"Lost" Texas Death Certificates

By James Pylant
© 2005

More than 30 million vital records are stored in row after row of mobile bookshelves at the Texas Department of Health, in Austin, with births and marriages in blue binders and deaths and divorces in red binders. The State of Texas required its county offices to begin registering deaths on 1 January 1903, filing the record at the county courthouse and submitting a duplicate to the State.

"Penalty for Failure to Report Within Ten Days" was "$5.00 to $50.00." Curiously, other certificates from that same year required physicians and undertakers to complete a death certificate within twenty-four hours or pay a fine of up to $100.00. Despite warnings, the law was not strictly enforced and registrations were grossly incomplete for several years. In fact, registration did not reach 90% completeness until 1933.

A statewide sampling of early death records reveals poor record-keeping by clerks, apparently apathetic to an added responsibility. In spite of the convenience of uncomplicated, preprinted forms and ledgers, clerks were guilty of filing incomplete forms — often failing to include the death date or even the name of the deceased. Physicians and morticians were to blame as well, by filing the record in the wrong county. If the deceased lived near the county line and closer to the neighboring courthouse, his or her death certificate is often found there. Another common error was recording the certificate in the county of the deceasedís residence, rather than the county where the death occurred. This is most often found when someone died suddenly during a visit out of town or while traveling. Larger cities tended to keep better records, if anything because of more clerks on staff. Some early certificates never made it to the state office, so a copy not found at the Department of Health may exist in ledger form at the courthouse.

However, some death certificates exist but are still difficult to locate. An Index to Death Records: Texas (1903-1940) (Austin: Bureau of Vital Statistics, State Department of Health: 1964) shows a death record on file with the Texas Department of Health for Lota Crowe, certificate number 1786, who died in Navarro County, on 19 January 1914. Unfortunately, the Texas Department of Health has misplaced this certificate and the Navarro County Clerk was also unable to locate the record in its office.

Most genealogists are unaware that the Department of Health also has a small number of death certificates that predate the 1903 registration. These certificates, termed "Probate Obituary Deaths," are a few scattered over the 1890s and around the turn of the century, even as early as 1878. A preprinted "Certificate of Death" shows El Paso made an effort to record deaths by 1895. Other miscellaneous certificates are dateless, while yet another grouping are affidavits; certificates filed at a later date. Affidavits can even provide more clues than the standard death certificates. The affidavit death certificate of Douglas Eugene Thompson, number 1372, who died in Lamar, Paris County, Texas, on 1 October 1887, is an excellent example. Under "Medical Particulars," the certificate reports that the twenty-six year-old Thompson, died of pneumonia. His wife acted as nurse during his three or four-day illness, but death claimed him before the physicianís arrival. This information was supplied sixty-three years later by Mrs. Tillie Weston of Aurora, Colorado. The sworn affidavit states that Mrs. Weston was "the wife of said Douglas Eugene Thompson at the time of his death." Mrs. Weston also stated that Thompson was born 6 February 1861 in Keokuky County, Iowa, to Iowa natives Thomas Thompson and Harriet (maiden name unknown). While this portion of the certificate cannot be considered a primary source, it provides valuable clues about her husbandís family background. (Keokuky, for instance, is actually Keokuk.)

Besides probate obituary and affidavit deaths, the Texas Department of Health has other certificates, which are filed in volumes labeled "Dateless and Prior to 1903." Some three thousand "UNKNOWNS — 1903-1940" are arranged alphabetically by county, with a date and file number. Burial dates are recorded in place of death dates. Ambiguous descriptions given in place of a name, ranging from "White Female" to "Mexican," to "Negro" to "Infant." Some have a first name or nickname but none give a surname.

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