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.…

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.”

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.

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.

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 VerklerCEO 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.

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.

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.

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.