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Genealogical search sheds light on mystery of Hannah Palmer’s lonely death

The genealogical mystery has been solved, at least partially.

Hannah Borden Palmer, a longtime Buffalo resident who died at age 96 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Forest Lawn in 1940, became the focus of her surviving family’s efforts to learn more about its long-lost relatives. A story on the family’s search appeared last Sunday in The Buffalo News, after the family submitted an obituary for Palmer 76 years after her death.

The family discovered that Palmer had an adopted daughter named Grace, who was born in 1890 and lived with her before marrying and remaining in Buffalo.

But why was that daughter, who apparently married into a well-to-do family, not around to help bury her mother?

Members of the Western New York Genealogical Society have found records suggesting that Grace died in her late 40s in 1937, more than two years before her mother’s death.

“At this point, it appears that there’s a lot of information leading us toward the good possibility that this woman was married three times, that she was living with her adoptive mother (at times), that she died in 1937 and that she was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Orchard Park,” said Jennifer Liber Raines, a leader in the Western New York Genealogical Society.

Now, in emails to The Buffalo News, Raines and Janet Wright Garrett of the Western New York Genealogical Society forwarded written records that provide strong clues about the life and death of the adopted daughter Grace, who at various times used the last names of Hodge, Ward, Smith and Groot. Here are some of those records, almost all including references to Hannah B. Palmer:

• A July 1911 Buffalo Courier announcement that Grace would marry Herbert R. Ward in August, followed by a divorce listing for the same couple seven years later.

• A 1920 Buffalo Evening News announcement by Mrs. H.B. Palmer that her daughter Grace was marrying William F. Smith.

• Several census references, in 1915, 1920, 1925 and 1930, that Grace was living with her mother in residences on Plymouth Avenue and North Street. Grace was unmarried at several points, but also lived part of the time with her husband and mother.

• A 1926 Buffalo Evening News social note that Mrs. William F. Smith was spending the winter in Florida with her mother, Mrs. H.B. Palmer, to scout golf courses in the younger woman’s role as “chairman” of the South Shore Country Club’s women’s golf committee.

• A 1934 social notice listing her as attending an event, accompanied by Torben S. Groot. They apparently would marry and live in Gra-Tor Manor (named after both of them).

• A Buffalo Courier-Express death notice for Grace Palmer Groot in November 1937.

• And a photo of a headstone for Torben Groot (who died in 1965), along with information about his wife, Grace H. Groot, including a death date matching the one listed in her death notice.

As with many such searches, gaps still remain in Grace’s life, including the end of her marriage to William Smith. Still, Wendy Warner, Palmer’s great-great-niece from Berea, Ohio, was thrilled about the mostly new information.

“That’s fantastic,” she said. “It just fills in more pieces of the puzzle, to know what happened to this lady (Palmer) and why. At least now I know why she was being taken care of in the Episcopal Church home. When her daughter died, there was no immediate family to help her. So it makes perfect sense.”

Raines of the Western New York Genealogical Society sprinkled her comments with words and phrases like “appears” and “possibility” and “looks like,” because genealogists emphasize how precisely accurate they need to be when it comes to unearthing ancestors’ family connections.

“We have very high standards of proof,” said Raines, who leads the community-outreach efforts for the local genealogical society. “It takes a lot of digging. It’s not about assumptions. It’s about finding as much evidence as you can.”

Buffalo, a city with strong and deep family roots, is rich in such sophisticated research. The Western New York Genealogical Society has 450 members and about 1,400 Facebook followers. The region also boasts several other genealogical groups, formed along ethnic or geographic lines.

“We are here basically to preserve our history, to educate people how to do genealogical research and to advocate for the preservation of records,” Raines said.

Genealogists use a variety of sources, including birth certificates, census records, marriage licenses, property records, death certificates, obituaries, other newspaper notices, probate records and, of course, websites devoted to genealogical searches.

The genealogical searches, besides chronicling an ancestor’s birth and death, along with the joys, triumphs and heartaches in between, also make for great reading, especially of old-time newspapers.

For example, one column of July social notices was headlined “Informal Social Affairs on the Calendar for the Folk Remaining in Town.” And a group of 1918 divorce listings referred to all the “Brave Boys Now in Khaki” not hesitating to “take plunge into matrimonial sea,” before “Cupid keeps on the job and gains many victims.”