Evidence Can’t Be Trusted Either: The Case of Changing Attributes
I suppose I delight– just a bit– in saying that, as a sometimes contrarian genealogist or family historian, I do enjoy pointing out the flaws in Professionals commendable but often flawed insistence on “facts” and their proper citation. Yesterday I gave myself a task—I decided to see how many of my recent ancestors that I could come up with written evidence for their physical attributes. Photographs maybe—but mostly I was looking for documentation. The best descriptions came from driver’s licenses, military drafts or military enlistment papers. I had a two expired driver’s licenses for my mother, none for my father, but I did have his service records. I had draft cards for my two grandfathers and enlistment papers for one grandfather and on to Civil War ancestors etc. Note: if you haven’t done this its a good exercise.
Okay well enough—except for my grandfather Milo. The inconsistencies are enough to make your head spin. Let’s start with the earliest record which isn’t as early as it should be but his Army enlistment record from WWI is non existent. Here is his discharge dated 21st May 1919 which was entered upon his re-enlistment in WWII dated 16 Oct. 1942. He enlisted 14 January 1918.
At the time of his original enlistment at 18 years old he was 5 feet 5 1/2 inches tall, brown eyes, brown hair and Ruddy Complexion. The next record we have is his Draft card from 14 February 1942.
So in 24 years Milo has gained 1 1/4 inches. Not impossible since he was only 18 at enlistment however his eyes have gone from brown to gray and his complexion from Ruddy to Light, but his hair is still brown. I am positive this is Milo’s card as he did have a Right index finger amputation! But we aren’t done yet! My grandfather served in the Army for about 5 months from October 1842 to March 1943. At the time of his discharge he was listed as an Airplane Mechanic with excellent character. Not sure of the true reason for his discharge but he then joined the Navy 12 June 1943 as an electrician. When he was discharged we get another description of Milo.
Okay let’s have a look: Milo’s height is now 5′ 7″ (looks like they gave him the 1/4″), he has dropped 8 pounds, but his eyes which were last Gray are now Hazel. His hair that was brown is light brown and his complexion is back to Ruddy! So what can we make of all this. Well since I knew my grandfather well I think I can speak with better authority than any of these documents. My grandfather was probably closer to 5′ 6 when I knew him. He had graying hair that was brown with sandy highlights. His complexion was medium with ruddy or red undertones (probably vestiges of his Scottish ancestors also described this way). His eyes were a blue-gray with some brown flecks. Not a single description is inaccurate per se but rather an interpretation. And so much of what is recorded and viewed as evidence is simply an interpretation. A case in point is my own marriage is officially recorded as the day after the day I was actually married. The minster simply made a mistake. yesterday while perusing a list of German Exulanten I found an error where my ancestress was listed as married to the same man as her sister (not the case) and my ancestor she did indeed marry was left out—and so an error can be passed on from a mistake in typesetting or transcription. Our jobs as historians and genealogists is to try to take all evidence and endeavour to make sense of it. We are constantly revising, revisiting and gathering more information. Take away: the more carefully we scrutinize what information we have the closer we may get at a realistic version of history.
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