31 Dec 1917: A marriage between persons who used assumed names to get license is legal, but the parties are subject to punishment; Crown Point marriages are not announced routinely in Chicago in a public way

30 March 1918: No “statutory limit” on when a marriage license has to be used

20 May 1918, p. 6: A marriage license from Indiana can’t be used in Illinois

3 Jun 1918, p. 8: Marriage license generally issued by County Clerk; offices not open on Sundays

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Problem with "Only"

I'm not sure I'm the best one to point this out. After all, I earn extra income by looking up Chicago birth, marriage, and death records for researchers for a small fee. But, on the other hand, one of my goals is to educate researchers on which Chicago and Cook County records can be found where, and I think this falls under that umbrella. So, here goes . . .

I was just searching, hoping to stumble on some information about a person I'm researching, and I ended up in the Cook County Death Index, 1908-1988. It's a handy resource, but I think one small tweak needs to be made to the results page.

When I rolled over the "Purchase from Cook County" link, the pop-up read "Indexes have been made available here at Ancestry, however, images and original certificates are only available through the Cook County Clerk's office" and the word "only" isn't quite right. Chicago and Cook County death records up through 1947 are available both in Springfield and on microfilm that can be viewed at or borrowed from the Family History Library in Salt Lake. And, in the Chicago area, they're available at the Wilmette Family History Center.

It's likely that the word "only" is there because it's much easier to phrase it that way than it is to try to explain that some records are available from a number of repositories while others are only available from the clerk's office, but it would be better to just leave the "only" out. Most people would just click through and purchase the records from anyway.

I applaud Ancestry and the Cook County Clerk's Office, by the way, for teaming up to make this index and the corresponding records easily available to researchers. I really do. Sometimes people ask me, "Can you get records after 1947? and sometimes they mutter, just a tiny bit, when they find out that I can't, and that they will have to pay $15 for whatever they need. My reply? It costs money to preserve valuable records and to build applications like the new Cook County vital records website and $15 is money well spent if you need a record to keep your research moving forward.

Using the Family History Library Record Lookup Service

Have you heard about the Family History Library Record Lookup Service? It's a very convenient way to obtain digital copies of Chicago vi...