By Daniel Hubbard | April 11, 2010
I’ve been dealing with a few odd records lately. To be honest, nothing too out of the ordinary but sometimes it does get to be a bit exasperating when a person doesn’t have the same place of birth in any two records. That has got me thinking about the unfortunate fact that not only were some of our forebears a bit sloppy with their record keeping or a bit forgetful, some were perhaps inclined to bend the truth a bit, tell a good old-fashioned, down-home whopper or just out and out lie like there was no tomorrow. After aging for decades, buried deep in documents or relatives psyches, these bits of untruth eventually contribute to our reserves of “fossil fabrications.”
It seems to me that there are four M’s of genealogically important lying.
There are those discoveries along the lines of finding out why straitlaced Great-Aunt Edna was not in Iowa with her folks in the 1930 census. It wasn’t the charity work that she talked about in her later years. Instead, it seems that she had run away from home and was too busy drinking bootleg liquor with some “interesting” Chicagoans to be bothered by the census taker. There are, of course, those kinds of amusing stories but they are rare. Nevertheless, burying past misdeeds has to be one of the more important sources misinformation. Sometimes the reasons could be very serious, committing a crime, running from the law or deserting the army to name a few. These, though, are obvious reasons why someone might have lied. What about other reasons, perhaps less clear?
Money is always a suspect. If the evidence just isn’t adding up, ask yourself if someone might have had something to gain. There are some obvious documents for that kind of suspicion. I once suspected an ancestor had lied in his Civil War pension application. His claims about where he had lived seemed odd, to say the least, for someone who was born and died in the same tiny Ohio town. Yet since he had clearly served and been given a medical discharge, I couldn’t see what lying would gain for him unless for some reason he felt that the truth would not have been believed. In other words, I could not find a real motive. When I investigated further, the Ohio neighbor that had written an affidavit while supposedly they both were living in Kansas actually turned up in Kansas. So, things began to make sense without resorting to lying as an explanation.
Pension applications are one place that lying for money might occur and probate proceedings are another obvious place to consider the possibility that money motivated a bit of truth bending, but there are more subtle areas where people might lie because of money. It can be the details of how system worked that led to lying in areas where it would not normally be a problem. When civil registration began in England, parents were required to report the birth. If they exceeded the allowed time after the birth, they could be fined. Parent’s who realized they had waited too long, might report a baby that was younger than reality. At the same time, without any reason to fear fact checking, scams grew up around the possibility to report people, even nonexistent people, as having died in order to collect on burial insurance. You never know what procedural oddities might induce someone to lie.
Age is another typical motive for lying. People might lie to appear to be younger than they were. In early New England a person might exaggerate his or her age because attaining great age was seen as a sign of God’s approval. A husband and wife might adjust one age up and the other down to seem closer in age than they really were. The young might lie about their ages to marry or enter the military before it should have been possible. With age it is extra important to consider what the motive for lying might have been. People generally only lie to gain money but they may lie to either gain or lose years depending on their goal.
Matrimony (or lack thereof)
There are a few marriage (or lack of marriage) related reasons for lying. Legitimacy is one. Depending on the culture and the legal code, the parents of an illegitimate child might face draconian punishments and the parents, especially the mother, as well as the child might be stigmatized for life. The parents might lie about being married or intending to marry, the mother and child might disappear and reappear far enough away that her claims to be a widow were believed.
When two people were married, one spouse might run off and claim, or simply let it be assumed, that his or her status was unmarried or widowed. A man or woman might remarry with the earlier spouse still very much alive.
So, those are my four M’s of genealogical lying. There are certainly others but those four go a long way. Remember that not everyone’s pedigree is peppered with pathological liars—be prudent not paranoid when pondering those suspicious facts. Normally, people were truthful, inaccurate perhaps, but not actively lying. But one never knows. Facts that don’t add up, plus a motive, clear or subtle, just might mean something.
What if you find a lie? It becomes part of the story of course. A lie might be motivated by a situation that brings out our empathy if we can piece that situation together. Most lies that a genealogist is likely to uncover are probably of that type. The biggest competition to that category is the lie that we believe we have found but that in reality, was no lie at all.
A real lie or lies, discovered and understood, can tell you something of an ancestor’s personality. You can start to get at what made them tic. A lie in a document tells a story in ways that the truth might not be able to. Something like the way a broken window tells a story in a way that a normal window does not.
Understanding some lies might lead you to records that you wouldn’t have tried otherwise. A big enough lie might lead you to newspaper articles and a fascinating story. In the end, those few documents with real lies lurking within them are nothing to be worried about, nothing to be avoided. They are part of the story.Twitter It!