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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