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September 5, 2008

A Grave Mistake - or Even if it's Written in Stone it Could be Wrong

This is my great-grandfather Alexander McGinnis' tombstone in Crown Cemetery, near Morriston Ontario. You can see that his date of birth is 1844. My uncle took me to this cemetery when I was starting my research into my father's family tree. And so I dutifully entered 1844 into my Family Tree program as Alex's date of birth.

Then I began finding census records for Alex - complete with various ages which of course gave different estimated years of birth.

* In 1861 his age was recorded as 12, giving him a year of birth of circa 1849
* In 1871 his age was recorded as 23, giving him a year of birth of circa 1848
* In 1881 his age was recorded as 30, giving him a year of birth of circa 1851
* In 1891 his age was recorded as 41, giving him a year of birth of circa 1850
* In 1901 his age was recorded as 43, giving him a year of birth of circa 1857
* In 1911 his age was recorded as 62, and the record year of birth was 1848 (no month or day given)

I knew that each census year asked a different question about age - such as what was the individual's age at last birthday, at next birthday, or right now. So there might be small discrepancies over the years.

Alex's years of birth, except for 1901 census, were fairly consistently showing his date of birth to be between 1848 and 1851. But that was nowhere near the 1844 date shown on his tombstone!

My next step was to find his marriage record. But that was no help either. At his marriage in September 1876 he gave his age as 22. That put his year of birth at circa 1854! Surely he knew how old he was... or so I reasoned at the time. So perhaps the 1854 year was most accurate. But what about that tombstone? Well, he didn't put the tombstone up or give the information for it, so perhaps whoever did erect it was wrong.

I eventually discovered that his eldest daughter Mary had paid for his stone and had it engraved. My uncle had also questioned the year of birth on Alex's tombstone but apparently our Aunt Mary had always insisted that she celebrated her father's birthday every year and she certainly knew how old he was.

After puzzling over this for many years, I decided that the marriage certificate was my best and most accurate souce, since the information was given by Alex himself. So I changed his year of birth in my genealogy program to circa 1854.

Then came the revelation. Alex and his family were Roman Catholic. I knew what church the family attended (Church of Our Lady in Guelph) but they were not available to the public nor were they microfilmed. A few years ago the church began offering a research service. For a reasonable fee the church secretary would look through the original church books for a record.

I sent a request for the baptism of Alex. There it was - he was baptised on 3 February 1850 but born on 3 November 1849.

So why the discrepancies? Why did Alex not give his correct age when he married in 1876. He was actually 27 years old that year, so why did he say he was 22? The census years were fairly close to his correct year of birth so obviously he did know his age. It is not uncommon to find that an ancestor might not his or her exact age but Alex appeared to know his (except for the 1901 census)

Then I realized that the marriage registrations are copies of what was sent in by the minister. So the original entry may indeed have read "27" but the "7" could have been misread as a "2" resulting in the incorrect age of 22 for Alex.

So everything can be explained except for the 1901 census record and the tombstone inscription. But can we explain the census record? Yes. We do not know who gave the information to the census taker. In 1901 Alex lived with his sister, her husband and daughter, and his mother who was in her late 70s. Depending who the census taker spoke to, the age given for Alex could be quite incorrect. His brother-in-law probably had no idea how old Alex was! His daughter would not likely know either.

That brings us back to the original culprit - that darned tombstone. Aunt Mary was 60 when her father Alex died. She thought he was 91. In reality he was 87. Was she confused? Had she never known her father's real age? Or did Alex tell his family his wrong age as he reached his 80s?

My own mother does that. She turned 92 this week, but for the past two years she has been adding a year or two on to her real age! In July she told everyone at a family reunion that she was 93 and would be 94 on her birthday in September. So that added 2years to her real age. I'm the only one of my siblings who seems to know her actual age, my brothers and sister believe whatever she tells them. If they were to have a tombstone inscribed for her, it's almost guaranteed it would have the wrong year of birth.

And thus we have the moral of my story of a Grave Mistake - that even if it's written in stone it could be wrong.


Janet Iles said...

You give a great example of not believing that everything in print or in stone may be correct.

It is always great when you can go back to an original record. Even they can be wrong some time.

Great detective work.

Jennifer said...

Ditto on what Janet said; not to mention the necessity of checking all available sources to try to sort out what in the world is going on. I am guilty of glazing over incremental differences sometimes, for the sake of my sanity, but it's always nice to get that "Abt." off the prefix of dates. Great example of how to work through the discrepancies and get to a solution!

milt said...

My cousin replaced the damaged tombstone of my great grandfather putting the wrong dates on it.

Brenda said...

Nicely described 'case study,' Lorine.

X-Faith said...

A great story with solid idea's for other in similiar situations, which I bet are many.
We have the same stuff for country of origin, depending on who you talk to, or what record you look at it varies greatly. I have seen on relative born in Ireland, England, PA, Western Ireland. And according to the family he was english. :)