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My passion is genealogy and family history. I host a podcast about Australian family history, Genies Down Under. In my day job, I work as a lecturer and a researcher in higher education, teaching pre-service teachers.

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Sunday, 13 November 2011

The mystery of Henry NEWTON's death date ... solving one mystery reveals other mysteries

One of my great uncle's was Henry NEWTON. He was one of my great-grandmother's (Margaret Ann RILEY) nine sons. What I know of Henry has been passed down to me through oral family history traditions and the rare bits of information he left behind in a scant document trail that I've tracked down through my family history research over the years.

Born in about 1861 in Orange, NSW, Henry's parents were Henry (aka Harry) NEWTON and Margaret Ann RILEY. Henry Snr and Margaret had two children, Henry and Thomas. Margaret later married William Walter NORTHCOTE and had seven more sons.

Coming from a family of grave visitors, I was accustom to visiting Henry's grave, along with other ancestors' graves, from a very early age. Henry had died even before my father was born, so the only knowledge we had of Henry was from my grandfather, Henry's step-brother. The absolute date of his death wasn't a hot topic of conversation so this oral knowledge about Henry's death was lost to the ages when my grandfather died in 1970.

So, when did Henry die? Well, let's consider the "facts":

His gravestone records his death as 21 May 1936:

His funeral notice on page 9 of The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 May 1930, records his death as 21 May 1930:

So, was he born in 1930 or 1936. I suppose at this stage of solving the mystery, I was tending towards thinking he died in 1930 - it's difficult for a newspaper to predict his death in 1936 but it's not so uncommon to have a mistake on a gravestone through transcription errors.

Another piece of information was tracked down ... the cemetery office records. Despite the date on his gravestone, the cemetery office records (accessed online through the Deceased Search: http://www.catholiccemeteries.org.au/) definitely show his date of death as 21 May 1930.

So, by comparing more than one source of information, the mystery of Henry's death date was solved, long after his close relatives had passed away. As far as we know, Henry didn't have any children so there were only nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews who remained to put the record straight about Henry's death. So, it was triangulation to the rescue. Without it, I would have remained unsure about his death date. Although his grave stone remains incorrectly marked, there are enough records that have survived to show evidence that he died in 1930, not 1936.

Why did this error occur? I can't say for sure but I guess that stonemason may have made the error when interring other family members in Henry's grave, after Henry's death in 1930. The funny thing is that there are two other family members buried with Henry and knowing their death dates puts forward more questions ...

Henry is buried in the same grave as one of his nephews, Leo Percival NORTHCOTE (known as "Little Leo") who died in a tragic car accident at a very young age of 11 on 17 November 1935. So, if Henry NEWTON's gravestone was reconstructed at the time of the death of Little Leo in 1935, how could the year of 1936 be added to the gravestone when this date was in the future. Surely, someone from a family known for being regular grave visitors would have noticed this error.

Another question has also surfaced in the process of solving the mystery of Henry's death date. The cemetery records indicate that one of Henry's step-brothers, Percival Ernest NORTHCOTE (also Little Leo's grandfather) is buried in this grave. However, Perc died in 1958, years after Henry and Little Leo died (in 1930 and 1935, respectively) yet Perc's details are not recorded on the gravestone. The grave must have been opened to bury Perc and then the gravestone must have been replaced, although Perc's details were not added. Why?

So many questions ... so many dead ancestors who've taken the answers with them.

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