What Was a 66 Year-Old Man Doing on the Roof of a Building, Anyway?

When I found the 1886 NYC birth certificate for my great-grandfather, Harry Davis, it was the first time I learned the names of his parents, Isaac and Sarah Davis. They were hiding in plain sight in numerous other birth certificates, censuses, Trow’s NYC Directory listings, and, of course, death certificates.  Their graves even turned out to be just a subway ride away!  All of this new information had me quite surprised — and somewhat disappointed — to discover I had ancestors who had done the typical immigrate-to-the-Lower-East-Side thing.  Previously I had thought all my family had gone straight to Pennsylvania.

All these distracting revelations prevented me from reading Isaac’s death certificate carefully the first few times through.  But eventually I beheld this doozy of a cause of death:

Isaac Davis' death certificate

“The chief and determining cause of his death was: Fractured skull and multiple fractures (illegible). Fell from 6 floor of building. That the contributory causes were: Dec. 19/’16 – 2 PM 97 Ave D.”

Of course I had to know what happened!  Estelle Guzik’s Genealogical Resources in New York led me to believe the police records wouldn’t have survived, and my calls to the hospital in which he died went unreturned.  The mystery lingered for years after that.

In May I found myself in Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court for a different branch (full story on that here), and while there, I looked up Isaac on a whim.  There he was!  His estate record held this tantalizing clue:

Isaac Davis' estate file

“A cause of action in negligence resulting in death against Esther S. Kaufman of 1?32 Ludlow Street NY.”

Suddenly the trail was hot again — a cause of action does not mean that there was a lawsuit, but it sure suggests there might have been!

I went back to the NYC Municipal Archives where I had pulled the death certificate so many years before and inquired about what court records might survive.  The archivist pointed me to a finding aid for the facility.  But before I even got made it to “court records,” alphabetical order hit me first with “coroner’s records.”  Tantalizing!

Indeed, on 12/19/16, Isaac Davis was listed in the coroner’s log as having died at 4:44 PM in Bellevue Hospital of a fractured skull.  A jury heard the facts of his and seven other men’s deaths on 2/13/16.  The findings of the inquest were published on 3/1/17:

Isaac Davis inquest findings

“Fract skull — multiple fractures of lower extremities caused on the day aforesaid while attempting to cross roof between buildings 97 Ave D. and 283 7th St. by accidentally falling between same.”

So:  the plot thickens.  Was the fall really an accident?  What did Esther S. Kaufman have to do with it?  What was he doing so far from his home in Brownsville, Brooklyn?  And what was an elderly peddler doing on the roof of a building, anyway?

I ran out of time perusing the coroner’s records, and I haven’t yet renewed my attempts to find the court records, if they even exist.  Hopefully I’ll find enough to write Part Two of this mystery!

3 thoughts on “What Was a 66 Year-Old Man Doing on the Roof of a Building, Anyway?

  1. You must certainly know of the amazing website
    a huge collection of old newspapers from the state of New York. It’s there that I found some information about a similar fall from a 6th story roof (only the one remotely in my family was a suicide) – and of course, that story (death by fall from 6-story in Brooklyn) is why I read your post so avidly! But not only the name and date, but also the whole story is a different one. Still, very interesting reading, thanks for posting.

  2. Pingback: Speech on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Synagogue’s Dedication | Homestead Hebrews

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