Where to look for death notices

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Last month we talked about all the information you can find from a death notice, and all the information you probably won’t find. I spent a lot of time this summer and fall looking for death notices and then visiting the graves of the dearly departed. I have found that both can lead the curious genealogist to the names of other relatives who you might not have known about. The death notice might list the names of other relatives who have passed away, and the gravesite might have other people in the same lot that are related that you didn’t know about either. They go hand in hand.

So where do we go to look for death notices. It depends on where they lived and when they died and what is available on-line and in microfilm.

If the person died between 2001 and today, you have a good chance of finding the death notice at www.legacy.com. This is a national web site that contains notices from the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, and Daily Herald and many other papers. You can search for first and last name, and also a keyword search.

In last month’s column, I mentioned a technique to search for his last name and her maiden name, or her married name, to find other notices that connect to that family. The keyword search is where you can try this. Make sure you click the drop down list shown below, and select “all records”. You can limit the years that are searched if you are looking for Joseph Jones. You’ll get a couple of pop-up ads but the site is free and available everywhere.


Legacy.com also has notices for many other papers around the country, so if your relative might have died in St. Paul or Cheyenne, search Legacy.com for them too. Not every notice is accessible. Some are “Archived” after a certain amount of time. This is designed to get you to pay for access to the full death notice (usually about $3) at the archives web site for that newspaper.

If the person died outside of the Chicago area, you can go to the web site for the local newspaper and see if they have an archive. The archive might go back a lot further than 2001, and local papers have a lot more detail in the death notices than the Trib or the Times. I found a long lost cousin named James Reilly by searching the Bloomington Pantagraph archive. It found a notice from 1993 and showed me just enough of it that I could be sure it was the right person, before I paid the $3 to see the entire notice. By the way, once you pay for it, copy and paste the text into a file and save it so you don’t have to pay again later.

If the person died away from Chicagoland and you don’t know where, you might have to check the Social Security Death Index on Ancestry.com. It might give you the last residence, and you can check the newspaper for that city. Sometimes there is a larger paper that covers an entire county, if the person died in a town that is too small for a newspaper that lists death notices.

Ok, time to talk about Chicago. Let’s start with the newspapers that are not on-line. For these papers, you will probably have to visit the Harold Washington Library at 400 S. State St. in Chicago. Newspaper microfilms are on the third floor. In no particular order, the following papers may have death notices: (Chicago’s) American 1954-1969; Chicago Daily News 1875-1978; Chicago Defender (African-American paper 1909-date); Daily Times 1929-1948; Herald Examiner/American 1921-1954; Chicago Sun 1941-1948 merged with the Daily Times; Evening Post 1890-1932; Inter-Ocean 1872-1914; Journal 1844-1929; Chicago Record/Herald 1881-1914; Chicago Times/Herald 1855-1901. There are a number of others from the early to mid 1800s as well.

Suburban regional papers need to be found at larger local libraries. The Daily Herald, under a variety of names, goes back to 1901. The microfilm for the paper, and index books containing death notices and obits, can be found at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. The Star can be found in various local editions at the Oak Lawn, Orland Park and Tinley Park libraries on microfilm from the 1980s to date, as well as 1990s editions of the Southtown Economist.

The Chicago Sun-Times started in 1948 with the merger of the Sun and the Daily Times. Most libraries, however, only have the paper on microfilm from the 2000s to date, and you can find those notices on Legacy.com. If you need notices from the earlier Sun-Times , you need to go to the Harold Washington and use the microfilm version.

The Chicago Tribune seems to be the newspaper of record, even though not every person placed a death notice in it. If you cannot find your notice in the Trib, you should check the Sun Times, or the other papers that existed during the time when this person died.

So how do we get to the Chicago Tribune on-line? It all depends on your local public library.

The on-line Tribune archives are typically only available to libraries, and for many of them, you can only access them if you are either a library card holder or if you visit the library in person and use their computers. If your library allows use from home, you will have to log in with your library card number. Depending on the time frame you need, there are several options”

* 2001 to the present — Use Legacy.com for free
* 1989-2000 — microfilm (there are no death notices in the on-line versions for these years)
* 1984-1988 — ProQuest
* 1940-1984 — Chicago Tribune Historical Archive (if available) or ProQuest
* 1872-1940 — ProQuest

If you must use microfilm for the 1989-2000 period, Arlington Heights has these available.

If your library has the Chicago Tribune Historical Archive available, it is a great tool for searching for death notices. It has a separate search that only finds the text of the death notices and doesn’t look in the rest of the newspaper. It also does a keyword search. You will find that if you keyword search in ProQuest, for “Smith Johnson” it will find every page with both a Smith and a Johnson in it. The Historical Archive will only find a single notice that has both names, so it gives you better results. The problem is that the project ran out of funding mid way through and there are only death notices for 1940-1984. Since ProQuest is still actively producing new products, more libraries have ProQuest.

ProQuest covers the entire history of the Tribune paper on-line. The historical component runs up until 1989 and includes death notices. The 1989-date portion doesn’t have death notices for the 1989-2000 period. You can search both the historical and current at the same time by clicking on the “1 database” up in the upper left. Then check both the Historical and Current Tribune, and the Daily Herald (1997-date) as well.

When you search ProQuest, it searches for data within an entire page. Since the death notice page has many MANY names in it, you may find way too many pages that do not have the right family. You can try to search using quote marks, such as “Vito Nitti”, so it will search for the entire phrase. But if the notice has him listed as “Vito A. Nitti”, your search will not find it.

One search trick is to search for the surname and then use the “within” option, which is formatted like this: “Nitti w/5 Vito”. This searches for the word Nitti, and only shows the result if the word “Vito” is within 5 words on either side of Nitti. “w/10” means within 10 words. Search for the name and the maiden name this way too.

You can limit the number of years that are searched by clicking “Advanced Search”, and then clicking “Date Range” and selecting “Specific date range” from the drop down menu. Then you could limit the search to only one week, or a whole year, or a range of years. There is an option to search “Obituary” but I’m not sure if that includes JUST obituary news stories, or plain old classified death notices.

If you don’t find the death notice, don’t be surprised. Not everyone placed death notices in the newspaper. Frankly, before 1940, there aren’t that many Italian names to be found. If most of the family did not speak English yet, why place a death notice in an English language newspaper? And forget about the infant brothers and sisters of your parents or grandparents. In the era when the extended family all lived in the same three-flat, and everyone they knew was on the same block, you didn’t need a newspaper announcement to tell everyone that someone had died. Only later, with expressways and families scattered to the suburbs, do we need to announce a passing in the newspaper to assure that most people know about it.

Print this out and take it with you to the library and good luck finding needed information. When the weather gets better (brrr) I will write a two-part primer on cemetery research.

If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at italianroots@comcast.net and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line. Have fun!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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