Volunteers are creating an index of Tosa deaths

And along the way, get a big dose of local history

Jeanette McArthur looks through bound copies of the Wauwatosa News and Wauwatosa Times 1947 issues in a Public Libary  backroom. She's looking for obituaries and indexing them on a spreadsheet on Jan. 21.

Jeanette McArthur looks through bound copies of the Wauwatosa News and Wauwatosa Times 1947 issues in a Public Libary backroom. She's looking for obituaries and indexing them on a spreadsheet on Jan. 21. Photo By Mary Catanese

Jan. 22, 2013

Jeanette McArthur and Joan Janisch have taken a tour of the first half of the 20th century, page by page by page.

The women, working as volunteers for the Wauwatosa Public Library, are creating an online index of obituaries from the Wauwatosa News and the Wauwatosa Times, with plans to continue on to the merged paper, the Wauwatosa News-Times, and eventually Wauwatosa NOW.

Every reported death they come across - usually obituaries, but also accidents and even individuals named as predeceasing the subject of an obituary - is recorded by name, age, manner of death, and survivors.

Patience is required

"The name of this game is patience, patience, patience," said Janisch, a former teacher who is a longtime volunteer for the library.

The indexing system was created and begun a few years ago by Jim Vint, a longtime member of the Wauwatosa Historical Society. He recorded obituaries from 1899 to 1916.

"We had this beautiful collection of the Wauwatosa News-Times that spanned all those years," Vint said. "It was a community newspaper with a lot of information about what was going on in the community, including notices about all the deaths."

But finding a family death required going through "volumes and volumes and volumes in order to see if there's an obituary in there you're looking for," he said.

The database will making searching easy.

Genealogists also will find the database useful, Vint said.

After Vint's work, the society looked for a way to continue the project, said Janel Ruzicka, executive director of the historical society, where the bound volumes of the old papers are kept.

Over the past few years, McArthur and Janisch have worked together to bring the indexing up to 1947. The database now has about 2,700 names.

Janisch and McArthur borrow the big bound volumes four at a time from the historical society to search for obituaries. They work at the library. Because the death notices are scattered throughout the papers, and some stories are told in narrative styles, with the death at the end, they have to read pretty much the whole paper, front to back.

They are methodical in their work, coming in at different times, working separately, with each checking the work of the other before moving on.

Along the way, the women have taken a course in local cultural history, and how news has changed.

"The front page would have some kid falling off his bike! I mean, so-and-so tripped over the curb and broke their wrist. On the front page!" Janisch said.

Women diminished

McArthur, who worked in technical services for the library for 27 years, said the old papers show the diminished role of women in decades gone by. Women who died were often referred to by their husband's name, such as Mrs. A.S. Smith, for example.

"In every obituary there's no certain way that they do it," she said. "They might not even tell you when they died - (they) might say the services were held. Sometimes it gives the birth date, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they give the place of death.

Wives were sometimes an afterthought, if mentioned at all.

"I've seen it 'survived by his wife,' and not give a name," McArthur said.

Tributes and even poetry grace some of the obituaries - and these were ostensibly news stories, not the paid obits of today.

Organization membership is stressed in the old obits, the women said.

"They're very big on fraternal organizations, and church affiliations. … If you were a mason, all that information was in that obituary, it was a big deal - and church, even if they didn't have the person's age or date of death or anything, they would have (said) what church (they belonged to)," Janisch said.

In the post-World War II volumes, "we went through a period of about two years when half the newspaper was wedding announcements. It was weddings, weddings, weddings, (and) engagement pictures of brides," Janisch said.

Car and train accidents figure in some of the accounts.

"There was an obit recently where a man was killed who had come around the corner when the train had stopped. The crossing guards were down, and there was a car ahead of him, and that train went and the gates didn't go up, and so he went around and was hit" by a train on the other set of tracks, McArthur said.

"You really see a whole microcosm of the U.S.," McArthur said.


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