“But it says right here in this record…”

A recent thread posted to one of the lists to which I belong has illustrated an important principle of research. In this particular example, the question was about misinformation knowingly provided on a marriage application. Both parties had provided false answers to a number of questions, and there were some concerns as to whether the marriage was valid in light of those false statements.

While the particular state in question had no online statute books for the appropriate period – evaluated under the current law, regardless of false statements, the marriage would still be considered legal – although both applicants had committed first degree misdemeanors. Okay, great. Problem solved, right? Not really. The couple in this case happened to be the parents of the person raising the question. She knew the answers were blatantly false. What about future researchers who won’t have that personal knowledge? This is a great example of the need to conduct an exhaustive search.

What information does a marriage application provide? It might provide information about birth places and dates for the bride and groom, parents names, previous marriages, etc. However, what, if anything, does this particular record actually “prove”? All the marriage application really proves is that on the given date, a man and woman appeared in probate court to fill out a form. If there was a marriage return, it might not necessarily “prove” that the marriage was performed on the said date, but it is a really good piece of evidence that it in fact did occur.

But what about all that other stuff? Parents names? Birth dates?… Well, a marriage record really doesn’t, on its own, prove any of those things. Even though it’s an original document providing primary information, that information comes with no guarantee of accuracy. It is simply a single piece of evidence, and any conclusion based on a single piece of evidence (even if it happens to be correct) is not easily defensible. That’s why we need to continue to search – even though we already have a document that provides information that appears to solve our particular problem. In this case we would hope to find a church record, newspaper article, or other bits of evidence that will all agree with each other, or perhaps reveal a conflict that might need to be resolved.

Do most people go before the judge and provide accurate information? Yes, most likely – assuming they actually knew the correct answers. But we as genealogists need to be sure. And when the information from different sources doesn’t agree – we need to try and understand why each document was created, who was providing the information it contains, what biases may have been involved in their answers, and any other details that might help determine the reliability of each individual statement within each individual record. Based on that analysis, we can then arrive at a reasonable conclusion based on a wide variety of sources.

Sure, it’s more work. But won’t it all be worth it when you get into the inevitable discussion with THAT researcher, who points to their single record and says, “but it says right here that…,” at which point you can smile politely and hand them your thoroughly-researched, well-documented, and logically analyzed conclusion? You bet it will.1

 

  1. Very, very authoritative and important studies have shown that regardless of the quality of evidence against their conclusion, THAT researcher probably will still disagree with you :) []
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4 Responses to “But it says right here in this record…”

  1. avatar Susan Clark says:

    This one hits close to home. My grandfather lied about his age on several official documents, going so far as to alter his birth certificate. He told his children exactly what he had done and why. They, in turn, have told me. I’m still debating how to handle this. Privately, I suppose. At least for the moment.

  2. avatar Jo Graham says:

    Interesting post, and it’s the same in Scotland, Chris – the bride and groom lied about their ages if there was a big age difference, if they were illegitimate they invented fathers (or gave their mother’s current husband as their father) and no written proof was required. Death certificates are even more likely to contain dubious information – an acquaintance of mine who is a retired Registrar was moaning about the wrong information that people gave him when registering deaths. He later checked the death certificates of his parents, both of which he had registered. There were mistakes in each, much to his shame :-) At times of stress, we don’t always think straight – grandsons or sons-in-law may have given the Other Granny’s maiden name, but we need to evaluate the details found and explain our train of thought. Just because the information is there, in black and white, doesn’t mean it is correct :-)

  3. One of my father’s cousins even lied on her SS-5 application for a social security number — listing her grandparents as her parents — to avoid having to admit she was illegitimate. LOTS of lies in LOTS of documents! (And yeah, the other researcher will disagree no matter what!)

  4. Well said, Chris. Between the lies, guesses, honest mistakes, and plain old misinformation, the only way to determine the truth is to correlate every bit of evidence we can find. My g-g-grandfather’s death record, filed by the doctor, shows he died 5 October 1891. Good thing I looked further. Turns out the doc didn’t file his report at the courthouse until 7 months later. Three other records-including the cemetery’s burial file-show he died 19 October. But it’s the erroneous one that’s on FamilySearch.