I've already discussed hearsay evidence and standards of proof (see the blog archive), and this week I decided to tackle another evidentiary problem that family historians encounter when dealing with records: reliability. I have seen many researchers give great weight to a marriage license or social security application simply because they are government records. But mistakes are made, and, yes, lies are told, even on some of our records that contain that raised seal of governmental authority.
I thought of this topic after I heard a panelist on a CNN news program yell at another pundit: "Liar! Liar! Pants on fire!" Besides being indicative of the level to which our televised public discourse has sunk, the almost-forgotten childhood chant made me think of another relic of childhood: crossing one's fingers behind one's back while telling a big fib--not that I ever did so myself (said with fingers crossed). Occasionally, I have had to suggest to a fellow family historian that their ancestor prevaricated, fudged, stretched the truth...you know, Grandma lied!
I know researchers who have found false information given on marriage licenses, social security applications, and birth certificates. So how can we judge the veracity of the information on these records?
To evaluate the reliability, we have to ask ourselves, "Did the ancestor have reason or motive to give false information?" Some motives I have found are the following:
1. "On the lam." Was your ancestor running from the law or creditors? Don't judge these ancestors too harshly, for our Irish ancestors often lived under very unfair laws that criminalized actions not punished today. Others broke laws for the purpose of civil disobedience. This is an example of how knowing Irish history can aid your research--if your ancestor arrived after a failed rebellion, you might want to research his or her political history. She might have been a rebel or aligned with a political faction.
Other ancestors ran from servitude. I found one instance of a researcher's ancestor who may have fled Ireland while bound as an apprentice to a master. Indentured servants often fled harsh masters.
It was much easier in the past to disappear and create a new identity than it is today, with internet databases, news channels, and massive search and rescue operations.
2. "Not married." I know researchers who have uncovered bigamist ancestors--and I don't mean Mormon polygamists. I mean a family in one county or state and another across the border.
3. "Converts." Some people changed their religion when they came to the US. Not all of them bothered with formal conversion--why should they when it was simpler to declare themselves a member? People often changed religion to fit-in with their new American society, or, during Famine times, to get help or aid. The Irish have a term for this type of conversion: "souperism" or "taking the soup."
4. "Paternity." Sometimes there are varying types of "truth." In the case of a birth certificate, the father listed may be the legal father but not the biological father. Under the common law, a child born into a marrage is the legal child of the father, no matter if he was the biological parent or not. The law's purpose is to make sure that children are provided for by a father (paternity testing is a relatively recent concept). Many men were knowing or unknowing fathers of children not biologically theirs.
In a similar way, birth dates could have been falsified, particularly before the era of doctor-attended or hospital births, to fit a child's birth past a nine month period after a marriage.
Once, a researcher brought an old family Bible to my class. The information written in the family tree section did not fit with what she was discovering about family names and dates. When I looked at one page, I noticed what seemed to be erasures and overwritten indentations. Sure enough, when the page was examined with a magnifier under good light, changes had been made in both birth date and surname for a child.
5. "I don't look my age." Yep, my own grandma lied--right on her social security application. Caused her plenty of problems when she tried to collect social security upon retirement many decades later. Ask yourself if there might have been a reason for your ancestor to appear to be younger or older when you are having difficulty pinning down a correct date of birth.
6. "It's none of their (expletive deleted) business." Some people just didn't want to reveal information, especially to the government. One researcher I know believes that his great grandfather often lied to census takers simply because he didn't like the government intrusion. Don't forget that many of our ancestors were fleeing what they regarded as an oppresive government.
Some people get upset when they hear the suggestion that their ancestor might have stretched the truth. Others take delight in having a colorful story to tell. One thing for certain, our fibbing ancestors can wreak havoc with our genealogical research! But I have to laugh when I think of them up above, watching us running in circles tracking those fibs, their fingers crossed behind behind their backs. Liar, liar, pants on fire!