Wednesday, October 3, 2012

18 Days with Sherlock – Day 12 – Don’t Twist the Evidence to Make it Fit the Scenario You Want

This is one that gets many beginning genealogists. One of the easiest examples of this is when you are researching someone with a specific name and you pick and choice which documents you use to fit what you think the truth is.

Let's say you are researching Ebenezer Doe in southern Mississippi. You have Ebenezer Doe in the 1850 census in Perry County. He was born about 1825 and has a wife named Jane Doe and one child named John born about 1845. You go to the 1860 census and you find two possibles. There is an Ebenezer Doe in Perry County born about 1822 with wife Jane and now there are two children Charles and Samuel (no John). There is an Eben Doe born about 1827 with wife Mary in Copiah County. They have a son John born about 1847 and another son named S. Doe. You decide that the Ebenezer in Perry County is your man and that little John must have died. You are making a big mistake if you make assumptions like this. This is a situation that requires a lot more research. Please don't take the easy way out.

Take a look at the family in Copiah County. Mary could be Mary Jane or Mary could be a 2nd wife. Eben is of course a nickname for Ebenezer so no problem there. The birth dates are off by two years each. Censuses were not always taken when they said they were. It is suspicious that both ages are off by two years. You obviously have TWO Eben Doe families to follow or do you? Did you think that maybe Eben and his family moved during the census year and they were enumerated TWICE? This isn't all that uncommon. Just because the names and ages don't match doesn't mean this isn't a possibility. This scenario is an example of Analyzing the Data. You can't assume anything.

“I have not all my facts yet, but I do not think there are any insuperable difficulties. Still, it is an error to argue in front of your data. You find yourself insensibly twisting them round to fit your theories.” [Holmes to Watson, "Wisteria Lodge"]

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Hi. I have just today discovered your blog, and have been reading these Sherlock entries - they are serving as a good review, as I have not done any genealogical research in a couple of years. I have read in some of the entries what I believe might possibly be typos, but I don't really want to make that assumption. However, reading them is confusing to me. For instance, in sentence 3 of paragraph 2 (for Day 12) - should it say 1825, rather than 1925? Am I being too nit-picky? If so, my apologies. I look forward to reading your blog, and your tips, as I am woefully in need of inspiration and a refresher for furthering my research.

  2. You are not being too nit-picky and I appreciate you pointing the date error out to me. I just fixed it :) I am glad you are finding some useful information. If there is a specific topic you would like me to address just let me know!