Madness Monday: The Peter Burger Enigma

One cold, winter evening in late April(!) this year, I was bopping around on the Internet and decided to see what I could find on one of my Kelley collateral relatives. I was preparing for a talk that I gave last Friday at the National Genealogical Society Conference in Charleston, SC, called “Effective Internet Searching.”

My Kelley ancestors arrived in the U.S. from England in 1872-73. William Joseph Kelley and Julia Matthis Kelley had 10 children, nine of whom made the journey, including my great-grandfather Frederick William Kelley. Over the years I have done extensive research on the rest of Fred’s siblings (with the exception of his oldest brother Joseph Richard–whom I have just recently had success with, but that’s another blog). I’ve been able to fully document eight of the nine kids that came to Detroit with their parents. The life of Sophia Kelley and her spouse, Peter Burger, were the holdouts.

I knew that Sophia and Peter are buried in Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit, because they’re in the same plot as Sophia’s parents, so I started there. A quick Google search for “Woodmere Cemetery” uncovered the website¬† Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery Research.¬†Gail Hershenzon has created a fabulous searchable database of the cemetery cards, containing all of the juicy information that family historians crave. I was like a kid in a candy store searching on this site, finding many more relatives than I realized were buried there. Since I knew Peter was there, I searched for his entry and found the following:

Peter Burger's cemetery card from Woodmere Cemetery, Detroit

The item that naturally caught my eye was “pistol shot” under the disease heading. Since it doesn’t say whether the shot was self-inflicted or whether Peter was murdered, the next step was to try to find an official death record. Thankfully, has been indexing Michigan death records and posting the entries along with digital images. I quickly found Peter’s death record on the FamilySearch Record Search pilot search (I didn’t find it on FamilySearch’s new search) and discovered the pistol shot was suicide:

Peter Burger death record,

Suicides often prompt other possible records to be created, including newspaper articles and coroner’s reports. I wasn’t able to quickly find any coroner’s reports on the Web, but I was able to find a couple articles about Peter’s suicide through my local library. The Plymouth District Library in Plymouth, Michigan, offers library card holders remote access to the Detroit Free Press from 1831 on, which is a great boon to Detroit research. I logged on and found, among others, the following from the 3 March 1893 edition:

So the mystery of Peter’s death was solved within a matter of minutes by using a combination of websites and records. The remaining question about Peter and his wife Sophia was when and where were they married? I had previously searched for their marriage in Detroit records and had come up empty handed.

So I hopped over to and uploaded a very small GEDCOM as a family tree. That crazy little leaf that Ancestry incessantly advertises quickly popped up with a hint for Peter. It was a possible marriage record! And the marriage took place somewhere unexpected: Windsor, Ontario–across the river from Detroit. I had never thought to look there. But the record clearly shows that it is the marriage of my Peter Burger and Sophia Kelley:

Burger-Kelley Marriage Record, Windsor, Ontario

Near the bottom of the record is the clue for why the couple crossed the river to say their vows–Peter was Catholic and Sophia was Protestant. In 1890 Detroit, mixed marriages were still problematic and it was evidently a quick process to get married in Windsor, no questions asked.

The moral of my story here is that while not everything is on the Internet (I hear that thought repeatedly!), it is possible to find fabulous clues and maybe even digitized original records if you use creativity in your search. Now I know more of the story of Peter Burger and Sophia Kelley.

Happy Monday!

Published in: on 16 May 2011 at 8:48 am  Leave a Comment  
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