Category: Archive

Echo Focus: The digital detective

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Dr. Fitzpatrick is the author of “Forensic Genealogy,” a primer that shows the hobbyists and hardcore alike what can be achieved by applying the investigative techniques of forensic science to genealogy. Remarkably, she appears to be the first to combine the disciplines. Having studied genealogy for 35 years, she asks: “why wasn’t this being done?”
As an example of the potential on offer, she describes analyzing an old photograph from a wedding in Dublin. An examination of the paper reveals the logo of Roe McMahon; a photographer she learns from city directories was active from about 1909 to 1960. Since neither the owner nor his eldest relatives recognize anyone in the photograph, she deduces that it was likely taken in the early decades of the century.
Something doesn’t add up, however. Bride and groom sit at the centre, proud as punch, but the men have suspiciously smooth faces. Their hands too, are small — in fact, they appear to be women in costume. On closer inspection, the photograph turns out to be a publicity shot for a production of “Charlie’s Aunt,” by Brandon Thomas. Instead of a bride, the photograph’s owner is now tracing an actress.
“The human mystery is never solved,” says Dr. Fitzpatrick, a little mischievously, speaking by phone from her home in California. “I don’t know about you, but a lot of my time is spent trying to figure out why somebody did something, what they’re going to do next or where they are… You never know all the answers. Every time you get one it kind of whets your appetite for the next.”
This is the essence of genealogy. Rummaging through libraries and archives in search of a comprehensive family tree, knowing full well that the more one digs, the more one is likely to find. For those engrossed, it is quite an addiction.
10,000 visitors avail of the National Library of Ireland’s genealogical services annually, says Collette O’Flaherty, Assistant Keeper. Although 44 percent are from the U.S., it is an increasingly broad church.
“There is a huge interest,” she said.
Forensic sciences too, are on a roll. Advances in crime investigation have been exponential; markets for investigative thrillers and gory, procedural dramas have boomed.
Since the two share the same goal — “to find out who was who, and who did what and when” — it makes sense to pair them off. “Somebody said it’s like CSI meets Roots,” said Dr. Fitzpatrick. “What works for the FBI can work for you.”
Traditionally, genealogists have trawled written records, collected oral histories and preserved family stories in a process that may seem tedious to outsiders. With “Forensic Genealogy,” the author hopes to breathe life into names on a census, faces in a photograph, even alleles on a cladogram.
“I find that today genealogy is about dry facts. If you look at the literature, a lot of it is just catalogues and lists of references. That has grown to be the conventional approach, through tradition. But there’s more to it if you think a little bit. What I wanted to do was bring things alive.”
Take those old photographs in the attic. Asking older family members about them is a great start, but there is more of value to hand. The type of paper, edges, logos and personal marks by the photographer can all help in assessing the date. Details typically overlooked — product labels in the background, for example — can provide clues to location and vintage. Is there a number over a door or a car parked outside? Even shadows can confirm clues from other sources.
With one picture of Canadian Pacific Railroad workers, which Dr. Fitzpatrick was given by her cousin Patrick Swords, who lives in Monasterevin, she was able to date through dress, weather conditions and shadows to between 12:16 and 12:50 p.m. on Sept. 23, 1912. Another featured snow — unusual in New Orleans – and was dated by researching all of the snow days in the city over the last 150 years.
There will always be “stumpers”, as Dr. Fitzpatrick terms them — pictures containing almost, but not quite enough information for analysis. But simple scanning and photo-editing technology, compatible with the most basic household PC, mean most can be magnified to reveal tantalizing new clues.
The most revolutionary of modern computing tools is the Internet, of course, and “Forensic Genealogy” uses its resources widely as one would expect. Crucially, however, it accords equal value to other sources. Libraries, church and civil records and old-fashioned paper trails remain central.
“People tend to do the Google thing and research in sound bites, but I’m encouraging them to go beyond that. Genealogy is a very long-term hobby.”
In fact, combined sources can create a fleshed-out picture not only of who an ancestor was, but how he or she lived.
Say, for example, he arrived in New Orleans after the famine. He probably worked outdoors as a laborer, and likely encountered Yellow Fever. So why not start with the records of Charity Hospital? Recorded by educated clerks in legible handwriting, hospital records are often more accurate than censuses, and information on illness is supplemented with occupation, age, place of birth, marital status and so forth.
Even an amateur will notice the potential of “cultural profiling”, as she termed it. Add to this databases one might not have considered — such as the index to foreign born voters, probate records, coroners’ reports and admissions to orphan or insane asylums — and the possibilities mushroom.
“Be careful,” the author warned, “because there is always the danger that you will learn more about your relatives than you really want to know.”
Tongue is firmly in cheek, of course. One of 34 million U.S. citizens claiming Irish ancestry, Dr. Fitzpatrick has visited the National Library and Archives several times (she describes the Irish roots-research infrastructure as “tremendous”). She loves swotting under a library lamp, but thrives on surprises.
Her own research has taken her from cups of tea in Caltra, Kilmeague and Termonfeckin to analyzing the results of a Fitzpatrick DNA study. She has traced her family to 16th century Alsace and the royal house of Ossory. And belying the traditional image of an older person’s hobby, she began as a 15-year-old growing up in New Orleans.
“When I was in graduate school I got sick and was in hospital for a while. When I got out there wasn’t much I could do for a while except watch TV and read. So I got into the habit of going to the library downtown… On top of that, I had a lot of elderly relatives, so I had a huge resource of people to talk to… Of course they’re all gone and the next generation is more dilute. So it’s a real detective story now.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, her mastery of both forensic and genealogical methods, she is consistently surprised at the accuracy with which family folklore is borne out through research.
“The Irish tradition of story telling is alive and well… Take my Aunt Katie and my Uncle Albert Kelly. You know, they told me stories about their grandfather, whom they had never met. And sure enough, they were all true!”
Indispensable as technology may be, human beings remain the genealogist’s number one resource. Parish priests, neighbors, local historians — “talk to them, get to know them and compare their family histories with yours… In California you could never do it, but in Ireland you knock on a door and you’re one of the family!”
Naturally, genealogy provides an insight into Irish emigration, but it pulls a fascinating focus on immigration, too. Just as Americans come to Ireland in search of their roots, so in the future, will descendents of newer Irish citizens return to countries all over the world. Domestically too, swelling cities are full of people with roots in the countryside.
Irish residents accounted for 28 percent of users of the National Library’s genealogical services in 2004, says O’Flaherty.
“As we become more urbanized, people want to make connections back two or three generations to where they came from. It’s thriving.”
“We were surprised that after the initial years of what you would expect — Australians and Americans and so on — a lot of Irish people began coming in as well,” says Aideen Ireland, Senior Archivist at the National Archives. Now, use of genealogical services is rising by around 15 percent a year.
“It’s reaching out beyond what we would have thought.”
“Genealogists realize that for every mystery that is solved, ten more take its place,” said Dr. Fitzpatrick.
Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick’s ‘Forensic Genealogy’, published by the Rice Press, can be ordered online at www.forensicgenealogy.info.

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