Tag Archives: Pennsylvania


Using the Montgomery County PA Orphan’s Court Records on FamilySearch.org

I have created my very first video tutorial!!! This tutorial demonstrates how to access information in the Orphan’s Court Dockets which are part of the Montgomery County Pennsylvania Probate Records on FamilySearch.org. These dockets may contain valuable genealogical information for those of you who are researching Montgomery County Pennsylvania ancestors or cousins. If you are having problems finding what you need in these records, give this tutorial a try. Thanks and happy searching!!

Tuesday’s Tip – PA State Death Index, 1906-1961 — WooHoo!

The long awaited (for me, anyway) Pennsylvania State Death Index for the years 1906 to 1961 finally came online yesterday and I have been making the most of it! The vast majority of the individuals in my genealogy database are from Pennsylvania. All of my immigrant ancestors arrived in America between the late 1600s and mid to late 1700s and came to PA. My direct lines as well as many cousin lines stayed.

I am using this index as additional death date source for those individuals for whom I have already found a death date – i.e. in an obit or on a tombstone, etc. I am also using it to find an exact date (which can be confirmed with further research) in the cases where I have only a year or a month and year. At this point, I have found just over 100!

As other bloggers [link and link] have noted, the database is not searchable. It is really just a collection of browse-able files which are images of the paper index. For some years the index is alphabetical. For other years, the index is alphabetized by soundex codes. There are instructions on the site to calculate the soundex code by hand, but I found an online calculator here: [link].

The index for each year is broken up into several files – usually about 5 or 6 or more. To make things go a little faster, I used Legacy Family Tree’s advanced tagging feature to find all the individuals who may possibly be in the PA Death Index. I then exported those individuals to GenViewer (a Legacy add-on) for ease of sorting so I’m not flipping back and forth between different years and different files within a year. This has really helped to streamline my workflow.

If you have Pennsylvania people in your database for these years, then this is a resource that you really need to check out. (Oh, there’s also a birth index, but due to the 105 year privacy restriction, it is only for the year 1906 for now.)

Thriller Thursday – Lightning Strikes!

With summer here I’ve been a little lax about posting on this blog. But when I woke up and saw the headlines about the devastation caused by a severe storm that passed through our area yesterday, I knew that I had to write about another storm that wreaked havoc some 136 years ago…

It was Sunday evening, June 27, 1875 when severe thunderstorms hit southeastern Pennsylvania. The next day the Reading Eagle led the story with this description: “The elements were in high glee in this vicinity last evening. About seven o’clock the heavens became overcast with inky black clouds, and a few minutes later such a storm of wind, rain, lightning and thunder broke upon us to cause the strongest to tremble and the weak to quail with fear. At times the sky would be one sheet of fire, and the next moment the earth would be shrouded in Egyptian darkness. Rain fell as though the very flood gates of Heaven were open, and our streets were turned into miniature rivers. The lightning was sharp, vivid and blinding, and at time terrifically grand. The electric fluid leveled trees, destroyed buildings, scattered fences to the four winds, and left death in it’s wake.”

One of the casualties of the horrific storm was the Shaner family of Limerick in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Their house was destroyed and two family members left dead. The June 30th edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer provides these details. ” When the storm commenced Mr. John Shaner was at the barn. His wife, Mrs. Rose Shaner, his father, Mr. George Shaner, his two daughters, and a nephew, were in the kitchen of the house. The mother sat near the middle of the room, and the youngest daughter, Lizzie Shaner, about 12 years old, sat near the fireplace. The bolt of lightning that struck the house seemed to divide in the second story, one portion passing down near the fireplace and killing the little girl, and the other coming down through the floor above Mrs. Shaner, and striking her. The peal of thunder that followed the flash of lightning was terrific. The other inmates of the room were slightly stunned, but not hurt. The death of Mrs. Shaner was instantaneous; that of her daughter nearly so.”

The Reading Eagle account claims the lightning bolt struck an upstairs window, shattering the shutter and setting fire to a bed. There was also a hole two inches in circumference in the ceiling above where Mrs. Shaner was standing, presumably where the bolt of electricity passed through from the upper story before striking her dead. The walls on one side of the house were cracked and broken and the posts holding the porch roof were “forced from their places.”

John Shaner, the husband and father of the two who died, was my first cousin, 5x’s removed. The maiden name of his wife Rose was Hetzel. She was 48 years old when she died. In addition to 12-year old Lizzie the other daughter mentioned in the article was 15 year-old Ida. The Shaners also had three sons: Franklin H., William Milton and Henry Warren. They were older than the girls and were not at the house when the tragedy occurred.

George Shaner, John’s father, was my 5x’s great-uncle. He was married to Mary Hartenstine who had passed away in 1850. George died March 22, 1881 – less than 3 months from his 90th birthday. He had just turned 84 at the time of the lightning strike.  John Shaner died in Pottstown, PA at the home of his daughter Ida and her husband John Gensch in July of 1892. He was 69.

As always, if you have any connection to this family, I would love to hear from you.

Thriller Thursday – The Shocking Murder of Sarah Bechtel

It’s time for another Thriller Thursday article, a weekly prompting post suggested by members of Geneabloggers. This one is the story of the ill-fated lives of William and Sarah Bechtel of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It was Saturday, April 1st 1848, and the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was still reeling from the horrific murder of Mrs. Rademacher, who had been stabbed twelve to fourteen times as she lay sleeping in her bed. Her husband, a book seller and homeopathic druggiest, was also severely cut and badly beaten in the attack. The perpetrator had recently been caught and the city was still very much a buzz with the latest developments in the case. And so to have another murder just a few weeks later was frightful and appalling…

Sarah Bechtel was about twenty-six years old back on April 1, 1848. She was a young wife and mother. She had given birth to several children, but only one was still living. Her husband, William Bechtel, was a boatsman and, in fact, on the day of the murder he had been down by the river arranging for an upcoming trip on the Schuylkill Canal.

Presumably the Bechtels were not wealthy. They lived in an apartment on Schuylkill and Thompson Streets in a section of the city known as the District of Penn. It was located near Girard College. On the day of the murder, Sarah and her upstairs neighbor had gone down to Fairmount Park to see if her husband was on board his boat.  Thus she was not at home when he returned that evening with two friends.

Reportedly, William Bechtel had been drinking much of the day. Although it was said the couple often argued, William did not seem upset when Sarah first arrived back home that night. Shortly thereafter, however, he apparently snapped. In front of several witnesses, he grabbed her by the hair, jerked her head back and slit her throat with a jack-knife. Despite the fact that two physicians were summoned immediately, Sarah bled profusely and died about a half an hour after the attack.

William then apparently tried to commit suicide by slitting his own throat with the same knife, but that wound proved not to be serious and he was taken into custody. Once in jail it was reported that William became a “raving maniac.” He had several periods in which he became quite violent and caused bodily harm to himself and those watching him. In mid-May he was moved from the county prison to the insane department of the Blockley Alms House.

William’s murder trial occurred in the beginning of July in 1848. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to the Eastern State Penitentiary for ten years. The conventional wisdom was that he committed the act in a fit of jealous rage fueled by the alcohol that he had consumed. There was some question as to whether or not he had any reason to suspect that his wife was in any way unfaithful, leaving open the possibility that the whole tragic situation was brought about by his own delusions.

As a postscript to this story, a death notice appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper  for a William Bechtel, aged about 40, who died May 14, 1859.  It could be the same William, but at this point I don’t know for sure. I would love to hear from anyone who has further information on William or Sarah. I am still trying to determine if they are connected to my Bechtel line.

Note that the information contained in this posting comes from several newspaper articles that reported the event back in the spring and summer of 1848.

“Scrapping” Vintage Photos

I am one of the people lucky enough to have a box of old family photos, some dating from the late 1800s. But, as is generally the case, my luck only goes so far. Most of the photos are loose and have no markings or labeling as to who is pictured.

There was one photo in particular that really drew my attention. It’s a group photograph containing an elderly woman, some children, and several other family members – mostly women. There were a couple of faces that just looked sooo vaguely familiar. It nagged at the back of mind for a while, until I finally had a eureka moment! Continue reading