Contained within over 100 thick books in the Trinity Archives are handwritten registers of Trinity Parish’s “official acts” dating back to the early eighteenth century. While not every record survives (many were lost in the Great Fire of 1776), Trinity Archives has data on marriages, baptisms, and burials recorded over hundreds of years at Trinity Church and the eleven chapels that were once part of the Parish.
In 2006, the Trinity Archives began digitizing these records, creating a searchable online database. A rotating cast of part-time employees and interns have transcribed 139,596 official acts so far, including almost all burials, baptisms up through 1918, and marriages through 1908. Now, it’s possible for genealogists to research their family history remotely. The work will continue until all registers are digitized, though recent records will not be made available to the public.
Archives employees have made some surprising discoveries in the registers. Buried deep in the 1913 baptismal register for St. Agnes Chapel is a line recording the baptism of one Humphrey DeForrest Bogart, who would grow up to be the “Greatest Male Star of All Time” according to the American Film Institute.
Bogart was baptized with his younger sisters on January 27, 1910. He was ten at the time of baptism, which has prompted unanswered questions about why his parents chose that moment to baptize their children. At the time, Bogart was a student at Trinity School, located on the same block as St. Agnes on West 91st Street. While Bogart’s son later described his father as a “lapsed Episcopalian”, it’s worth noting that both of his children were baptized in the Episcopal church and that his funeral was held in All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, California.
Another fascinating discovery in the registers was the name “Joel Roberts Poinsett” in the list of baptismal sponsors of Ann Elliott Huger Cottonet on August 18. 1825. Poinsett was born in South Carolina in 1779 and studied medicine and law, though his first love was botany. Poinsett had an illustrious career as a statesman, serving in South Carolina’s House of Representatives, the U.S. House of Representatives, as Martin Van Buren’s Secretary of War, and founding the institution that became the Smithsonian. But Poinsett is remembered best for popularizing and lending his name to the Poinsettia, a plant synonymous with Christmas.
In 1825, Poinsett was appointed the first United States Minister to Mexico. While in southern Mexico, Poinsett became enchanted by the Cuetlaxochitl plant, a small tree that develops bright red leaves in the dark winter months. He sent samples home and began propagating and sharing the plant with collectors and botanical gardens. Soon, a friend of a friend was selling the plants, and by 1836 popular Christmas decoration was known as the poinsettia. His namesake flowers are grown in the Smithsonian Gardens and used as decorations throughout capitol buildings.
For every recognizable name in the registers, there are thousands of names you’ve never heard: Helen Ruth Bausch, baptized in St. Luke’s Chapel in 1913; Lucia Paddock and William Walter Cobb, both of Kamkaskee, Illinois, married in Trinity Church in 1882; Hannah Beckett, 32, of New Jersey, who died from “insanity” in 1834 and buried at St. John’s.
Whitey Flynn, archival technician, began work on the registers project in 2006. He estimates he spent 4,000 hours digitizing records before moving on to other projects in the Archives.
“I always preferred doing the burials,” Flynn explained. “I guess I like knowing the end of the story.” Causes of death—smallpox, pthisis, ague, dropsy, “accidentally falling off the roof of 31 Courtlandt”, decay, water on the brain, fever—give a glimpse into how the world has changed since Trinity’s founding.
“Certainly when I read cause of death I start to extrapolate how old they are, what were the circumstances of their death,” Flynn continued. “Part of the reason burials are fascinating is you get to see how long people got here [on earth].”
Each chapel’s records tell their own story. One nineteenth century sexton of St. John’s Chapel has become notorious for his spelling errors: he recorded a woman as having died of “purple fever” instead of “puerperal fever.” George K. Liscomb and Paul Kast appear as witnesses at many marriages conducted in St. Chrysostom’s Chapel. Assistant Archivist Anne Petrimoulx did a little research and discovered that the men were the chapel janitors, presumably called from their work to witness the nuptials of those who arrived without friends or family.
Interested in exploring the registers yourself? Click here to get started.
Author: Trinity Wall Street Communications
Created: March 18, 2009
Trinity Wall Street has played a pivotal role in the religious and civic life of the city and nation since its founding in 1697. This blog will answer readers’ questions and provide a glimpse into the fascinating and provocative history of the parish.