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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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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 Verkler — CEO 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



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