Saturday, September 8, 2018

Potentially bad news for genealogists: privacy rights for the dead?

Law professor Michael D. Breidenbach argues for privacy for the deceased.

"If society is a partnership among the living, dead and unborn, then historians should interpret figures from the past, even those with mortal failings, with as much justice and charity as we ought to extend to the living. History is not gossip about dead people." (Washington Post, 6 September 2018)

If this isn't the "right to be forgotten," it's a close cousin.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Did your ancestor get sent off with a 35-line memorial poem?

My great-grandfather's oldest brother, Joel Thrall (1792-1827), went from Vermont to Quebec to Ohio, where he died outside of Columbus, leaving behind him a mysterious widow (wife #3), a trail of bad debts, a skeleton (in addition to his own), and a 35-line memorial mourning poem.

I knew nothing of this when I set out to write him up. (Beware those dull-seeming relatives!)

The first part of his story is now out in the summer issue of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, AKA The Journal of American Genealogy. The second and last part (scheduled for fall) follows Joel's son Homer (with wife #1), who became a Methodist missionary in Texas and a Confederate apologist, and his daughter Rachel (with wife #2), whose grandchildren are scattered across Canada and the U.S. She is the source of all of Joel's living descendants, but he was not present at her christening. It seems unlikely that she knew him, but she and half-brother Homer probably met when he paid a flying visit to Quebec in later life (1884).

FYI would-be writers: The Register is not all New England all the time; it is interested in out-migrations as well.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Another look at old reference books

Last week I got to spend some time in a college town (Charleston, Illinois), and I picked up a nice hefty reference book in a used-book store: The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991). It's just the kind of thing to have on hand to check up whether you need an upgrade on who exactly Elizabeth Blackwell was, or a quick look at agriculture (and especially when Wikipedia is having a bad day).

I didn't pay much attention to the publication date -- those who work with dead people rarely need historical context for the last 27 years -- but when I reviewed the titles of the entries I realized that the book itself is a historical artifact and a creature of its time. The Cold War was just barely over; Bush I was president; many individuals with entries (Benjamin Spock) were still alive.

There are no entries for computers, technology, terrorism, or trolls. I found myself wondering what the large group of historians involved would have added and subtracted if they were tasked with producing a similar book of similar length (1226 pages) today. What would they cut to make way for more recent events and conditions?

None of this made me regret my purchase; quite the opposite. It is in fact a member of an interesting group of books: the last of the enormous compendia, like Hoosier Faiths or Ancestry's Red Book. It's a relic of a time, not really that long ago, when information was relatively scarce. It's not just a well-grounded source for earlier history, it is itself a part of history too. (And a still-changing part: I see a Kindle edition is available.)

Monday, August 6, 2018

Another reason why mug books are a starting point, not an end point

Sometimes good research on a poorly-thought-out question leaves thing -- appropriately -- unclear. In the March 2018 issue of Indiana Genealogist (which just appeared in my mailbox), South Bend librarian Greaa Fisher investigates the supposed "first white child born in Fort Wayne." There are multiple candidates. Past accounts apparently gave preference to the offspring of families who stuck around or were not French.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Mommy, what were "men"?

One more conundrum for future genealogists. Family trees will take on different shapes as men become increasingly superfluous to successful human reproduction, as they are in some other species. John Launer explains over at Three Quarks Daily (originally in Literary Hub), with additional references for the curious.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Fannie Fern Crandall and Her Three-Timing Darling "Husband"

My mother-in-law's grandmother's sister Fannie Fern Crandall was not someone we heard much about, and we never thought to ask. The newly arrived (on line) March 2018 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly includes the results of my research that makes her almost as well-documented as her sister, who married a Seventh-Day Baptist minister. (It's available free to NGS members.)

Fannie's father Charles Welcome Crandall suffered an injury early in his Civil War service and later drew a pension. He was caught claiming more disability than he really had, and in his struggle to regain the pension he met up with a charismatic attorney in Chicago -- Frank Ira Darling -- where they were neighbors.

It turns out that Frank's work as an attorney brought him together with many a Civil War veteran, and many a daughter. He had six children with three of his clients' daughters, including the one to whom he was legally married.

Frank died unexpectedly in his 40s, and the story of two of the three came out in a blaze of sensational publicity in January 1898. Fannie was the third and she kept quiet, but evidence starting with Charles's pension file leaves no doubt that Frank was the father of her child, a daughter who grew up and married and left no descendants. (Those who follow NGSQ may recall the tale told by co-editor Thomas W. Jones about George Wellington Edison, an even more swashbuckling and disreputable character in Illinois, in 2012.)

What we will probably never know -- unless old correspondence surfaces -- is what Fannie knew and when she knew it, and what she thought about it all. After a few years in the early 1900s when she went by the surname "Brown" for no known reason, she used the Darling surname throughout the rest of her life. She earned a living and brought up her daughter by clerking and stenography in Washington, D.C., including in the patent office. In later years she had an artistic career in southern California, but she also had to have been a resilient and determined person.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Potentially bad news for history and genealogy

Tara Calishain, indefatigable creator and maintainer of ResearchBuzz, reports:

BetaNews: Google loses big ‘right to be forgotten’ case — and it could set an important precedent. “A businessman with an historic criminal conviction has won his case against Google in a ‘right to be forgotten’ lawsuit seeking to remove information about his conviction from search results. The case, heard today in London, could set a precedent and lead to a series of similar cases from other people with spent convictions. The anonymous businessman — known only as NT2 — has a conviction for conspiracy to intercept communications from more than a decade ago and spent six months in prison for the crime.”

I totally recommend that you subscribe, even if (like me) you don't have time to read it all. It's free.

Last year in a luncheon talk I speculated on what genealogy might be like in 2117. It was mostly not a very pretty picture, and so far -- just one year in! -- the following piece of that talk seems to be on target. I suggested that . . .

Profit-driven corporations will fight the good fight against those who claim a “right to be forgotten.” Perhaps the decisive court case will involve Googlecestry vs. the North American Union, when those who advocate such a right to be forgotten will sue to have their role in that fight itself forgotten.

If that case is resolved wrongly, then genealogy could even become an illegal conspiracy. The use of cursive writing could become a code furthering said conspiracy. Somewhere deep in the suburban slums, history books would be furtively traded for images of the “forgotten” presidents. I’m still just enough of a 20th-century person to think that this might not happen.