Friday, February 22, 2013

Mission Accomplished: Michigan Death Records Up To Snuff

In 1900, Michigan became the first “Western” state to be declared a Registration State by the US Census Bureau. To reach that milestone, death records recorded by the state were required to account for greater than 90% of deaths determined to have actually occurred in the state. [1] This was quite a source of pride for Michigan because only a handful of other states were accorded the same status at that time: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. [2]

A major step toward achieving Registration status was made in 1897 when Michigan enacted new legislation for recording deaths. Prior to this (since 1867), deaths were enumerated by supervisors and assessors once each year. To learn more about why this method of collecting vital statistics was considered “worthless” by the Michigan Secretary of State's office see Why Early Michigan Birth Records Are Unreliable. The new law of 1897 “requires that a certificate of death shall be filled out, with statement of the cause of death by the medical attendant, and presented by the undertaker to the local registrar before any disposition is made of the body. The local registrar then issues a burial or removal permit, without which a body cannot be interred, deposited in a vault or tomb, removed from the district in which the death occurred, or disposed of in any other manner.” [3]

Under the new law it was believed that the collection of mortality statistics was “fairly complete.” [2] The Secretary of State's office regretted that it couldn't “honestly claim” they were absolutely correct because of the difficulty in registering deaths in sparsely populated regions of the state, notably parts of the Upper Peninsula. [2] In such regions, where a population density of fewer than five persons per square mile was not uncommon and where someone would need to travel a considerable distance to notify the proper authority it was likely that some deaths remained unrecorded. [4]

In according Michigan the rank of Registration State the US Census Bureau didn't simply accept the validity of Michigan's method, but put it to a test. Census authorities attempted to verify the State's results by conducting a separate enumeration “in the same manner that all Census statistics of mortality for Michigan . . . have been solely derived.” [4] The results were as follows. The registered deaths returned to the State for 1899-1900 comprised 32,381 deaths. [5] The Census enumerators returned only 23,613 deaths, giving an indication (nearly 10,000 fewer deaths) of how this type of data collection pales in comparison to the immediate registration method. [5] The analysis did not end there. Names on the two lists were compared district-by-district, identifying 2,479 deaths found by the census method not present on the State registration list. [5] This number was added to the State count (to yield a total of 34,860 deaths for the year) resulting in a registration rate of 92.9%. [5] A closer examination of the discrepant names, however, indicated that many actually were included on the State list, but had been recorded in a different district from where the census enumerators had obtained the information. For example, in Lansing, of 18 names included on the census list, only one or two were actually absent from the State list. [6] One of the deaths recorded by the Census enumerator occurred in the Philippines (and therefore didn't belong on the Michigan list at all). A further analysis determined that some deaths on the census list occurred in other states or had not occurred during the census year. [6] This means that the actual percentage of deaths recorded by the state was probably closer to 95% (or higher) of the actual number of deaths that took place in the state. [6]

The annual report on births, marriages, deaths and divorces for 1898 noted that the number of deaths registered was higher than in any previous year. [7] Some might have jumped to the conclusion that some calamity had befallen the state to result in so many more deaths. The annual report was quick to point out that this was likely an artifact of the new, more reliable method of recording deaths, than an indication of the state of health of the populace. [7] This also meant that no comparison could be made between numbers of deaths before and after the change. The good news was that from 1897 on death records were more reliable. Let genealogists rejoice.

  1. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Third Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1899. (Lansing, Michigan: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1902), vii.
  2. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Third Annual Report . . . 1899., v.
  3. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report of the Secretary of State on the Registration of Births And Deaths Marriages And Divorces in Michigan For The Year 1898. (Lansing, Michigan: Robert Smith Printing Co, 1900), v.
  4. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Third Annual Report . . . 1899., vi.
  5. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Third Annual Report . . . 1899., vii.
  6. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Third Annual Report . . . 1899., viii.
  7. Secretary of State of Michigan. Thirty-Second Annual Report. . . 1898., xxvii.

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