04 December 2015

Is There a Ghost in the House?!? What Death Certificates Could Reveal

If you're reading this, my dear wife, don't worry-- I didn't see any sort of odd spectre in the basement or anything.

People die in houses all the time. Over the course of time for a 90-year-old house such as ours, it stands to reason that there is a chance that someone passed away in the house. If your house is a 18th or 19th century house, then the likelihood is even greater, and this thought might have even crossed your mind. But, like I said, people die in residential houses every day. I don't think it's such a big deal. Maybe that's easy for me to say since we haven't experienced any odd occurrences or weird, unexplained noises or sights, aside from our crazy cats galloping back and forth from the front foyer to the rear living room at all hours of the night. Still, I know for a fact that someone died in our house, and I can essentially "prove" it with historical records-- chiefly, a death certificate.

Death Certificates for House History Research

Among the basic tools of genealogical research are vital records: Birth, Marriage, and Death records. As they provide elaboration on three of the major events of most people's lives, they are highly treasured. Speaking specifically of death certificates, they are primary sources of information (in regards to the death event at least), since they were created at or very close to the time of occurence, with information provided by someone who either witnessed or had very close knowledge of it. The informant on an official death certificate is often a close family member, and a medical professional often provides additional information as to the cause of death.

As discussed in my article on obituaries for house research, one should seek out the personal history of the home's occupants to gain a richer sense of the house's overall history. This endeavor can be supported by death certificate research, if obtaining the death record is accessible within reason. Official death records (meaning by a government entity) were very spotty, if they were kept at all, prior to 1900. Around the early years after the turn of the century, states began enacting legislation requiring the creation of death certificates upon each death in the state. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania did so in 1906.

Nowadays, finding a death certificate for your research is not always easy, but is generally much easier than obtaining a birth certificate, due to privacy restrictions in place in most states. Each state has its own laws governing when vital records can become public information. Speaking further of Pennsylvania, death records are public 50 years after the death itself, whereas birth records only become public 105 years after the birth. Further, the availability of viewing a death record may involve a formal request to a state vital records office, which would usually involve a fee. Ordering death certificates for each person associated with your house could certainly prove costly, but you can narrow down your inquests to those who either likely still owned the house upon their passing, or were residents there when passing. Unless the house was conveyed within the same family through inheritance or other means, or unless the house was sold during a settlement of one's estate, most of your home's past owners probably sold the house sometime during their lifetime and thus can be eliminated from your death certificate orders, if you wish, if a fee is involved. See here and here for more information on death records and where you can find vital records in your state.

Fortunately, for my state, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has formed a partnership with Ancestry.com to provide free access for PA residents to images of all PA death certificates on record for the years 1906 to 1963 (access is also available to paying Ancestry subscribers anywhere; also, this is not just limited to death certificates, but also includes a number of other document collections of the PA State Archives). This has become an invaluable resource for me in both my genealogical research as well as my house history research.

So Who Died Here?

As described in my article on obituaries, longtime owner and resident of the house Catherine Cantlin did not pass away in the home, but rather in a nearby nursing home, in 2002. Her husband, John Cantlin, passed away in 1961. His death certificate indicates that this occurred at Abington Memorial Hospital a few miles away. So it was not one of these longtime owners who died here.

Remember in the obituary post when I discovered that funeral services for John Cantlin's Irish-born mother, Sarah Cantlin, were held in my house? Well, the story doesn't quite end there. Here is her death certificate:

The place of death is listed as 402 Central Ave, Abington-- my house (its former address). She passed away here on the afternoon of July 23, 1944 at the age of 73. The cause of death reported by Dr. Robert Grace, if I am reading and interpretting the handwriting correctly, was "Malignancy- G.I. Tract" otherwise known as gastrointestinal cancer. She appears to have been attended to by the doctor for this affliction for at least 2-1/2 months. She is buried at a cemetery named "Holy Cross" (most likely the Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Delaware County PA just outside West Philadelphia, where there are several Cantlins listed on Find A Grave, although no virtual memorial created for Sarah yet). John Cantlin's signature is included on the death certificate, indicating that he was the source for his mother's biographical information provided.

Sarah Cantlin's husband, James, passed away in 1924. Yet, she continued living on N. 22nd St in Philadelphia with her youngest son Daniel in the shadows of Shibe Park, home of the Philadelphia A's major league baseball team. Although her neighbors two blocks east, on 20th St, famously had great views of stadium play and a series of spats with team ownership, Sarah's quality of life in her late 60's was likely affected by the addition of light stanchions at the stadium in 1939 and the introduction of night games. This, perhaps, contributed to her desire, or need, to move in with her son John in Glenside in the early 1940's.

Left to right:1. Prominent entrance to Shibe Park at 21st & Lehigh (image via Lib. of Congress) 2. Rooftop "bleachers" at Sarah Cantlin's luckier neighbors on 20th St across from the stadium (image via Lib. of Congress) 3. Mrs. Cantlin's former home at 2734 N. 22nd St in major disrepair, 2009 (image via Google Street View) 4. The vacant lot in 2012 after the row house was demolished in 2010 (image via Google Street View)
So, is the spirit of old Sarah Cantlin still hanging around our house? I think not-- this home was only her place of residence for a relatively short time, and as I've said, we haven't seen anything strange. Unfortunately, her own long-time home in North Philly became dilapidated as the neighborhood around the former Shibe Park fell into disrepair in recent decades. So dilapidated, in fact, that it was demolished in 2010.


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  2. It is not a matter of fact that people randomly die in here only because there would be existence of ghost. It could be that the atmosphere is not suitable yet or the natural reason would be happen. So do not worry because of the death record of this house.