The Seneca County Genealogical Society has just published a new book, "Seneca County, Ohio, Death Records: Volumes 1-5, 1867-Dec. 1908." The hardbound book became available June 20, and advanced orders already have been sent or delivered.
The cost of the book is $35.
Society member and retired teacher, Neva Berlekamp Wilbert, spent much of 2011 compiling and organizing the data from Seneca County Probate Court records and microfilm of the same records housed at Tiffin-Seneca Public Library.
"I started in early January and finished up in the middle of August," Wilbert said. "That was fast work, because I'm a farmer and it was raining and too hot. I couldn't work outside, so I just kept typing. I'm 88 years old."
Beverly and Jerry Wheatley, publications chairmen for the genealogical society, did proofreading and prepared the material for publication on acid-free paper.
Another society member, Becky Hill, also proofread the entries and wrote a forward for the book.
Last week, Wilbert and the Wheatleys presented a copy of the hardbound book to Probate Court Judge Jay Meyer. Sixty-three people pre-ordered the book.
Beverly said libraries, agencies and individual researchers have been waiting for the book.
"People are very pleased with this book. Quite a few of them said 'We've needed this book for so long,'" Beverly said. "People get interested, when they see a book on deaths in Seneca County, even if they aren't genealogists."
"Even if (the information) is on the Internet, people like to have it in their hands," Jerry said.
The original death records for 1867-1908 were handwritten in five large, bound volumes. Wilbert said she made photocopies of each 20- by 12-inch page. The pages contained up to 48 names with 14 columns of information. Some of the entries were incomplete, while others were nearly impossible to read. She had to be sure the name was lined up with the correct information all the way across the columns before entering the data into a spreadsheet on a laptop.
"I copied them and then I glued them together," Wilbert said. "I used a lot of Elmer's glue. ... When I copied this, I had to put the (volume and page) numbers on each page."
"If anyone thinks, 'That's probably my person, but the spelling is off,' it's because we couldn't read it. They can go to the court house and look it up, because it tells the volume and the page," Beverly said.
Handwritten letters that gave the proofreaders the most trouble were "m," "n," "u" and "a." Beverly said they all looked alike because the writer did not always close the "a."
Wilbert said one name that began with what looked like "Huuuu-" was discovered to be "Hemm-" Another stenographer wrote a "cl" that looked like "d." If the writer changed, the reader had to adjust to a different style.
"Accurate handwriting was not a requirement for that job," Jerry observed. "The only thing you can do is compare it with another name."
The computer gave each name a number, so Wilbert wrote that same number next to each name on the photocopy. Just deciphering the spelling of one name could take 15 minutes or more. For some, Wilbert had to consult other records, such as marriage or birth books, cemetery books, Census records and other genealogy publications, to be sure the spelling was correct before she could enter it.
"Of course, the names are spelled as nearly like this (originals) as possible. There were mistakes in the spelling, but we tried to put the proper word in for the (cause of) deaths. That wasn't always spelled correctly," Wilbert said.
The names of some ailments were written in German. Abbreviations such as "kid. dis." (for kidney disease) often appear. Other terms have gone out of use. A list of archaic terms is printed in the front of the book as a key for researchers.
Likewise, the names of villages, cities and even townships in the county have changed over the years or completely disappeared. As an example, Chicago Junction is the old name for Willard.
For all the meticulous work that went into the book, Wilbert noticed an error that escaped proofreading.
"If something isn't just right, I read it right, because I know what it's supposed to be," Beverly said.
"That's why you cannot proofread your own work. You see it as you intend it, rather than as it is," Jerry added.
Wilbert said she learned to type as a senior in high school, under her favorite teacher, Helen Newman, but Becky Hill taught Wilbert how to operate the computer. On occasion, Wilbert would bump a key and lose a whole page of data.
The book has 204 pages with 64 names on each page (except the last). That adds up to more than 13,000 names. The computer program arranged the names alphabetically to make them easier to locate.
"The book is in alphabetical order, but people didn't die in alphabetical order," Wilbert said.
The columns with each name list the person's family name, given name, age (date of birth, if known), marital status, occupation, cause of death, date of death, place of death, place of birth (state, county, city, if known), father, mother, volume and page of original listing. In some cases, an infant was buried without a given name.
The ledgers from probate court were kept mostly by tax assessors who made the rounds through the county once a year. Going door-to-door, assessors would ask for the births and deaths in each household during the past year. The information could be inaccurate or missing if a family moved into or out of the county during that time. On occasion, a minister or doctor would record the death information.
Wilbert said some Seneca County natives who left the area and died in a distant state or country were not recorded unless local family members reported the information. At a time when families could bury a loved one in the family plot on the farm, some deaths probably never were listed in public records.
In 1908, the state of Ohio instituted the use of modern birth and death certificates. These are issued and stored at the Seneca County Board of Health.
Before 1867, no death records were kept for Seneca County and other parts of Ohio.
"There are columns for the father and the mother, which genealogists love," Beverly said.
"The whole purpose of the book is to duplicate public records," Jerry said.
When Wilbert and the Wheatleys presented the book to Meyer, the judge said he recently had helped prepare the time capsule for the new Youth Center. One of the items it contained was a cell phone, which made him wonder about the future of written language. Cursive writing, such as that used in the ledgers of the past, is not being taught in schools because people communicate electronically so much of the time.
"As I've gotten into my practice, I've come to appreciate the importance of good record-keeping," Meyer said.
He said a debate is going on in courts about the best system to use for preserving records, which deteriorate over time and take up space. The options: scan the original books to microfilm; scan them and post them online, but keep the original books; or enter everything into a database and do away with hard copies.
Meyer also asked the trio for suggestions to ease the process of locating records. Wilbert suggested a tilted book stand to reduce glare on the pages. Jerry emphasized keeping records open and accessible to the public. He said some states make it difficult to get information.
Becky Hohman, chief deputy clerk for the probate court, was pleased with the new book. It is compact, well-organized and easy to read.
"These books are wonderful. They're priceless. We look through these books every day," Hohman said.
The Wheatleys are pleased about the completion of the book. Although Nancy Hagenmaier started work on the death book, she was not able to finish. Just finding one person willing to take on the tedious task of transcribing is difficult, Beverly said. The couple was relieved when Wilbert stepped in to finish the job.
With the volume completed, Wilbert is not anxious to undertake another publication. Right now, she wants to "go home and finish freezing my okra."
"I would like to see the divorce records, but you'd probably have to go through all the court cases to find them," Wilbert said.
In addition to the "Death Records" book, the Seneca County Genealogical Society has nine other publications available for purchase.
To learn more, contact the Wheatleys at (419) 447-9628 or come to the next Genealogical Society meeting at 7 p.m. Sept. 4 at Tiffin Seneca Public Library.