Handling of Dates
[From the forward, on p. 1:7] "It will be noticed that the ancient mode of dating, known as Old Style, which was in vogue prior to 1752, has not been followed implicitly. Whenever a date occurred in January, or February, or before March 25, I have given the year which, according to New Style, properly represents the fact. There would seem to be no valid reason why the birth of John Richardson, of Woburn, for instance, should be given as Feb. 5, 1731-2, any more than we should, at the present day, refer to George Washington as having been born Feb. 11, 1731-2. If our historians deem it correct to speak of the English Revolution as occurring in Feb., 1689, why should we refer to local events as happening in Feb., 1688-9? While I have not changed the day of the month from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as is now universally done in referring to the natal day of the Father of his country [i.e, changing George Washington's birthday from Feb. 11 to Feb. 22], I have, as stated above, uniformly adopted the year which according to the present method of reckoning time, would be regarded as correct chronology." [emphasis added]
[Quick Background] English law (which governed the colonies) mandated a change to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 so that 2 Sep 1752 was followed the next day by 14 Sep 1752. The beginning of the year was moved from March 25 to January 1. Prior to this, dates from January 1 to March 24 were considered part of the previous year. Thus, colonial writers would write 11 Feb 1731 and mean a date we would now calculate to be 22 Feb 1732.
[Analysis] This causes a problem in compiling vital records. Usually, such works list the date as recorded to avoid introducing ambiguity as to whether a conversion has been done or not, assuming the reader will be familiar with calendar changes. But it is often common to express the date 11 Feb 1731/2 to indicate that the context of the work shows this February was in the year we would now consider 1732, but was, at the time it was recorded, considered 1731. (Some original records would even record the year as 1732 alias 1731, or in a similar form.) The dual year notation is especially necessary if the work re-orders chronological records alphabetically, since by doing so, it removes chronological hints that would make the intended meaning clear. The dual year notation for dates from Jan. 1 through Mar. 24 is unambiguous, as 11 Feb 1731/2 can only mean one specific year.
[Opinion] In answer to the author's assertion that "I see no reason...", I would answer that the reason to use the date 1731-2 is to avoid introducing ambiguity. Without reading this single paragraph on p. 1:7, a reader would not know whether 1731 means 1730/1 or 1731/2. If the reader assumed 1731 represented a literal transcription, based on the normal practice at the time the record was written, the reader would assume it meant 1731/2. As the above comment makes clear, in this book it means 1730/1, and the reader's intuitive approach would be wrong.
This compiler saw the forest, but could not appreciate the individual trees. He chose the path based on the big picture (how historians handle dates, meshing with modern dates), without considering that most users would be interested in looking up a single person or date, rather than reading his work from cover to cover, so are likely to miss his explanation. But, even in this, he was not consistent, since he, unlike historians, chose not to convert dates, only years. In choosing his approach, I think the compiler erred. The reader must handle this source differently than almost every other collection of vital records as a result. --Jrich 13:04, 9 November 2008 (EST)
The availability online of images of some of the handwritten record provides actual proof of the confusion caused by the above date policy. For Person:Elizabeth Wyman (16), the published record shows the birth (p. 288) in Feb. 1698. Because the next child in the family is born 1700/01, it is tempting to assume this is 1698/99, which would be typical usage for the time period, and follows the typical pattern of a two year gap between children. An investigation of an older record (appears to still be a copy, possibly made late 1700s or early 1800s), the original record explicitly said 1697. The changing of records, without any indication of which were changed, and which were not, has effectively introduced inaccuracies into this source, and greatly reduced the trustworthiness of this source. --Jrich 16:01, 12 November 2015 (UTC)
Age at Death
Not having seen the original records, I cannot come to a positive conclusion. I have encountered a few cases where the age at death seems unreliable and have begun to wonder if this data was added after the fact. Perhaps an idle town clerk spent his time writing them in? Perhaps the compilers tried to match birth and deaths when this work was compiled. But this work does stand out in comparison to other published records in the number of ages at death that are found in the death records. Unfortunately, if added after the fact, this represents a deviation from strict reporting of the records, and increases the uncertainty about that added information.
One recent case involved Person:Benjamin Converse (2). The records show born to his parents a son Benjamin in 1718, another son Benjamin born in 1727, and then a son Benjamin dying in 1729 aged 11. Wills show no son named Benjamin survived, and no contemporary witness would report the death of a two-year old as age 11. The only explanation that makes sense, barring some wild combination of errors or significant missing information, is that a person after the fact added the age at death, and used the wrong birth record when doing the calculation. In another case, an older source gave a different age at death than the records give, and as one might suspect this fairly thorough author made use of the town records in their original form, one might wonder if the age at death wasn't present in the records when he was using them? --Jrich 17:01, 22 May 2014 (UTC)
[v. 1.] pt. 1. Births, 1640-1873 -- pt. 2. Deaths, 1640-1873 -- pt. 3. Marriages, 1640-1873 -- Cutter, W.R. and Johnson, E.F. Transcript of epitaphs in Woburn first and second burial grounds
[v. 2.] pt. 4. Births, 1873-1890 -- pt. 5. Deaths, 1873-1890 -- pt. 6. Marriages, 1873-1890
[v. 3.] pt. 7. Births, 1891-1900 -- pt. 8. Deaths, 1891-1900 -- pt. 9. Marriages, 1891-1900 -- pt. 10. Marriage intentions, 1699-1890.
FHL film numbers
Google Books has several, but not all, of the Woburn vital records series available online.
Part 1 Births contains the following sections:
Part II Deaths contains the following sections:
Part III Marriages contains the following sections:
Part V Deaths 1873-1890 contains the following sections:
Part VI Marriages 1873-1890 is included in the published volume for Part III above. As a separate publication, it contains the following sections:
Part X Marriage Intentions 1699 to 1890 on archive.org.