Manhattan bodies in transit

Courtesy of Cornell University Library and Wikimedia Commons.

In one of my recent cases, I was searching for a woman who had been living in New York in the 1860s, and then removed to Charleston, South Carolina, with her husband and children. After several years in Charleston, she died in 1872. Her death certificate could not be found in Charleston. However, the client provided a document from the record collection “New York, Department of Health, Manhattan Bodies in Transit, Vols. 5-10 (1870-1886),” located at the New York City Municipal Archives and available on microfilm from the Family History Library.[i]

This document was essentially her death record. It included her name; age at death; death date and place; cause of death; birth place; when her body passed through New York; the person responsible for certification; and the name and address of applicant. This document indicated that she died in Charleston, passed through New York, and was buried in Boston.

I was also able to find this record as an index listing on FamilySearch in the database “New York Deaths and Burials, 1795-1952.” The accompanying microfilm number refers to the Manhattan Bodies in Transit record collection. Interestingly, this index listed her place of death as New York City.

I looked for more information about this collection, and found an old article online written by Elizabeth Nitschke Hicks, which provided a good summary of these records:[ii]

This film contains images of ledgers that record the transportation of corpses within, in and out of, and through New York State and were created in the interest of public health. The time period covered, 1859-1894, saw increased population growth with arrivals of many immigrants, occurrence of various epidemics, and the return of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of soldiers’ bodies from the battlefields of the Civil War. These records of “bodies in transit” provided public health officials with important information concerning the cause and place of death and the final disposal of the body. Although the place of interment for the majority of the “bodies in transit” was a cemetery in New York State, many—like the body of President Lincoln—were interred in various other states. The places of birth vary even more.



[i] Manhattan Bodies in Transit, 1859-1894 database.

[ii] “Bodies in transit” at Clayton Library Friends.

About Nancy Bernard

Nancy holds a certificate from the Boston University Genealogical Research program. She has a master’s degree in history and media study from SUNY University of Buffalo, where she focused on American cultural history and writing and producing documentary videos. She also has a B.A. from Hamilton College. She has interned at the American Jewish Historical Society, now at NEHGS, as well as the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA. Her areas of interest include New England and New York history and researching house histories and the families who lived in those homes.

8 thoughts on “Manhattan bodies in transit

  1. I have seen similar records from Philadelphia – died here/transported elsewhere and/or vice versa. But I would never have dreamed of searching for a “passed through” – thanks for the tip!!!

  2. I also discovered this marvelous film last year & the record of my 2nd great grandmother who died out here in CA in 1866, was stored in a SF cemetery vault [@ $4 per month according to the receipts I have] for a year before being taken back to CT for burial. Incredible inf. available in that film.

    Really enjoy reading these posts each day. Thank you all.

  3. Thanks indeed. Another “who’d have thought” person here. Which leads to the Yet Unanswered Questions:
    1.) What is the official entire run of this NY series? Is it all up at FamSrch?
    2.) How many cities or states have official collections like this? Do you know? How can we find out?
    3.) Does Boston and/or Massachusetts, re #2?
    4.) Are these records still being kept as such or are they in a different format?
    ** I would suggest that the people who would immediately know are the funeral home directors through their national association, as now that I think of it, they handled all the arrangements for my aunt’s transfer from OR to CT through a pre-paid service with the OR people sending me the official death certificate in the mail which means they clearly did all the state paperwork.
    Can you check this for us as a formal follow-up to this post? — as I’m suspecting these records were news to you too.

    A logical outcome it now seems to the social statistics advocacy of one of the Society’s founders, Lemuel Shattuck.

    Thanks, Nancy

  4. The image of my grandfather’s death certificate, for some reason, had half missing or obscured. But the transit certificate had more information, and had both the attending physician and my grandmother as informants. I would never have thought to look for a transit certificate in a place being passed through, though. To think that your client having had a copy of one resulted in bringing such an obscure fact to the attention of so many people looking for evidence of ancestors! I may never need to use this, but grateful for knowing about it– because one never knows when it might be useful.

  5. Nancy, you write “Interestingly, this index listed her place of death as New York City.”

    Ah, there’s nothing interesting about it. It reflects the sad state of affairs re Data Organization & Presentation at BOTH Family Search and at Ancestry. Once decisions are made to create over-arching categories, with NO demarcating sub-categories, EVERYTHING gets shoe-horned into the category and is then presented on screen with limited, if at all, more specific sourcing. Hey, are those secular records for BMD in Baden-Baden, Germany, or are they church generated records, and, oh by the way, are the churches Catholic or Protestants, and then what Protestant sects? Family Search doesn’t tell you.

    Nor do they want to. They want you to use their “citation” system at the bottom of the presentation, as does Ancestry, so that they, and they ALONE, will become the Standard Source for for that range of information. And what does that source actually tell you? Only that it is something that appears as easily changeable electronic byte on your PC screen. And, yes, I’ve aided Ancestry in making data changes, though their original scan-error remains the default listings, an example of Bob Anderson’s dictum that “print errors are never really correctable.”

    Such a deliberate corporate policy SUBVERTS, and intentionally so for proprietary reasons, ALL APPROPRIATE RULES OF EVIDENCE in the name of corporate control. What’s the point of Bob Anderson’s Society-published, award-winning book on evidence when THIS is the desired outcome by the 800-pound gorillas in the field? Don’t tell me they can’t do better.

    I’m not excepting our Society’s approach, either. See the “preferred” citation for Anderson’s GMB, for instance. It is to the Database and not to the Books. Hey, there’s NO database without the books, so figure out away to get the ACTUAL VOLUME and PAGE NUMBER into the preferred format. That gets done for the Com. of MA re the MAVR series, why not for the rest of the material? (A note of thanks to the Society IT team that responds quickly and thoroughly to posted “error” issues. You people are on the ball.)

    And such references to such db general citations are even showing up in the footnotes to The Register. No. It matters which Boston vital records book in the Holbrook collection is being cited, rather than the amorphous Boston, Marriages and Deaths or whatever general category Ancestry has created: information is different from volume to volume, such as a person resident in Boston who’s death is recorded there in one volume but the other volume tells you he actually died in Lynn! (And, like Family Search, Ancestry always has his death in Boston.)

    Correctly citing the correct source is the bottom-line in genealogy. It is the only avenue we have to re-verify previous results. It is the closest we can come to a scientist’s replication standard in research (and the NSF has standards-in-law about that). We must walk it.

  6. In Dec 1922 my g grandfather died in Long Beach CA, and I have his CA death certificate. It makes no reference to the fact that his body was shipped to Blair, WI, a small town in Trempealeau Co, on the Mississippi River for burial next to his late wife. I know that much from his brief obit. Would there be, somewhere, perhaps in Chicago, a transfer document that would provide more information than is in either of these? Among other things, I also do not have his emigration info from Norway. The death certificate, signed by his daughter, just says he was born in Norway. The obit gives a number of years ago for the emigration. I do know where he was from in Norway, and have his baptismal record. But I can’t find his emigration record. Any chance this kind of info would turn up in a transfer document? He had a very common American name (Charles Johnson) which was not any of his Norwegian names, another complications in looking for the emigration records.

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