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January 12, 2013

A Case of Mistaken Identity

For many years I thought my great-great-grandfather Joseph McGinnis died in Guelph in 1877 and his wife, my great-great-grandmother Frances (Fanny) McGinnis died there in 1890.

After all, in the years before the Internet, I'd sent for and received a transcript of the 1877 death registration of Joseph, which gave this information: Joseph McGinnis age 38, a labourer born Ireland died of consumption. Informant his wife Frances McGinnis who signed with her mark (X)

That agreed (pretty much) with my ancestor who I knew as Joseph McGinnis born circa 1825-1830 in Ireland, married to Frances (Fanny) Downey, and a labourer.  He should have been at least 47 in 1877 but I thought perhaps the census taker misunderstood Fanny's Irish accent.

The 1881 Census Adds to the Confusion

In the 1881 census for Guelph I found the widow Frances McGinnis age 49, a charwoman and her son Joseph age 15, a moulder. It all fit as Joseph and Fanny did have a son Joseph born in 1864. We all know that census records are not always 100% accurate so I wasn't worried about the slight difference in the age of Joseph in 1881.

One small problem was another Frances McGinnis in Guelph, also a widow, age 51, born Ireland and no children with her. She was a washerwoman.

The only census records I had been able to find for the family were the 1861 census for Puslinch (near Guelph) where Joseph's age was given as  30 and 1871 for Guelph where he was listed as 46 years old.  So there was already a huge discrepancy in ages! His wife Fanny was listed in 1861 as age 30 and in 1871 as 44.

Fanny's Death Registration

Discrepancies aside it seemed pretty clear to me that I'd found great-great-grandpa's death. Next I found Fanny McGinnis dying in 1890. Again this was before the Internet and online genealogy records so I sent for and received her registration which stated:

Frances McGinnis, age 60 born Ireland died in St. Joseph's Hospital in Guelph. No family member had given information. I also found a death notice for her in the Guelph newspapers which gave no further information.

Have I Really Found Their Deaths?

So there I had it. The deaths of both my great-great-grandparents.  Or did I? When the 1891 census was released, I was quite surprised to find my 2nd great grandmother on it! There she was living with her daughter Delia in Guelph. How could this be? I puzzled over this but simply could not explain it. She and her husband Joseph were buried in St. Joseph's Cemetery. I had her death registration dated 1890. I had his from 1877. I finally decided that perhaps her daughter Delia had given her mother's name even though she was not living. I wasn't happy with that and knew I would pursue the discrepancy further,  but at that time I had no other census records or death records to search as they were being released slowly to the public.

The 1901 Census is Released and Answers are Found

Fanny McGinnis Death Registration 1904
And then the 1901 census was released. I was quite excited to hunt for my McGinnis ancestors and to see if Fanny was in there. Sure enough she was. She was living in Morriston (near Guelph) with her son (my great grandfather) and daughter.  It occured to me that if I had the wrong Fanny dying in 1890 and being buried with the Joseph McGinnis who died in 1870 I surely had the wrong great great grandpa too! Next I found proof of my Fanny's death in 1904. Verified. Positively the right Fanny.

It was very challenging to figure out how to solve this confusion. There was no other Joseph and Fanny McGinnis in the census records for Guelph and area. There was only my family - and that was verified. There was only one Joseph McGinnis death (in 1877) yet there were two Fanny McGinnis' deaths (one in 1890 and one in 1904). There was only one couple named Joseph and Fanny McGinnis in the census for 1861 and 1871 and they were definitely mine. My Joseph did not appear in any census after 1871 and my Fanny was listed as a widow in 1881. I began to wonder if it was possible my 2nd great grandfather was a bigamist.

Church of Our Lady Holds the Clues

The Catholic Church in Guelph, which is where my Joseph and Fanny attended, does not allow the public access to its church records  so I could not search for the burial records or marriages to try to find some conclusive facts. Then came a bright spot - the Church was willing to allow the Church secretary to conduct searches on behalf of individuals for a small fee.

I immediately wrote to request the burial records for Joseph who died in 1877 and Fanny who died in 1890.  The Church secretary found and photocopied the deaths. And there it was - the burial record of Joseph stated in part :

"... Joseph McGinnis, husband of Frances Foster, deceased the 25th inst. in the town of Guelph, aged 48 years."

Frances Foster? My ancestor was Frances Downey. So this Joseph who died in 1877 didn't appear to be my 2nd great-grandfather. But where was my Joseph in 1881? My Fanny was listed as a widow. If he died in Guelph between 1871 and 1881 why was there no death registration? Why no burial record at the Catholic Church (I did request a 10 year search of the records for him but nothing was found)

The burial record for Frances who died in 1890 stated that she was the widow of Joseph McGinnis and that she was born in Gilbraltor.

Questions and More Questions 

And so the puzzle remains - what happened to my Joseph McGinnis? The last record of him is the 1871 census. Was he a bigamist? Did he die in 1877? Did he leave Ontario for the USA, as many of his cousins and brothers did? Did he die there and his widow Fanny returned to Guelph by 1881?

And which widow in that 1881 census is my Fanny?

And why is there no second couple named Joseph and Fanny McGinnis in the Guelph area in any census record, other than my 2nd great-grandparents?

I'm leaning towards Fanny and Joseph leaving Guelph for the USA, Joseph dying there and Fanny returning. My reasoning is not only that I can't find a death record in Ontario for Joseph but also because I am unable to find their unmarried children Mary Jane aka Mae and Robert  in the 1881 census for Ontario or the 1880 census for USA.  Of course since I'm not sure that the Robert age 15 in 1881 is the son of my Fanny or the Fanny who died in 1890, I might also be missing Robert in 1880 and 1881.

I've not found Fanny's grave or her burial record from the Catholic Church. 

What are your thoughts?

1847 my Joseph and Fanny baptise daughter Fanny in Church of Our Lady Guelph
1849  my Joseph and Fanny baptise son Alexander in Church of Our Lady Guelph
1851 my Joseph and Fanny baptise son Daniel in Church of Our Lady Guelph
1851 Census Puslinch - they are not found but the first page of this census is missing
1856  my Joseph and Fanny baptise daughters Ann and Margaret in Church of Our Lady Guelph
1861 Census my Joseph and Fanny are found in Puslinch Twp, Wellington Co.
ca 1860-1862 my Joseph and Fanny have a daughter Mary Jane (Mae)
1864 my Joseph and Fanny baptise son Joseph  in Church of Our Lady Guelph
1865 my Joseph and Fanny baptise son Robert in Church of Our Lady Guelph
1871 Census my Joseph and Fanny are found Guelph, Wellington Co
1877 Joseph McGinnis, husband of Fanny Foster, dies
1877  a widow Fanny McGinnis found in City directory for Guelph
1882/1883 a widow Fanny McGinnis found in City directory for Guelph. Noted as widow of Joseph. Living 64 Cork St. at corner of Cork and Norfolk
1881 Census - two widowed Fanny McGinnis' found in Guelph
1890 Frances/Fanny Foster widow of Joseph McGinnis dies
1891 Census - my widowed Fanny in Guelph with her daughter Delia
1901 Census - my widowed Fanny in Morriston with son Alex and daughter Fanny Vogt
1904 - my Fanny Downey, widow of Joseph McGinnis, dies.


Kathy Reed said...

I love how well-organized your research is. I also love a mystery like this. I spent 10 years solving one of mine, but it is SO REWARDING if you can finally do it. Happy hunting!

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

I would start by trying to locate and pin down the adult children and see if that clarifies matters. Good critiquing of your research and analysing the problem. Happy discoveries!

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Good suggestion Pauleen. I should have mentioned in my blog post that I have traced all Joseph and Fanny (Downey) McGinnis' children to the presesnt.

No lightbulbs going off there but it is a great exercise to do. In fact I do that for each generation of my most "important" lines

I would like to find out if the OTHER Joseph and Fanny had children and then trace them

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Kathy - good going on your difficult puzzle! I won't give up :-)

Ancestry Sisters said...

Great Mystery. Look for obituaries of Fanny's siblings if you know who they are, and also search for probates that might show a will or land transfers in her name.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Ancestry Sisters - sadly nothing is known of Fanny Downey. I don't know her siblings or parents.

Probate records in early Ontario are few and far between and since she was a very poor Irish washerwoman I suspect she had few resources.

There is no will on record for Fanny. The only will I have found for anyone in the family is for her daughter Delia. It is short and sweet and reveals no new information except where one of her (Delia's) children was living

Fanny's husband Joseph McGinnis never owned land, so there are no land records for him either.

But your suggestions made me realize I need to write this puzzle up again with more information as to what has been found and what has been looked for and *not* found.

Thanks for nudging me!

Ancestry Sisters said...

These are the mysteries that keep me up at night. Good luck.

my Heritage Happens said...

Lorine, my thoughts were WOW! You mentioned Guelph, Downey and Delia and I quickly needed to do some lookups! My Delia is Delia Welsh, I have a few Downey's from Ontario and Guelph, well, I have a great grand uncle who was born to Elizabeth Fleming (Downey) in Guelph. I have Phelan's also in Ontario who belong to these lines. I do not have McGinnis in my tree at this time, but I did need to look it all up. Unfortunately, I do not have a Fanny Downey, yet anyway. If I find a Fanny Downey, I will let you know! Good luck! Putting some feelers out.... Cheryl

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

MyHeritage - Is this part of your line: Ellen Phelan married 1870 Richard Tobin in Guelph.

Richard was the s/o John Tobin and (wait for it!) Sarah McGinnis. John Tobin and Sarah had 8 children, and I have researched all of them.

Sarah was either the sister or cousin of my Joseph McGinnis who md. Fanny Downey.

Sarah's father John McGinnis lived on land in Puslinch and my Joseph lived on that land with him and several of John's sons.

Re Downey - there is a separate Downey family in Guelph, that of Patrick Downey b. 1820 Ireland. They do not connect to my Fanny as far as I can determine.

Mariann Regan said...

This is amazingly complicated. Quite a puzzle. If it were me I'd make pin-up notes and photos for a big family-tree-type bulletin board, like detectives do on those cop shows, or like the character Carrie does on "Homeland." You can attach strings for possible connections and see them all at once. Contemplating this kind of "big visual" of the whole picture would help you focus on problem areas.

I love "flow charts" for this same reason. I guess some of us are just visual thinkers. Maybe this will be of some use to you.

Anonymous said...

My great grandfather WAS a bigamist, a US Civil War deserter with a wife in Pennsylvania and a wife and five children, including my maternal grandmother, in South Carolina.
What most strikes me about this story is the continuity of association of what seems like two families with a names in common but of different ages, and family structures (the baptisms of the children of "your" Joseph and Fanny) with the Church of Our Lady in Guelph. It's a pity they won't permit direct research, because I think the most available solution may lay there.