Thanks to Gertrude Barber

Introduction to Gertrude Barber’s Records of Sullivan County, NY

By Geoffrey Brown, Between the Lakes Group LLC

Astonishingly few records exist today of people who lived in Sullivan County in the old days.  Consequently, genealogical and historical research has been difficult at best — and impossible at worst —  in all of Sullivan County.  Gertrude Barber was, almost single-handedly, responsible for much of what we do have today.

Many factors – too many to discuss here – contributed (some still contribute) to this lack of record keeping and record retention.  However, due to the shortage of records, those of us who seek to research in Sullivan County are frequently driven to accept not what we would want or expect, but what is available, regardless of deficiencies.

Enter Gertrude Barber

We really do not know what motivations inspired Gertrude Barber, nor do we actually know much about the woman, who died in Brooklyn in 1974.  The staff of the Department of Genealogy and Local History of the New York Public Library described her as a Brooklyn resident, who began around 1929  to collect cemetery inscriptions and church records in Sullivan County, and who continued from there to collect elsewhere in New York State.

During the summers, Ms. Barber would travel to her current locale of choice, visit the graveyards and record what she could make out of gravestone inscriptions.  Soon, she expanded her project to include capturing such church records and records of wills as she was able to locate and gain access to.

It appears that she collected within Sullivan County mainly for two summers, those of 1929 and 1930.  During the following winters she typed up her notes, in six carbons, in her home in Brooklyn, bringing a copy to the librarians at the New York Public Library and disseminating the other copies to other libraries that indicated an interest in them.  One of the older librarians at the New York Public described to this writer her wintertime visits bringing her typescripts for them.

We first became aware of her transcriptions at the New York Public Library, and it is to them – and, of course, to Ms. Barber — that we owe a massive debt of gratitude that we have the information she transcribed in an easily accessible form today.

You can read more about Gertrude Barber and get a sense of the other New York State locations she visited and transcribed in this article about her HERE.

As grateful as we are to Gertrude Barber today for her huge contribution to genealogy in Upstate New York, there were a few deficiencies in her work that deserve mention simply to avoid raising false hopes.

First, Ms. Barber’s survey was not comprehensive.  As an example, she collected the old section (the oldest, but probably the smallest section today) of the Liberty, NY cemetery, but did not do the newer portions.  (To our knowledge, those much larger newer sections have not yet been collected by anyone, sadly.)  She certainly overlooked other cemeteries, particularly the very small ones that one occasionally saw around the county fifty years ago that are now gone completely. In Liberty, she covered the church records to which she had access, but notably these did NOT include the principal “downtown” churches of Liberty at that time:  Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal.  Finally, she either did not locate, could not gain access to, or could not read any records of what was already becoming the substantial Jewish population of the Town of Liberty, nor did she record any of the Jewish cemeteries in the county.  Likely she did not know Hebrew, in which many of the stones are written, so the task would have verged on the impossible for her.

The second defect is in the records themselves and her transcription of them.  First off, gravestone inscriptions can be very difficult to read if the stone has been eroded or if moss and lichens have grown over it.  Of course, if the stone is broken off or buried or defaced or stolen, the data is simply missed.  She mentions problems with some stones in most of the cemeteries she collected.  Second, with the church records, many of the pastors or church clerks who originally recorded them had little interest in spelling.  For the most part, surnames had stabilized in terms of spelling by the time the earliest of these records were originally set down, but spelling of surnames in some of the records is creative at best.  Handwriting was also likely a factor here; we have not seen the original record books, so we do not really know what kind of legibility problems Ms. Barber faced.

Ms. Barber also was not a Sullivan County native — at least as far as we know she was not.  Hence, she had no familiarity with the family names typical of area, and doubtless made uninformed assumptions about spellings when transcribing.  Some of the German family names in the western portion of the County seem to have really given her fits.

Her technology, while typical of the era in which she worked, was not what one might have wished for.  Any time you are dealing with multiple carbon copies, typed on a manual typewriter, legibility inevitably suffers.  Today we easily forget just how hard it was to make corrections on six carbons when typing.  The consequences today are that the characters are sometimes blurred, there are overstrikes that make letters – and occasionally strings of letters – unintelligible.

Another defect was with Ms. Barber’s indexing skills.  Fortunately, this is one defect that we can do something about.  While she did index some of the records for Sullivan County, we surmise that her methodology was not the greatest, and since they are not up to the standard of her data collection, in our reprints of her work we have chosen to omit her indices.   Instead of including them, we have indexed many of her records in this section, and where we have done so, our index appears with our republications. When using our indexes, please be aware that we suffered with the same problems of legibility that Ms. Barber no doubt did when collecting the records.  What we saw was what we indexed.

One might say from these notes that we are being very critical, perhaps even unfair to Ms. Barber, but that is not our intent.  Given the limitations at hand, she did an admirable job.  More important, she was the ONLY PERSON WHO APPEARS TO HAVE DONE THE JOB AT ALL!

Even with the limitations of her records, we, seventy five years after she collected this material, say “THANK YOU” to Gertrude Barber for her dedication, patience, and generosity in spending a few years creating this rare compendium of Sullivan County records for us to use today.


What we offer

We offer in download form most of the Sullivan County records that Mrs. Barber transcribed and produced in typescript form — at least those that found their way to the New York Public Library.

Please see the Sullivan County page on our main website for a listing of what we have available.

Recovering history
Between the Lakes Group helps you recover history!


Maine State Prison Report for 1907

Why republish the Maine State Prison Report for 1907?

Because we think a surprising number of people will find it useful!  We count students of public administration, penology, criminal justice, sociology, political science and history among them, not to mention people interested in state and local history in Maine, and, of course, genealogists and family historians.

First, a little about the Maine State Prison Report. 

Maine State Prison
Cover of the Maine State Prison Report for 1907

Only 60 pages long (67 pages including the index we prepared for this document), this report provides astonishing detail about the state prison population.  It lists the names of the inmates of the state prison, then located at Thomaston, Maine, in 1907.  It also lists those who left the prison (via clemency, via completion of sentence, or via death) during that year.  For the current prison population, it provides birthplaces, the crimes for which imprisoned, the counties in which they were convicted of their crimes, the length of their sentences, their ages in 1907, and the dates the prisoners were sentenced. 

The report deals as well with those who were determined to be criminally insane — or, as happened even then, those who were insane and being warehoused in the state prison (interestingly, this practice is quite common today).  Interestingly, the one death reported among the insane population that year shows “dementia” as the cause of death.

If black sheep great-uncle John (or great-aunt Nina) seemed to drop off the face of the earth in your family research back in those days, and the reason happened to involve conviction for a felony in Maine — or even loss of their mental faculties, they just might be here, along with enough supporting information to confirm their identity, as well as the kind of information you can use to locate newspaper articles or court records that might provide more information.

Click here to go to our main page about this document to see a PDF file of the index we have compiled of the Maine State Prison Report for 1907, and to purchase the report as a downloaded PDF file.

Being in the state slammer is nothing to be proud of, as the crimes for which these unfortunates were doing time will demonstrate.  However, we think that this publication will solve some family riddles that have only become more puzzling as the intervening century has passed and those with first hand knowledge of the circumstances have passed away.

The publication also names the individuals responsible for operating the penal system in Maine in 1907, both at the County Jail level and at the “big house” as well. 

The report evaluates each of the facilities that made up Maine’s penal system at that point in time in considerable detail, and does not hesitate to criticize the county jails — and the people responsible for them — that do not measure up to current standards both in terms of efficiency and in terms of prisoner care and rehabilitation. 

The publication is also an excellent document of state of the criminal justice system in 1907, when nationally the Progressive movement was at its peak.  There is descriptive material not only about the programs in the state prison, but also in the county jails.  There is abundant statistical data at all levels. 

In short, we think this is a document of local history, genealogy, and social history that is well worth preserving.

Where does the Maine State Prison in 1907 fit into the history of the prison system in Maine?

The Maine State Government provides some excellent historical background on their website.

The prison about which this report was written was built following a fire in 1854.  In 1923 fire again claimed the Maine State Prison.  The prison was rebuilt, several additional prison units dealing with special populations were built over the years, and in 2002 the last of the prisoners were moved from the prison in Thomaston to the new Maine State Prison in Warren.  The structure at Thomaston was subsequently demolished with the exception of the Maine State Prison Showroom, which remains open.

There seem to be many more persons in State custody in Maine now than there were nearly 100 years ago in 1907.

It appears that there are, both in absolute numbers and relative to the growth in the state’s population.  The population of Maine grew from around 730,000 in 1907 to roughly 1,275,000 in 2000, an increase of roughly 75%.

According to the Maine State Prison Report for 1907, a total of 521 individuals were “in jail” on December 1, 1907.  This number included a total of 68 in the “big house” — the Maine State Prison at Thomaston. 

The Maine State Prison website indicates (2005) that the population capacity of the new Maine State Prison at Warren is 916.  Not given on that website is the population of the county jails and other, less secure and more specialized facilities in the penal system within the state.  We will make the assumption that the prison is currently at capacity — as most prisons today are. 

On that basis, the population of the “big house” has increased from 68 to 916 — a  whopping 1250% increase — while the State’s total population grew only 75%.  From the criteria for admission to the Maine State Prison today (on the state’s website), it appears that the criteria for sentencing to the “big house” are considerably more stringent today than they were a century ago as well. 

CLICK HERE to go to our main page about the Maine State Prison Report for 1907.

Three Court Calendars – Sullivan County, NY

Three Court Calendars of the Sullivan County Court.

July 1893 term, June 1899 term, and January 1904 term.

To us these are quite novel.  Although they were obviously very familiar to practicing attorneys a century and more ago, we have not encountered other specimens of similar material.

Sullivan County Court Calendar
Title page of a court calendar for Sullivan County, NY

Information includes the attorneys in the county were at that time (they’re listed),  the county officers  (likewise listed), and, interestingly, the grand jurors and the trial jurors for the term are listed too.  It specifies which cases would be heard, and approximately upon what date.

Among the litigants, we say some familiar names, including a railroad that was never completed – the Liberty and Jeffersonville Electric Railway – suggesting that without even operating it succeeded in running afoul of some people (the investors, perhaps?).  Regardless of its historical value, it’s fascinating to look at these relics of a judicial system that is now transformed into a far different animal.

More about this, as well as the opportunity to purchase a download of it, can be found on the Sullivan County page of our main website.