A certain kind of information can come in handy when genealogy gets complicated. It might be primary, secondary, or undeterminable; for this purpose it doesn't much matter. Whichever way, the information is false on its face, but when viewed in context with other information it points to a truth.
In 1916, Levinna (Reynolds) Holmes swore that she had been born in Ripley County, Ohio, 3 May 1831. (Oh yes, this is a Dark Age problem.)
She was wrong. There is no such county. There is, however, a Ripley County in Indiana. It's not far from the river and state called Ohio, and just north of Jefferson County, Indiana, where Levinna was living in 1850.
I had found her father William there in 1850 (when he was employed as a blacksmith), and in Brown County, Ohio, in 1830. But the 1840 census just did not give enough information to sort through the multiple William Reynolds in two or three states.
Now her false information prompted me to look for William in Ripley County, Indiana. Bonanza! I found two of him! Wait, that's not so good. The two Williams were both in their 30s, had apparent wives of the same age, had two apparent sons, and one apparent daughter of the right age to be Levinna. How to tell them apart?
Every entry in the 1840 census stretches across two wide pages. We rarely look at the second page. (We can't even download it from Ancestry.com because it's not indexed). Among other things it gives the number of people in each household who were involved in what were seen as the seven principal economic activities: mining; agriculture; commerce; manufacturers and trades; navigation of the ocean; navigation of canals, lakes, and rivers; and learned professions and engineers.
On one William's page, every household had someone in agriculture, nothing more.
On the second William's page, a small portion of which is shown above, every household but one was the same. The one exception was the sixth line down. William's five-person household was reported to contain one person in "manufacturers and trades." Sounds like a blacksmith to me!
Obviously the work is not done. But pending further confirmation, this and other information makes me pretty sure he's my man. And I wouldn't have made it this far if his daughter had just said "Ohio."
A similar piece of interestingly false information played a role in my June NGSQ article, "Jethro Potter's Secret" (p.111).
In both cases, what makes the misinformation useful is knowing enough about the people and localities involved to recognize two things:
(a) the information is false as stated, but
(b) when its errors are unwound it can be useful anyhow.
As a rule, the more we know, the more we can find out. This is just one more reason that it's worthwhile to look back over information collected over a period of years to find some hitherto unrecognizable diamonds in the rough.
Has IFI helped you in a genealogical quest? Have you published the results yet?
Harold Henderson, "Jethro Potter's Secret: Confusion to Conclusion in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 101 (June 2013):103-112.
Harold Henderson, "Interestingly false information -- a research travelogue," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 1 October 2013 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]