In Death There Is Life / by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Yesterday we journeyed all of three miles from home on a long-postponed errand: a visit to the Division of Vital Records. It's hard to say why we'd put it off for so long — the nine separate forms we had to fill out by hand might have had something to do with it, or maybe it was because we didn't really expect to find what we were looking for.

I had read ages ago that there was a gap in the records (to wit, birth and death records are available for 1853–1896 and June 1912 to the present); plus, as anyone researching African American ancestors knows, little official documentation exists of black people before 1865 — and by "official" I mean, for example, government-issued birth and death certificates, not the jottings of a slave owner in his account book. Somehow it had not occurred to me that Brian's great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, who died in 1927, might very well have a death certificate on file (though no birth record, since he was born well before the Civil War — and was enslaved). 

And here it is! We waited until we got to the parking lot to do a little jig of joy, though the woman behind the counter (who warmed up slowly under the influence of our irresistible charm) could see how excited we were. What's most interesting to us about this document is box 7 — Mat's age at death, almost ten years younger than the 86 that's etched on his headstone — and box 19, his date of burial, which happens to be my birthday. 


You'd think we'd be troubled by the age discrepancy, but it actually helps clarify something that has been bothering me since we began digging three years ago. If Mat had indeed passed away in 1927 at age 86, he would have been born around 1840. Fine, but according to marriage records, Mat married Julia Fox when he was 23 — in 1873. If, however, he was born around 1850 instead, this little mystery would be solved.

We've come to accept that dates and ages can fluctuate, sometimes wildly, over the decades — and yet . . . this particular discrepancy nagged me. Even if Mat didn't know his exact birthdate, it's unlikely that he would have been off by a full decade, especially as a young man. Later in life, it makes more sense. On his Union pension application, which he submitted for at least the third time in 1912, he lists his age as 70, which puts his birthdate at 1842 — so back to where we started. Our new theory, though, is that Mat inflated his age to improve his chances of getting money from the government. The tactic doesn't appear to have worked — the claim was stamped "abandoned." —EHP