Genealogical Rorschach Tests

We’ve all heard of the famous Rorschach test, where the subject is shown an inkblot, essentially a random splatter of ink, and asked to tell what it looks like to him.   Different people will see different things, and (so the theory goes) reveal insights about their personality.

Genealogical research is nothing like this.  We work in a disciplined fashion, with evidence and facts and degrees of certainty. We don’t weave stories about inkblots.


Well, we don’t aim to do this, but we need to take precautions to ensure we don’t inadvertently let someone else take a genealogical Rorschach test for us.   A lesson here, from some recent client work, shared with his permission.

The client was seeking to learn the Scottish origins of his great grandfather who lived in Quincy, Massachusetts and died in Boston in 1934.  The client provided a death certificate, a Massachusetts form R-305, obtained by the town clerk in Quincy, the relevant portion shown here:


A nice, legible, typed form.  Father’s name is “Nilla.”  No ambiguity or interpretation here.  It is all crystal clear, yes?

But hold on.  He died in Boston (as was stated elsewhere on the certificate).  If you died in another town in Massachusetts the clerk of that town would send copy of the death certificate to the clerk of your town of residence.  So we’re not really looking at the original record here, but a copy made back in 1934 by the Boston clerk and sent the Quincy clerk.  That, plus the lack of a birth city for the father and the very unusual given name “Nilla” all point to the need to get a copy of the Boston record as well.

When the Boston death certificate arrived, it was also a nice, clean, legible, certified copy, with the following information:


So now the father’s name is “Milton.”   Not a typical Scottish name, but at least now have the original death certificate.  End of story.

But hold on.  Surely this is not the original record either.  It is clearly a computer printout on nice, official paper with an embossed seal.  But it is still a derivative of the original record.

So I make one more try, to get the most-original version of the death certificate available,  an image of the record in the original record books, which yielded this:


Now we see the Rorschach test.   Nilla?  Milton?   I can see why one could imagine they see either.  My guess it is neither.  What do you see?

The point here is you, as a researcher, can read and interpret handwriting, but even more importantly, you can express degrees of certainty.  You can say it is, “likely Milton” or “possibly William.”  You are not put in the position of an clerk’s assistant filling out a form, where the design of the form demands a single answer and leaves no room for nuance.

And this the importance of tracking down the most-original version of a record whenever possible.  A conscientious genealogist would not treat a record like a Rorschach Test, but if he does not work from the most-original version of a record, he risks unwittingly basing his conclusions on someone else’s Rorschach Test, which converted ambiguity into a false certainty, and leads to conclusions that could be wrong, but also likely have an inflated degree of certainty.

So how did this end?  Fortunately, I was able to track down naturalization papers for my client’s great grandfather and that showed where in Scotland (Jedburgh) he was from.  Ultimately the death certificate played only a supporting role in putting together the evidence connecting the records together.   Further work remains to connect the family in America with the specific family in Scotland.

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