The Detective in Us

The following article is by Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske It was quite wet outside and winds were swaying the trees very dramatically. But I didn’t care. The house was warm and dry and I had a new book – The Mysterious Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, (Puffin Classics). It wasn’t really new, just new to me. Our library puts on a sale of all kinds of books each year. These are donated items that the library sells in order to raise money. (I, the detective, suspect that the same books are re-donated each year for sale once more. The really interesting books may have been sold six or seven times. But mine looked fairly new, as though it had made the rounds only once or twice before. For fifty cents, what can you expect?)

A very special book, it contained three or four “new” stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle over a hundred years earlier. I had not read any of the stories, so you can see why I didn’t care how uncomfortable the weather was.

After heating a mug of cider in the microwave oven, I sat back in my big over-stuffed relaxer chair to consume my new treasure, while the winds howled. After a few pages I thought, “With some training, that Sherlock Holmes guy would have been a wonderful genealogist.” And he would have.

Sherlock worked in a small world in which all the important facts are brought to him daily in the form of newspapers. Often the population from which he deduced facts was limited to only a few Kings, Queens or other aristocrats or politicians. Instead of reading only about dead people he “read” live ones by examining their clothes, hands or shoes for clues about their backgrounds. He figured out “who done it” by making assumptions from a few clues and then helped arrest the villains in usually a bloodless manner. His friend Watson wrote up the stories from case notes.

Of course, when Holmes was bored, he shot up a seven per cent solution of heroin or he fiddled around, playing little known tunes on his violin. I sincerely hope genealogists do not use heroin when they research their families, although some badly done research I have seen might indicate the use of some kind of drugs.

Speaking of vices, Sherlock Holmes smoked cigarettes and, I believe the occasional cigar. This was the acceptable practice in his time and culture. So was dying at what we think was an early age. Forty years later when Social Security was enacted in this country, the time to collect on one’s contributions was age sixty-five. Our cynical government decided on this age because most working people died before age sixty-five. Now the average age at death for men is around seventy-six. During the extra years, people have accumulated wisdom and facts today that helped them to become better detectives than they could have been in Holmes’ time.

Sherlock was very much like us genealogists. And today’s genealogists are like detectives, sifting through names of people in a small population (all those whose surname is Smith in New England, for example). Sometimes we bring in expert researchers for assistance, just as Holmes works with police detectives such as Inspector Lestrade. We also deal with family members, just as Holmes did – or with military people for background information.

In some searches, of course, we spend years collecting facts until the truth emerges, while Holmes solves his cases usually within a few chapters of a book. He has a time limit, you see. We have the wonderful tool called the computer, which Holmes did not have. But his world was smaller, involving fewer people. Our world is larger in numbers of people, numbers of countries, and numbers of generations, so maybe it all evens out.

Holmes was confined to travel by trains between cities or to travel by horse-drawn carriages within London. I am sure his Baker Street traffic was no slower than the traffic we see on freeways and downtown streets. In town, he had to be careful where he stepped, which was a disadvantage of unknown proportion. We have better lighting at night than Holmes had. Therefore, we probably have more hours available to do our research.

So there are many plusses and minuses, even though our basic work is much the same: we are all detectives, but not totally scientific ones. Holmes made giant intuitive leaps in which he evidenced faith in himself. He had a very large ego. Some of us genealogists can claim a giant ego and the rest of us know we make those intuitive leaps. That is how we fill in all those blanks on the genealogy page before we have all the proof we need. The rest is plain old fact-finding and deduction based on the facts we find. And we use assumptions, too.

For instance, we assume that people within at least one generation of us live like we live (except for DVRs and cell phones). We can be pretty sure our fathers and their fathers hated politicians and taxes. We can also be sure that they reacted to taxation the same way we do. No doubt Holmes dealt with people who did the same things he did, and in the same way, too. It is one of the advantages of sharing a culture.

Sherlock was famous for saying, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” How many times have we done our research by methodically eliminating the families in an area until only one is left that could be the family in our line? That is the family we concentrate on. Sometimes we cannot find proof of ancestry, but often we can. This method helps us focus on the (often) correct family or person we are seeking.

Yes, Sherlock Holmes would have been a wonderful genealogist. Instead of being bored and shooting up heroin, he could have done family history research for people. Likewise, some genealogists could be wonderful detectives. Actually, they are wonderful detectives, but with different titles and smaller paychecks.

I don’t know about you, but the detective work is what keeps me interested in genealogy. I have no heroin, so when I get bored I read books by people such as Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented Sherlock Holmes. And since I do not play the violin, I fiddle with Ham radio where I occasionally find new cousins. Once in a while my genealogy turns up murdered ancestors but sadly, I have to write up my own cases, since no one is interested in my genealogy but me.

But, genealogy beats daytime time TV. Without lost relatives and with nothing else to watch, who knows what I might shoot up in my dotage?

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