Hannah Borden Palmer earned her master’s degree at age 19, during the height of the Civil War.
She moved to Buffalo in her early 40s, living here more than half a century before spending her last five years in the Episcopal Church Home.
And when she died at age 96 in early 1940, almost two years before Pearl Harbor, she was buried as a pauper, with no headstone in an unmarked grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Now Palmer’s descendants want an obituary for the woman who died 76 years ago Tuesday.
Why now, after all these years?
Because, until the last few years, her family couldn’t connect all the dots of her life, including her last days and her final resting place in Buffalo.
“It fills in my family, as far as where I come from,” said Wendy Warner, Palmer’s great-great-niece. “I knew nothing about her, other than that she was married to a doctor. Now I know how she fits into the whole picture.”
As the Internet becomes an increasingly valuable search tool and families become interested in their geneaology, cemeteries are getting more requests for such searches.
Joseph P. Dispenza, president of Forest Lawn, has been with the cemetery for 25 years. For the first 23, he saw only occasional requests from relatives seeking to find long-lost ancestors. But in the last two years, it’s become frequent, “multiple times a week,” he said, as relatives find the final resting places of people they’ve typically never met.
“When you find a family member, it’s as if a burden is lifted off your back,” he said. “It’s a sense of joy. My best way to describe it, it’s the end of the movie Roots: ‘Kunta Kinte, I found you.’”
The gaps now have been pretty much filled in for Palmer’s family, led by her three great-nieces and their children. Relatives have arranged for a flat headstone, in keeping with the requirements for her grave in Forest Lawn’s Section DD; it will be installed this spring.
Warner, from Berea, Ohio, has found both joy and sadness in almost completing the puzzle about her great-great-aunt Hannah, who lived from Oct. 8, 1843 to Jan. 26, 1940.
“It was very rewarding to find her, but disappointing to find out that she had wound up in a wooden box, unmarked and unknown,” Warner said.
Palmer was a college-educated woman, the wife of a Civil War surgeon whom she accompanied to the war front in Michigan, a leader of the women’s temperance movement and a teacher who opened her own private school.
“I guess the things that impressed me the most, it blew me away that she graduated from college in the 1860s and accompanied her husband to the front,” Warner said. “She was a pretty independent, well-educated, true-to-her-convictions woman. She was a pretty amazing lady.”
That doesn’t mean she was immune to hardship. Hannah Palmer gave birth to four children. But three never reached their fifth birthdays, and the oldest lived only to age 12.
All the work that Warner, her mother, Irene Warner, and two aunts, Katharine Kydd and Margaret Mugglin, have done in tracing Palmer’s life and death would have been impossible, or certainly much harder, if there hadn’t been obituaries about Palmer’s husband and other relatives.
That’s why they filled out an obituary form and sent it last week to The Buffalo News, among other newspapers.
Searching for ancestors
This is a trend that has taken off. It’s almost paradoxical to think that the searches for long-dead family members from another era have gone viral in today’s electronic world.
Dispenza, from Forest Lawn, thinks it makes sense.
“It’s cathartic,” he said. “It gives proof to your existence... It opens the door to who and what we are as a family, regardless of the generation.”
This newfound interest in long-lost ancestors also has changed the way that cemeteries operate.
The Forest Lawn Group, which also operates three smaller cemeteries and a crematory, houses the remains of close to 700,000 local people. Its 1.3 million pages of burial records, once buried in a basement vault, now are housed in the new Margaret L. Wendt Archive and Resource Center on Main Street, across from Canisius College.
Those records, dating back to the 1850s, are being brought online. Mark DePalma, Forest Lawn’s marketing director, said roughly 35 to 40 percent of those records now are available electronically. More will be added as funding permits, Dispenza said.
That change, of course, opens up the whole process.
“Today you can be sitting in your home in Tokyo, remembering stories of your Grandma’s house in Niagara Falls or Buffalo,” Dispenza said. “You literally flip on your computer, google Forest Lawn and start searching. That couldn’t be done 18 months ago.”
The search for Hannah Palmer
This wasn’t a linear, continuously progressive search. The challenge of solving this puzzle had its fits and starts.
It began maybe 10 years ago, when Warner got a handwritten family tree from her mother’s cousin.
“That made me aware of the brothers and sisters of my great-grandfather,” she said.
She signed up for Ancestry.com and learned that some of Hannah Borden Palmer’s family, the Bordens, could be traced back at least to the founders of Portsmouth, R.I. during colonial times.
The search intensified over the last three years or so, as these genealogy websites added more and more records to their databases.
Using obituaries she found online, some family and court documents and the sites Find A Grave and Ancestry.com, Warner learned about her great-great-aunt’s husband, Dr. Elmore Palmer, the couple’s Michigan roots and their move to Buffalo in 1886.
About a year and a half ago, Warner called Forest Lawn and learned that the couple was buried there but had no headstone. One of Warner’s aunts, Margaret Mugglin, requested and obtained Hannah Palmer’s death certificate.
“The burial records basically said she was buried in a wooden box with her husband’s ashes in a church charity plot,” Warner said.
Warner came to Buffalo twice, once in July with her mother and aunt Katharine Kydd, and the other time by herself in October. During those two visits, the family saw the modest grave and picked out the new headstone that will sit flat on her otherwise unrecognizable grave.
“They were nice enough to stick a little flag in her location, so we could find it,” Warner said of Forest Lawn officials. “It’s just very satisfying to know someone still cares.”
One piece of the puzzle, though, still remains unsolved:
The involvement of the Palmers’ adopted daughter, Grace, who was born in about 1890 and married a man named William Smith. Warner and her family can track her only through 1930.
A woman named Grace signed Hannah Palmer’s death certificate, but with a different last name from Palmer or Smith.
“What happened to Grace, and is she the person who signed the death certificate?” Warner asked. “That’s one of the mysteries we’re working on right now.”
Through various sources, her family has learned that Hannah Borden Palmer was born in 1843 in Battle Creek, Mich., where her father was a circuit minister. She earned her master’s degree from Albion College in Michigan in 1862, before teaching school and then marrying Dr. Palmer, a surgeon in the 29th Michigan Volunteer Infantry.
Following the war, she became active with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, serving as president of her local Michigan chapter. After the death of their four children, the Palmers moved to Boulder, Co., where she opened and successfully ran a private school. But her husband’s work led them to move in 1886 to Buffalo, where she became a key official with the Royal Templars of Temperance group.
The couple last lived together at 309 Plymouth Ave. before Dr. Palmer died in 1909, according to death and burial records. It now seems that his wife probably kept his ashes with her until her death from arterial sclerosis, 31 years after her husband’s.
“She was interred along with the ashes of her husband at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo in the Church Charity Section with no obituary and remained ‘lost’ to the current generations of family until 2015,” reads the family-prepared obituary form.
Her “interment record” from 1940 lists “Hanna (sic) B. Palmer & ashes of Elmore Palmer, MD.” And her burial permit, on a line that asks for nearest living relative, says “None.”
So who arranged for the remains of Hannah Palmer and her husband to be buried together, for ever?
“Some funeral director or nurse or nurse’s aide did the right thing, to keep the husband and wife together, even when no one was watching,” Dispenza said.
“They did it because it was the right thing to do.”