Back to Basics

I went from 0 to 60 in genealogical education a few years back – from a beginners’ workshop series at the Maryland Historical Society in 2009 to three major national institutes in 2010. To tell you the truth, it made my head spin. I’ve felt more e…

I went from 0 to 60 in genealogical education a few years back – from a beginners’ workshop series at the Maryland Historical Society in 2009 to three major national institutes in 2010.  To tell you the truth, it made my head spin. I’ve felt more educated than experienced – and in genealogical research, you absolutely need a lot of both.

So early this year, I enrolled in the Home Study Course (graded option) offered by the National Genealogical Society.  It’s self-paced and assignments are based on your own research. I have found it very worthwhile so far, and as with my ProGen assignments, I will share some along the way.   Lesson 2 on evaluating family traditions was particularly memorable – heart-stopping, in fact. 

Lesson 2
Assignment 1:  Family Tradition

My father, James Stephens Ruffner, was an only child, born on 30 July 1916, to James Alexander Chapman Ruffner, Jr.  and Mary Ella (Offutt) Ruffner.  James and Mary had been married for nearly 12 years. 

During my childhood, on more than one occasion, my mother, Mary Elizabeth (Williams) Ruffner described the circumstances to my sisters and me. Baby James weighed only a few pounds, and in the first days of his life, slept in a dresser drawer heated by a hot water bottle.  He was a “miracle” baby who grew to six feet.  Here’s the legend:

1)  My grandmother endured the loss of three baby girls in the years before 1916, but it was unclear if they had been live births or stillborn.

2)  They were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in Woodlawn (now Aliquippa), Pennsylvania, not far from our house. 

As far as I know, no one in the family ever went there. Later, our grandparents and parents were buried in adjoining plots in a cemetery in a different town.

Mom, who married into the family in 1944, said that her mother-in-law had told her about the baby girls directly but admitted she had never told her son about his sisters.  She asked Mom to keep the secret.  My grandmother died in 1961.  Twenty-five years might have passed between the time my mother was told and I was old enough to remember hearing it myself.

Then, one day in 1999, my father revealed that he had long known about the baby girls, having been told by his cousin who had probably been told by his own mother, my grandmother’s sister.  I don’t recall how Mom and Dad’s conversation began that day and I don’t know who was more stunned that they had been keeping this “secret” from each other for over fifty years of marriage.  (Maybe I was the most stunned.)

How likely is it to be true? Given the era and the prevalence of infancy death, the 12 year gap between my grandparents’ marriage and my father’s birth, his own precarious early days, the story seemed likely to be true.  My mother’s informant, the mother of the baby girls, is the person most likely to know the circumstances.  My father’s informant was  more removed but the major element of the tradition is there.  I do not, however, recall whether he knew about the specific cemetery or not.  The stoic tendencies of the family are not necessary surprising – again – given the times.

Research to Date (before assignment undertaken on 14 February 2012)

I called the office of Woodlawn Cemetery in September of 2009, fully expecting a routine and successful inquiry.  Not only is there no one buried there with the last name of Ruffner, the first burial wasn’t until 1916, the year my father was born.  I am no longer living in western Pennsylvania so visiting the cemetery was not viable at that point.

At that point, I left this particular “loose end” alone.

Analysis of Discrepancy

There are several possible explanations for the discrepancy between the “tradition” and information gathered to date:

Misinformation from the cemetery:  The cemetery employee could have been wrong – about the name, and/or about the year.  The records could be incomplete, or perhaps they don’t date back to the very earliest burials.

Misinformation from my grandmother:  It’s doubtful that she would make up the loss in a story to her daughter-in-law, or deliberately mislead her about the specific cemetery, since it is something that could be easily uncovered.   Could my grandmother have been misinformed?  Were the babies stillborn, removed from my grandmother’s presence and she was told they were buried there?  But the cemetery wasn’t open then.  Were stillborn births recorded during that period? Were they miscarriages instead?

Misinformation from my mother:  Assuming that my grandmother experienced the losses, maybe my mother misheard or misremembered the specific cemetery.  My grandmother is known to have been a bit intimidating, and perhaps my mother just took in what she heard and did not ask any questions. Not knowing if my father knew the cemetery name makes the analysis a little harder. The cousin who told my father lived in a town several hours journey away so it is more likely that his telling did not include the cemetery detail.

 Research Plan (Developed on 14 February 2012 for this assignment)

Other possible cemeteries:  My grandparents moved to Woodlawn in 1909. What other cemeteries were open in Woodlawn during the period 1909 to 1916?  Woodlawn was founded in 1908 as a steel mill town, and my grandparents were among its earliest residents, moving there from Pittsburgh in 1909.  

Pennsylvania vital records: The regulations regarding the release of Pennsylvania birth and death records have just been eased; birth certificates issued more than 105 years ago are now public information.   

Research Action  (same day!)

The index for the first year that is now available, 1906, is online.   My grandmother, M. Offutt Ruffner, gave birth to a baby girl on 14 July 1906 in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania – two years after her marriage.  The location is not at all surprising because she and my grandfather were from Greensburg, and her father, Lemuel Offutt, was a prominent physician.

The index entry:



The death certificate index  for 1906 suggests that Baby Girl Ruffner died the same day:




I searched death indexes for the even years between 1908 and1914 and uncovered two other possible Ruffner baby losses in Westmoreland County:  a baby on 9 September 1910, and a Sarah A. Ruffner on 25 May 1914.  Sarah was my grandmother’s  mother’s first name, but there is no indication in the index of the age of the deceased.

Next Steps

I’ve submitted requests to the Pennsylvania Department of Vital Statistics for the birth and death certificate of the baby girl born and died on 14 July 1904, and for the two other possibilities.  I’ve seen a 1908 Pennsylvania death certificate for a direct ancestor and it included the name of the cemetery.  (If the cost of the certificates had been higher than $3, I would have probably just ordered the one, and pursued the others after identifying the cemetery and looking for cemetery records.)

Next steps really depend on the success of those three requests.  According to a press release, the wait could be 16 to 20 weeks.

It could take another eight years to obtain a birth certificate for Sarah Ruffner, who died 1914, if it turns out she is one of the three girls.

According to, there is a Woodlawn Cemetery in Westmoreland County – in Penn Township, not far from Greensburg.  My grandmother was born in Penn Township before her father moved his medical practice to Greensburg; he continued to own real estate there for many years.   It will be interesting to see if this same-named cemetery, in a different town, is where the first baby girl is buried. 

[Wait!  I just thought of another explanation for the discrepancy!  What if I was the one who heard Woodlawn Cemeteryand just assumed it meant in our hometown?  Perhaps my sisters can bail me out here.]


If it hadn’t been for this assignment, I might not have taken on the “three baby girls” tradition – because of its private nature. Not everything is necessarily meant to be probed.  But the serendipitous nature of tackling this assignment the very week that the Pennsylvania vital records were released renewed my purpose – and I think my grandmother would be pleased to know that her girls have not been forgotten.


One thought on “Back to Basics”

  1. What a mystery you have here, Malissa. Isn’t it amazing how stories get lost or turned around even in the relatively short space of a couple of generations? Good work trying to untangle it before it gets even further removed. And thank your lucky stars that Pennsylvania vital records only cost $3–in Ohio they are $21 each. I’ll be eagerly waiting to hear what you find!

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