The case of Bessie Belle Bartoo is a sad and strange puzzle—sad because a child’s death always is, and strange because of the very few details we have about her, almost all are in conflict.
Folklore or Fact?
I first found Bessie Belle mentioned in a source my Mom and I refer to as “the Bartoo book.” Our Family Records, a genealogy by Eli Bartoo and Dorr Raymond Bartoo (September 1938), lists her as the second child of Smith and Rosa (Baker) Bartoo, born May 26, 1891 and died December 14, 1898. Another source called Sam’s Clan, a similar compilation but on the descendants of Samuel Baker, was compiled and written by Betty A. Bertrand in 1979, and it agrees with the Bartoo book and expands on its details, indicating that Bessie Belle died of diphtheria and that she is buried at Whites Corners Cemetery.
I am grateful for these listings—unfortunately, children who lived and died between census years are often overlooked entirely. However, the authors of these books collected information via old-fashioned letter-writing. Neither book cites its sources, and I haven’t been able to find vital records to confirm their claims.
What I did find was this listing in the Potter County Pennsylvania Record of Deaths (Book 1, page 15, line 8), housed at the Courthouse Prothonotary Office at 1 East 2nd Street in Coudersport, Pennsylvania:
Full Name of Deceased: Bartoo, Bessie B
Age: 7 mo
Condition: (blank; this space was for marital status)
Place of Birth: Sharon twp
Date of Death: 11/14/98
Place of Death: Harrison
Cause of Death: Newborn’s Croup
Duration of Illness: 12 days
Place Interred: Whites Corners
Name of Father: Smith Bartoo
Name of Mother: Rosa Bartoo
Recorded: Jan’y 13, 1899
The official record conflicts with the family-compiled genealogies and says she died on November 14, 1898 of Newborn’s Croup at age seven months. That would put her date of birth around April 1898 instead of May 26, 1891. It does confirm her parentage, but effectively challenges everything else we know about her.
Checking the Cemetery
Bessie Belle’s tombstone, inscribed with her name and the dates 1891-1898, offers little insight. Though it is transcribed at Painted Hills Genealogical Society, Tri-Counties Genealogy & History, and Find-A-Grave, I actually visited Whites Corners Cemetery myself in 2009. The anachronistic stone is similar in style to that of her parents, as well as two other Bartoo stones in the same plot. I’m no expert in such things, but it lacks the wear I’d expect one hundred and nineteen Pennsylvania winters to render.
Though I have not been able to confirm this, I suspect that Bessie’s brother Clarence purchased or provided for the gravestones for his parents and sister. While the stone builds the case for a seven-year-old Bessie, its weight as a genealogical source is no greater than the compiled family histories.
What is true, then? The folklore of unsourced research? The dates written in slightly too-modern stone? Or the official public death record?
Looking at the Bigger Picture
This puzzle can be partially solved, I believe, by looking beyond the records and considering their context.
Cause of Death
The cause-of-death discrepancy resolves with a little Googling. Though now seen rarely in vaccinated countries, the barking cough and swollen airways that characterize croup can develop in diphtheria cases. Before the vaccine was developed in 1923, the terms “diphtheria” and “croup” were used somewhat more interchangeably.
What about her age? Was Bessie Belle 7 years old, or only 7 months? I believe this is answered between the lines of the 1900 census.
Looking at Clarence, Jesse, and Roxey’s birth order and years, there is a 5 year gap where an 1891 birth fits comfortable. Meanwhile, the gap between Jesse and Roxey could also accommodate a sibling, but Roxey’s August 1898 birth does not leave room for Bessie to have been born in April of the same year.
Another clue lies with the absence of a record. In Pennsylvania, counties registered births and deaths from 1893-1905, and beginning in 1906, the state took charge of them. While at the Prothonotary’s office back in 2009, I copied all the Bartoo births listed in that 1893-1905 window. Jesse (1894) is not listed and should be. Roxey (1898) and Shirley (1900) should be listed, and they are. The birth record does not include Bessie, which suggests that the 1891 date may be the correct one. As for Jesse’s absence from the record—maybe Smith and Rosa failed to comply with the relatively new rule when he was born.
Date of Death
Finally, did Bessie die on November 14th or December 14th of 1898?
I tried looking at historic newspapers for those dates. I thought news reports of diphtheria cases might provide some evidence, even if the Bartoo family was not specifically mentioned. However, there is a frustrating coverage gap in the pages available online, and I found mentions of sickness and death peppered across time rather than clustered in a shorter span. Then I noticed a particular detail in the births and deaths from the Prothonotary’s office.
I jotted sixteen entries into my notes. Four of the sixteen, including Bessie Belle’s death, show January 13, 1899 as the record entry date. From this, I infer that the clerk created records in batches, which makes sense. In a rural area such as Potter county, it might take months to accumulate enough births and deaths to warrant pulling that great big book off the shelf.
Passing time introduces errors. So does copying. And so do repetitive tasks. And unfortunately, the one error (7 months vs 7 years) casts doubt on the rest of the record.
While my reasoning is far from actual proof, for the time being I’m persuaded that the family’s date, December 14, 1898, is more likely to be correct.
Bessie Belle Bartoo: In Memoriam
I do wish there was more to know about Bessie Belle Bartoo. Among the photos my great-uncle shared with the family some years ago, there are a couple unidentified girls, dressed up with hair bows and curls, and posed with a hand resting on a chair or standing beside a table with a fishbowl. So far, we haven’t matched their faces to other photos in the collection. Might one of them be Bessie Belle?
It’s possible. Perhaps there will be an opportunity at some point to make a connection, restore missing moments, and see a sweet face remembered once more.
Best laid plans… Thanks for reading this “Wednesday’s Child” post on a Thursday. If you’d like to keep in touch, here are some places to find me–