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Newspaper Skill Challenge Answers


Here are the answers (below the article) to last week's skill challenge.

The following fun newspaper article appeared in the Providence Evening Press on 29 April 1870.

Read the following story and see if you can answer the questions. You will have to do some detective work (ie. research) to find out the answers. In addition to answering the questions, determine what type of records would provide answers to the questions and where you will start. Also, are there any other clues in the article that would lead you to more information about this family? Because the type did not render well, the name of the town where the family lives is Somerville.

House Break In Providence Evening Gazette-1870-04-29 p3
Click to Enlarge     
The Providence Evening Press, 29 April 1870, p. 3, col. 5; digital image, ( : accessed 24 October 2019), Rhode Island Newspapers, 1778-1938.                                                                    


What state is Somerville in? How do you know from the context of the article?

Somerville is in Massachusetts. We know this because of the notation at the very end of the article "-Boston Traveller." That indicates that the Providence Evening Press published an article originally from the Boston Traveller.

What is the full street address of the Gurney family? List one document you can use to find out. Extra credit for each additional type of document that will provide the same information.

I'm revising this answer because, frankly, I got it wrong the first time. In my original answer I looked at the wrong column in the 1880 census. I think it's a good lesson to show that a genealogist can be wrong. Even when we try really hard not to be! If you look at something too long sometimes you can't see what's right in front of you anymore. Revised answer below.

This article was published in 1870. The US Federal Census of 1870 did not include street names or street numbers. The 1880 Federal Census did not list a street number even though it was an option on the census. The enumerator did not fill it in or perhaps there were no street numbers (but that seems unlikely to me in a busy city). While the property was still in the hands of the Gurney family in 1900 no one in the family is listed as living there at that time.

Henry Gurney is found more often in Boston, Massachusetts city directories listing his place of work with a brief  mention that his home is in Somverille. However, the 1875  City Directory of Somerville, Massachusetts has the following listing:

"Gurney Henry L., pilot, house Cedar, cor. Highland av." 

The 1873 Somerville City Directory has the same listing.

That description is very helpful because very often streets are renumbered over the years. That means that 72 Cedar Street in 1870 would not necesseary be the same house/lot as 72 Cedar Street today. But with the description of the house being located at the corner of Highland Cedar we can narrow down the location much easier.

Another place you could find the address is in the deed. holds many land records from Massachusetts. A quick search shows that Henry Gurney purchased the property from William Gates in April 1866.  The property is described in the index as "Somerville Cedar formly [sic.] Leland St. + Cedar St." This demonstrates once again that street locations and their names have been very fluid through time. You can view the original deed here (requires login with free account):

What are the names of the daughters who were at home that night?

The 1870 US Federal Census indicates that the most likely candidates for the two daughters are Emily, age 28, and Catherine, age 20. The article describes the girls as "...two daughters, one a young lady of about twenty years of age and the other about fourteen years of age..." This is a good reminder that not only can the information be wrong in the census but it could be wrong in newspaper articles as well. Other documents such as birth, marriage and death records would give a better indication of the daughters' true ages.

Who are the other people in the family not mentioned?

Again, we turn to the 1870 US Federal Census and find that wife, Mary Gurney, and son, Henry Gurney, were not mentioned in the newspaper article. It's a mystery where they were and why they were not home that night or why they were not mentioned in the article. There is an additional daughter, Beatrice, not mentioned in the 1870 census but found in the earlier 1860 US Federal Census.

Henry Gurney Family 1870
1870 US Federal Census showing household of Henry Gurney and family, Somerville, Massachusetts.

What does en deshabille mean? Why would a newspaper use the French phrase instead of English?

The phrase en deshabille means "in a state of undress" according to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  As this was during the Victorian Era it would likely have seemed improper to talk about young ladies in their night clothes. The French phrase provides a precise description of the situation without the risk of appearing improper.

What was the occupation of Henry L. Gurney? From that, what can we guess he was doing in Washington?

From the 1870 (and other)  US Federal Census we learn that Henry Gurney was a "Pilot." City Directories and other documents show that he was a pilot at Lewis Wharf in Boston, a center for merchants and commerce.  If we were to guess what Henry Gurney was doing in Washington, I would say that he was perhaps piloting his boat to pick up merchandise for sale at Lewis Wharf or perhaps droppoing off goods for sale in Washington.


Extra Credit:

How would you find out if the same house is standing today?

The first thing I would do answer this question is to look at Google maps and use the street view to see what is at the location now. Even though the street numbers likely have changed we know the house was as the corner of Cedar Street and Highland Avenue (which exact corner is the question!). Doing that indicates that three of the corners have newer commercial buildings on them. The fourth corner contains a yoga studio on the first floor of a building that could have existed in 1870. A quick Google search shows that the address of yoga studio is at 288 Highland Ave., Somerville, MA 02143. Using that address I would access the City of Somerville's Assessor Database in order to see when the building was built. It indicates that building at that location was built in 1920. However, older buildings are not always dated correctly in Massachusetts assessor databases so a 1920 date would not be conclusive.

To resolve the issue of "which corner" quickly, you could look at some historic maps such as cadastral maps (also known as land ownership maps) or Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. An 1895 street map of Somerville shows the Gurney property on the southwest corner of Highland and Cedar. The yoga property, currently on the southeast corner, is therefore not the same property. Since all the other buildings currently at that intersection are new we can say that the Gurney property is no longer standing.

Interestingly enough, the 1895 map shows that the Gurneys owned a large 2+ acre property at that location, in contrast to many much smaller house lots it was surrounded by. It would be fun to research and discover when the Gurney property was broken up.


Marian Pierre-Louis is a genealogy professional who specializes in educational outreach through webinars, internet broadcasts and video. Her areas of expertise include house history research, southern New England research and solving brick walls. Marian is the Online Education Producer for Legacy Family Tree Webinars where she produces online genealogy education classes. Once a month you'll find her as the evening host of Legacy Family Tree Webinars. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.


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I am not convinced that the Street House Number was 72 Cedar Street. "House numbers" was the second column in the 1880 Census, and it was blank. The third column, which says 72, is labeled "Dwelling Houses in number of visitation." The Dwelling Houses before and after 72 are 71 and 73. Unless the house numbering system was different then, the enumerator would have to go across the street from odd to even numbers. I've browsed through other pages of the census from that Ward on and found that the houses were numbered for a few pages, and then on p. 4, at Winslow Avenue, the enumerator wrote "Houses not numbered," and he did not number houses after that. Perhaps there were no house numbers? or was he just lazy?

I don't believe that "72" is the Gurney house number on Cedar St. The "House number" column on the 1880 U.S. Federal Census form is blank.

The "72" is in the column labeled "Dwelling houses numbered in order of visitation." The number "107" is in the column of "Families numbered in order of visitation." The families number is usually larger than the dwellings number due to multiple families living in some dwellings, such as apartment buildings.

Some contemporary Somerville City Directories give an address of 100 Cedar St. for Henry L. Gurney's home. But as you mention, the numbering system may change.

Michael and June,

I think you are absolutely right! I should have looked at those columns more closely. Sometimes when we research we have blinders on. I will need to correct that. But as Michael mentions, the whole point is, house numbers really didn't matter too much back in the day because they were subject to change. I think the "corner of Highland and Cedar" is much more helpful. As are the old land ownership maps.

Thanks for catching that guys!


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