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Column: Personal information, even funerals, insightful

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In a statement issued Sept. 5, 1876, George Carruthers charged the estate of Henry Tarman $45 for his casket. He even threw in two bottles of “preservative” for an extra $2.

Even when taking into account inflation over the past 136 years, that still sounds like a pretty good deal. It is not, however, big news.

What is significant is that this mundane piece of information about a man dead for more then 13 decades still exists and is available to his descendants or anyone else who might want to find out more about someone other than when they were born and died.

In this case, Tarman’s great-great-grandson now knows a heck of a lot more about his ancestor.

The bill for Tarman’s casket was found by Tina Jeffries, head of Bartholomew County’s Archives. It was among several dozen other documents relating to the Bartholomew County man that were filed in Bartholomew Circuit Court.

She accessed the material after being contacted by Tarman’s descendant, who had come across his great-great-grandfather’s name on the county government website. In accessing the digitized listing of the archives, he learned that there were 62 documents relating to Henry Tarman on file in Columbus.

Most were, indeed, related to run-of-the-mill matters that were included in files relating to the disposition of his estate. It’s unlikely that any history will have to be rewritten or that any scandal will be uncovered.

However, documents like those filed on his estate’s behalf can provide some insights for his descendants as to the kind of person he was and how he might have lived his life. They also provide some wonderful nuggets of information about local history and the customs of the time.

For instance, Carruthers’ bill was on embossed stationery that advertised that he was a “dealer in metallic cases, wood coffins and caskets.” He even got in some advertising on the document, stating that he would “furnish hearses, carriages, shrouding or any article needed,” presumably items relating to funeral and burial arrangements.

His residence was included — on the corner of Walnut and Pearl streets. Walnut Street doesn’t exist today, nor do the names of the east-west streets that today are numbered first through 13th. Sometime after 1876, the names of Mulberry, Vernon, Tipton, Walnut, Harrison, Delaware, Jefferson, Liberty, Irwin, North, Hays, Stansifer and High streets were switched to numbers.

The statement also contained a drawing of one of Carruthers’ caskets. A raised area on the lid is believed to be a glass window through which visitors could view the deceased. In those days, most viewings were conducted in the homes of the deceased.

The estate documents are only a fraction of the records that are stored in the county’s archives.

“We’ve got deeds, court records, common pleas and state of Indiana records,” Tina said. “There’s even a ‘Widow’s Book,’ which was compiled after the Civil War to record those from the county who were killed or died in the war. They provide information about each individual, who they married, how many children they had, etc.”

There’s nothing new about the records themselves. They’ve been in the courthouse since they were filed. Some even go back to the founding of the county in 1821.

The archives office dates to the 1980s. The Archives Room was opened in 1988 following an extensive restoration project. Fortunately, there have been individuals like the late Mary Francis Urbahns who have been steadfast in maintaining the integrity of the records and compiling them in a manner that offers quick and relatively easy access.

Tina has been in the archives department for 16 years, but she has to split her time between that job and work in the county commissioners office.

“Listing our documents on the Web has been a real game changer,” Tina said. “People are now able to enter a particular name, and if we have any files relating to that person, the number of items will be posted. If the researcher wants to take it further and gain access to the material, they can contact us in advance, and we’ll have the material ready for them to look at and copy when they visit. Obviously, there are fees charged for that.”

Reaction to the system and the beautifully restored Archives Room itself are universally positive.

“People who come here for research constantly tell us that we have the best archives in the state,” Tina said.

I suspect that Tarman’s great-great-grandson will agree when he comes to look at his ancestor’s records. Who knows, maybe Henry Tarman was buried in a casket like the one with the viewing window advertised on George Carruthers’ bill.

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