Genealogy Blog

The Death of Expertise? Part 2

19 Apr 2014

In the last newsletter, I wrote about an article I saw in the Federalist entitled “The Death of Expertise.” The article dealt with the problems in greater society that have come with the great equalization of the internet. In my post, I discussed how these same stresses are appearing in the genealogical community. Over the last couple of weeks, this post has created a tremendous amount of discussion in the blogosphere as well as social media.

Within two hours of the newsletter coming out, the first response piece was posted. Over the next days, numerous other pieces were posted, not only in response to what I said, but in response to what others had posted in response to my original post. It was amazing how far afield some of the posts went from the original topic. It is always heartening to see a post precipitate conversation. In this case it was interesting to see how the conversation turned down some curious paths.

It was interesting to see how some immediately jumped onto the “elitist” bandwagon. Expertise is not elitist. It is experience and knowledge, both of which are freely available to anyone. As Michael John Neil put it so well “I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogical elite and I don’t believe in the existence of the genealogy police.” I have the same experience as Michael. I’ve never met anyone considered themselves to be an “elite.” I have however, met a number of individuals who consider themselves genealogy police, putting themselves in charge of protecting the defenseless newbies.

Some of these folks have been very upset about experienced genealogists calling them selfish, and only interested in making money, and doing nothing to contribute and help others. First, I must say, anyone who thinks that professional genealogists make a fortune at their craft is extremely mistaken. Professionals work very hard to make a living.

 

scholarly-300x243

 

That said, they also give a tremendous amount back to the community in general. They publish their work in peer-reviewed journals and other periodicals (for which they are paid nothing) that will help people in the future. The combined information published in the entire runs of these journals is an incredibly valuable, and irreplaceable, resource. Reconstituting family connections is sometimes very difficult, with no single document to prove a connection, and with extensive discussion needed to understand why something is so. This is the kind of information that is not easily included in online family trees at the moment.

They also make presentations and conduct workshops, often for little or no compensation. Quite frankly, the amount of pay speakers receive for a speaking engagement does not even begin to adequately compensate for the amount of time it takes to research and put these presentations together. They are not making a fortune doing it.

Why do we do these things? To help researchers of all levels. We want to help people learn how to research and find their family. Seeing the glint in peoples’ eyes as they learn a new concept, or have a new door opened in their mind, is a most wonderful experience. To say that experienced people do not care and do not share is patently untrue and insulting.

Another complaint I’ve heard is that the “elite” should stop “harassing” those people who don’t believe in things like source citations and stop forcing people to write a Harvard Ph.D.-worthy citation for every fact. Is there anything more self-destructive than not writing down where you found a piece of information so you can find it again? Those who discuss how to create proper citations are trying to help more experienced researchers do it in the best way possible.

But those tools are not for everyone, beginners especially. I, like most other professionals I know, do not tell beginners to go out and buy Evidence Explained and the Chicago Manual of Style and get cracking! I tell beginners to simple record exactly where they found the information so that they can find it again, because inevitably they will find another source that disagrees with their information and they will have to go back and look again. Even the doyenne of genealogical citations, Elizabeth Shown Mills, says the same thing. Recently she posted Sunday’s Sermon: Ten Citation Commandments for Intimidated Souls. Number 3 is “Thou shalt not be paranoid. Any citation is better than none at all.”

So, I say that expertise is still critical to our success as genealogists. From rank beginner to incredibly experienced, we ignore it at our own peril. Why? Because learning how to find your family from those who have gone before helps to keep you from making mistakes, and more importantly, ensures that the people you put into your online family tree actually ARE related to you.

Blog Posts and News Stories for Genealogists, April 18, 2014

18 Apr 2014

This week brings an eclectic group of stories for you. From lost records to DNA to fashion tips and more, I hope you find them as interesting and informative as I do.

First up is a post from Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist. Today Judy writes about record loss. Even when a courthouse burned, there are quite possibly materials that survived. To illustrate her point, she discusses early records of San Francisco that survived the devastating earthquake that hit the city 108 years ago today. Read more in All Not Lost.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently raided the home of a 91-year old man in rural Rush County, Indiana. Don Miller has been acquiring artifacts for eight decades. In addition to Native American cultural objects, materials from Australia, China, Haiti, New Guinea, Peru, and Russia were also identified. The FBI is working to catalog thousands of these artifacts to determine their origin, how Miller came into their possession, and whether it is legal for such an item to be privately owned. Read more in Thousands of Artifacts Removed from Rural Indiana Home.

My friend Drew Smith recently posted an update to a horrific story coming out of Florida. The former Dozier School for Boys in Florida has been the subject of an ongoing scandal since bodies were discovered in unmarked graves on school grounds. An anthropology professor from the University of Southern Florida is leading a team building a DNA database to help in identifying the remains.  Read more in USF Builds DNA List to Help ID Dozier School Bodies.

Last month I posted about writing your own obituary. Apparently USA Today liked it, because they picked up on the topic as well: “Put it down to the ‘selfie’ lifestyle of social media, and to the aging baby-boomer generation’s enduring need to exert control over every facet of their lives, including the end. Or maybe it’s the triumph of the DIY movement.” Read the full story in The ‘Selfie’ Impulse Now Extends to Obituaries.

 

Men High Heels

 

File this one under “everything old is new again.” We all know that fashion trends are a never-ending circle. Ideas that were once new, go out of style, only to return to favor at some point in the future. Back in the 17th century, men wore shoes with heels, while women wore flats. Heeled shoes were considered masculine. They were used for riding, to lock one’s feet in the stirrups, making combat more efficient. Eventually the style changed over to women. Now the fashion trend is for men to wear high heels. Read more about the history in Why Did Men Stop Wearing High Heels?, and more about the recent trend in A Tall Order for Even the Most Fashionable Gentlemen: High Heels for Men are on the Rise.

Is the Book You’re Reading Bound By Human Skin?

16 Apr 2014

As genealogists we often spend time in libraries, looking through manuscripts and old books for clues to our family and the places where they lived. These materials can include very old books, bound by hand. In addition to leather-bound books, some are bound in sheepskin or pigskin. But occasionally some were covered in something very different. Anthropodermic bibliopegy refers to the practice of binding books with human skin.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the practice became known among physicians, who used human skin to bind anatomy books.  The skin was usually taken from cadavers, but was sometimes taken from criminals. One common form was to take the skin of criminals who were sentenced to death and use it to bind the records of the criminal’s trial. This was seen as a punishment that would last even after death.

The Boston Athenaeum has a text in its collection titled Hic Liber Waltonis Cute Compactus Est. Published in 1837, it contains the memoirs of James Allen, a notorious highwayman and bank robber.  He once declared himself to be the “master of his own skin,” and the book was actually bound in his skin.

The Harvard University Libraries  hold at least two books bound in human skin.  A third book, oringinally thought to be bound in human skin, has since been proven to be bound in sheepskin. One of these books is Des Destinées de L’Âme by Arsène Houssaye, published in the 1880s.  He gave the book to a physician friend, Ludovic Bouland. Bouland loved books, and had Houssaye’s treatise on the soul and life after death and had it rebound. He used skin from the body of a deceased mental patient whose family never claimed her body. Bouland added the following note:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering. . .”

The tanning process used on the skin to preserve it and make it fit for binding damages the skin to the point that DNA is not recoverable, so it is not possible to trace the origins of the “donors.” By the end of the Victorian era the practice fell out of use because it was so morbid.

 

Human Skin

 

You can read more stories online in Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, or The Truth About Books Bound in Human Skin, A Morbid Secret Lies Hidden Within the Beautiful Walls of the Boston Athenaeum, and Flesh-Crawling Page-Turners: The Books Bound in Human Skin.

And remember, the next time you are in a library and using a very old book, the binding may not be what you think it is.

We Are Still Boston Strong

15 Apr 2014

Imagine what your ancestors though when they gathered to hear the Declaration of Independence read in public for the first time. Or when they heard the news of Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War. Or the start of World War I “The War to End All Wars.” Or the start of World War II, the war after that. Or when they heard of the sinking of the Titanic. Some of you remember where you were when you heard the news that President Kennedy was shot (For others it may be your parents or grandparents). For my generation, each of us remembers that bitter cold day in January 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded less than two minutes into flight.

The entire world knows the date of 9/11 and how our lives changed after it. For some, they lived it, while for others it is history. But in Boston, the date of April 15, 2013, will always be remembered. It was a typical April day, cool and perfect weather for running the Boston Marathon. Several friends of mine were running, and another friend from out of town asked me to join her at the finish line to wait. Unfortunately I had too much work to do that afternoon.

I had the television on while I was working, showing the runners come in and hoping I might catch a glimpse of a friend, when the explosions occurred. The first one at the finish line itself; the second only a block away. At first there was the thought that it was a gas explosion from inside a building. Then, slowly, the truth became evident. Boston had been attacked.

In the initial hours, there was confusion as the search for answers began. Trying to locate friends to be certain they were okay. This task was made more difficult as the BPD asked people not to use mobile phones in that section of the city, for fear of setting off additional bombs.

As the hours turned to days, the questions remained. Who had set off the bombs? Where were they? The biggest question: Were there any other devices planted in the city ready to explode? Would major tourist attractions like Quincy Market be next? Would a packed subway car be destroyed underground?

Personally, I had to make a decision. I was to speak at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference up in New Hampshire. Like all Bostonians, I was quite shaken. And we still had no answers. I decided to go, and  was in Manchester when the Shelter in Place order was given, and worried for the safety of my friends back home. My genealogy family, however, was there as always with love and support.

In the end, four people were dead, including eight-year-old Martin Richard. More than 260 people suffered injuries ranging from the minor to the 16 people who lost limbs. Nobody who lives in Boston was unaffected personally. While I was fortunate not to have any close family or friends injured, a chorus friend was the next-door neighbor and close friend of Martin Richard. For weeks, there was a physical scar running through the heart of the city as investigators closed down several city blocks, looking for clues. Then there was the grisly task of cleaning up the area. For months, people from all over the world dropped flowers, shoes, t-shirts, signs, and other items in a makeshift memorial that has now been preserved at the City of Boston Archives.

 

Boston Marathon Survivors

 

As our ancestors did before us, we stand up and move on in the face of violence. Today is a day of mourning and tribute in Boston. On Monday we will see the Boston Marathon running again, with more runners than ever before in history. There will also likely be more spectators than ever before. There will definitely be more police and security officials than ever before. But we will be there. And we will run. And we will watch. And we will not be cowed by hate. We are Boston Strong.

News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, April 11, 2014

11 Apr 2014

This week’s roundup of stories ranges from the serious to the very fun. From the institutional to the personal, they represent a wide range of sources, and a geographic area that spreads from the United States to the United Kingdom to Sweden.

We start with an admonition from Harold Henderson. In a conversation originally started on Facebook by Dave McDonald (former president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists), Harold discusses the importance of sorting through your genealogical materials (a dilemma faced by all too many of us). Read the full story in Cleanup in Aisles 1–1,000.

Six months ago, The National Archives of the United Kingdom released the first redesigned website pages. Last week, new pages for the Education and Information Management sections released beta versions of those new pages. The Education area is of special interest to genealogists. You can read more about what the team has been up to, what they’ve learned, and future plans in Beta Release of New Web Pages.

Terry Koch is a music teacher in Washington. For Christmas his children presented he and his wife with albums to fill out for their granddaughters, telling the tales of their lives. As he is about to enter the world of retirement, he is starting to think of genealogy, a tale that many of us are very familiar with. He wrote a wonderful piece about his story in the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin, Retirement Gives Chance to Reflect on Family History.

In a Toronto neighborhood sits a house that was built in the 1940s. The 96-year-old owner has resided in it since 1942. After 72 years, she has decided to sell her home. What makes the story even more interesting is that the house has not been redecorated since the 1950s. It is a perfect time capsule of that period. See the pictures on HGTV.ca in 96 Year Old is Selling Amazing 1950s Time Capsule.

 

Swedish Gravestone

 

We wrap up this week with another decorating story. The Nilsson family of the town of Fuglie in southern Sweden was renovating their living room when they made an amazing discovery. Under the floor of the room was embedded a very large 200-year-old gravestone. And this is the second time in less than a year that a gravestone has been found in the area. Read more in Swedes Find 200-Year-Old Gravestone in Living Room.

News and Blog Posts for Genealogists, March 28, 2014

28 Mar 2014

This week’s roundup of news stories and blog posts, as usual, covers a wide variety of subject matters. From the seventeenth century, to the turn of the twentieth century, to modern-day concerns, we have some interesting topics for you.

We start off with the leading expert on seventeenth-century immigrants, Robert Charles Anderson. Head of the Great Migration Study Project at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Last week he wrote a post in the society’s Vita Brevis blog about different groups who emigrated during this period. I especially liked his comment about the Leiden Pilgrims who came to Plymouth. “With no more than about 250 immigrants during the 1620s, the examination of this group has consumed more paper and ink than any other even in the history of the settlement of early seventeenth-century New England. Read the full post in Assorted populations of the Great Migration.

This week saw an interesting discussion on Yahoo! Shine about a compelling Reddit post. Reddit user Mike Delgado is the owner of a letter penned by Rose Aéélie Icard. What was so interesting about the letter is the subject. It contains Icard’s memories of surviving the sinking of the Titanic. In seeking a fuller translation of the letter, written in Icard’s native French, he decided that the best place to get assistance would be Reddit. And boy did he stir up interest. Read more in Titanic Survivor’s Revealing Letter Sparks Interest on Reddit.

 

Titanic Letter

 

Rob Nix recently purchased an old wardrobe at the Community Furniture Store in the town of Selby, Yorkshire. As he was installing the wardrobe at home, he was hit by a small metal tin. To his surprise, the tin included a 1908 birth certificate and 1932 marriage certificate. You can read more about his efforts to find descendants in Family History Treasures are Uncovered in Antique Wardrobe.

We are used to hearing about the troubles of libraries in today’s digital age. Recenty, however, the Brooklyn Public Library reported that the number of library queries rose last year to more than three million requests. Although the questions covered a wide range of topics (including “Did an elephant really swim from Brooklyn to Staten Island?”), officials report that much of the increase is due to genealogists. Read more (and get the answer to the elephant question)  in Brooklyn Public Library Researchers Answered 3.5 Million Questions in 2013, Records Show.

Finally this week is a post from the Legal Genealogist, Judy G. Russell. Many of us have used yearbooks from our schooldays for genealogical research. The question is, are there copyright issues when it comes to using those yearbooks. The answer, as any good lawyer will tell you, is “It depends.” Find out more about potential issues in Copyright and the School Yearbook.

Hope for Hart Island

25 Mar 2014

Last fall I wrote about Hart Island in New York City, the largest potter’s field in the world. The island is under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Corrections. Prisoners from Ryker’s Island perform 1,500 burials each year of indigent and unknown individuals. Melinda Hunt has been pushing the city for some time to make it more accessible. Currently, visitors can only go as far as a gazebo by the docks. They cannot visit the graves of family members.

Two weeks ago, the New York City Council took the first step to rectify this situation. Five members of the council introduced legislation to transfer custody of Hart Island. Instead of being overseen by the Department of Corrections, the island would now be supervised by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Additional legislation would provide for regular ferry service for visitors. The goal is to return to the days when people visited cemeteries regularly, as places to celebrate the lives of those interred there.

By the early nineteenth century there were almost a hundred graveyards in Manhattan. As the island got more cramped, public health issues (as well as the desire to reclaim valuable real estate on the island) caused officials to relocate burial grounds to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. But many areas that were originally burial grounds still have bodies buried there. Some of the old burial grounds are still parks. Famous landmarks, such as Bryant Park (next to the New York Public Library) and Washington Square Park, started out as burying grounds.

Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn are large garden cemeteries built in the mid-nineteenth century. They are home not only to New York’s elite, but also to every-day citizens. Even today, these cemeteries host tours, concerts, and other events for the public. They are beautiful and awe-inspiring.

 

Cenotaph for Augustus Lafayette Cowdrey, a lawyer and volunteer fireman killed during the great fire of 1845.

Cenotaph for Augustus Lafayette Cowdrey, a lawyer and volunteer fireman killed during the great fire of 1845. Private collection of the author, used with permission.

 

It is heartening to see a government work to preserve a burial ground in such a way. Not only do they seek to preserve it, but member of the New York City Council seek create a public space that will encourage people to visit and create recreational areas for people to enjoy.

This is a great change from many other stories that we see and hear about, where cemeteries are just plowed over or buried under concrete as development encroaches upon them. The New York Times is very supportive of this move by the city council. Last week they ran a piece on the opinion page that talks about the Hart Island situation. You can read it in The Graves of Forgotten New Yorkers.

 

What to do With Thousands of Graves

17 Mar 2014

Genealogists are used to reading all sorts of horrific stories about the damage the march of time does to our history. Every time we turn around, there is another story of town records being destroyed, cemeteries being plowed over, and other damage. Many of these stories end up in our weekly roundup of news published on Fridays.  How nice, then, to see a story with a different kind of ending. A few weeks back, we included a story from Missippi about grave discoveries. Now comes more information.

The Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum was opened on January 8, 1855, in Jackson. During the Civil War, General Sherman took over the institution. After the war, African-Americans started being admitted. In 1900 the Asylum was renamed the Mississippi State Insane Hospital, and in 1930 it was replaced by the Mississippi State Hospital.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center was founded in 1955 in the state capitol of Jackson, and located on the former site of the asylum. Since that time, during various construction projects, the UMMC has discovered unmarked graves on the site. In each case, they carefully relocated the remains to the official cemetery area of the site.

In the 1990s, 66 coffins were discovered during a road improvement project. The UMMC partnered with the Cobb Institute for Archaeology at Mississippi State University to document the graves and relocate them to the cemetery.

Archaeologists have learned much. Most were interred with no personal items. They were buried without clothes, sometimes in shrouds and sometimes not. All of this indicates the bodies being linked to the asylum. They have been dated to the 1920s, relatively late in the history of the institution.

Recently, however, during surveys for a major expansion to the facility, workers discovered more burials. More than they originally conceived. Using ground-penetrating radar, more than 1,000 burials were found on the southern end of the property, and the same number of burials on the northern side.

It would cost millions of dollars to relocate that many remains, so the UMMC has placed their expansion on hold for the moment. But the archaeological research continues. And genealogists are now getting into the game, wondering what might have happened to relatives at the asylum. Working together, they are trying to identify remains and what happened to the inmate, often too poor for their families to claim them after death.

No matter the reasons, it is heartening to see a large institution working to preserve history. You can read more about the story at CNN in University is Digging into Mississippi’s Past with a Long Forgotten Graveyard or visit the Mississippi State Asylum Cemetery Project.

Mississippi State Asylum Cemetery Project

News Stories and Blog Posts for Genealogists, March 14, 2014

14 Mar 2014

Another week has come and gone. This week brings us a wide mix of stories. We find out about a World War II soldier’s reunion, a website for researching Irish ancestry, DNA testing, ways to use Facebook, and your favorite fonts. I hope you find them as interesting as I do.

Former Hudson, Massachusetts, police chief Alfred T. Cabral recently had a long-awaited reunion. In January 1944 he was one of the participants in the amphibious assault on Anzio, Italy. During the assault, under intense fire, he lost his dog tags. An Italian man walking along the beach found the tag and turned it over to the American cemetery last December. It was recently returned to him at a ceremony in Worcester, seventy years after the attack. You can read more of the story, and discover what he plans to do with the dog tag, in Veteran Proudly Reclaims His Dog Tag — 70 Years Later.

Donna Moughty  recently posted about John Grenham’s website, hosted at the Irish Times (a post she made from a cruise ship in the Caribbean). Although not a fan of pay-per-view websites, Donna explains the value of one part of this site. Find out more in Irish Ancestors Website.

Understanding DNA can be complicated. Judy G. Russell, the Legal Genealogist, often discusses it on her blog. This week she have a very important discussion about autosomal DNA testing. She explains what it is, and why you need to expand your testing to maximize your results. Read more in Sibling Rivalry: Maximizing Autosomal Matches.

Paula Stuart-Warren discusses a wide variety of topics on her blog, Paula’s Genealogical Eclectica. This week she had an interesting comment about Facebook. Many people use it to keep track of their friends and what is going on in each others’ lives. But there are other ways to use it. And Paula talks about some of them, and gives you some Facebook pages you might find interesting if you have Minnesota research. Read about it in Facebook Has Helpful Pages You May Not Know About.

 

Font HIstory

 

Finally this week comes an innocuous but interesting story from the Huffington Post. We use our computers for so much nowadays. One of the nice things we can do with our digital writing is to use the different fonts available. But have you ever wondered where those fonts came from? Think that Times New Roman originated with the New York Times? Think again! Find out the answer to this, and others, in The Incredible Histories of Your Favorite Fonts.

A Life Saved by Papers in his Pocket: WWI Stories Revealed

11 Mar 2014

2014 marks the centenary of the start of World War I. In one of my news roundups last month, I discussed Paul Milner’s blog post about the Operation War Diary project, a cooperative venture of The National Archives and the Imperial War Museum.

After the announcement, BBC news asked its readers to share the stories of their families. They were quite surprised at the wide variety of materials submitted to them. From letters to diaries and photographs to oral histories, they received a tremendous amount of contributions. They recently published some of these materials in World War One: Family Stories Uncovered.

 

BBC WWI

 

Germaine Louise Wall from Kent had “armfuls of stuff that had been in her bedroom 60-odd years.” Her father-in-law, John Wall, was injured in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. His life was saved by papers and documents he was carrying in his breast pocket. Germaine saved those documents, which show the damage.

Back in the 1970s, WWI soldier Edmund Mellor  sat down to discuss his wartime experiences with his grandson, Andrew Wadsworth. Andrew recorded the conversation, which has been stored on cassette tapes since then.  At one point, he discusses an attack he participated in after mines were exploded under the German lines. “They were ready for us with machine-guns and whatnaot. But luckily, for me at any rate, I wasn’t wounded in any way.”

In a related project, the Imperial War Museum (IWM) is creating Lives of the First World War. This websites is being built to be an interactive experience for individuals to share the stories of more than eight million men and women from across the British Isles and throughout the British Empire who served in the armed forces during the war.

The IWM has partnered with DC Thomson Family History (the parent company of FindMyPast.co.uk) on the project. Just a few other participating groups include:

  • Auckland War Memorial Museum
  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • Llibary and Archives Canada
  • The National Archives
  • National Archives of Australia
  • National Archives of Ireland

There is a brief, introductory video about the project at the Lives of the First World War website. There is also a list of frequently asked questions that explain more about the project, which hopes to launch soon.

Remembering these important stories is a valiant project. The last of that generation is now gone, and it is up to us to preserve their memories. Read more, and think about how you can participate in the projects.