William Orr: Proof of Murphy’s Law (52 Ancestors #35)

I’ve written before about Murphy’s Law in genealogy: your ancestor will die in an area one year before they started keeping death records. If Murphy’s Law had a poster child, it would be my third-great-grandfather William Orr.

Several sources list him as dying in Licking County, Ohio in 1850. I have a letter from a woman I corresponded with in my earliest days of research which claims this date. Several online family trees list 1850, as does his memorial on Find A Grave. The problem is that I’ve yet to find a source for the date.

But wait, if he died in 1850, he should be on the mortality schedule, right?

He appears in the 1850 census in Bowling Green Township with his wife, Martha, and their five children. He was a farmer with $1200 in real property. Being alive in the census kinda prevents you from also being in the same mortality schedule. (I’m sure it’s happened, but not with this guy.)

In 1860, Martha is head of the household in Bowling Green Township, with four of the five children. She is without any real property and only $50 in personal property.

So if William died between 1850 and 1860, just look for probate. Well…. there’s the matter of the 1875 fire at the Licking County courthouse. We’re not talking about some little spark. No, this was a fire that destroyed a lot of the court records. (The Licking County commissioners have put together a list of the court records that survived. It’s a short list for pre-1875 materials.)

But wait, what about that Find a Grave record? Could we just look at his tombstone or request a photo of it? Not so fast. William is supposedly buried in Courson Cemetery. According to Robert Sizelove, who has been working on documenting Licking County cemeteries, Courson Cemetery “was one of the more difficult to locate.” Few stones still exist. Of course, William’s is not among them.

So, let’s recap:

  • William supposedly died in 1850, but lived too long to be listed in the mortality schedule.
  • A major fire took out probate records for the time we think he died.
  • The cemetery where he is reportedly buried has only a few remaining tombstones and his isn’t there.

But there are still some possibilities for getting a better idea of when William died:

  • Land and tax records. Most of those survived the 1875 fire. Tax records could be especially useful, as we might be able to find when the land goes from being taxed on William to being taxed on his heirs.
  • Voter lists. When does William stop voting?

William Orr. Considering the timing with how he fits in with the existing records, I’m surprised his last name isn’t Murphy.


This is pretty much how I feel when researching William Orr.
Photo by Alex Proimos. Used under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0. No changes were made to this file.

4 thoughts on “William Orr: Proof of Murphy’s Law (52 Ancestors #35)

  1. Jeri

    Licking County, Ohio and even the little town of Bowling Green holds secrets to one of my brick walls too. The problem is I just don’t know what those secrets are either due to the fire. I figure someone out there must know but in the meantime I’ve had to speculate and use preponderance of evidence as a guideline. That’s not good either. Good luck to you!

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      There are a lot of us who have brick walls in Licking County! At least most of the land records survived the fire.

  2. Mike Stephens

    Newspaper survival for 19th century Ohio is also spotty, but it’s still worth looking for a sale announcement. Also, since this was 1850, he may have caught gold fever and died in, or on the way to California.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Yes, I should have mentioned newspapers! Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society) says the following about its holdings of the Newark Advocate (Licking County’s largest newspaper): “Incomplete holdings for 1826, 1850, 1854, 1857, 1859, 1866, 1871-1873. Library lacks holdings for 1827-1849, 1855-1856, 1858, 1865.” Why am I not surprised 😉


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