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March 2011

Was Your Ancestor a French Crook?

Thief mark 2

We have been troubled at home by a spate a false chimney sweeps. French apartment buildings have door codes; those who do not have the code cannot get in. However, the police, fire brigade and post carriers all have pass keys. Occasionally, thieves get their hands on a pass key and suddenly are in the building, knocking on doors.

The current scam is very intimidating, especially to the elderly. The thief, sometimes even with the theatrical prop of a broom or duster, bangs on the door and says he is there to clean the flue to the apartment's heater. Try to tell him to go away and he says "It's the law!" Which it is. By law, Paris apartments must have the flue cleaned once a year. However, the city government is not so kindly as to send cleaners around. In our building, some of the elderly have let the sweeps in. Of course, they stole all they could get their hands on.

Periodically, word goes around that the burglars are marking houses again. Police stations in Belgium and France send out notices with the marks and warn people to be on the lookout for them -- made in chalk -- on one's door or front wall. The meanings are clear signals to other thieves of what sorts of potential victims can be found within. The mark above indicates that the dwelling has all ready been burgled. Here are a few others:

Plenty of money here         Plenty of money here


Nothing of interest                      Nothing of interest



Flirtatious Woman  Flirtatious woman.


Empty dwelling      Empty dwelling



Kind hearted woman    Kind-hearted woman


Zealous gendarmes Zealous police

 We would like to say that, should your French ancestor have left doodles resembling the above, he or she may have been in the fraternity of burglars, but on a closer examination, something is awry. We decided to investigate.

Our daughter has seen some of these marks on buildings in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where she hobnobs with her elite friends. She deigned to take us on an inspection tour. Every mark was either the one for "zealous police" or that for "nothing of interest", the latter being pretty hard to believe for one of the poshest neighbourhoods in all of France. It seemed clear that, when the zealous Neuilly police passed around the leaflet with the codes des voleurs, many owners stole their children's school chalk and put discouraging signs on their own front doors. 

To us, the marks were preposterous. What thief ever graciously told others where to strike next? What thief would broadcast to all the world that there were pots of money in a place he planned to rob? Wouldn't he be a bit worried that someone else would get in there before him? What thieves note, as they burgle, if the woman whose home they are stripping is flirtatious or kind-hearted? What woman is either in such a situation? Something niggled in our ageing and disintegrating memory. This last mark brought the memory back:

Offers work    Offers work


Now really, who  offers work to someone burgling their home? Does anyone recall the old stories of the hobos' codes? Used especially during the Depression, they indicated where one might find a kind lady who would offer food (or flirt), where the police would chase one away, where a job might be available. We suspect  a burglar with a sense of humour adapted these old hobos' codes to flummox the police and, by way of inverse reasoning, get owners with plenty to mark their own houses as having nothing within. 

Burglar codes are fiction, we assert here boldly, and fiction -- very old fiction -- is where they are found. In the centuries old tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the thieves mark the walls of the homes they intend to rob.  Thus, your French ancestor who doodled strangely almost certainly was not a burglar. He or she may have had a stint as a hobo, or may have been a mathematician. They make funny marks too.


1st of April - in France, this brings out the prank of slyly sticking a paper fish on someone's back, hoping he will unknowingly wear it all day and be a poisson d'avril. We like it that the French associate so many of humanity's foibles with food. A fool is a poisson (actually, the Chinese use fish for fools as well). A complete idiot is a patate or an andouille (a particularly noxious type of sausage), or one who scrawls on his house in burglar code. 

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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How To Find a Modern Will

Je donne

Finding a will or inventory such as those described in two earlier posts is not difficult if one follows the very precise procedures. There is a distinct process for recording successions (inheritances) in post-Revolutionary France. When a person dies:


1.    His death is recorded in the local mairie (town hall) in the civil registrations as an acte de décès.

2.    His death is recorded in the Registre de Successions (Register of inheritance). In smaller towns, this will be done at the mairie. In Paris and other large cities, there are separate offices, Bureaux de Successions, for the various arrondissements (boroughs). This also records if there were a will or not, and the names of any heirs. Later, the date of probate is added.

3.    There is also a property book, the Registre des Déclarations or the Registre des Mutations par Décès (Ownership Changes due to Death). This will give the full amount of the inheritance, the names of the heirs, and how much was paid to each. It will also give the date and place where the will was made, and the name of the notaire who made it. This enables the location of the will, by finding the notaire’s minutes (documents or records) for that date in the archives.

4.    Look through the box and read the will to find if an inventory of the person’s entire estate may not have been done. 



Enjoy the hunt!

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

Book Review - Ma Généalogie de siècle en siècle


Ma Généalogie cover2


Fabulous new book on French genealogy. The author, Marie-Odile Mergnac, has long been writing on the subject (a few of her works are in the column to the right on this page) but now, someone has helped her to climb out of the pit of dull, pseudo-intellectual drudgery that has darkened so much of the writing on the subject, and to avoid the smarmy attempts at farce that sully most other efforts to lighten the approach  (as per "Ah! mes aïeux..." by Rodary and Weber) to write a book that is clear, readable, thorough, intelligent and mighty useful.

Superficially, it is aimed at those who work with young people on their genealogy projects for school, and there are scattered photos of children dressed in period costumes. The writing, however, is not in any way condescending, nor is the readership intended to be children.

The structure is brilliantly geared toward the practical. Starting with the most recent sources of information, Mergnac leads back through the centuries, explaining the sources available from that time. In under three hundred pages, she covers everything but the actual, detailed codes for various records in the archives (the best source for which remains "Guide des recherches sur l'histoire des familles" by Gilles Bernard). Loosley translated, the Table of Contents reads:

  • From today to 1900
    • How to begin
    • How to assemble and preserve documents
    • How to interview family members
    • How to find information from the Second World War
    • How to find an ancestor from the First World War
    • How to find relatives from the 20th century
    • What to do when you hit a brick wall
    • How to record your first findings
  • From 1900 to 1800
    • How to understand 19th century France
    • How to go back in time using civil registrations
    • Other archives to explore
    • How to find Parisian ancestors
    • How to use genealogy associations
    • How to recontruct the lives of ancestors
    • How to discover the skills and professions of ancestors
    • How to find name changes and naturalization records
    • How to find relatives from the 19th century
    • What to do when you hit a brick wall
  • From the Empire to the Revolution
    • Understanding a changing France
    • Records unique to the era
    • Finding those who were guillotined or who emigrated
    • What to do when you hit a brick wall
  • From the Revolution to 1700
    • Understanding France at that time
    • Parish registrations
    • Non-Catholic registrations and sources
    • Paleography - that difficult handwriting
    • Reconstructing the lives of ancestors
    • Reconstructing the skills and professions of ancestors
    • How to find relatives from the 18th century
    • What to do when you hit a brick wall
  • From 1700 to 1600
    • How to go back in time using parish registrations
    • The Protestant diaspora
    • Nobility
    • Reconstructing the lives of ancestors
    • What to do when you hit a brick wall
  • Before 1600......
    • Understanding France at that time
    • How to go back in time

The headings are a bit deceptive, for every situation and collection of documentation, from abandonned children to the registration of fishermen, is covered. There are charts and numerous photos. We very much like the many photos and identifications of military medals. Many maps illustrate the sections on history. At the end is a hefty list of websites, arranged by department. There is even a small index (indices not being a strong point in French books). In French, of course.

(Scroll down and click on the image in the column to the right to buy.)


©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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Notarial Records - An Inventory Examined

Small lives

Inventories after death are a complete listing, in the presence of all heirs, of the belongings of the deceased. An inventory will include every item in the home and any other property, room by room, and its value. It will also include bonds, share certificates, letters of debt or credit, and deeds, with their values. The heirs are required to state at the end that, to the best of their knowledge, everything the deceased possessed has been included. The inventory can take days and the first page for each day must have recorded on it the names of those present. When the inventory is completed and the value of the estate determined, all must sign it.

An inventory after death can give an astonishingly detailed view on the life of an individual and his or her family -- a peek behind the net curtains, so to speak. While at times the listing of smalls can make The French Genealogy Blogger blush, the listings of the titles of the books in a library or the sheet music on the piano, of the furniture, kitchenware and jewellery give a historical image of great depth of the life lived. Our belongings tell much about us.

We have selected a small inventory to examine, only seven pages long. Some go on for forty pages or more, but we fear to faint dead away at attempting such a transcription and so here present the inventory made after the death of Marie Françoise Vasseur, wife of Nicolas.

The year ten of the French Republic, the fifteenth of prairial at three o'clock in the afternoon, at the request of Nicolas Tinancourt, professor of dance, living in Paris at no. 1284 rue du Vieux Marché.

Acting firstly in his being the spouse of Dame Marie Françoise Vasseur, deceased, his wife, whom he married without having made a marriage contract, in Bresle in the department of Somme, on the twentieth of January, one thousand seven hundred ninety-eight and, secondly, in the names of and as guardian of Geneviève Françoise Egalité Tinancourt, Victoire Elisabeth Tinancourt, and Jean Baptiste Tinancourt, his three minor children with the said Dame Marie Françoise Vassuer.

In the presence of Jean Baptiste Leclerc, saddler, living in Paris at number 1223 rue de la Ville l'Evesque, secondary guardian of the said minor Tinancourt children. 

The said Nicolas Tinancourt and Jean Baptiste Leclerc, named in their said qualities as guardian and secondary guardian, which they have accepted, by deliberation with the relatives and friends of the said minors, and as approved by the justice of the peace of the first arrondissement of Paris on the twenty-fifth of germinal, year ten, and as recorded on the first of floréal following, a certified copy of which the said Tinancourt has submitted.

The said Geneviève Françoise Egalité Tinancourt, Victoire Elisabeth Tinancourt, and Jean Baptiste Tinancourt, are the sole heirs, each to receive a third of the estate of Dame Marie Françoise Vasseur, their mother, deceased wife of Nicolas Tinancourt.

In their interest, Marc Thomas Colin, member of the College of Notaires in the department of the Seine, and now at the above given address wishes to proceed with a faithful and descriptive inventory of all of the furniture and effects, silver, jewellery, and papers that formed the community property that existed between the said Nicolas Tinancourt and the said Marie Françoise Vasseur at their home in Paris at no. 1284 rue du Vieux Marché, where the said Dame died on the thirteenth of brumaire, year ten.

The objects will be explained by the said Citizen Tinancourt, who swears that nothing has been taken from the home nor has anything been hidden, in any way by anyone. 

In a room on the 2nd floor:

Two candle holders of yellow copper, a frying pan, two bars for hanging laundry, one lock, thirty pieces of pottery and glassware, the total value being 12 francs

A wardrobe of oak, a buffet of oak with 14 drawers, a commode of walnut, a small, round dining table of wood, a small writing table, six chairs with woven seats, a night stand of walnut - all valued at 75 francs.

A bed with short legs, a cover in wool, a pillow of eiderdown, a mirror, a painting, a baby's bed with two mattresses, all valued at 140 francs

In the wardrobe of Monsieur Tinancourt:

One suit, three waistcoats, two pairs of trousers, all in different fabrics and colours; one tie in mousseline, two caps in cotton, ten shirts of different fabrics, three pairs of cotton stockings in different colours, six pocket handkerchiefs of different colours, two pairs of shoes, one hat, all valued at 110 francs.

In the wardrobe of the deceased:

Two dresses of mousseline and of different colours, one camisole of cotton, one apron of cotton, three corsets, two round bonnets with lace, two pairs of shoes, eight shirts of different fabrics and colours, small clothes of a value of no more than thirty francs, all valued at 130 francs.

Household linen:

Eight pairs of curtains of different fabrics, sizes, and colours; six pillow covers; six table cloths; four napkins of linen, four kitchen towels, all valued at 110 francs.

A watch in a box with a chain of steel and a key of copper valued at 102 francs. Monsieur Tinancourt declared that, while his wife was sick, he had to sell some jewllery, another watch and a ring to pay for her doctor.

He also declared that at the time of his wife's death he had been renting the apartment where they lived for 150 francs per year and that they had been there for fifteen months. He also had the following expenses:

1) to Monsieur Candat, wine merchant - 60 francs

2) to Madame Nautai, for looking after the children, 36 francs

3) to Madame Laurent, the nurse who took care of the deceased, 33 francs

4) to Citizen Vesque, butcher, for meat, 22 francs

5) to Citizen Berger, for milk for the deceased, 50 francs

6) to Citizen Terrie, fruitseller, 8 francs 50 centimes

7) to Citizen Dida, cobbler, 12 francs 50 centimes

8) to Citizen Regny, baker, 19 francs 20 centimes

9) to Dame Marvi, interest on borrowed money, 27 francs

Citizen Tinancourt declared that he took nothing else from the community property. Citizen Tinancourt declared that he owned a small house in Bresle that he had recently sold for 250 francs and that he had used the money to pay the debts from his wife's illness.

[Nicolas Tinancourt signed at this point]

There being nothing else found to include or declare in this present inventory, which has been conducted without interruption and in the presence of the said Leclerc, whom Monsieur Tinancourt confirms as the secondary guardian, the inventory has been concluded.

And all the parties have signed. [signatures]

Recorded in Paris the twenty-second of prairial year ten. Two francs twenty centimes


Shades of Jean Valjean! Yet, as a picture of a life, the inventory is very, very clear and tells the tale of the Tinancourt family and its woes in excruciating detail.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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Invitation and Announcement Collections - Collections de Faire-part

Faire part small

A faire-part is an invitation to partake in, participate in, take part in, attend, etc. a wedding, baptism, funeral or other such event. They are obviously useful in genealogy for they name relatives, sometimes plenty. Not many survived across the whole of France, but some did -- more than one would expect, really -- and were collected. Some of these  collections are grouped with posters (affiches) and notices (placards) that were put up announcing deaths and other events. We are not sure just how the original collectors went about their business, but we are grateful nevertheless.

Faire-part and placard collections generally cover the 19th and early 20th centuries, but at least one collection goes as far back as the 17th century. Within each collection, the organisation varies: some are chronological while others are alphabetical. They can be found in both the Archives nationales and many of the Archives départementales:

  • in the Archives nationales the funds of the Minutier centrale (the files of the notaires) include in some files placards which cover such subjects as death and funeral announcements, and particularly estate sales
  • also in the Archives nationales, there are collections - in the sub-series AD XXc 96-188 - that cover years from 1654 to 1900 and such subjects as deaths, first communions, births and marriages. These are not available for access, because of their fragility, and are in the process of being microfilmed. We just had the mini-thrill of being the first user of a microfilm roll of faire-parts. Clean! No ragged ends!
  • In the many Departmental Archives, if there is a collection, it should be in the series J (odd-sized records).
  • In the Paris Departmental Archives, however, the collection is in the sub-series V.7 E. It is quite substantial, consisting of over three hundred cartons and dating back to the 17th century.
  • The Fédération Française de Généalogie  has a collection much, but not all, of which has been scanned and may be accessed on GeneaNet. About 15,000 remain to be scanned; most are from the 20th century. It is not possible to search these either. One may ask the FFG representative, who sits in an office in the Archives nationales at CARAN on Wednesday afternoons only, if he will make a search in the collection, which is a part of their somewhat homeless library out in Pantin. He will bring the result the following Wednesday.
  • Individual faire-parts can turn up anywhere. We found the one shown above in a file of a 19th century health service bureaucrat's papers.

IF you can access them, they are a very useful resource.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy


Brawls at the National Archives of France

Moulin Rouge 5 72

For health reasons, we turned our back for a moment, and all Hades broke loose at the Archives nationales de France. As we have reported, the collections of the national archives have been and are being decentralised. The archives concerning the ex-colonies are in the Archives nationales d'outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence. A new facility is being built in the scary suburbs of Paris to take more of the collection out of the building in central Paris.This was all meant to free up space for storing the incoming additions to the archives.

President Sarkozy, apparently suffering from Mitterand-Egomania Syndrome,  decided he wanted  to use that space in other ways to create a Museum of French History. The archivists were outraged and distributed petitions to be signed, put up posters, occupied part of the disputed space, the usual.

Suddenly, while we were away, the Director of the National Archives, Isabelle Neuschwander, was fired by the Minister of Culture (a sleazy character if ever there were one), for her opposition to the proposed museum taking archives space. Her replacement, Agnès Magnien, is a palaeographer and archivist who will, presumably, make no further objections to the Museum of French History.

For those planning to come to Paris to research in the Archives nationales, we are predicting plenty of strikes and suggest you have a few back-up plans.

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

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