Genealogy Blog

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, Otherwise Known as Eeeewwwww

16 Apr 2014

As genealogists we often spend time in libraries, looking through manuscripts and old books for clues to our family and the places where they lived. These materials can include very old books, bound by hand. In addition to leather-bound books, some are bound in sheepskin or pigskin. But occasionally some were covered in something very different. Anthropodermic bibliopegy refers to the practice of binding books with human skin.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the practice became known among physicians, who used human skin to bind anatomy books.  The skin was usually taken from cadavers, but was sometimes taken from criminals. One common form was to take the skin of criminals who were sentenced to death and use it to bind the records of the criminal’s trial. This was seen as a punishment that would last even after death.

The Boston Athenaeum has a text in its collection titled Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est. Published in 1837, it contains the memoirs of James Allen, a notorious highwayman and bank robber.  He once declared himself to be the “master of his own skin,” and the book was actually bound in his skin.

The Harvard University Libraries  hold at least two books bound in human skin.  A third book, oringinally thought to be bound in human skin, has since been proven to be bound in sheepskin. One of these books is Des Destinées de L’Âme by Arsène Houssaye, published in the 1880s.  He gave the book to a physician friend, Ludovic Bouland. Bouland loved books, and had Houssaye’s treatise on the soul and life after death and had it rebound. He used skin from the body of a deceased mental patient whose family never claimed her body. Bouland added the following note:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering. . .”

The tanning process used on the skin to preserve it and make it fit for binding damages the skin to the point that DNA is not recoverable, so it is not possible to trace the origins of the “donors.” By the end of the Victorian era the practice fell out of use because it was so morbid.


Human Skin


You can read more stories online in Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or The Truth About Books Bound in Human Skin, A Morbid Secret Lies Hidden Within the Beautiful Walls of the Boston Athenaeum, and Flesh-Crawling Page-Turners: The Books Bound in Human Skin.

And remember, the next time you are in a library and using a very old book, the binding may not be what you think it is.

Preserving Your Story is Now Easier than Ever

15 Apr 2014

In October, we announced the Free Forever Revolution and committed to bringing 1,000 databases online for free, every single day. We’ve kept that promise every day since.

In January, we added 10,000 databases in a single day to put our total count at more than 200,000 databases available online for the world to enjoy.

In March, we reached a major milestone when we hit 300,000 databases and we are still going strong.

Along the way, we’ve been improving our product and launching new features designed to help you make more discoveries, faster.

As exciting as the last six months have been, believe me, we’re just getting started.

Preserving Your Story is Now Easier than Ever

The next frontier for Mocavo is to make it as easy as possible for every one of you to bring your family’s historical content online and available to share with the world. Every family history book, photo, letter, pamphlet, brochure, or directory you’ve ever gotten your hands on; we want to help you bring it online for your relatives to discover, near or far, close or distant. Let’s get every single piece of it online for free.

But how?

Early last year, we announced our Free Scanning program that allows you to mail us all of your books, documents, and photos. We scan in the materials, provide you with a digital copy, and add it to our index. To date, through the Free Scanning program, the Mocavo community has added more than 40,000 historical documents to our search index. That’s 40,000 documents packed with family history that will be free, forever.

But what about the content you’ve already scanned in yourself? How can you get that added to our index? We wanted to make it even easier for you to contribute content to Mocavo, so we’ve completely redesigned the Contribute section of our site.

Now, all it takes is a few simple clicks to upload your documents to Mocavo! We will process your content, add it to our index so that all of the text within your documents is completely searchable, and then you can show off your hard work to your loved ones and collaborate with family members to make even more discoveries!

Wouldn’t it be nice if your ancestors had left more of a paper trail? Upload your documents now and gain the peace of mind knowing that when you share your content on Mocavo, your story will be securely preserved forever.

Upload my documents now

You can also watch a quick tutorial on the collection manager tool here

We Are Still Boston Strong

15 Apr 2014

Imagine what your ancestors though when they gathered to hear the Declaration of Independence read in public for the first time. Or when they heard the news of Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War. Or the start of World War I “The War to End All Wars.” Or the start of World War II, the war after that. Or when they heard of the sinking of the Titanic. Some of you remember where you were when you heard the news that President Kennedy was shot (For others it may be your parents or grandparents). For my generation, each of us remembers that bitter cold day in January 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded less than two minutes into flight.

The entire world knows the date of 9/11 and how our lives changed after it. For some, they lived it, while for others it is history. But in Boston, the date of April 15, 2013, will always be remembered. It was a typical April day, cool and perfect weather for running the Boston Marathon. Several friends of mine were running, and another friend from out of town asked me to join her at the finish line to wait. Unfortunately I had too much work to do that afternoon.

I had the television on while I was working, showing the runners come in and hoping I might catch a glimpse of a friend, when the explosions occurred. The first one at the finish line itself; the second only a block away. At first there was the thought that it was a gas explosion from inside a building. Then, slowly, the truth became evident. Boston had been attacked.

In the initial hours, there was confusion as the search for answers began. Trying to locate friends to be certain they were okay. This task was made more difficult as the BPD asked people not to use mobile phones in that section of the city, for fear of setting off additional bombs.

As the hours turned to days, the questions remained. Who had set off the bombs? Where were they? The biggest question: Were there any other devices planted in the city ready to explode? Would major tourist attractions like Quincy Market be next? Would a packed subway car be destroyed underground?

Personally, I had to make a decision. I was to speak at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference up in New Hampshire. Like all Bostonians, I was quite shaken. And we still had no answers. I decided to go, and  was in Manchester when the Shelter in Place order was given, and worried for the safety of my friends back home. My genealogy family, however, was there as always with love and support.

In the end, four people were dead, including eight-year-old Martin Richard. More than 260 people suffered injuries ranging from the minor to the 16 people who lost limbs. Nobody who lives in Boston was unaffected personally. While I was fortunate not to have any close family or friends injured, a chorus friend was the next-door neighbor and close friend of Martin Richard. For weeks, there was a physical scar running through the heart of the city as investigators closed down several city blocks, looking for clues. Then there was the grisly task of cleaning up the area. For months, people from all over the world dropped flowers, shoes, t-shirts, signs, and other items in a makeshift memorial that has now been preserved at the City of Boston Archives.


Boston Marathon Survivors


As our ancestors did before us, we stand up and move on in the face of violence. Today is a day of mourning and tribute in Boston. On Monday we will see the Boston Marathon running again, with more runners than ever before in history. There will also likely be more spectators than ever before. There will definitely be more police and security officials than ever before. But we will be there. And we will run. And we will watch. And we will not be cowed by hate. We are Boston Strong.

Copyright Free Maps from the New York Public Library

14 Apr 2014

The New York Public Library is filled with so many treasures for researchers. Every visit I find new materials to work with. But not everyone is lucky enough to be able to get to Manhattan to research on a regular basis. The NYPL has been working to digitize some of their collections to make it easier for people to access materials.

A couple of weeks ago, the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division made a huge announcement. The division announced the release of “more than 20,000 cartographic works as high-resolution downloads.” But the best part of the announcement was what came next: “We believe thiese maps to have no known US copyright restrictions.” That’s right, these maps are copyright-free.

The division has been scanning maps for 15 years. Much of this digitizing was done through grants from organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among these maps are:

  • 10,300 property, topographic, zoning, and insurance maps for New York City from 1852 to 1922
  • 2,800 maps from state, county, and city atlases (mostly New York and New Jersey)
  • 1,100 maps of the Mid-Atlantic cities and states form the16th to the 19th centuries
  • more than 1,000 maps of New York City boroughs and neighborhoods from 1660 to 1922
  • more than 700 topographic maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created between 18777 and 1914

While many of the images are black and white or grayscale, a very large number of them are full-color. Even some of the oldest maps are in color. You can browse through or search for maps on keywords. You can send a url to share with friends, or you can purchase a high-resolution digital image. You can also purchase high-resolution prints of the maps. You can also print out a copy difrectly from your browser.

When you look at an image, not only will you see the map, but you will see other information as well:

  • Names (of cartographers, etc.)
  • Name of the collection it comes from
  • Date of publication and publisher
  • Library Location where you will find the original
  • Subject classifications (called Topics)
  • Notes about the map/image
  • Identifiers, including the NYPL Catalog number and the RLIN/OCLC number


One of the map pages from the New York Public Library's Digital Collections.

One of the map pages from the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections, showing a seventeenth-century map of New York, New England, and Canada.


You can check out the maps by visiting the NYPL’s Digital Collections area. You can use these maps under a Creative Commons license from the NYPL, but as they warn you, you must be careful about any maps that are restricted because of a right of privacy or other restrictions.

Start your weekend off right with new Mocavo features

11 Apr 2014

What better way to start off the weekend than with new features! We’re working hard to ensure your time spent with us is both delightful and productive, which is why we’re excited to share a few upgrades we’ve recently added that will take your research experience to the next level. If you have a little extra time this weekend, give these new features a try and let us know what you think!

First & Last Name Search Sliders

Sometimes the missing piece to the puzzle is found when using an alternate spelling of an ancestor’s first or last name. To make sure no stone is left unturned, we’ve added another search slider to both first and last names on the search form.


First Name Search Slider
If you’re looking for Elizabeth Shaw, who potentially went by Liz, Lizzy, Beth, Eliza, etc., then drag the slider to the middle (“Similar Names”) to reveal results that have alternative versions of your ancestor’s first name. Also, sometimes our ancestors only recorded their first initial when creating a record. To account for similar names and initials, simply drag the slider all the way to the left (“Initials & Similar Names”) and your results will show records that contain E Shaw, Liz Shaw, Elizabeth Shaw, etc.

Try the first name search slider now

Last Name Search Slider
In the past, it was common for surnames to be recorded with multiple spellings. For example, Krieger could also be: Krueger, Kreger, Kroeger, etc. Make sure you’re not missing any hidden records by dragging the last name slider to the left (“Sounds Like”) to display results with alternate spellings and pronunciations for your given last name.

Try the last name search slider now

Cut Your Search Time in Half by Saving Your Filters

Do you find yourself selecting the same search filters on a consistent basis? Now you can save yourself time by saving your custom filter settings. Simply run a search on Mocavo the way you always do. Select your favorite category, date, and location filters and click the save filter button. Then give your filter a title so you can easily reference it in the future. Once you click save, your custom filters will appear on the bottom left side of your search results page. You can create as many filters as you would like, helping you customize your Mocavo experience to make discoveries faster than ever.



Bring Your Ancestors to Life with Our Database Photo Viewer

Part of researching your family history is finding images of your ancestors and the places they lived. Locating such images can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, so we found a way to use our photo recognition technology to simplify the process for you. We extract all of the images from a particular database and display them on the database’s search page. Now you can easily browse hundreds of historical images in more than 2,000 historical books; and we’re adding more every day! Simply scroll to the bottom of a database cover page to find the link to review all of the images from that book, saving you time and effort. If you are looking for something specific, you can also use our image search engine to help narrow your image results even further.
We hope you have a lovely weekend and look forward to hearing what you think about all of our new features.

News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, April 11, 2014

11 Apr 2014

This week’s roundup of stories ranges from the serious to the very fun. From the institutional to the personal, they represent a wide range of sources, and a geographic area that spreads from the United States to the United Kingdom to Sweden.

We start with an admonition from Harold Henderson. In a conversation originally started on Facebook by Dave McDonald (former president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists), Harold discusses the importance of sorting through your genealogical materials (a dilemma faced by all too many of us). Read the full story in Cleanup in Aisles 1–1,000.

Six months ago, The National Archives of the United Kingdom released the first redesigned website pages. Last week, new pages for the Education and Information Management sections released beta versions of those new pages. The Education area is of special interest to genealogists. You can read more about what the team has been up to, what they’ve learned, and future plans in Beta Release of New Web Pages.

Terry Koch is a music teacher in Washington. For Christmas his children presented he and his wife with albums to fill out for their granddaughters, telling the tales of their lives. As he is about to enter the world of retirement, he is starting to think of genealogy, a tale that many of us are very familiar with. He wrote a wonderful piece about his story in the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin, Retirement Gives Chance to Reflect on Family History.

In a Toronto neighborhood sits a house that was built in the 1940s. The 96-year-old owner has resided in it since 1942. After 72 years, she has decided to sell her home. What makes the story even more interesting is that the house has not been redecorated since the 1950s. It is a perfect time capsule of that period. See the pictures on in 96 Year Old is Selling Amazing 1950s Time Capsule.


Swedish Gravestone


We wrap up this week with another decorating story. The Nilsson family of the town of Fuglie in southern Sweden was renovating their living room when they made an amazing discovery. Under the floor of the room was embedded a very large 200-year-old gravestone. And this is the second time in less than a year that a gravestone has been found in the area. Read more in Swedes Find 200-Year-Old Gravestone in Living Room.

The Death of Expertise

05 Apr 2014

Death of Expertise


Social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols published an interesting piece in the Federalist  a couple of months  ago called “The Death of Expertise.” Although talking generally about society, I think that much of what he said is applicable to what we’ve been experiencing in genealogy over the last few years.  Nichols writes:

“Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing mor than fallacious ‘appeals to authority,’ sure signs of dreadful ‘elitism,’ and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a ‘real’ democracy.”

He goes on to say that:

“I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise:’ a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death ofactual expertise. . . Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live. This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes . . . But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen. . .”

The Internet age has brought us many benefits. Our access to images of original records has never been greater. And we have many more ways to share information than we ever have before.  But in many ways, we have taken steps backwards.

Throughout the twentieth century, genealogists worked to move away from the unstructured and undocumented compiled genealogies that had been published with little to no documentation, and many made up out of whole cloth. They worked to educate people to understand how easy it is to make mistakes and link individuals into families incorrectly. We developed peer-reviewed journals like the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The American Genealogist, and many others, to provide high-quality documented genealogies. This was not only to make such work available, but to show others how to properly research.

For all they have done to help us, computers have also worked against us. In some ways, the ability of computers to process large amounts of information quickly has become a problem. Instead of trying to find out ancestors, many people are in a competition to build the largest database of names. Little attention is paid to things like proof and documentation.

We’re also losing the ability to understand the basics of research and how to really find our ancestors. One of my colleagues recently had a conversation in an online forum with individuals who didn’t understand the difference between an index and an original record.  One individual was quite adamant that my colleague was simply being too difficult and elitist because the colleague tried to explain the importance of examining original records.

The major issue, though, is that folks like that now have a public forum for their views. They can create a website or a blog and get followers who are even less experienced than they are, and mislead these beginners. And anyone who dares to speak against them is simply elitist.

This is not to say that all bloggers are inexperienced or uninformed. To the contrary, many are quite knowledgeable and experienced. And having these folks share their experience and knowledge is quite helpful. But newer and less experienced genealogists would have no basis to be able to determine the difference between those with true expertise and those promoting inferior “knowledge.”

Worse still is that many of these individuals are actively working against the promotion of quality research. They attack anyone would dare to question inferior research techniques as “elitist.” By the same token, many experts are too quick to denigrate anyone who questions anything new and different. We must find a balance, and do our best to promote quality research techniques so that even beginners can understand how to be confident in their research findings.

Do You Plan on Writing Your Own Obituary?

04 Apr 2014

We asked and you answered! Last week we asked if you were planning on writing your own obituary.

Do you plan on writing your obituary?

Over 62% of you would like to write your obituary someday, while 23% of you are super prepared and already have a rough draft written! Ten percent of our community would prefer to have someone else write their obituary and five percent plan on living forever (as do I). Looking for some inspiration for writing your own obituary? Check out Chief Genealogist Michael J. Leclerc’s article “Have you Written Your Obituary Yet?” He reminds us that when we make all the preparations for the end of our lives, we all too often forget to think about our own obituaries. We hope this poll inspired you to take some time to think about how you would like to be remembered.

Looking to research obituaries? You can search for death records on Mocavo at

Take this week’s poll: How long have you been researching your family history?

04 Apr 2014

This week we would like to know: “How long have you been researching your family history?”

New Help Finding Images You Can Use Online

03 Apr 2014

Copyright protection has been an issue forever, but the coming of the internet age has exacerbated the issues surrounding copyright. Among others, Judy G. Russell, The Legal Genealogist, regularly discusses copyright issues. Nowhere do these appear more frequently than with images.

We often find images online that help us with our research. They may be pictures of our ancestors, or photographs of places where our family lived. You might find maps of their hometowns. Or there might locate images of records involving your ancestors.

Unfortunately these images are often protected by copyright. You may be able to use them for your personal research, but nothing else. That means no posting on your blog or website to share with your family. No including them in a book your publishing about your research. This is true even if it is “just for the family.”

Locating images that are pertinent to your research can be challenging enough. But once you find them, you have the added task of discovering what you can and cannot do with the image.

Google now has a new tool to help you with this task. Using the Advanced Image Search on Google gives you extra tools to help you with your search. In addition to the usual Boolean options for searching, you can also look by any combination of

  • Image Size
  • Aspect Ratio
  • Colors in the Image (including black and white)
  • Type of Image (face, line drawing, clip art, etc.)
  • Region of the World
  • File Type

You can also search a single site by entering the URL into a separate field.


Usage Rights Google Search


But the newest addition to the search functionality is Usage Rights. You can look for images based on the usage rights. You can filter your search results by the following options:

  • not filtered by license
  • free to use or share
  • free to use or share, even commercially
  • free to share or modify
  • free to sue, share or modify, even commercially

Your first thought might be that as an individual, you might not need to worry about the commercial use options. But remember, there are many things that could have your blog or website viewed as a commercial venture. For example, if you have ads or participate in affiliate programs on your website, you might be considered commercial, even if you don’t charge for access to your site. Try these options to help you get the images you want and need for your research. Just be certain to verify the terms of reuse for images that you use.