The Death of George Washington Casbon

One of the features of the Ancestry website is called “Hints®.” These are digital records or other Ancestry family trees that may contain people in your own family tree. You must have a family tree on Ancestry in order to view hints. There are two ways to access them: either by clicking on the green leaf icon for an individual or clicking on the icon in the upper right-hand navigation bar of the any Ancestry page (see below).

Screenshot from Ancestry showing the “leaf” icon for family tree hints (click on image to enlarge)

Clicking on the icon for an individual brings up hints for that individual, while clicking the navigation bar icon brings up a list of all the hints for your family tree.

Hints may be especially useful for someone just starting out in their family history, as it can give a jump start to their research. They are also useful for experienced researchers because they may provide new clues or newly released records for persons of interest. Researchers need to be careful when evaluating hints. They frequently refer to the wrong person or point to information that cannot be validated in other people’s family trees. I don’t rely on hints that much, but periodically review them to see if there is anything new or relevant to my research.

Thanks to the Hints® feature, I now have the death certificate for George Washington Casbon, the patriarch of the Iowa Casbons. His record was added to Ancestry last year when they added records from 1941 through 1967 to an existing collection of Iowa death records.[1]

The death certificate of George Washington Casbon (click on image to enlarge)

Although I already knew the date of George’s death from other sources, the death certificate provides an official record that validates the date of death. It also provides other useful information. Although generally reliable, the information in death certificates, especially that provided by family members or other informants, may contain errors, and should be verified against other sources if possible.

Working our way through George’s certificate, we see in Section 1 that he died at Allen Memorial Hospital in Waterloo, Black Hawk County, Iowa. He had been hospitalized for two days. An interesting additional detail is that he had lived in the community for two years. This is consistent with the 1940 census, which shows George residing in Franklin Township, Bremer County. It contradicts the statement in his obituary (see below) that he had been residing in Waterloo for the past ten years.

Section 2 tells us that he resided at 527 Ricker in Waterloo (where he was living with his wife, Maude, and daughters Josephine Kraft, Catherine and Genevieve, per the obituary). We also see that he was not a veteran.

Sections 3 through 15 contain information provided by the informant—George’s son Sylvester in this case. These sections would be quite useful if we did not already have it from other sources: his full name, race, marital status, name and age of his wife, date and place of birth (I have his date of birth as 17—not 16 August, based on a World War I draft registration), occupation, and names and birthplaces of his parents.

Section 16 gives us the name and address of the informant. This is usually a close family member but may sometimes be a distant relative or unrelated person. The accuracy of the information given in sections 3 through 15 depends entirely upon what is known by the informant. I don’t think Sylvester’s address—the same as that given for George—is correct. Sylvester was already married, and as we will see in George’s obituary, he was said to be residing in Plainfield, Iowa. Sylvester probably didn’t understand that the form was requesting his own address.

Sections 17 through 19 give us the date and place of burial, the name of the funeral director, and the signature of the local registrar (thank goodness he did not complete the certificate—his handwriting is awful!).

The remainder of the certificate provides the medical details of George’s final illness and death, along with the signature of the attending physician. There is some interesting information here.

Detail from the death certificate showing part of the medical certification

The time of death is given as 11:20 P.M. This differs from the time given in his obituary (10:40). It may be that George expired at 10:40, but the doctor did not arrive to certify the death until 40 minutes later.

The cause of death is confusing. It is written as “Cerebral Epiplepsy.”. This appears to be a conflation of two terms—apoplexy and epilepsy—and not a legitimate medical word. Apoplexy is another word for a stroke, while epilepsy refers to a seizure disorder. George’s obituary says that he died from “injuries suffered in a fall a week ago” (see below). Did he fall because he had a stroke or because he had an epileptic seizure? The word “cerebral” before “epiplepsy” is more consistent with a stroke, but the fact that “epiplepsy” is also listed under “other conditions” suggests that he had an underlying seizure disorder.

It’s interesting that his fall occurred a week earlier (as stated in the obituary and confirmed by “duration of condition” in the death certificate), but he was only hospitalized for the two days preceding his death. He must have been cared for at home for several days before his final hospitalization. The certificate doesn’t mention any injuries resulting from a fall, so there is still uncertainty about what really happened.

Note that the physician signed the certificate one week after George’s death. Although unlikely, it’s possible that some details were forgotten in this interval.

The final item of interest in the death certificate is the space at the bottom for “Social Security Account No.,” which says “none.” Historical note: the Social Security Act was signed into law on 14 August 1935.[2] Social Security taxes were not collected until 1937 and payments were not made until 1940. Although George would have been eligible for Social Security benefits based on his age, it’s possible that he was never enrolled or had taxes withheld since he “retired” (or was forced to retire due to the Great Depression) in the mid-1930s.

Compare the death certificate to the information contained in George’s obituary. The obituary gives some additional information about the circumstances of George’s death along with valuable biographical information. Note that the obituary also gives his date of birth as 16 August. Death certificates and obituaries are generally complementary—each provides unique information about the individual’s life and death. One is impersonal and clinical; the other is personal and honors the life of the deceased. They must be evaluated against each other and other sources for the accuracy of the information.

George’s obituary as it appeared in the Waterloo (Iowa) Daily Courier, 25 February 1944, page 2 (Newspaper Archive) (click on image to enlarge)

[1] Iowa, State Department of Health, Certificate of Death, Division of Vital Statistics, no. 7 C-4/4-61, George Washington Casbon, 24 Feb 1944; imaged as “Iowa, U.S. Death Records, 1920-1967,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/61442/ : accessed 1 July 2021) > 1944 >Adair-Clayton >image 1366 of 5002; citing State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.
[2] “Historical Background And Development Of Social Security,” Social Security website (https://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html : accessed 2 July 2021).

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