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Explain this - deceased husband serves as informant on his wife's death certificate

I've heard of people coming back to life, but that was more than 2,000 years ago. Yet according to Adelaide Brown's death certificate, her husband, who had been deceased for more than two years, was listed as the informant.

Leonard, Adelaide - 1916 death certificate

In two places it clearly states that Adelaide was a widow at the time of her death:

Field 5:


Field 8:


Yet field 14 clearly shows the name of the informant AND has the informant's relationship to the decedent:


How could Adelaide's deceased husband be the informant on her death certificate? Below are a few ideas I had, but if you have any other ideas, please let me know in the comments.

Could her husband, Charles Frederick Brown, have been alive at the time of her death? Yes, and I should follow up on this to have more convincing evidence of it. He was last known to be alive in 1910 as he was living in Philadelphia in this census. He was a lodger, working as an operator for the telegraph company, and although he was not living with his wife, he was listed as having been married for 33 years (Adelaide was living in the State Hospital for the Insane in the next county). I've also narrowed down Charles' death year to sometime before 1915 because in 1914, the book Armstrong County Pennsylvania: Her People, Past and Present, was published wherein it states that Charles was deceased. So Charles' death year was sometime between 1910-1914. I am pretty sure I have found his death certificate where he died January 2, 1911, but I'm still working on confirming I have the right one.

Could the informant and husband, C. F. Brown, Sr., be a different Charles F. Brown, Sr.? Not likely. First, her surname at the time of death was still Brown. Secondly, her death certificate shows that she died in the State Hospital in Norristown, the same place where she was enumerated in the 1910 census. My guess is they did not see too many weddings in this hospital and that she did not remarry to another C. F. Brown, Sr.

What is most likely is that when Adelaide was admitted to the hospital, Charles filled out some paperwork which provided her age, birth place, and names of her parents. Not being able to get in touch with Charles when Adelaide died in 1916 (remember, Charles died before 1915), the hospital personnel probably just filled out her death certificate from the information he previously gave them, and listed him as the informant.

Before today, I used to think the informant on a death certificate was always alive at the time the certificate was filled out. Now I have one more thing to be cautious about when analyzing vital records. And if I were to continue the research to conduct a reasonably exhaustive search, I would next try to locate hospital records, pursue Charles' death certificate, and even look for their obituaries. 


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Jeff, very interesting story. Your reasoning sounds good to me.

I came across a birth certificate which lists the baby's grandmother (who died before his parents married) as the mother. Also, the marriage certificate of the same couple (parents of baby) incorrectly lists the deceased mother of the bride as the bride, with her parents as the bride's parents. My guess is that the minister was an old family friend who just filled in the wrong name--twice. You can't even believe primary sources!

Excellent post Geoff. Certainly food for thought. I will give a personal example of how this might have happened. I visited my father in Nov 1990 in Michigan. I knew at the time, that he would die in the coming weeks or months. Since I live in CA I went to the local mortuary and made all the arrangements, including providing information on his date of birth, parents names etc. When my father passed 3 months later, I was the informant listed on the death cert. However, if I had died during those 3 months, I suspect I would still have been listed as the informant, since they wouldn't have had anyone else.
So, I can see how this could happen.
Thanks for the post.

Records are full of wonderful mysteries. My wife's great grandmother filed probate for her late husband in two different localities--Denver and New York. She asserts he died in each place but the death dates are two months apart. Did he die twice? Haven't found a death cert yet.

It appears that the signature is the handwriting of the person that filled in the death certificate. The place where she died was a "State Hospital." It is likely that she had been there since before her husband passed and as mentioned someone filled in the information from when she was admitted.

So interesting! I actually just learned about filling out death certificates in advance from an article about a woman how was a caretaker of terminal AIDS patients. She filled out their death certificates with them while they were still alive because she wouldn't know who their parents were and their families abandoned them. I've been thinking about this and the implications for genealogy for the past few days since I read it. I'm so glad to have read this article! Your timing was perfect.

If you look at the main part of the writing on the certificate you will see that it has been filled out by one person and therefore I suggest that your idea that it was filled out by hospital personnel is indeed correct.

My great grandparents died 3 1/2 hrs apart of pneumonia. He died 1st but is listed as informant on her death certificate. His sister is informant on his. My grandfather & his sister are deceased, so I don't have them to ask. I had heard all my life about the sadness of their death & how my grandfather was left to raise himself at 13 yrs of age. I was still so excited to find the death certificates.

I can relate to this. On my great great grandmother's death certificate it states that she was a widow. When I found my 2x great grandpa's death certificate, he died after she did. The only logic I came up with is that they split up and never divorced. Which in later documents and family interviews it came about that is what happen. He left the family and traveled else where.

Records while good to look at may be full of misinformation. My father's birth certificate is basically a fake to cover up an out of wedlock pregnancy by my grandmother. She changed her name to her step father's last name and then named her husband after an uncle so she would have the right last name for my Dad. :) backs up the need for at least two sources. Thanks for sharing this!

Here's my thought: maybe the person that filled out the form felt that information about the husband was important and there no place to include him, which I find odd. So, she may very well be the widow of C. F. Brown Sr. that was a telegraph operator and you were lucky that someone left a clue as to whom her husband was. :)

I have read that if they lived apart they would put widow on forms to cover a separation

My grandmother has tombstones in 2 states, Alabama and Georgia. Her 3rd husband is buried in Alabama, and the headstone was a double one with my grandmothers name and birthdate on it, but she died in Georgia 40 years later and is buried there, next to one of her sisters. I had found someone else's research that didn't know this, and had her as being buried in Alabama, so I sent them the correct info, and both headstones are on findagrave as well. So have to be weary of headstones too, because they may not actually be buried there. Sometimes the death certificate has the wrong cemetery too. Also if a grave is moved, the headstone may be left in the old cemetery if there is other family members buried there.

Often women would report on census forms that they were "widowed" when in reality they were separated or divorced. There was a stigma back then to being deserted or divorced. So even on Census forms the information can be wrong.

I am a little confused on the reference to Armstrong County. That is North of Pittsburgh and you said he was in Philadelphia. That is several hours apart.

Thanks for sharing and thanks to those who commented....I now know why my great grandfather states himself as a widow in the 1901 census even though his wife was still alive. They had separated before 1900.

Their children were brought up by his parents and his wife must have gone back to her original home place. Very unusual for victorian times. She wasn't just a few miles away. .but in Scotland.

I have also found errors on birth certs . One gives the child's name as the birth mother in the informant section yet the mother's name and maiden name are correctly stated in those sections. Mistakes happen. My gran's marriage cert is a mess with 4 corrections. Why another wasn't done I don't know!
Thanks again for sharing.

Wow great story. I was thinking that maybe the informant was a son who was going by Sr. And had a Jr. Of his own, not going by II AND III. Thank you for sharing this. I will watch my sources a little closer.

This surely illustrates how careful we as researchers need to be. It must all be taken with a grain of salt. When my grandmother passed in 2004, I sat down with the funeral home and provided all the information required. When I later received the death certificate, there were no less than 5 mistakes on it, including my own name, as informant, was spelled wrong!

It doesn't say if they had any children .
The son could have been C.F. Brown Sr.

Her husband could have been Charles, but, with that being said. The son could have had the same initials.

I have had similar My grandfather was born out of wedlock as his mother never married her partner
despite five children, so the father never gave them the names so they had the mothers surnames
because the way things were then he put himself down as his father on his marriage cert. the truth came out when I had my y DNA done a came out an exact match to granddads real father
DNA is a wonderful thing

I have often found women listed as "widow" when husband's were in jail and/or asylums. On some occasions, even a divorce prompted a "widow" response. All the previous were considered shameful in the early 1900s. Another thought provoker.

I think You have the right idea, it was probably recorded by hospital staff. However, accepting that conclusion without exhausting other possibilities may be jumping to conclusions. What if they had a Son, a JR., who at the time of his Mother's death, after his Father died, and after JR. fathered a son by the same, Jr. Filled out the papers. Just a thought, and you and those who have made comments raise interesting reasons why we all need to be cautious as the first record, or headstone, we encounter may not always be the only, or right one!

Surely her husband was the one who committed her and gave all the information. It then got entered as tho he gave it right then.

Learning about all these problems with records and understanding why they happen has made me far more tolerant of errors and inconsistencies in online family trees. Some people get very upset at these, but the upside of the internet is that it also helps reveal some of the causes. I think we're just beginning to grasp the complexity of what we're really trying to do.

You can also have (or somebody for you) a headstone placed in a cemetery where you're not buried, especially if you have family there, as a memorial, so guess would have to be careful there as well, maybe check with the actual office for the actual burial records?

If you look at the signature of the husband....his signature is a different hand than the information above his name.. How can I tell....his middle initial is the letter F....look how it is written. The letter F in Adelaid's name and the word Female are written differently. He ( the husband) might have signed the informant section when she was admitted.... but clearly his signature is totally different than any of the other lines in the certificate. Depending on when her parents died....it might explain why their place of birth is listed as America. It also doesn't list her place of birth.
Last but no least....did she had a son who's name was also C.F. ? Maybe he had the same initials as his father but his name was different...and he had a son who was a Junior???? Lots of easy ways to verify the signature.....

I don't know, that could be an in-law who is an uncle or cousin. I have an ancestor who was a twin. They were named Simeon and Seaborn. They each had sons they named Simeon and Seaborn and those sons had sons they named Simeon and Seaborn and this went on for a number of generations. The point is that there could very well be another senior in the family with the same name.

Another point that is confusing, I have an example of. My great grandfather was named O. S. Bass. His son was named O. S. Bass and his son was named O. S. Bass and then the final son was named O. S. Bass and he has only girls, so the name ends there.

Now, the thing is that the 2nd O. S. Bass was nicknamed "Spud" so there was no confusion between his father and himself. Then the third O. S. Bass was called "Spud Jr." and took to signing his name O. S. Bass Jr. when in fact, he was O. S. Bass III. Because he did that, his father, signed his name O. S. Bass Sr. when he was really O. S. Bass II or Jr. You see the confusion, I'm sure.

If it wasn't that I knew them all personally very, VERY well (well, except my great grandfather) I would call that a genealogist's nightmare. I'm just throwing that out there that sometimes what seems impossible actually isn't.

I had a similar mystery once and it turned out to be a son with the same name. The mother's death occurred 90 years ago, and the twist in that case was that the son was previously unknown to me. It was many years after seeing the death certificate that I learned of the son by talking with an elderly cousin. There was a very touching story of a long estrangement followed by reunification and redemption between the mother and the son. Eventually the son, whose siblings had all died, had moved back to their hometown and the mother was living in the son's home in her final years. It is one of the nicest stories that has emerged out of my decades of genealogy research.

I think your analysis is correct - her husband provided her information when she was admitted to the hospital, but then died before she did.

I have an even more puzzling case, also from Pennsylvania - there's a death certificate for Minnie R. (Sassaman) Hoffman, who d.19 Jan 1907 of complications from the birth of her son Harry Hoffman, b. 07 Jan 1907.

But, Minnie is also listed as the mother of Sarah Evelyn Hoffman, b.22 Aug 1909, more than 18 months after Minnie's death.

More than just an odd coincidence, I think.

In a Cemetery in Clark County Washington a grave marker has a man his wife and son on it, but the man is not buried there he is buried in Denver Colorado with his 2nd wife

Glen Jones Member Clark County Wa. Genealogy Society

Jennifer - the Armstrong County reference it to a county history of a different member of the family which makes reference to Charles' family.

1900 Federal Census, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, ED 280, Ward 15 Sheet 2A, Charles F., Adelaide & son C. Fred Jr., age 21, single. Looks like a good case that C. Fred Jr. was the informant.

Although unlikely, the scenario of impersonator has not yet been raised. It can be disconcerting to find out that an ancestor's record was blemished by an impersonator (or conversely, that an ancestor took on the identity of another) but it has been known to occur.

I would cross reference with a city directory of Philadelphia for about the same time -- if they have survived. I know some have not -- seems like I remember finding that many Chicago city directories have not survived. Not sure about Philadelphia. I haven't done a lot of research there.

Divorced women were referred to as "Grass Widows". I have a ggggrandmother who was divorced in the 1800s and referred to as a Grass Widow.

In my short time of searching records I have found more misinformation on different sources that required a lot more research. 1st my G Grandfather is listed in the cemetery records as Franklin Lewis. I always grew up hearing him called Franklin Levi after his Father Levi. He did have a brother named Lewis. I found his draft registration record which is signed in what I believe is his handwriting and it is signed Franklin Levi. I have also found him listed as Franklin Levi in other records also. I would need the birth certificate to be absolutely sure. If you like to solve puzzles this is the ultimate in puzzle solving. Thanks for your article letting me know I am getting better at this kind of genealogy puzzle solving and never to take things at face value.

What's certain, if the information on Adelaide's death certificate is correct, is that:
(1) She was born in Pennsylvania, the daughter of James M. Linnard (i.e. Leonard?) and Emma M. Beyer, both of whom were born in "America."
(2) She died at age 67 in the Pennsylvania State Hospital in Morristown on June 12, 1916.
(3) She was the widow of C. F. Brown, Sr., a telegraph operator who at some point lived at 2128 Mt. Vernon Street, Philadelphia.
(4) She lived in Philadelphia before being committed to the State Hospital.
(5) She died of bronchial pneumonia, with a secondary medical condition of chronic nephritis (kidney inflammation or disease)
(6) The attending medical person was Jessie M. Peterson, who had been attending her since 1908.
(7) Her body was removed to Philadelphia on June 14, 1916.
(8) The undertakers were David G. Frankenfield & Son, Philadelphia.
(9) She had been in the State Hospital for 15 years, two months and 23 days.
Other information can be inferred from this death certificate, or is less certain:
(1) C. F. Brown, Sr. almost certainly had a son who was named after him, although as mentioned in other comments, the son's full name may not be exactly the same as his father's, and it might not be exactly a father-son relationship.
(2) Judging from the exact period of time she was in the state hospital, she had been admitted to the hospital on March 20, 1901.
(3) The person completing the death certificate wrote "Husband" above the word "Informant," indicating that this recorder was complying with a state law requiring that a contact person's name be stated as giving the non-death information on the certificate.
(4) Since the death certificate was filed on the same day Adelaide died, the information on the disposition of her body was probably received by phone. By 1916, long-distance phone calls could be made between some large cities.
State mental hospitals kept records of admissions, daily operations, deaths and disposition of the bodies of deceased residents. Most of the information on Adelaide, her husband and her parents may have been copied from her admission record. That record should contain a little information that is not given in her death certificate, such as the condition for which she was admitted to the hospital, and probably the name of Adelaide's last family contact person, who would have been the person who authorized Adelaide's body to be sent to Philadelphia.
Depending on how much information is desired, the researcher might want to find out whether the hospital records also include a photo of Adelaide, and whether the records for the days preceding her death contain more information on the circumstances of her last illness and death.
The funeral home's records may also contain a bit more information on Adelaide or her next of kin. She was probably buried in Philadelphia, but possibly in a nearby smaller town.
A brief obituary or death notice may have been published in a Philadelphia newspaper.

Often, once the Senior is deceased, the Junior will then become Senior. This is the most likely scenario in my mind.

'Informant' detail has open many a brick road for me so I post the 'event' to the individual if he or she is part of my tree, i.e., Type of event: Informant. Detail: 'Appears as informant on death certificate for ...'

I was similarly startled that the occupation and residence address on an English cousin's 1900 death certificate was the same as in the 1871 census, when he was 23, because his family had moved from there by the 1881 census. The acting superintendent of the asylum registered his death.

From Ancestry's database of UK Lunacy patients, I learned that our cousin was institutionalized as a private patient n 1873-74, then as a pauper from 1877 until his death. So the information was from his 1877 admission, perhaps even from 1873.

We never heard any family story about this cousin, and I wish I knew his diagnosis. I have also found a lunatic cousin on the other side of our family. Very sobering.

My mother's birth certificate is in her own handwriting. How could that be? Well, it was a delayed birth certificate that she needed for a passport. The clerk's office was very busy and she got tired of waiting, so she grabbed the form and filled it out herself!

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