It is easy to criticize indexers and transcriptionists for making mistakes. But there are times when it is easy to see how such “mistakes” are made. This 1964 California death certificate for Georgiana Elliott makes the point.

Box 9 is for “Maiden name and birthplace of mother.” The clerk has entered “unk, McKeown, Pennsylvania.” Box 8 is for the father’s same information where the clerk has entered “James L. Lowry, UNK.” There’s no doubt that “unk (and “UNK”) refer to “unknown.” But was the mother’s maiden surname McKeown or was she born in McKeown, Pennsylvania? The clerk ends the father’s name with a comma and then includes the place of birth after the comma, so perhaps that was done with the mother’s name and place of birth as well–and commas are used to separate names of towns from names of states. Given the fact that the clerk used “unk” and “UNK” for unknown, it’s reasonable to say that the clerk might not be overly precise in their use of commas so drawing conclusions based upon that alone might be problematic.

It’s worth noting that directions for birth place of deceased does indicate “state or country.” It seems doubtful that more precision would have been required for place of birth of the parents.

I’m inclined to go with McKeown as referencing the maiden surname of the mother and not the town of her birth. My transcription of the item will be as exactly as written in the document indicating that the information was obtained in the box requesting mother’s maiden name and place of birth. My note attached to the source of this maiden name will indicate that there is some ambiguity in the original document.

And it is easy to see how an indexer or transcriber with thousands of documents to transcribe and index might have made a quick different interpretation.




2 Responses

  1. I think handwriting variations can lead indexers astray too. I once saw a certified typed death record for my grandfather, who died in California. It read he was born in Iowa. The source of the information on the record was “official VA records”. His daughter said he was born in Iowa, as that’s what his death record said. His younger sister said he was born in Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania. I eventually did get a copy of his birth record – from Washington County, Pennsylvania (which has a town named Cherry Valley). I also eventually obtained his baptismal record – from a parish in Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania. I think somebody wrote “Pa” with a really big loop on the P, and whoever copied that into the death record read it as an I.

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