Sunday, May 18, 2014

Caution is needed with obituaries

Obituaries can be great resources for filling in both recent and past generations of branches of your family tree, but one has to be very careful about the assumptions one makes when reading them.

[All names below have been altered.]

I read the below obituary of a distant cousin

SCHWINN, ROBIN (nee Goldstein) … dear mother of Penny Ann (Edward) Molloy, Ethan J. (Marcia) Johnson and the late Alice First; dear grandmother of Lana (Louis) Spalding, George W., Jack C., Rachel A. Johnson and Melissa Steinway; dear great grandmother of Matthew and Michael Spalding...

From this obituary I entered three children for Robin Goldstein and __ Schwinn
  • Penny Ann Schwinn – (married Edward Molloy)
  • Marcia Schwinn – (married Ethan J. Johnson) (daughter Rachel)
  • Alice Schwinn – (married ___ First)
I was unable to assign the other grandchildren to their parents without further information. I suspect there are a number of genealogists who would fill in the blanks as I did, carefully noting where they got the information, naturally.

Then I found Alice Schwinn’s obit

...Mrs. Schwinn…She is survived by her father, Ethan Johnson; mother, Robin Schwinn; sister, Penny Molloy; brother, John Johnson; grandmother, Opal Johnson; and close friend, Patricia Marie.

I knew something was wrong somewhere. There was no way Alice's father was her sister’s husband. And here was a brother not mentioned in the first obituary.

After a little thought I redrew the tree.

Robin Goldstein (Spouse 1: Ethan John Johnson) (Spouse 2: ___ Schwinn)
  • Penny Ann ___ (married Edward Molloy)
  • Ethan John Johnson, Jr. (married Marcia ___) (daughter Rachel)
  • Alice Johnson (married ___ First)
This information fits both obituaries, but contains some new assumptions. In order to confirm these, I could make a trip to the library and look up some marriage records in the microfilm. Or I could try to contact the cousins.

It is common for individuals to be better known by their middle name than their first, especially when they share a name with a parent. It is also common for half-siblings and step parents to be referenced without the modifiers. This leads to ambiguity that sometimes doesn't appear ambiguous.

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