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Find a Numismatic Grave

by Frank Passic L M 5 8 6 0
The Numismatist, October 2006, 0610, pg. 2-9

There is a fancy PDF version of this article courtesy of The Numismatic, with wonderful photographs and fancy formating, but its huge and loads very slowly.

THIS ARTICLE concerns a really grave matter in the numismatic hobby. In recent years, the Internet has helped many people explore the nation’s cemeteries, searching for the final resting places of the famous and the not-so-famous. The “Find A Grave” website (www.findagrave.com) was created by Jim Tipton in 1995 as a hobby. The site quickly expanded to include ordinary individuals, including numismatists, coin designers and others who made their mark in the hobby. More than 100,000 registered contributors submit burial records from cemeteries across the country. Today, more than 7 million graves are listed.

Data comes from a variety of sources, including official burial lists, obituaries, descendants,funeral homes, tombstone transcriptions, death certificates and family histories. Participation on Find A Grave is free with an easy registration. You can post the burial sites of your loved ones, neighbors or friends, or tombstone inscriptions from your local cemetery. You can add photographs or leave “virtual flowers” or public notes. You also can help introduce web surfers to the world of money by providing numismatically related information. (Genealogy, history and numismatics make a great combination.)

First, check to see if the person already is listed. On the Find A Grave homepage, all names can be accessed on the “nonfamous” list by clicking on “Search 12 million grave records.” Type in their name, and pull down to the state. This might bring up several listings. (With common names such as John Smith, the search will yield hundreds.) Scan the results for birth and death dates, and cemetery name. When you find the correct entry, click on the person’s name (not the cemetery) to view the listing. If you do not find the individual, you can proceed to post their information.

Back on the homepage, click on “Add burial records.” Choose the “Family and Friends” method, because you likely will provide a biography and photograph(s). The “Quick Submit” option is best when adding multiple names from the same cemetery.

Selecting “Family and Friends” brings up a form. The more information you can supply, the better, including name (and maiden name); date and place of birth (including county); date and place of death (including county); cemetery name and plot/block/row number; tombstone inscription; and biography.

After you submit the burial listing, you will be prompted to “Add a photo for this person” or “Leave flowers and a note for this person.” (You can do so at this point or at a later date.) You can go back to edit your listing and add/change information. Photographs must be in the specified format and size.

The numismatic world of the deceased encompasses many personalities, from designers and issuers to collectors and authors. Here are a few examples of possible Find A Grave listings and tips for tracking down information.

Coin Designers

Where are the artists who designed U.S. coins interred? I decided to locate the burial place of Victor David Brenner (1871-1924), creator of the Lincoln cent introduced in 1909. Brenner was born and raised in Siauliai, Lithuania (then part of the Russian Tsarist Empire), the son of George and Sara (Margolis) Brenner. Brenner immigrated to America, arriving at the port of New York on May 17, 1890, aboard the Gellert.

The Jefferson Nickel, created by Victor David Brenner.

The numismatic literature I surveyed lacked Brenner’s “final” information. Fortunately, I was able to obtain a copy of his death certificate, which gave the necessary details. Brenner died of lung cancer at the Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, New York City, at 3:30 a.m. on April 5, 1924. His address was given as 119 East 19th Street, New York City, and his occupation was listed as “sculptor.”

As stated on the certificate, Brenner was buried the following day in Highland View Cemetery on Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens County, New York. Highland View operates under the business name Mount Judah Cemetery. I wrote to the cemetery staff, who informed me that Brenner is interred in Block Q, Section 1, Grave #232. For a nominal fee, they offered to take a photograph of Brenner’s tombstone, and I accepted. I added Brenner’s data and the photograph on Find A Grave.

I also contributed biographical data for Felix Schlag (1891-1974), designer of the Jefferson nickel. Schlag lies in Oak Hill Cemetery in Owosso, Michigan.

Felix Schlag Nickel Tombstone

Felix Schlag Tombstone

The administrators of Find A Grave determined that both Brenner and Schlag qualify for listing as a “Famous Person.” A yellow star icon appears next to their names in the search engine. (The administrators edit the biographies on famous listings and also review photographs before they are posted.)

To promote my listings of these coin designers, I went to the site’s Discussion Forums on the homepage under “Forums, Store, etc.” There are several topic threads: Cemeteries and Genealogy; Finding Famous Graves; Help With Find A Grave; The Civil War; Cemetery Preservation; Mourning, Grief and Emotional Support; The Lounge; Surnames; Canada; Europe; and individual states. Thousands of people read entries every day to review questions, offer answers and share information.

Since Brenner and Schlag were listed as “famous,” I entered two messages on the “Finding Famous Graves” thread to inform readers about these two new additions. I made note of the web address for each and pasted it below the last line of message text so viewers could easily access the memorial page.

To post messages on the Discussion Forums, you must register/log in separately. Most people prefer to identify themselves with a website name. Select a password that is different from the one used to post burial information.

The space provided for posting messages and/or replies contains a series of “smiley faces” you can use to express the tone of your message. For Schlag, I used a blushing smiley face and entitled the message, “His initials FS are in your purse!” to arouse curiosity. My message stated, “Empty your purse! Set aside the lint, paper clips, pens, credit cards, weapons (oops!), and go straight for your Jefferson 5¢ nickels! Look at the very bottom of the obverse (that’s a coin collecting term meaning the front side) just under Jefferson’s coat. You’ll see those initials ‘FS’ which stand for ‘Felix Schlag,’ who designed the Jefferson nickel. Billions of these 5-cent coins have been issued since minting began in 1938, and you probably carry around some of these in your own pocket.” Several replies were posted, and viewers clicked on the link to access Schlag’s burial listing. Some visitors left virtual flowers and notes.

The Discussion Forums make great reading. Even if you don’t post anything, you’ll learn a lot by reading the entries.

Bank Note/Scrip Issuers and Signers

Our hobby includes a wide variety of paper items, and these carry officials’ signatures and/or names of banks and issuing institutions. Select a particular item in your collection and choose something about the name, institution or signature to use in your listing. One of my favorites is Ira Mayhew (1814-94), a prominent 19th-century Michigan educator best known for Mayhew’s Practical Book-Keeping, a standard textbook used for business classes across the country, with over 90 printings. Mayhew also operated the Albion Commercial College and later the Mayhew Business College.

During his tenure, Mayhew issued “college scrip,” which is listed and cataloged in Herb Schingoethe’s 1993 reference, College Currency. Mayhew also issued an 1863 Civil War store card token, cataloged in George Fuld’s reference U.S. Civil War Store Card Tokens. To complement Mayhew’s biography and promote the hobby, I placed his photograph, as well as images of his token and the $1 college scrip bearing his signature. I also added an image of the book, which is referenced on his token.

I was able to obtain photographs of Mayhew’s tombstone, as well as those of family members. Since I also was supplied with their names when I received his information, I took the time to list them.

When possible, include a photograph of the subject’s tombstone with their burial listing. If you cannot take it yourself or obtain one from the cemetery staff, go to the States section toward the bottom of the Discussion Forums page. Choose a state, and leave a request for help. You might title the message “Need photo Detroit Woodmere Cemetery,” which will attract specific attention.

In addition, ’gravers (Find A Grave jargon for those who go to cemeteries and transcribe tombstones and records onto the site) sometimes place messages offering to help photograph tombstones in cemeteries in particular areas. Often these messages are titled, “Will take photos in XYZ county or city.” There are thousands of ’gravers across the country who are willing to help. The advent of the digital camera has made it easy and inexpensive to shoot and send a photograph via e-mail.

In the example of Ira Mayhew, there are too many illustrations for the initial memorial page, so the remaining illustrations are continued on an additional page. The message under the “Add a photo for this person” box states, “There are 6 more photos not showing” and “Click here to view all images.” You also can enlarge each photo to view them in greater detail. When you look at the enlargement, you can read additional information about the person in the accompanying caption.

Token Issuers

Merchant tokens comprise a large area of interest for collectors, as thousands of small businesses across the country issued advertising pieces in the early 20th century. Token issues also include Civil War store cards. These fascinating items bear the names of merchants who owned saloons or taverns, hotels, clothing stores or coin-operated machines. Many of these issues were aluminum or brass tokens that were “good for” 5 or 10 cents in trade.

Listing the burials of each merchant who issued tokens in your home town is a great way to attract attention to numismatics and spur interest in the hobby. If available, include a brief biography of the merchant in addition to the standard genealogical data. You might provide a photograph of their business, and a picture of the token bearing their name. The possibilities are endless.

As an example, consider the listing for Michael Tomchak, who operated a grocery, pool hall and saloon that served the immigrant community in Albion, Michigan from the 1920s into the 1940s. Tomchak issued an aluminum token “Good for 5¢ in Trade,” which is illustrated below his photograph. If you click on the token photo, you will get a message explaining the item. If you plan to add photos of numismatic items, list related technical details and a catalog reference and number in this message rather than in the person’s biography.

Mike Tomchak Tombstone

Below the image of the Tomchak token is a box labeled “Add a photo for this person,” which could mean one of the individual, their tombstone or a related item, such as the token. I also posted a photograph showing Tomchak’s business. Like the Mayhew listing, not all images are on the first page because of space limitations. Many burial listings show the cemetery entrance or a feature landmark, supplied by ’gravers. Such pictures will be “bumped” to the end when you add your photographs.

Hobby Specialists

We all tend to focus on a particular aspect of the hobby, so why not highlight this interest on Find A Grave? For example, I specialize in Lithuanian money. The first and third president of Lithuania, Antanas Smetona (1874-1944) escaped the ravages of the 1940 Soviet invasion of that small Baltic country. He is interred in Ohio. On Smetona’s burial listing, I added some information to the biography that let the viewer know that his portrait appears on selected numismatic items. For illustrations, I first supplied a painting of Smetona wearing the First Class Order of Vytautas the Great, attracting the attention of those who collect military orders and decorations. Second, I placed an illustration of a silver 1938 10-litu coin (Standard Catalog of World Coins, KM-84) featuring Smetona’s image, which catches the eye of world coin collectors. Finally, I showed a rarity for any collector of world bank notes, a 1938 10-litu note (Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, Pick-28) featuring a vignette of Smetona.

Antanas Smetona Tombstone

10 Litu Coin

10 Litu Note

Famous Collectors

Our hobby claims numerous “collecting greats,” from those worthy of recognition in the American Numismatic Association’s Numismatic Hall of Fame to lesser-known individuals who have left a mark in their specialized areas of interest. Adding their burial sites on Find A Grave perpetuates their memory. I offer the example of Dr. Alexander M. Rackus (1893-1965) a prolific collector of Lithuanian numismatic items. An active member of the ANA and the Chicago Coin Club, Rackus wrote several books, as well as several articles for The Numismatist. In his biographical information for Find A Grave, I mentioned his ANA connection, as well as the fact that his collection resides in the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago.

Dr. Alexander Rackus

Tombstone of Dr. Alexander Rackus

ANA founder George Heath also appears on Find A Grave. He was interred in Monroe, Michigan, the town he once served as a physician and mayor.

Dr. George Heath

George Heath Grave Marker

Other notables might include U.S. Mint directors, Treasury officials, bank note signers and engravers, numismatic authors and ANA presidents. Use your imagination and hobby experience to expand and add categories.

The Find A Grave website offers an excellent opportunity to honor with dignity the memory of those persons who have made an impact upon our hobby and our involvement in ways both big and small. As thousands of people look at the site each day and read newly posted biographies, they will become aware of the role numismatics has played in the history of our country and perhaps their own home town. I look forward to seeing many more hobby-related listings on Find A Grave.

Read more Numismatic articles

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