WDYTYA Episode 206: Steve Buscemi

This week’s installment of Who Do You Think You Are? with Steve Buscemi has an entertaining story about depression, suicide, servitude, and the Civil War … but it’s not about genealogy as it is generally understood.

After a fairly standard, but solid beginning, with Buscemi talking to his parents about his maternal grandmother, the show descends into wild speculation.

As with many of the shows, instead of starting with the present, and working backward, the show skips a generation. I understand that, in terms of privacy considerations on the show, but I hope the actual research started with family documents, and with Buscemi’s mother’s birth certificate, for example. So, they go to find Buscemi’s grandmother’s death certificate in New York records from 1928. This is reasonable enough. It’s good to see the star reading and evaluating the document. From here, Buscemi is directed to the 1880 census. Why? Did they not find her in the 1920, 1910, and 1900 census records? If they did search those census records, it is not mentioned in the show.

The death certificate says that Jane Montgomery would have been born circa 1880. However, when we find an 11-year-old Jane Montgomery working as a servant in a household in the 1880 census in New Jersey, there is no questioning whether this is the right Jane Montgomery. There are no other family members and the parents nowhere nearby, we assume this must be the ancestor.

In fact, of course, this 11-year-old servant is probably not an ancestor of Buscemi. First, her age is 11 years off what the death certificate would suggest. The death certificate has Jane as dying at the age of 48 in 1928. We know from the family stories that when she died in 1928, Buscemi’s mother was “like 3.” If anything, Jane is younger than what is stated in the death certificate, as 45 or so is pushing the high end of a woman’s fertility. If Buscemi’s grandmother in the death certificate and this servant girl are the same person, she have birth at the age of about 56.

It is at this point that things really veer off from general genealogical practice. The researcher from Ancestry suggests that Buscemi should search for shared trees on Ancestry. Now, I know they have a product to sell, and I give the researcher credit for saying that these trees can provide “clues.” However, as soon as they see a family tree with the expected names of the father, mother, and one of the children, they assume it’s correct. The next thing you know, Buscemi is off to the Pennsylvania state archives. Absolutely no evidence or analysis is provided to substantiate a relationship between Buscemi’s Jane Montgomery and the one in the member chart.

So, the show was a bit of a disappointment. I had been looking forward to it, as I appreciate the integrity of Buscemi’s work. In my opinion, Ancestry, in an attempt at product placement of their member trees has done a disservice to genealogy. This goes beyond the normal complaints of touching the documents, or hand-feeding insights to the stars. Ancestry seems to think (perhaps even know, based on metrical analysis of the use of their website), that unsourced trees are a key way to get memberships. So, despite the fact that doing so works contrary to the goal of sourced and thorough research, which can stand up to critical evaluation, Ancestry pushes forward their trees feature. Professional genealogists and serious non-profits in the field will have even more to explain because Ancestry has suggested jumping to conclusions is a valid research methodology.

And I end up wondering what Steve Buscemi’s ancestry really looks like….

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Some Future Directions for Google Books

Google received a painful judgment from Judge Denny Chin on its $125 million agreement with the publishing industry. Judge Chin felt the agreement gave Google a “de factor monopoly.” Google had been sued by the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild in 2005. These groups objected to the fact that Google was in the process of scanning millions of books for which they were not the copyright owner, and then placing small snippets on the web for search and retrieval.

Especially problematic were the millions of orphaned books, that is, books that are still under copyright protection, but for whom no one is sure who the copyright owner is, usually because of faulty record keeping by publishers, publishers going out of business, or complicated by probate confusion. Currently, these books have little value, as they are mainly out-of-print, and only for sale in the resale market. However, Google has been in the process of selling digital versions of books that have been long out of print and had some level of pent-up demand. While each particular book might not be a best seller, in the list of millions of titles that require no royalty to Google, the average number of books that sell would not have to be great for Google to make a profit. In fact, it’s clear that $125 million is clearly not enough for ownership of such a great chunk of humane letters.

So, where will Google go from here? No one knows. It is even unclear whether their partners in the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild will continue to work with them to try to come to an agreement acceptable to the court, or whether, instead, they will sue Google, now that their agreement is no longer in place.

However, I think there are some interesting options for Google:

  • Google Books will certainly still distribute its vast catalog of public domain books.
  • Google could donate all the orphaned books to a non-profit, such as the Internet Archive, with and understanding that Google could make the books available as they come into the public domain.
  • Google could negotiate another, more expensive, agreement. It’s unclear how this agreement could be designed to meet the court’s requirements for economic fairness, as Google would likely still be far ahead of anyone else in digitizing the worlds books.

For genealogists, Google Books has been a book, providing unlimited access to a number of public domain titles, including law library content, and local and family histories.

Scott Turow of the Authors Guild provides an idea of the likely direction, and the difficulty of law getting in the way of long-term trends:

“Regardless of the outcome of our discussions with publishers and Google, opening up far greater access to out-of-print books through new technologies that create new markets is an idea whose time has come,” said Mr.Turow. “Readers want access to these unavailable works, and authors need every market they can get. There has to be a way to make this happen. It’s a top priority for the Authors Guild.”

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Dead Men Don’t Win Cribbage Tournaments

In going through family heirlooms, great and small, we came across a small trophy in the form of a cup.

“O. F. D. / Cribbage Trophy / Won By / Hill & Hallen”

I am not sure who the winners are, or what the year was, but my mother told me, years ago, that this was won by her father, Ernie Hill, and his buddy Hallen. My guess is that “O. F. D.” is the Ord Fire Department in my mother’s home town of Ord, Nebraska.

The only way to find out more about this is to search the Ord Quiz, and possibly other local papers working backwards from Ernie Hill’s death in 1933. I know he didn’t win it after 1933, as dead men don’t win cribbage tournaments.

Will I find out much? Possibly not. Will I find out anything? Probably so.

It is all part of the “reasonably exhaustive search.” When one finds a clue, one must follow it where it leads.

Arkiv Digital: Free Weekend


ArkivDigital, the premier independent subscription-based genealogical research website in Sweden, will be free this weekend in celebration of Sweden’s “Genealogy Research Day” (March 19th).

The site boasts 26 million records online in color. I have written about the site previously (“Review: Genline vs. Arkiv Digital“). The site is continuing to improve, and there is a beta version of a new English ArkivDigital application. (The Java-based application runs on your desktop and helps you find and navigate through images on ArchivDigital’s website.)

While most of the documents in the Swedish church records that make up the bulk of the ArkivDigital collection are not as colorful as the example above, I was surprised at how much easier it is to read handwritten images in color than it is in black and white. It probably has to do with the paper in grayscale not providing the same contrast to the lettering as one sees in the the sepia-toned color images on ArkivDigital.

I highly recommend the site, and since you can use it free this weekend, you can determine if it’s something you want to subscribe to or not.

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Wordless Wednesday: Alice Margaret Gregg

Alice Margaret Gregg
Alice Margaret Gregg (1870-1919)

To the left is a picture of my great grandmother, Alice Margaret Gregg (b. 29 Apr 1870, Nodaway, Adams, Iowa; d. 29 Mar 1919, Ord, Valley, Nebraska). She married the farmer Nels Johnson on 26 Sep 1888 at her father’s farm near Alliance, Box Butte, Nebraska). They had three children.

She died just one month shy of her 50th birthday, a victim of the worldwide flu pandemic. Her daughter, Bethene Blanche Johnson (1892-1919), succumbed three days later.

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Mocavo: New Genealogy Search Site


Mocavo, a new Internet search engine, launched today.

Its focus is on searching free genealogical websites. It has gained the attention of the genealogy bloggers, showing up in Randy Seaver’s Genea-Musings (“First Look at Mocavo – A New Genealogy Search Engine“) and Dick Eastman’s EOGN (“Mocavo.com – A Genealogy Search Engine“).

The site offers a very intuitive interface, with a simple, and large, search bar, which tells you to “Enter names, places, years, etc. Full names best in quotes.”

The search results, which exclude content from non-genealogical sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and focus on free sites geared toward genealogy (Rootsweb, USGenWeb, Find-a-Grave, and on and on), are generally relevant for genealogists.

I searched for

“Swan Johnson” Nance

(Nance being the county Swan ended up in after emigrating from Sweden and migrating through Illinois and Iowa). I received relevant results, many of which I had written, but I noted that the results on Rootsweb were there, but none from this blog, though those entries are months old. My supposition then, is that Mocavo is searching a specific subset of genealogical sites – ones where the total name count is already in the billions.

Nevertheless, this seems to be an incredibly powerful search tool. It will not replace Google for genealogical data, but it will be a site many of us commonly use, particularly when our searches turn on a majority of social media pages, instead of genealogical gold.

RootsTech 2011: Keynote Addresses

The keynote addresses for the RootsTech 2011 conference are now available for viewing on the RootsTech site:


These videos include:

  • Jay Verkler – CEO of FamilySearch International – Opening Keynote “Warm-Down” Address (34:18)
  • Barry Ewell – “Digitally Preserving Your Family Heritage.” This one seems a little over-the-top, and not really focused. Mr. Ewell knows a lot about digital preservation, but after pointing out that all of his slides and thoughts on the topic could not fit into a one-hour talk, proceeds to lose his focus. However, the ability to pause and take notes makes this better on video. (58:00)
  • Curt B. Witcher – Historical Genealogy Department Manager, Allen County Public Library. A talk on the changing times in genealogy, with an introduction by Tim Sullivan, CEO of Ancestry.com (1:09:33)
  • Brian Pugh – “Cloud Computing: What it is and how we used it to build familysearch.org” (1:03:00)
  • Thomas MacEntee – “Virtual Presentation Round Table” Featuring Lisa Louise Cooke, Marian Pierre-Louis, Geoff Rasmussen, Pat Richley-Erickson, Allison Stacey, and Maureen Taylor. A well-balanced, well-moderated discussion of how presenters can give virtual presentations, and how genealogical societies can facilitate this service. (1:03:57)
  • Brewster Kahle – Founder of the Internet Archive – This is a powerful speech, and was one of the highlights of the conference for me. (51:17)

This is a fair representation of the conference. It was what we call in high-tech “drinking from the fire hose.” At approximately 5 1/2 hours, this will either take a good chunk of your day.

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G-Mail Smart Labels

Google Smart Labels
Google Smart Labels

I don’t know about you, but I am drowning in e-mail.

Most of my non-day job e-mail goes into a couple of Google G-mail accounts. This is mainly because G-mail has so many features to help me sort, find, and respond to e-mail.

First off, I get almost zero spam, because Google’s spam filters use the power of the userbase of G-mail to identify spam. If tens of thousands of people flag something as spam or phishing, it probably is, so G-mail whisks it away from your in box.

Next, G-mail lets you create any number of filters for incoming messages. You can have messages that you want to store (receipts, say), but do not want in your inbox moved into a Receipts folder and removed from the inbox. Automatically. Every time.

Searching in G-mail is just as intuitive, quick and powerful as searching the web. (And, if you are in G-mail and want to search the web, there’s a button to quickly get search results from the web instead of from your e-mail.)

But Google is going further than any other e-mail product with G-mail. They are helping you automatically sort your mail without you having to set up filters. Last year, Google released something called Priority Inbox, which does a fairly serviceable job of predicting what might be of more importance to you, based on what you read and reply to. Over the last couple of days, Google has released a new feature for G-mail into Google Labs. It’s called “Smart Labels.” As e-mail comes in, Google looks to see if it is a Notification (something sent directly to you, but not from someone you have ever replied to, or perhaps with a no-reply setting in the header), Bulk Mail (an e-mail mass mailing list), or Forums (from a group mailing list). If so, it tags your e-mail with one of these labels, and, if you tell it so by simply clicking a checkbox, it can remove that e-mail from your inbox.

To set this up, log into G-mail, go to Settings and then Labs, and scroll down until you see Smart Labels and mark that Enabled. For more information, see Google’s G-mail blog entry on this feature.

This looks powerful to me, and already has given me a smaller inbox where I will have most of my tasks and must-respond items.

In case you are wondering, “How does this relate to genealogy?” the answer is that time spent wrestling with your e-mail inbox is time not spent on your research. Google continues to help streamline the way e-mail works so we can get back to something we would rather be doing.

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My Grandmother’s Divorce

Wyoming State Archives website
Wyoming State Archives

I working to declutter my home and put valuable and rare genealogical documents in order. In this process, I have been going through some, until now, neglected documents that were passed down to me, and finding some surprises.

I had been thinking about seeing what I could do about getting my grandmother Helen Harris’s divorce papers from the Wyoming State Archives. Divorce records are available 50 years after the date of the event, if you can provide enough detail to locate the records. Of course, I would have the names of both the parties (F. Ralph Harris and Helen Hill Harris), though I would not have known who the plaintiff was and who the defendant was. I did know the rough timeframe (some time between 1941 and 1947).

However, I know all of this information now, as I may have more documentation on the divorce than the state of Wyoming does. I certainly have different documentation: In addition to the signed divorce petition and decree, and the property settlement and child custody agreement, I have the letters sent to my grandmother from her attorney.

Here is a transcription of the decree of divorce.






The above entitled matter coming on regularly to he heard upon the Petition of F. Ralph Harris, the Plaintiff above named, to which an Answer has been filed by Helen Hill Harris, the Defendant above named, and the said F. Ralph Harris being present in Court in person and by his attorney and said Helen Hill Harris, the Defendant above named, being represented by R. G. Diefenderfer, Esq., her attorney, and said Plaintiff having been put to strict proof the Court finds that each and every allegation in Plaintiff’s petition contained is true and that the prayer thereof should be allowed.

The Court further finds that on or about the 17th day of June, 1943, the parties hereto entered into a Property Settlement and Child Custody Agreement and that said Property Settlement and Child Custody Agreement should be made part of this Decree.

IT IS, THEREFORE, HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that F. Ralph Harris, the Plaintiff above named, be and his is hereby granted an absolute decree of divorce from Helen Hill Harris, the Defendant above named.

IT IS FURTHER HEREBY ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that that certain Property Settlement and Child Custody Agreement made and entered into upon the 17th day of June, 1943, a copy thereof being attached to Plaintiff’s Petition, be and the same is hereby made a part of this Decree.

DONE IN OPEN COURT on this the 11th day of February, 1946.

James H. Burgess

Approved as to form

As I said, there is also the correspondence between R. G. Diefenderfer and my grandmother, or at least his side of it. Additionally, the documents include a dual notarized copy of the Property Settlement and Child Custody Agreement.

The letters from the attorney to my grandmother contain some notable moments. They begin on August 9, 1945, with:

Dear Mrs. Harris:

Your letter of August 7th was at hand this morning and I note that you will not accede to your husband’s desire that your ring be returned to him. I will govern myself accordingly.

Later in the letter we see references to the attorney having seen Mrs. Harris “when I last talked with you at your apartment.” She was claiming payment was due per the agreed settlement. He noted that the due date was the 10th, and advised her thus: “you must keep your husband advised of your address and if you have not already done so, please inform him thereof at once.” She was now living at 312 7th Avenue, Spencer Park, Hastings, Nebraska, and the attorney and her husband remained in Sheridan, Wyoming.

On September 25, 1945, there is this:

Dear Mrs. Harris:

Your recent letters have remained unanswered because I have been extremely busy in the trial of cases. However, I contacted Mr. Garbutt yesterday morning and he will hand to me a copy of your husband’s Petition and of the Summons.

What I do not have in F. Ralph Harris’s petition for divorce. This may or may not be with the divorce papers, but now that I have the exact date of the divorce, and know who the plaintiff and defendant are, getting these documents should be simple.

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Archival Publications: Newspapers and Magazines

"A Stage Ride to Colorado," Harper's Magazine, July 1867

Many genealogists are aware of historical newspapers, and search them out on NewspaperArchive.com, GenealogyBank.com, and the Library of Congress. But there are some important archival publications that are available with the original publishers.

Harper’s Magazine has been publishing monthly issues since July 1850. Current suscribers to the magazine have access to all of the content of the magazine from its initial run until the current month.

If you are lucky, you will find an article, as I have done, which talks about an event your ancestor was involved in.

The article, “A Stage Ride to Colorado” by Theodore R. Davis covers the stage coach route through Kansas to Denver, which was guarded by the 1st US Volunteers. My 3rd great grandfather, Thomas David Via, was a teamster in the 1st US Volunteers. This group of soldiers, the first “Galvanized Yankees,” joined the Federal army from Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates in order to avoid what was a probable death in the prison. Because they had been Confederates, they ended up getting sent out to the West to fight the wars against the Indians, who had been in rebellion because the Federal troops were preoccupied with combatting the Confederates.

Harper's Magazine
Harper's Magazine

But, even if your family and its experiences are not covered by Harper’s Magazine, it remains an important chronicle of American life and culture. Genealogists would be served well by reading contemporaneous journalism to understand the times, if not the life, of the subjects of their research.

You might also consider looking at the archives of the New York Times. The Times posts every article published since 1851. (There is a small fee for downloading the content.)

Tomorrow, I will write about what I found at the Times about an ancestral cold case from 1854.



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