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A 40-year career spent identifying lost lives in Baltimore

Francis O'Neill, senior reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society, has worked for 40 years at the society.
Francis O'Neill, senior reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society, has worked for 40 years at the society. (Amy Davis)

When footnotes of Baltimore history prove evasive, and the unknowns seem impenetrable, researchers beat a path to the venerable Maryland Historical Society. There, in a library little bothered by time, sits Francis O’Neill, who is completing his 40th year at the corner of Park Avenue and Monument Street in Mount Vernon.

O’Neill seems at home in the pleasant environment of H. Furlong Baldwin Library’s tables, oak filing cabinets and index cards. The computer seems to have no place here, despite the revolution in digitizing old records in the past decade.

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O’Neill is honest: “I have no head for computers at all,” he said. He prefers the printed page and the physical document. He puts his preference to practice — he has completed volume after volume of marriage and death records in Baltimore. He is responsible for finding between 250,000 and 300,000 marriages and deaths.

O’Neill, who earned degrees in history and library science from the Catholic University of America, was born in New Hampshire and came to Baltimore in the late 1970s. He initially lived in Old Goucher on Calvert Street and now lives in Hampden.

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“He’s incredible. His brain is a human card catalog,” said Mark Letzer, the historical society’s president. “Francis is an institution here. When I arrived 25 years ago, he was the first person I met. His patience is that of a biblical Job. He is the kind of person who likes a typewriter or a handwritten note, not an email.”

O’Neill cracks genealogical riddles. He has a knack of unearthing ancestors, what they did for a living and how many children they had.

“Sometimes you wonder how anybody finds their ancestors,” he said.

He uses the files of newspapers and federal census records for his current project, a social X-ray of neighborhood streets. He started in the mid-19th-century in Mount Vernon and is working his way westward on the city map. He goes past Howard Street and the Bolton Hill and Madison Park neighborhoods on the way to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Old city directories and old social registers help guide him as he compiles lists of streets and their residents. These were thick books published each year that listed Baltimore’s residents and where they lived. There are also records of businesses and houses of worship, schools and other details. The best of these directories are accurate — and while published for profit contain answers to questions about life in Baltimore.

O’Neill is partial to the 1885 volume (one of two competitors in the city book information field) printed and compiled by the Sheriff and Taylor firm at what was then 58 N. Charles St. O’Neill notes that navigating old Baltimore is not easy for scholars. Baltimore underwent two street house address re-numberings. Persons trying to find where great-grandparents resided need to be diligent.

“This 1885 directory shows the publisher worked diligently to ensure accuracy,” O’Neill said. “It’s attractive as a piece of printing and easy to read. It lists widows and her husband’s name too. Some of the other directories are less accurate, and the compilers made no attempt to give the right spellings.”

He describes his findings. The wealthy of Baltimore built large homes along Charles and Saint Paul streets and Park Avenue. He sees, from his studies of records, that their children inherited these mansions and maybe lived there one more generation.

“The period of the First World War was a time of change in Baltimore.” O’Neill said. “The generation who built Mount Vernon could sometimes persuade their children to live on in the family home. But after that, the next generation moved on and you start seeing the great old houses becoming a dentist office or it is made into apartments.”

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