Thanks to the organization Reclaim the Records, the death indexes that have not been publicly available now are online. At this time, the records from 1880 to 1956 have been uploaded to the Internet Archive. After the records were uploaded then they have to be processed to add various other formats which also makes them available to be viewed online. There are a few years which still have not been completely reformatted: 1921, 1923, 1924, 1944, 1945, 1950 & 1951. To view any of the records go to the web page: https://archive.org/details/New_York_State_Death_Index_xxxx where you replace the four x’s at the end with a four digit year.
Up until the 1990s the only way to search for a death certificate was to write directly to the Town where the death occurred or to apply to the NY State Department of Health (DOH) in Albany. The DOH would look to see if they have the certificate. Then in the 1990s DOH opened their office to 4 or 5 people at a time to look through microfiche indexes of birth, marriages and deaths. The Rochester Public Library at sometime around the year 2000 negotiated with DOH to be the first place outside of Albany to get copies of the microfiche. I was told that it took a lot of negotiations and assurances that copies of the microfiche could not be made. Once copies were in the Rochester library, other libraries also requested and got copies of the microfiche. So up until a couple of months ago there were 10 place to view the microfiche. About 10 years ago DOH was getting tired of dealing with people searching the records so they transferred their fiche over to the NY State Archives.
Information on a web page of the NY State Archives say that the records began in June 1880. Looking at the 1880 index, record number one is for Velma E. Bugbee who died Jan. 18, 1880 in Busti, NY. It is possible that the certificate was sent to DOH after June. The first 5 death records are from before June 1880.
These indexes do NOT cover the entire State. Prior to 1914 Albany, Buffalo and Yonkers had their own records office and those death certificate are still in those cities. New York City has always kept their own records. Up until 1898 New York City only included Manhattan. So early records for Brooklyn (Kings Co.), Queens, Bronx and Staten Island (Richmond Co.) are included in this set of indexes. I did find deaths listed in the index for Flatbush and Gravesend which were absorbed by Brooklyn and also Flushing and Jamaica which were in Queens.
The early indexes (1880 – 1939) are alphabetical (see example 1). Death certificates were numbered as they came to the DOH office. You can index a set of death certificates in two ways. First would be to take all the certificates and sort them alphabetically. Then re-sort in numerical order after the index was typed. That would be a huge task by the time they received over 20,000 death certificates in a year. They could have created an alphabetical card file then type the index from the cards. It is very possible that an alphabetical card file was created as the death certificates were received and then a typed index created from them.
I am now sure that the indexes were typed many years after the death certificates were received. Notice the form of example 1. It is typed on a pre-printed form with a heading and vertical lines. I noticed on some of the forms in the upper left corner was a series of numbers. On pages in the 1886 index was “9-20-40-2500-M” and on the 1891 index was “6-13-41-8000-M.” The index forms for 1933 had “10-5-42-700-M” and 1937 pages had “8-23-46-12000-M.” So it appears that the first three set of digits are the month, day and year that the form was created. That means that those early indexes were typed between the years 1940 and 1946.
Look at the bottom of example 1. There is a 3 segmented rectangle. I knew right away what that was. I have seen similar things on many microfilm rolls. It was something to hold down pages while being filmed. That means these indexes were in some kind of bound book. Further evidence was in the 1889 index which filmed as double wide pages. So do the books still exist? If they do they would be in real bad shape by now. When the indexes were typed they probably would have made a couple extra copies using carbon paper and carbon paper wears out. Maybe that is why some of the pages are so hard to read.
When the books were filmed were they put on microfilm or microfiche? Microfiche was invented by an employee of National Cash Register (now just NCR) in 1961. Looking at the index page you notice at the top and upside down it says it is on “Kodak Safety Film.” Kodak didn’t invent microfilm but in 1928 they bought the patent and started a big sale push in the 1930s. Also the film has a date code of a circle and a plus sign. Research shows that the code means that the film was manufactured in either 1931, 1951 or 1971 as Kodak reused the codes every 20 years. On the edges of the 1884 index was the code of a pyramid and a plus sign. The symbols means that the film was manufactured in 1930, 1950 or 1970. Then knowing that the index books were created in the early 1940s, it seems most likely that the paper index books were microfilmed in 1950-1.
The indexes are completely different starting with 1940 (see example 2). The names are arranged by Soundex code (see this page for explanation of Soundex). Notice the holes along the right edge and that all the text are capital letters. Those mean that these pages were printed on an early computer. But did DOH have a computer in 1940? That isn’t possible as the first real computer was ENIAC in 1946. More likely is that DOH got their first computer in the mid 1950s when a computer would be able to handle sorting the 10s of thousands of names in one year’s worth of records. Again we have indexes that were created years after the fact.
For sure the DOH had a working computer in 1957. That is because they have this web page with deaths beginning in 1957. That means in 1957 they were saving index records on some sort of tape or disk media. Evan then, it is amazing that computer data from that time still exists as data storage has changed many times over those years.
There are many pages of the death indexes that are difficult or impossible to read. There are some of the early indexes have handwritten additions. Those probably are names missed when being typed. Then there is the 1943 index where all the pages look like the microfilm has been near some heat and partially melted.
Still left undetermined is when the sets of microfiche were created. It takes a lot longer to find a name on microfilm than on microfiche, especially if the fiche are labeled on the edges with a range of surnames. So they may have transferred images to the fiche to make it easier for the staff of DOH to find a name. They may also have also created the microfiche in the 1990s when they decided to make the indexes available to the public.
When Reclaim the Records received the data from the DOH they got a portable hard drive with images that DOH says were scanned from the original vault copies. Obviously they weren’t the paper copies. I think those paper indexes were destroyed many years ago. They now online images are probably from the old microfilm.