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Today we said Good-bye to a wonderful lady; my husband’s grandmother, Violet SIWERT WOLFINGER.

Violet was the first born child of Bertha HERMANSON and James SIWERT (aka Berta and Jakob Ziwert.) Her parents were Latvian-Russian immigrants, who came to the US in 1914 and settled on a farm in Bucks County Pennsylvania.

Nana was a genealogist’s dream, for several reasons. She was still very active and mentally astute into her 90’s. She told wonderful stories to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, about growing upon the farm and raising her family in Belvidere. In 1998, she put these stories in print, in the family history book titled, “This Day.” In it, she included pictures of the Hermanson and Ziwert families from Russia at the turn of the century through modern day cousins in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

 A few years ago, her daughters found another treasure – Nana’s personal diary from 1933 to 1937. Deep in the pages, long protected by the worn brown leather cover, we read of her daily routine; going to church at the Latvian Baptist Church in Applebachsville PA, walking to high school and catching rides home with the older neighborhood boys, and frequent trips to the movies to see double features with James Cagney and Errol Flynn. She tells us of the marriage proposal she received from Harvey “Red” WOLFINGER on December 11, 1936. “I still think he was only kidding.” He wasn’t. They were married in March of 1937.


 To celebrate Violet’s 95th birthday last year, several family members transcribed the diary; nearly 100 typed pages of memories to share with generations to come.

Despite the bitter cold and impending snow, the last two of Violet’s siblings were able to attend the memorial service today. We thank the families of Lilly SIWERT ORMAN and Arnold SIWERT for making the trip and look forward to keeping in touch.
God Bless You Nana.


There is an aspect of genealogy research beyond the traditional building of one’s family tree that many people might not be aware of. It’s not always about finding ancestors; sometimes it’s about finding descendants.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, a nationally-known and well-respected genealogist here in New Jersey,  works with the Defense Department to confirm identities of servicemen killed in action by locating living family members. In many cases, the remains are returned home more than 50 years later. The latest case involved Staff Sgt Zoltan Dobovich, who died November 1, 1946 in the French-Italian Alps. Through the use of genealogical sleuthing and DNA testing, his remains were positively confirmed and current family members were identified. He will be laid to rest at a veteran’s cemetery in South Jersey later this week.

Noble work, Megan.



Are these census records available anywhere?

Luke 2:1-7scroll

2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register.

There was a piece in the news recently about unusual children’s names for 2012. It got my thinking about a few odd names in my family.

Does anyone else have an Acturus in their tree? How about Zeruzia, Bowdewine or Landoline? Melvina, Neva, Ora and Verdella are a few of the other uncommon names of my relatives.

I reviewed the approximately 700 individuals in my main family file, to find more 60 different male names. I stopped counting at 100 for the females.

One of the misspellings/variants of Bowdewine Gunderman.
He sometimes went by Barrry or more often Roy.

We have our share of the more common nomenclature. John is far away the most popular name for the men with over 50; followed by about 20 James’ and a fair amount of Francis’, Georges and Williams.The ladies list is filled with more Marys than anything else. Catherine and Ann (and its variants) make a good showing, as do Elizabeth and Ellen/Helen.

Of course, the list also includes many “old-fashioned” names that we don’t see much of today: Ethel, Irma, Estelle, Percy and Julius. Some are names one would expect to find of ancestors from Ireland; Patrick, Bridget and Kathleen, and those that might have come from Biblical inspiration; Jacob, Ruth, Isaac and Abraham.

When we were thinking of names for our children, there was no question that I wanted them to have names from the family. My husband, his father and great-grandfather are all John, so I didn’t want to add another to the bunch. We settled on Russell, which is from my husband’s family. There are only two in the immediate group.

The choice we had in mind for a girl was used for our second child, Katherine. She joins 15 others in the group, including my sister, several great-grandmothers and aunts; some with a K, some with a C. It is good thing she was a girl, because I was stumped on what to name another boy. In a moment of child-birth delirium that I thought was hysterical, the only thing I could come up with Elmer Owen Inscho. Like I said, good thing she was a girl!

What unusual names have you come across in your family research?


I recently read Steven Luxenburg’s book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret,” about the discovery of an aunt he never knew existed and his search for information about her. It’s an honest look at a family’s struggles with mental illness and showcases our inherent need to connect with the past.

The author criss-crossed the country over several years, tracking down any possible living family members, friends or neighbors who might have known his Aunt Annie or could shed any light on the situation. He opened an estate for her with the local Probate Court decades after she passed and obtained court authorization to have her medical records released. Along the way, he re-examined many events that occurred throughout his life and gained a greater understanding of his mother and her relationships with other family members. He makes no judgments about what his mother did or did not do or about the manner in which the family handled Annie’s condition.

Annie’s Ghosts provides a solid overview of the country’s mental health care system during the first half of the 20th century and leads us on Mr. Luxenburg’s journey, step by step, as he discovers new records and information. I enjoyed the book and could identify with many of the questions and feelings Mr. Luxenburg shared with his readers.

Surely many genealogists have experienced the same situation; discovering a previously unknown relative who was institutionalized and never discussed. In the course of researching my Davis family, a cousin and I discovered Great-Aunt Cora Davis, sister to our grandfathers, John Thomas and James Edgar Davis. After reading the lengths to which Mr. Luxenburg went to get information on his aunt, I feel like a bit of a slacker for not trying to pursue Cora more than we did. In my defense, our Aunt has been gone more than 100 years and there is no one alive today who would have any first-hand knowledge of her or the situation. We can’t even say for sure that she or her condition were kept a secret. There are a lot of things that my father simply did not discuss about his family (for example, Everything!) but that doesn’t necessarily make it a secret. It was just things that he didn’t want to discuss or couldn’t understand why anyone would be interested in hearing about it.

Mt. Hope Retreat

Mt. Hope Retreat, Baltimore Maryland.
Photo from

Cora Davis was born in 1883 to John and Maria (nee Kelly) Davis in Baltimore, the fourth of seven children. Hers is one of several birth certificates that I have not been able to locate at the Maryland State Archives. She missed the 1880 census and 1890 is not available. By 1900, the family was living on a farm in Baltimore County, during a short hiatus from John’s usual work as a copper smelter or in the refineries. Cora was not in the household at that time, but was included among Maria’s “5 living children.” She was enumerated as an “insane patient” at Mt. Hope Retreat, an asylum in Baltimore run by the Sisters of Charity.

Cora is not listed a survivor in her mother’s 1909 obituary. A year later, on 8 February 1910, Cora died at Mt. Hope Retreat. Her death certificate indicates her parents’ names as “not known” and the informant as “Records, Mt. Hope Retreat.” Her primary cause of death was list as chronic dementia, with which she suffered for over 11 years and the immediate cause was chronic gastritis for about one year. She is buried in the Davis family plot in Oak Lawn Cemetery, Baltimore.

One piece of information I am not sure about is that the death certificate lists her residence as Middletown Maryland, about 60 miles away from Baltimore. To the best of my knowledge, the family never lived in that area. Because Cora lived at Mt. Hope in 1900 and died there 10 years later, I find it questionable that she moved to Middletown sometime in between. A page-by-page search of the 1910 census for Middletown yielded no familiar names.

I truly wish I knew more about Cora; her condition, her time at Mt. Hope, her relationship with the family. I have not found any records from the institution, but  if there are any, they would surely be protected as private medical records. The buildings of Mt. Hope, once the home of 600 patients, were demolished in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Discovering a family member with mental illness, or any number of other “family secrets”, is bound to happen when one is researching their family’s history. How to handle it depends on a lot of different factors and will be discussed further in an upcoming post.


An update to my previous post about a proposal in New Jersey to require criminal background checks on all persons handling vital stastics records: The bill, A465, passed the General Assembly today. Its Senate companion bill, S649, has yet to be heard by the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.