An unsmiling Herman Witt stared straight into the camera, holding a set of numbers, 28206, just below his chin. After his picture was taken, someone fingerprinted him and asked a few of questions for the record.
From that description, you’re probably assuming Herman had been arrested. Actually he was being photographed and fingerprinted as a part of his new job in the historic building of the Panama Canal. The record, created July 29, 1918, in Cristobal in the Canal Zone shows he was applying for a metal check.
The metal check system was for identification, and was part of the payroll system in the Canal Zone. Forms — such as those filled out by Witt — were sent up the line to an executive office for approval. An official photographer then scheduled employees for the photos.
The metal checks were small numbered pieces of metal that served as identification cards for employees of the Isthmian Canal Commission, Panama Canal and the Panama Railroad Company.
Employees needed the metal checks to receive their pay and to get into restricted areas (such as a commissary). The checks usually were brass and had a hole cut in them for attachment to their clothing.
Some applications for these metal checks required a photograph, while others required only information and fingerprinting.
Witt’s application showed that he was an American citizen (the form did not require a specific place of residence), born in Germany of March 24, 1853. Other records show he was born in 1863. This probably was an error of the clerk taking the information verbally from Witt. He had arrived in Panama on Feb. 28, 1918.
His application is one of thousands stored in the National Archives under Record Group 185, Records of the Panama Canal. FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org) has digitized some of the canal records — including service history cards, sailing lists of contract laborers, and the employee identification records — under the title “United States, Panama Canal Zone, Employment Records and Sailing Lists, 1905-1937.”
Unfortunately, researchers must use all of these in browse mode, because they have not been indexed. The good news is that the service history cards were filmed in alphabetical order. Researchers should check the metal check identification records and the service records.
Witt’s identification application showed that he was a German-born American citizen but did not give his place of residence. It also showed only that he was an operator in the municipal engineering division.
His service records report that he was a resident of Hudson County, N.J. This file also showed that he at one time had worked as a watchman for the Panama Railroad at a salary of $100 a month and at another time had been an assistant lighthouse keeper at a salary of $75 a month.
Here’s a real jewel: He died Jan. 13, 1930. The record, however, provides no information on cause of death or place of burial. At this point researchers can turn to the National Archives at www.archives.gov/research/vital-records/american-deaths-overseas.html for details on how to locate a possible record on someone such as Witt. The website of the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w/canal_zone.htm) also gives information on how to write for records of birth, marriage and deaths in the Canal Zone.
A check of the Corozal American Cemetery and Memorial at www.findagrave.com, however, shows Herman B. Witt with the correct dates of birth and death buried there. Of course, researchers should continue efforts to get an actual death certificate to determine cause of death.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.”