30 September 2015

Brooke-ing no denial: Reclaim the Records successfully pursues NYC marriage affidavits/licenses

Too many of us take no for an answer when access to public records is concerned. Not Brooke Schreier Ganz.

Brooke's objective was to make genealogists' lives much easier when they are pursuing New York City records from the 20th Century. She just achieved her first win: acquisition of the index for New York City affidavits for license to marry (marriage applications), 1908-1929. 

This record set (an index) could only be accessed in person at the Municipal Archives at 31 Chambers Street or via mail-in search requests - which could be pricey. 

Earlier this month Avotaynu Online featured an article about Brooke's quest.
Brooke's organization Reclaim the Records had filed a petition with the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York using New York's Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to force the NYC Department of Records and Information Services (parent of the Municipal Archives) to grant public access to the 1908-1929 index of the City Clerk's Office marriage licenses. 

NYC Marriage Licenses and Certificates

For a period of time (1908-1937) for each borough in New York City, the Health Department and the City Clerk's Office maintained two independent marriage record collections. 

Health Department marriage certificates were created at the wedding. Indexes of marriage certificates from the Health Department (through 1937) have been available online for some time via the Italian Genealogy Group, the German Genealogy Group, Ancestry and FamilySearch and copies of original marriage certificates have been available (through 1937) on FamilySearch Library microfilm (as well as at the Municipal Archives). There are separate indexes for bride and groom.

City Clerk's Office records are less well-known and consist of three parts: the affidavit (an application to marry) usually filed several days to several weeks before the wedding; a reiterative summary of the information on the affidavit; and then, what is essentially a marriage return filed by the officiant documenting that the wedding had occurred, its date, place and witnesses.

The affidavits/licenses of the City Clerk's Office had not been microfilmed by FamilySearch or any other outside organization and the index had not been made available to the public outside the Municipal Archives. The City Clerk's index for records of 1908-1951 is arranged by borough, quarters of the year and the first two letters of the bride's or groom's last name. 

The records are filed by the date of the affidavit, not the date of the marriage. So, when I was searching for my family's records, I came armed with marriage dates and usually looked for records filed in quarters before the wedding. A great deal of microfilm scrolling was involved in finding each record.

Further information about these records may be seen in Estelle Guzik's book, Genealogical Resources in New York, published by the Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc (JGSNY) in 2003. JewishGen also provides a nice summary in an InfoFile, "New York City Vital Records," written by Sheila Kievel. A description and table regarding NYC marriage records is also included on page 23 of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society's New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer, published in 2014.

In the past I have posted a few blogs here, here, here and here using information from NYC marriage affidavits/licenses - which are different than the marriage certificates available (through 1937) at the Municipal Archives and on microfilm via the FamilySearch Library. I've shown how one may confirm or clarify information about the bride, groom, officiant, witnesses or marriage location when poor hand writing or document condition might otherwise prevent it.

Usually the information on the certificate and the affidavit/license is not hugely different. But sometimes additional or slightly different information may be provided. When I searched the index I found affidavits for marriages that never took place. I also found couples for whom there were two affidavits - apparently their wedding had been rescheduled for several months later and they applied a second time for a license. 

Here is my grandparents' affidavit for license to marry and associated filed documents, which I acquired on-site at the NYC Municipal Archives.

And this is the associated certificate of marriage - also acquire several years ago from the archives.
My grandparents applied for their marriage license on 11 July 1916 and married on 12 August 1916. 
  • Under clergyman on the affidavit it provides a location (Harlem Terrace Hall) not provided on the certificate. 
  • My grandparents' community of origin is listed on the affidavit, but not on the certificate (although, the name of the community was misspelled, confused with the more well-known Lublin). 
  • My grandmother's occupation (ladies waist) was listed on the affidavit and none was provided on the certificate. This is the only document on which I have any information that she ever worked outside the home.
  • The officiant's full name is provided on the affidavit. In addition, his name is written several times - giving one an opportunity to decipher difficult handwriting.

Back to Reclaim the Records

After indications they would continue to fight the Reclaim the Records request, the City abruptly changed course and approached Reclaim the Records' attorneys with an offer to settle. This victory means new access to over 600,000 genealogical records on 48 microfilms. This is huge! A big thank you is due Brooke for her tenacity in the face of rejection.

There is much work yet to do. Now Brooke hopes to fulfill her goal of placing the images of the index online (with free access) and then finding an entity to create a searchable index of the records so that researchers can more easily find their quarry.Armed with the index information, researchers may then order the records from the Municipal Archives.

The next Freedom of Information targets will be additional New York City and New Jersey records that should, based upon state law, be publicly available, but are not. Brooke is soliciting our opinions regarding future targets. See Reclaim the Records website and newsletter for more information about this exciting development.


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