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What counts as a primary source?

We had an instructive experience this past week in our efforts to finish gathering the biographical data we need for this project. So far, we’d been working from primary sources such as manuscript burial registers, typed index cards for every member of the congregation over a 200+ year time span; undated lists in manuscript; 18th-century city directories; transcribed archival documents, journals, letters, notes—including summaries of the same published by the American Jewish Historical Society; and the FamilySearch database, with which we were able to fill in dates and family relationships.

And then there was the innocuous-looking postcard, dated 1950, that lives in the archives of the Center for Jewish History (and lives everywhere digitally).  This short note called into question the accuracy of a large portion of our database. The supposed burial list for the 11th St. cemetery, which we were so excited to discover in those same archives a couple of weeks ago, now appears to pertain to the Chatham Sq. cemetery, which officially closed in 1823.  Although the document is undated, although all the burials occurred before 1823, when the 11th St. cemetery became the congregation’s only burial site, and although none of the names listed were in the burial register under 11th St., we assumed it related to this site. Why? because another source—what could reasonably be considered an authoritative primary source—indicated so.

An entry in Vol. 27 of the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1920) first offered us a tantalizing clue that such a list existed. The following note summarized a document in the Jacques Judah Lyons collection, which is held by the American Jewish Historical Society: “Places of burial in 11th Street. and 21st Street described. Among those buried in 11th Street Cemetery appear: Haim Welcome (1806), Joseph D’Aguilar (1808), and Sarah Soesman (1814).” This description was soon found in a digitized format on the Center for Jewish History’s  website—part of the Jacques Judah Lyons collection.

In addition to brief summaries, this pamphlet contains full reprints and facsimiles of many items in the collection. But does that make it a primary source?

To verify the letter’s claim, I examined an official registry for the Chatham Sq. cemetery, dated 1895—long after the many disinterments there made space for the extension of the Bowery. Checking this against our list, and the index cards that noted places of burial, I was able to corroborate that, indeed, this list was not “our” list.

Yet, there are discrepancies that remain to be solved. A few of the burials noted at 11th St. in the incomplete burial ledger are also on this authoritative registry of Chatham Sq. burials. Which document should we trust—the note card, the 11th St. burial ledger, the Chatham Sq. registry, the undated list? Does the mystery itself reveal something?

These questions remain to be answered.

The moral of this story: the term “primary source” is relative. Also, primary sources can be factually incorrect.

Handwritten postcard, author unknown.
“In the folder in which is the plan of the 21st St. ground the photostated [sic] is also a pencilled list of burials in the Chatham Sq. ground. On the second part of that list, #2 is my mother. This is the grave of Sloe wife of Hayman Levy. The list is therefore compiled by one of the 17 children of Hayman & Sloe Levy. The last one on [?] list is Joshua Isaacs on 17 Feb 1810.” [signature illegible – possibly “D.de S. P.”( David de la Sola Pool)].  From the digital collections of the Center for Jewish History.

 

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