Episode 357 - Author Libby Copeland On Four Landmark Events In DNA In 2020

podcast episode Dec 20, 2020

Host Scott Fisher opens the show with David Allen Lambert, Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org.  The guys begin with discussion of an ancestral discovery David made this past week… one he could have had years ago had he paid attention to a communication sent to him in 2012! Then Fisher and David talk about a man who was given up as a foundling 83 years ago. Thanks to a genetic genealogist who wanted to help, he now knows who his birth parents were. Next, Smithsonian is running a great article on another pandemic Christmas… the Christmas of 1918. Genetic genealogy has again proven its worth in identifying a “Jane Doe” murder victim from 2000. Hear some of the details. Next, it’s nice to hear of a man who has decided to help lower income people learn about their past. Hear who and why this man is backing this ambitious project. Finally, in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a recent dig has revealed artifacts that may change Connecticut history books.

Then, Libby Copeland joins Fisher for a two part visit discussing four landmark events in DNA that all occurred in the past year, and where we might be going from here. She is the author behind The Lost Family, How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are.

David comes back next for another round of Ask Us Anything. The guys begin with a question about ancestral signatures and their use in genealogy, as well as how to handle family scandals when writing up a family history.

That’s all this week on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show!

Transcript for Episode 357

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Segment 1 Episode 357

Fisher: Greetings America! And welcome to America's Family History Show, Extreme Genes and ExtremeGenes.com. It is Fisher here, your Radio Roots Sleuth on the program where we shake your family tree and watch the nuts fall out. Well, I've got a great guest today who's going to really sum up this past year well. She's an author. She used to work with the Washington Post. She's a reporter and she's come up with a book that outlines four landmark events in DNA that all came together in 2020. So she's going to go through all four of those over a couple of segments, starting in about 10 minutes. Her name is Libby Copeland. And Libby's got a lot to share with us. Hey, don't forget, if you haven't signed up for our Weekly Genie Newsletter yet, now's as good a time as any, right? Just go to ExtremeGenes.com or to our Facebook page to get signed up. It’s free. You get the blog, you get the links to past and present shows and of course you get links to stories that you as a genealogist will fully appreciate. If you haven't done it yet, why not now? Coming up on the holidays, treat yourself. Right now, it’s time to head out to Boston, Massachusetts where David Allan Lambert is standing by, the Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and AmericanAncestors.org. David, how are you doing?

David: I gave myself a holiday genealogical present by accident.

Fisher: Really? [Laughs] That's good.

David: Yeah. Melanie McComb is giving me grief, you know Melanie who we have on the show from time to time. She was telling me that I needed to document one of my online trees on Ancestry a little bit better. So I went and, you know, go through it. While I was doing it, I looked at a shaky leaf. You know those ones that we get from Ancestry all the time?

Fisher: Yep.

David: I must say, I wish I had all the time in the world to look at all of them. Well, apparently, I should have looked at this one, because my third great grandfather had a shaky leaf that simply said, Fish, "Not a very tall man."

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: I remember something about that and I said, "Well, how the heck did they know about him? He died in 1853." Fast forward, I wrote a note to the person eight years ago saying, "How do you know this? He wasn't in the military." Well, they responded months later, eight years ago they did and I know have an ancestor who was an artificer in the war of 1812 and I'm filling out my application now to join the General Society of the War of 1812.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: The third great grandpa needs to be remembered.

Fisher: Now wait a minute here, you ignored an email back from somebody you wrote a note to eight years ago?

David: It was an email on Ancestry in response to a comment on a shaky leaf. But you know, with the 1000s of people I've got in my tree, it’s like, I just don't look at all of them all the time. It just goes to show you, look at those shaky leaves.

Fisher: [Laughs]

David: And I will never feel that somebody was too old to serve. He was 44, Fish.

Fisher: Oh wow!

David: And by the way, he was short. He was 5’4.”

Fisher: That's incredible! What a great find! What did you say he was?

David: An artificer. So he was one of team that would have been loading the gun, cleaning the gun, firing the gun and he was stationed at Plattsburgh, New York between 1814 and 1815 at the latter part of war of 1812.

Fisher: Well, what a great gift as a result of your negligence. That's fantastic! Congratulations!

David: I know, yes.

Fisher: [Laughs] Well, let's get to our family histoire news. What do you want to start with, Dave?

David: Well, this first story starts up in New England in Maine and it’s about a child that was abandoned in a car as an infant 83 years ago, and he was known as Billy Sunshine. So, that Billy Sunshine is really a little pro that was left in a parked. It was a car that was behind a doctor's office, and a local genealogist named Angela Raven read about the story. He had posted some of his findings and his DNA on Ancestry and she went forward to help him. And she was able to track down that James Maddix and Clara Sargent were his parents.

Fisher: You know, all these years later, he's wondered all his life he says his only regret is he didn't do a spit kit much sooner than he did.

David: That's true. Well, it’s never too late to find out and I guess that's a great holiday gift he's now been able to obviously reconnect with his past that he never knew. Smithsonian Magazine's got a great story in what they're warning you this year, "Beware the mistletoe during the holiday season" is something they also warned back in 1918 when the influenza epidemic was going on. It’s a great article and it talks a lot about how things were not really too different than they are right now.

Fisher: Oh yeah. A lot of people resisting the masked mandate back then. It talks about Christmas 1918 in a pandemic.

David: It’s amazing to think that we still have people today that were small children at the time of this pandemic and they're still with us, and hopefully they will survive this as well. Genetic genealogy has come through again on behalf of a murder victim. Valerie Mack was 24 years old when she disappeared while she was working in Philadelphia. That was back in 2000. She is no longer known as Jane Doe #6 thanks to genetic genealogists and people like yourself who submit your DNA to DNA companies to aid in more than just genealogy. So, maybe some closure for Valerie Mack’s family 20 years later. You know, I'll tell you, genealogy can be an expensive hobby, but one man out in Battle Creek, Michigan, his name is Jonathan Matthews, he's trying to help low income families discover their roots by raising funds to allow them to get DNA tests as well as looking on websites such as Ancestry, African Ancestry and Family Search. He is able to help piece together the past of people that genealogy was financially a little out of reach. But of course with Family Search, you can do that for free, but DNA of course is not free. And this is a wonderful cause he's taken on, don't you think?

Fisher: Absolutely!

David: Well, in your neck of the woods where you grew up, there's some digging going on. Wethersfield is one of the earliest settlements in Connecticut, right around the time of the Pequot War of a lot of Massachusetts settlers were going into this part of Connecticut. And recent archeological digs, it’s giving some experts reason to call Wethersfield a “Jamestown of Connecticut.”

Fisher: Yeah, you've got to see the artifacts that they have pulled up, David, all kinds of incredible stuff dating back to the earliest part of the 17th century in Connecticut. And they're saying it’s really telling the story of the people who lived there. In fact, at the site where they did the dig, the person was rather well off who was there, but he's one of those who went back to England, because he just couldn't stand living out in the middle of nowhere.

David: [Laughs] Well, that's all I have from Beantown. Remember, if you're not a member of American Ancestors, we’d love to have you as a member. Use the coupon code "Extreme" and save $20 on your membership on AmericanAncestors.org.

Fisher: All right, David. Thank you so much, and we'll see you at the back end of the show for Ask Us Anything. And coming up next, I'm going to talk to author, Libby Copeland who's written a book about four landmark DNA events that have all occurred in 2020. We'll get to her, coming up next in three minutes on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show.

Segment 2 Episode 357

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Libby Copeland

Fisher: Hey, welcome back .It is Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. It’s our final show of 2020. We’re going to give you a couple of classic rewinds here over the holidays but it seems to make sense to talk to Libby Copeland. She is an author based in the New York area. She’s done a great book that really kind of ties together what’s happened in DNA testing just in 2020. It’s called “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are.” And Libby, welcome to Extreme Genes. It’s great to have you.

Libby: Oh, I’m so glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Fisher: You know, I was looking at all this and of course many of these themes were all kind of familiar with, but then when you put it all together in the context that this all kind of has come to a head in 2020. It’s really fascinating. And you have like four things here that came together. Let’s talk about some of them. 

Libby: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, it’s important to look back and think about the fact that the DNA testing industry, DNA testing for ancestry is exactly 20 years old this year. 

Fisher: Yeah.

Libby: And that is a really great opportunity to kind of look back and see how far we’ve come and how little we could have anticipated about where it’s gone, and how little we could have anticipated the bigness of it, honestly, in ways in which it would touch our intimate personal lives and many other aspects of our life and of our society, and I’ve really been fascinated by how transformative DNA testing is especially when coupled with genealogical research. So, one of the things that I’ve been interested in doing is going back and looking at the roots of this industry.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Libby: DNA testing for ancestry purposes is the first company in the US sent out its very first test kits in April of 2000. That was Family Tree DNA, which we all know still exists and it’s one of the smallest databases, but one of the four major databases for this kind of DNA testing. And I was able to go down to Houston and interview the founder Bennett Greenspan when I was reporting my book. And one of the things that he kept empathizing was how little he imagined would come of this idea that he had. Because he was a genealogist and he was interested in helping other genealogists. And he saw this invention as something that was merely going to be another advancement akin to taking paper records and putting them online and in fixing them. 

Fisher: Right. Yeah.

Libby: He didn’t imagine that this would become a mainstream consumer item, which is what has happened in the last, you know four or five years. There’s been more and more money been poured into advertising and this has become you know, the holiday gift that you get for the person in your life who already has everything, right?  

Fisher: [Laughs]

Libby: And it moved out of the realm of the hobbyist and it went into the casual consumer, which thank goodness for genealogists because now they can find all those genetic matches that they have been looking for in order to you know, figure out the identity of a great, great grandmother. 

Fisher: Yes.

Libby: But it also means, you know, and this is one of the things that I explore in my book, it also means that many, many people are now being touched by the immediacy of the past and learning things about their families and about themselves they never could have imagined and they never could have anticipated, sometimes being surprised by that. And I think we’re really in a moment of genetic reckoning as a culture. It’s reshaping the American family. And it’s reshaping how people think about their own identities, about things like ethnicity, and our relationship to the truth and to the past.    

Fisher: Yeah. You’re absolutely right about that. You know, when you think back to the very beginning I actually remember before that in the 1990s there’s a gentleman Dr. Scott Woodward who came to my area and did blood tests on people. My wife and I were a couple who participated in it because we were told that there was a new concept that was being developed and they needed enough samples to try to test it and see if it would work. And basically, it’s matching.

Libby: Yes.

Fisher: And Scott and I are still in touch. We have him on the show periodically and talking about those pioneering days, but when you look back to that, in fact, I still talk to people periodically. You say, okay, I need a blood sample, right? No, no, no. Just spit or swab.

Libby: [Laughs] No, not anymore.

Fisher: Not anymore. But it’s just amazing to come from that. And of course, the early days was mostly about Y-DNA testing.

Libby: Yeah.

Fisher: That was kind of the thing. And if you weren’t male yourself, you had to get an uncle or a grandparent or a father to do the testing and see where it could go. And it was amazing to see how that went just by the way side so quickly, you know?

Libby: Yeah.

Fisher: It’s still used, but not to the degree it was.

Libby: Those early tests in comparison to what autosomal DNA can tell us are relatively clued, and they were very expensive.

Fisher: Yes.

Libby: And you know, Bennett Greenspan told me about how he would go to these genealogy conferences and he would be trying to explain to fellow genealogists the utility of his product and not getting anywhere. And he developed this method where he would go up to someone and he would shake their hand, and then not letting go he would just keep talking and he would walk backwards. Because he figured if he could just get them a little closer to his booth and closer to his product then he might be able to make a sale, right.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Libby: And I loved that story because you know, you have this image of this sort of CEO of a very small company like desperately trying to connect with genealogists. And now of course, many, not every genealogist, but many, many, probably the vast majority of genealogists know that when you hit a brick wall, DNA is your friend. 

Fisher: Yes. That’s right. You can confirm your paper trail if you’ve already got one and maybe you’re not quite sure it. I just did that recently. And then sometimes you can find matches that will pinpoint right where your people come from, which is absolutely astounding.

Libby: It’s amazing.

Fisher: It is. And that’s because really you’re kind of on point two here on your list of things that have come together in the DNA world in 2020. We have 35 million testers [Laughs] as of this year.

Libby: Yeah.

Fisher: At least that’s what the projected total is. It’s kind of difficult to know because of overlap between the companies. But that’s quite a milestone.

Libby: Yeah. It really is. 35 million DNA test kits sold. Yeah, I mean I think it would have been hard to anticipate back and say even in 2013, which if you think about that that is not that long ago.

Fisher: No.

Libby: That is seven years ago. And yet, in the life of this technology it’s a really big span of time. 2013 is when it’s estimated that the databases, if you added them together had a million people in them.

Fisher: Wow.

Libby: So we went from one million to 35 million in seven years. And that means that we’ve reached a kind of tipping point, certainly for the American population and as we see potentially more testers abroad they may sort of reach this tipping point as well. And that is that even if you don’t DNA test, even if you aren’t into this technology or just consider it too expensive, or it’s not on your radar, you are in some ways affected by it anyway.

Fisher: Right.

Libby: I write in the book about how you know, families surprises and family secrets are emerging and reshaping how people understand their own origin. And those stories can be incredibly moving and often very, very beautiful, sometimes kind of heart breaking, right?

Fisher: Yeah.

Libby: You kind of run the whole gamut and I tried to give a sense of the different ways they play out. But the thing that struck me over and over is these are really big profound moments for people. And the fact that you don’t even need to test in order to be, for instance, perhaps you are a man in your 70s and you conceived a child a long time ago and you didn’t even know it, right, it was back in high school.

Fisher: Yeah.

Libby: And that child can potentially find you and reach out to you and you can start a relationship with that child even if you never tested. And I think that’s important for people to understand because it’s the beginning of, I guess I would say like some important intergenerational conversations that we’re starting to have now about how people came into the world. And it’s somewhat of a collision I think of different cultures, right, the culture of the present and the culture of the past, which are very, very different. The past is like a foreign place.

Fisher: I think the past is like where we thought people behaved differently and we found that maybe it wasn’t quite that way.

Libby: Actually, they were just like us.

Fisher: Yes. [Laughs]

Libby: They were not magazine celebrities. They’re just like us. It’s actually people in the past they wore funny hats but they were just like us.

Fisher: Yeah.

Libby: [Laughs]

Fisher: Exactly.

Libby: You know, and they were subject to the same whims and the same passions, and the same heartbreaks, right. And they just didn’t necessarily tell their children or they didn’t tell them perhaps that their child was donor conceived because that might have been very stigmatized now in this moment when people are finding out. So, 35 million people is a really big deal. 

Fisher: Yeah 35 million. And the thing is, going back to where you started with this, in 2013 we had a total of a million and many of us are kind of like oh, well, we’re not getting the matches we used to get here in 2017 or 2016. But if we get a million a year going forward through the 20s, that’s going to be really, really useful. And imagine, it’s really doubling where we were at right at the beginning of this wave.

Libby: Yeah. I’m guessing that we’re somewhere between 7 and 8% of the US population that’s tested. So, I think because not everyone in the database is American but the majority of the people in the databases are American.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Libby: And so if you think about it, you know obviously our population is growing, but if we can even just continue to keep pace with that, people who are into this are going to be able to continue to find new cousins. I know I, just in the last few days, found several. I’m on three databases and two of them were sending me notifications of close relatives.

Fisher: Oh.

Libby: So, I’m certainly still getting them but you know, it’s not this hectic pace of like 20teen when it was just this embarrassment of reaches and you would sign on and you were like you know, head in your hands, how am I ever going to find the time to research my connection to these five new people?

Fisher: [Laughs] Right. Yeah. It was huge and it was happening all the time. And every week you were seeing more and more and more people. But we don’t see that so much anymore. But that’s okay. But if we were to add another million every year for the coming decade, I mean, we’d have 10 million more we’d be close to 30 million just in the Ancestry database if they were able to keep that kind of pace up.

Libby: Yeah.

Fisher: I mean, even though you’re right, we’ve got an embarrassment of riches and we’re spoiled [Laughs] but it’s going to be a great decade coming up. I’m talking to Libby Copeland, she’s the Author of “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are” and we’re talking about how all these things came together in DNA research in 2020. We’ve covered two of them so far and we’ve got a couple more to get to when we return in five minutes on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 3 Episode 357

Host: Scott Fisher with guest Libby Copeland

Fisher: All right, part two with Libby Copeland, author of “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We are.” And Libby is talking about the four things that all kind of came together in DNA this year. We’ve already talked about the 20th anniversary of DNA kits coming out. The 35 million thresholds that we hit this year in test kits sold. Libby, what is next on your list? You’ve got a good list here.

Libby: Yeah. So, one of the major things that happened this year was the sale of Ancestry.

Fisher: Yeah.

Libby: So, Blackstone which is an investment firm they bought a majority stake in Ancestry in a deal that is worth 4.7 billion dollars.

Fisher: Hmm.

Libby: I think that’s an important number to think about because four years ago Ancestry was valued at 2.6 billion. So, that’s not a bad rise in value.

Fisher: Nice little jump.

Libby: Like, I would totally take that for my home, right. [Laughs]

Fisher: [Laughs] Sold.

Libby: What’s interesting about this is that you sort of see a few things happen at the same time. We all know as we were talking about that there’s been this slowdown in test kit sales which may have to do with a couple of factors. The main factor from the experts that I talk to is that it may be that the companies have sort of vacuumed up. The earlier adopters who had an interest in family history wanted to do their genealogy and were willing to spend $99 to do it. So, there’s been that sort of slowdown in terms of the number of people who want to get into the space to do DNA testing for Ancestry.

Fisher: Right.

Libby: And then the companies are pivoting. And they’re pivoting towards health related testing. So, that is an open question of whether, how, and in what way they will attract people to DNA testing for health and then what they’ll do with that and what will the future of it be. But, I think the thing that I keep coming back to is that this industry is traditionally thought of as recreational DNA testing.

Fisher: [Laughs]

Libby: And more and more we’re seeing that it is just not recreational, right?

Fisher: Right.

Libby: It is so much more important and profound and immediate than that. And you see that obviously in the space of how it affects people’s lives, and families, and understanding of the past. But, also now you see companies like Ancestry offering health testing in partnership with physician networks. So, there’s potentially like a coming together between the medical establishment and the recreational DNA testing industry. So, what will be interesting to see in the future is how people find out about their risk of certain diseases and health issues. Are they doing it through a company like Ancestry? And that really winds up being another way in which people can find out about their health in addition to doing it in a context of a doctor’s office.

Fisher: Well, the question in my mind is, up to this point, the sale of DNA kits has been often around your ethnicity, you know? Are you going to wear the kilt or are going to wear lederhosen? You’ve got to find out.

Libby: Exactly.

Fisher: And then people found out about matching. I mean, there are so many people I’ve talked to that had no idea that matching even existed.

Libby: Yes.

Fisher: They did a test for ethnicity and then discovered they were sitting on this goldmine of information. All these puzzle pieces in the form of matches that could help them break open some difficult lines. So, I’m wondering if the health thing is going to be the new ethnicity drawing people into the matching side of things.

Libby: I wonder that too and I wonder in particular because in 23andMe for instance bundles their health and ancestry test together.

Fisher: Right.

Libby: So, potentially you go in because you’re curious about your risk of a particular mutation that’s going to put you, you know at higher risk of developing a kind of breast cancer for instance. And then, along the line you find out, wait a minute, I can just take a look at my list of DNA matches and see who’s highest up and see if that answers any questions for me. Who can I find there, right?

Fisher: Sure.

Libby: So, I think that bundling together potentially means that there’s going to be more people certainly available for genealogists who are looking for their matches and then also for those people who got into it for one reason to then fall down that genealogical rabbit hole along with the rest of us.

Fisher: [Laughs] Yeah.

Libby: Once they see all that is available to them.

Fisher: Yeah, absolutely. All right, we’ve got to talk about point number four here. What all came together in 2020? What’s your fourth item?

Libby: Yeah. So, the fourth big item for this year, the big milestone is the sentencing of the Golden State killer, Joseph James DeAngelo and you know, that case was broken open in April of 2018, so about two and a half years ago. And the fact that it has now led to his sentencing over the summer and he is now behind bars forever and ever is really an interesting thing because I think it provides a kind of a coming full circle of the world, the field of investigative genetic genealogy.

Fisher: Um hmm.

Libby: Which again, has only been around for less than three years and already has spawned a lot of investigative genetic genealogists and firms cropping up to offer this. Law enforcement has certainly been using it. I think Barbara Ray Ventnor recently estimated that about maybe perhaps 200 cases have been solved or closed as a result of investigative genetic genealogy.

Fisher: Wow!

Libby: So, I mean, it’s really transforming how law enforcement deals with the oldest and the coldest, and often the most heinous cases.

Fisher: That’s right and we still have all the controversy surrounding this and I guess there was just an article out this weekend that talked about where the results came from that caught the Golden State Killer and it was kind of a surprise.

Libby: Yeah, exactly. So, our understanding had been and our reporting had suggested that the breakthrough of DNA matches that came through to provide the identity of the man who had been a suspect and is now behind bars that came through via GEDmatch.

Fisher: Right.

Libby: And this Los Angeles Times piece that just came out revealed in fact a match at My Heritage. The information was uploaded to Family Tree DNA and to My Heritage. My Heritage has come out and said that they actually didn’t know that the information was being uploaded and there’s this debate that’s been roiling I guess, I would say within the world of genetic genealogy and within the broader world between privacy advocates and law enforcement and public safety advocates. When is this okay? Do the ends justify the means? What is permissible in the world of genealogy that’s been gathered for ancestry purposes and on and on, and on? And how do we close these cold cases? I think that LA Times story that just came out has now reignited.

Fisher: Yes.

Libby: I’ve been watching people’s comments on Twitter and Facebook and reading this has really become kind of another flashpoint for that debate about the world of investigative genetic genealogy and how it is conducted but also how it started, its roots.

Fisher: Yeah. I’m going to be very interested in seeing how My Heritage responds to this. What are they going to do with this? What is their thinking at this point, you know?

Libby: Yes, exactly. I think this is an issue for any company that allows uploads. They’ve since clarified their terms of service to say that something like this would be against their terms of service. But at the time apparently, there was a lack of clarity around that and so this is an issue going forward. I think it’s going to be a space we’re going to have to continue to watch and a very important one.

Fisher: Yeah, absolutely true. She’s Libby Copeland. She’s the author of, “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are.” How long did it take you to write this, Lib?

Libby: Yeah, I wrote it over the course of about three years. It came out of a Washington Post article that I had written in 2017 about one particular woman doing a DNA test and her really compelling story. And then with the response to that, hundreds of emails from people all over the country. In fact, all over the world saying, that was a great story, now let me tell you mine. [Laughs]

Fisher: Yeah. [Laughs]

Libby: I was like, Wow! And these stories were riveting and intimate, and personal, and moving. And I thought, goodness, there needs to be a book about this because this is such an important topic. I mean, it’s really changing our culture and that’s how it all started.

Fisher: Yeah. Not hard to find those stories anymore, is it?

Libby: No, it definitely isn’t.

Fisher: Anybody that’s into genetic genealogy has helped somebody to make some breakthrough or find some surprise. Most of the time it’s thrilling and sometimes it’s heartbreaking.

Libby: Yeah.

Fisher: Libby where can they get your book?

Libby: You can get it at all the sort of typical outlets like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Another place that I’ve been endorsing is a place called Bookshop.org. Which is just a consortium of independent bookstores and they’ll ship a book to you. But the nice thing is that during a pandemic you’re helping to keep local bookstores alive.

Fisher: That’s awesome. Libby Copeland, thank you so much for coming on we really enjoyed it and have a great New Year.

Libby: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it too.

Fisher: And on the way in moments, David Allen Lambert is back on mic as we do Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show.

Segment 4 Episode 357

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, time once again for Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show and ExtremeGenes.com. David Allan Lambert is back with us for this first question, Dave, and it reads, "Guys, how often do you use ancestral signatures in your research and how do you use them? Jeff Hanson, Salt Lake City, Utah." Great question, Jeff. And I think we can both speak to this a little bit, Dave.

David: Yeah. I mean, church records and English records, marriage records, you can see the signature right there or World War I draft registration, matching it with a sender signature you've got maybe from a letter. I mean, I use them all the time.

Fisher: Yeah, I do too. The thing that I'm finding is really helpful with this is when you're dealing with a particularly common name and you're trying to separate people. Now you know there's more than just a name to identify somebody, you know, if it’s somebody like John Smith, is it the John Smith who's married to Ellen? Is it John Smith who's married to Ellen that lives in Smithfield? That has a child named Jackson. You've got to put all those things together. But sometimes it’s a lot easier just to match up a signature and go, "Oh, look, this is the same person!" If you can tell the signatures apart, and sometimes it’s really difficult to do and it takes, I think a little experience sometimes to get the confidence that you're making the right decision on those things. But signatures can be really useful in that way. The other thing is, kind of like you said, I had a birthday book that my grandfather had left and he died when I was only like a year and nine months old, so it wasn't really that familiar with his handwriting. So I didn't know what the book was. And my mother had written some things in it and then I saw this other hand and I'm going, "Well, whose writing is that?" I knew my mom's, I knew my dad's and then I ran across a record of my grandfather's signature on his marriage record and then the World War I draft card and go, "Oh wait a minute! That's the handwriting that's in the birthday book." This was my grandfather's birthday book. So, it’s really useful when putting things together like that.

David: It really is. And the thing that I find it useful is forensic genealogy, because I had a muster roll, my ancestor who was a captain in the Revolution, a common name, and then you go forward and you look at that person’s probate and match the signature. And you know, people will say, but yours do change.

Fisher: Yes.

David: I mean, obviously from childhood to being an adult, but they don't alter too, too much. And so that's been helpful. The one thing that I always tell people to worry about is that their ancestor may have been illiterate when they wrote their will, they may have been on their deathbed and they may have made simply their mark, but you can obviously find their signature in partitions or in other documents beforehand. So you just kind of have to look a little farther afield sometimes to find all of the places they could have signed their name.

Fisher: And you just talked about a real complication there, a true one and that is, signatures do change sometimes or circumstances of how they signed, for instance, maybe they're leaning across a desk, so the slant of the signature is looking different or maybe they're under stress and so you're going to see a different looking signature than you might under normal circumstances or they have a bad pen, right, and the ink is fading. I mean, there are all kinds of circumstances there, but I find not only are they fun for identifying, but if you can actually own things that your ancestor signed, that's really a lot of fun, too, to know that they held that paper, they wrote on it, that they had some interest in it enough to leave their signature on it. I obtained one back in 2014 of my great grandfather and it was dated 1888, signed by both him and his brother as co partners in the family business in New York City. So to actually own such a document that I inherited from a third cousin was a real thrill! And I was excited to get that. But that's how I use signatures in research and I guess that's really the way you do too, Dave, mostly for trying to match up and proving somebody is the same person.

David: The other thing is that it’s great for when you don't have a photograph or gravestone that acts as the image I have that represents said person.

Fisher: I like that. Great question, thank you very much, Jeff. And we've got another one coming up as we continue with Ask Us Anything on Extreme Genes, America's Family History Show in three minutes.

Segment 5 Episode 357

Host: Scott Fisher with guest David Allen Lambert

Fisher: All right, our final segment of our final show of 2020. We're going to share a couple of classic rewinds here over the holidays and then be back with some new stuff in January. Looking forward to that. And David, our question in this segment comes from Jan Blackman in Sarasota, Florida and she says, "Fisher and David, I have learned that my grandfather did some time back in the day for theft. How do you deal with scandals like this when writing history?" That is a great question and I think anybody whose delved back into the past not too far, usually runs into something like this. It’s not unusual.

David: Well, there's always that story of somebody hung for horse stealing or the neighbor that ran away with another neighbor's wife or the pig or something.

Fisher: [Laughs] You've actually described one crime on my wife's mother's side where he ran off with the farmhand's wife, this was the laborer’s wife. He changed his name to his mother's maiden name so he wouldn't be recognized. He swindled the bank to get money to go buy more cattle and then told the people he was buying the cattle from that the money was on its way. So he had the money and the cattle, changed name and the farmhand's wife. So it was kind of all that wrapped up into one.

David: What I really want to know is, did he change the name of the cattle?

Fisher: [Laughs] That's a good question, too.

David: [Laughs]

Fisher: You know, I think, for me, and I've written a lot of histories for my family, I've written about 13 of them. And I think the question that comes to mind for any of these circumstances is, is the writing of some of this material going to cause anybody any pain? In other words, was this recent enough where somebody, say, has a child still living who adored their parent would cause them embarrassment, would cause them pain to see that information out or maybe they were close to their grandparent and they were unaware of this kind of information. That might cause you to just consider, maybe I'll just wait a little bit longer to put this together until that person passes, but otherwise, you know there is no assumption of privacy for the dead. I just think it’s a matter of sensitivity for the living.

David: That's true. And in the case of both my grandfathers, I know more about it than the rest of the grandkids do. All the children are dead. If they were alive, my mother or my uncle, I would probably at least have the conversation with them and ask them how they feel, because I mean, again, it is their parent. Grandchildren, most of the first cousins I have on both sides care less what I did than worrying about the grandparents as long as I wasn't, they were a mass murderer and they didn't know about it and I didn't tell them first or something like that.

Fisher: Right, something like that.

David: That wasn't the case of my grandfather.

Fisher: No. Well, look, talk about it. You've talked about one grandfather who had a life of crime, right?

David: He was, yeah. Off and on for probably a good 25 years.

Fisher: Wow! What kind of stuff did he do?

David: He was a bootlegger, just small time stuff. To the best of my knowledge, didn't kill anybody. Did get into some scuffles at night, no details about that. And occasionally I'll be like, "Oh, there's my grandfather in his paper again."

Fisher: [Laughs] And what about your other grandfather? Did you say he had a problem, too?

David: Uh, yeah, a little bit of theft, a little bit of time in Ontario.

Fisher: Wow!

David: But nothing that was earth shattering.

Fisher: Sure.

David: I mean, I think that the point being on that one was, I don't think his kids ever knew the whole back story of it. So when I discovered it, they were like, [gasp] they almost wished that my mother was alive, so I could have said, "Did you know who your mother is?" You didn't talk to me about Grandpa Theo. But you know, sometimes with genealogy, I think in some cases, I found, we know more about our grandparents and great grandparent than maybe our parents knew.

Fisher: Absolutely. Absolutely true. I know that I know more about my great grandfather than my dad knew about his grandfather. No question. All right, thank you so much, Jan. And of course if you have a question for Ask Us Anything, just email us at [email protected]. David, great to chat with you. Happy Holidays! Happy New Year! Talk to you on the other side of the New Year. Talk to you soon.

David: Same to you and your family and to all of our listeners out there, Happy New Year!

Fisher: And that's our show for this week, our last show of the year! We'll be back in January with new stories and experts to help you along your genealogical journey. Thanks for joining us. And remember, as far as everyone knows, we're a nice, normal family!


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