Monday, May 2, 2016

I Stalk Dead People

Someone got buried in 1881, but probably not someone
named Mary Anne Maddicks
This blog is two years old, and this is the first time I’ve really covered genealogy. Oops. It’s odd that it hasn’t come up since not only have I used genealogical research over and over on this blog, but I’ve been researching my own genealogy for about the last sixteen years.

In the blog, I’ve used genealogical research to find out more details about the people I’ve written about as part of the general background material of the blog post. “Hey, this person seemed so active in the Esperanto movement. What happened? Oh, they suddenly died.”[1] The same techniques that go into finding out where great-great-grandpa lived.[2]

I’m not the only one. It’s a popular hobby, though I’ve joked on occasion that “all of the good hobbies were taken,” but its popular because it’s great fun. It’s more like a great game of sleuthing. In geocaching, there’s expectation that the item you’re looking for is somewhere. If you come up empty-handed, you did something wrong. In genealogy, you might be searching for something that was destroyed decades ago, if it ever existed. Sometimes, you search, give up the trail, and then it just drops into your lap. In the end, you’ve amassed a pile of documents about your relatives. Dossiers, as you would. Sounds kinda stalkerish. But let’s not focus on that.
The baptismal record (edited)

I’m fascinated by the puzzles involved. I recently was going through Nova Scotia death records and found one for Mary Anne Maddox, the daughter of Matthew and Catherine (Cavanaugh) Maddox. Their names get spelled a variety of ways in the records, probably depending on who was writing it down (I’m sticking with “Maddox,” as that is how living relatives spell it). Matthew and Catherine Maddox were my great-great-grandparents, and the individual at question would have been my great grandaunt. In the burial registers we see that on 22 September 1881, Mary Anne Maddox, aged 1, died in L’Ardoise, Nova Scotia. There’s just a problem with that.

And here she is on the census, a decade after the burial
Ten years later on the 1891 Canadian Census, Mary Anne is 13, which is an amazing trick to manage if you’ve been dead for ten years. It can’t even be a child that was named for her dead sister; as you poke through birth and death records it seems clear that a promise of “we’ll name the next one—” was expected to stick until you got the name applied to someone who survived childhood.[3] It’s not the census that’s making a mistake, since there’s a baptismal record for Mary Anne from 18 February 1878. Let us do the math: someone born in 1878 would in 1891 turn, oh yes, 13. What the birth records don’t have is a Maddox birth in 1879 or 80.

(Not everything is so uncertain. The same baptismal and burial records establish that Matthew and Catherine baptized a son, John Robert Maddox, on 22 June 1884, who did on 15 March 1885. Pretty simple.)

This is what we know:
  • Mary Anne Maddox was baptized on 18 February 1878, .
  • In 1881, her parents buried an one-year-old daughter, also named Mary Anne, according to the death records.
  • In the 1891 Census, she’s listed (predictably) as a 13-year-old.
Whom did they bury? Mary Anne Maddox would go on to marry, have children and die in 1932. But someone was buried. That question remains to be solved.

  1. I expect that people who were covered in century-old newspaper stories are now dead; many of them died not long after their brief moment of fame. Take for example William Parker Bonbright, whose Esperanto advocacy was cut short when he drowned in 1909 at the age of 26.
  2. For me, that answer is Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, or Italy, depending on which great-great-grandfather.
  3. One of my ancestors, after his first wife died (my lineage) re-used a lot of the same names for children with his second wife, even though their step-siblings of the same were still alive. I guess if Laurent had moved away from home, what did it matter if his step-brother had the same name?  ↩

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