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.…