Archive for the ‘Chatter’ Category
Who do you think you are to make judgements?
Posted on: November 24th, 2016 by pj

Another season of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ is about to start on British TV and so begins the yearly ritual of me shouting at the screen.  I’m a family historian so, naturally, I’m drawn to the only program that’s directly about my hobby but the format drives me crazy.  It’s not even the frustration of seeing the ease at which the celebrity’s researchers can access obscure archives and flit from country to country, that’s just envy.  It’s the judgments.  One or two facts are revealed about an ancestor who lived 200 years ago and that person is either a hero and the celeb is ‘so proud’, pause to wipe a tear away or, and less likely, they are an out and out villain and the celeb is so ashamed.

Another alternative is the redemption episode, where initially we are led to believe that evil lurks in the celeb’s ancestor but then an explanation for their bad behaviour is revealed and it’s all okay again.  Surely we are more sophisticated these day to realise that somebody who does ‘good work’ or signs up to fight in a war is not necessarily a ‘good person’?  In fact, charitable work can be a cover for some of the most disturbing personality disordered and deviant criminals in history.  Jimmy Saville, anyone?

It’s not a bad human trait to want to imagine the best in people but we need to be realistic about judging people who lived decades or even centuries ago based on very few facts.

However, I admit, I do struggle to practice what I preach.  I recently came across a report of my great uncle Herbert Howard Sanders in a newspaper article. In the early 1920s, he had been sentenced to hard labour for viciously beating his wife.  Given that wife beating was almost acceptable at that time it must have been a particularly serious assault and I started to look for reasons why this might have happened.  (I really didn’t want him to be a ‘bad ancestor’!)

World War I had ended in 1918.  Maybe shell shock?  I searched the records and sure enough, he had signed up in 1914.  Okay, this was promising but then I discovered that he had never left the country and was dismissed a few months later due to ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’.  This code covered a multitude of reasons from having a stammer to flat feet and medical conditions that had not been picked up or overlooked at the per functionary medicals given at mass sign-ups in the early days of the war.  So no shell shock then.

I saw that he had died young, in his 30s, in Warwick, some way away from his home place in Coventry and I ordered his death certificate.   I discovered he had died at Hatton County Lunatic Asylum and his illness was a result of syphilis. 

Easy to make judgments now and speculate about his short life but I really don’t know anything about him and his circumstances, just those few cold facts.  I can neither be proud or ashamed, just sad that it didn’t end well.  We could speculate on our own lives and pick out a singular ‘good’ or ’bad’ incident that, seen in isolation, could define us for future generations.  Now that is scary!

I really hope the celebs in this new series of WDYTYA will not be so quick to make judgments about the strangers in their past.  If they do listen for faint cries from me shouting at the TV….. “but you DON’T KNOW THAT”!!

The error of our ways
Posted on: October 5th, 2011 by pj

I’ve only just started using Family Tree Maker.  I think I may have used it for a while years ago but quickly moved on to other software.  Recently I bought the app for my iMac and overall the program is not bad.  However, there is one feature that I love and which horrifies me in just about equal measure and that’s the ability to take information from other people’s public trees.  This is very seductive and when I click the little shaking leaf on some of my ancestors I have found they also live in many other trees.  Further investigations have revealed parents, siblings and whole new lines.  Wonderful!  One further click and I can merge that information with my own tree.  However, this is only a positive addition when the source information is included and can be verified.  Otherwise this is all just guesswork.  If you can’t verify the information you may as well leaf through a phone book, pick out a person at random and add them to your genealogy database.

I was concerned about inaccurate information being passed on via the Internet around 8 years ago when I discovered that someone had erroneously merged two Rainbow families in Tasmania.   This was included in a family tree that was posted on a geocities website and then spread around the web very quickly.  I was not able to contact the author of the original tree directly but I posted the mistake to several genealogy forums and, over time, the mistake appeared less and less in other’s researchers trees.

I’m concerned that with the advent of software like FTM our mistakes will be promulgated more frequently and will be harder to rectify, such as this one that I discovered recently.

I casually began investigating my father’s maternal line and with the help of FTM was able to tap into other’s research to go back a little further.  There were many trees, over a dozen, who had information about this particular ancestor, lets call her Emma.  I was surprised and not a little excited to see that she had been born in a small village in France after generations of the family, both before and after Emma, all living in the same Worcestershire town in the UK.  Eight family trees included the French information but with no source cited.  I messaged all eight authors asking if they could give me any clue of where this exciting information had come from.  I had a reply from one saying she couldn’t help because she had just ‘copied it from another tree.”  My guess is that there was an original mistake and its just spread.

I love that technology has opened up so many doors to family historians and allowed us to move forward with our research in giant strides instead of what was often mind-numbing tediousness of pre-internet days.

On balance I think we’ve gained much more from sharing information than we’ve lost  but I still have this nagging worry that the ease of new technology may be encouraging a new generation to believe that genealogy is all about copying information from the internet and in the near future many family trees will be a mess of guesswork and replicated errors.   What do you think?