Last month, we talked about the priests and civil clerks who had a bad day, just like we do sometimes, and made mistakes in the official records. You and I, as genealogists who look at these records, need to be aware that mistakes are made, how to recognize them, and what to do about them.
So what other kinds of mistakes happen when the clerk doesn’t have enough espresso in the morning? Last month, we saw how they messed up dates by forgetting what month it was, and writing the wrong month in the book. The bigger problem is that they write the wrong PARENTS sometimes. Geez, if they can’t get the parents right on the baptism, what CAN you trust? Let’s give credit where credit is due. Most of the time, the records are accurate. But every once in a while, the clerk is a little cranky from getting stuck in traffic. Evidentially a mule was stuck in the road and caused a gapers block. It’s always something!
Anyway, here is what I have found. I might be looking for the birth of Vito Fiore, around 1880. Let’s say that I do not know who his parents are, but I have his birth date from his death certificate here in Chicago. So I find the 1880 births and I find Vito and the birth date matches. The birth record lists Michele Fiore and Assunta Palumbo as his parents. At this point, you have no way of knowing that the clerk was kept up all night by a colicky baby and wasn’t thinking clearly. And you are happy because you found Vito’s parents, which is a new generation for your family tree. But, be cautious…
Your next logical step in tracing this genealogy is to find the marriage of Michele and Assunta. So you start looking at marriage records prior to Vito’s birth date and you don’t find anything. You go back 30 years and find nothing. Sigh. Let’s stop and think. Who is Vito’s firstborn son? Grandpa Mike! Ok so far. Who was his firstborn daughter? Zia Angie…. She’s not named Assunta…never was! Is Assunta the wrong first name?
It’s not easy if you’re just starting your research. You have to check a lot of records to clear this one up. First of all, you go back through the marriage records again. You find a Vito Fiore married to Angela Giannelli. It’s the right first name, based on Zia Angie being the first granddaughter. Turns out Zia Angela has cousins too, named Angel or Angelina. So this married couple you just found is a good chance of being the right one.
Now you need to find brothers and sisters of Vito. You need to check BOTH couples. Anybody whose parents are Michele Fiore and Assunta Palumbo, and anybody whose parents are Michele Fiore and Angela Giannelli. By checking birth records for both couples, you can find out what you need to know. You need to know if there is such a couple as Michele and Assunta. You also need to know if Michele and Angela had a lot of kids but there’s one missing where Vito ought to be.
After checking ten years of birth records, you discover that somehow, Michele and Assunta never had any more kids, before or after Vito. You also discover that Michele and Angela had kids every second year and there’s a 4 year gap between kids that Vito would fix nicely into.
So you have circumstantial evidence that Vito was the son of Michele and Angela. So who the heck is Assunta? Why is Assunta Palumbo written on the birth record? It’s not even the same surname! Well, my suggestion is to check the marriages and work your way back even further. Look for ANY Fiore (not just Michele) who married an Assunta Palumbo. Chances are you will find a couple, old enough to be Michele’s parents, and one of them is the legendary Assunta Palumbo. If you have the chance to check the birth record of Michele Fiore (Angela’s husband) you may just find that HIS parents are Giovanni Fiore and Assunta Palumbo!
What sense does THIS make? Plenty! The informant, who is also the father, goes to City Hall and steps up to the clerk’s desk. He’s tired from a colicky baby (the one just born!) and the clerk isn’t doing much better. They have the following conversation, which I’ll translate:
Clerk: “Next … C’mon, move the line!”
Michele: “I want to report the birth of my son Vito.”
Clerk: “Yeah yeah. Let me get the form … Your name?”
Michele: “Fiore Michele”
Clerk: “The baby’s name?”
Michele: “Vito. I just told you three seconds ago …”
Clerk: “Veeee…..tohhhh.” (He’s writing it down.) “Father?”
Michele: “It’s me! That’s my son!”
Michele: “Palumbo Assunta.”
The tired father thought the clerk asked who HIS mother was. So he told him! Hence, the father’s mother, not the baby’s mother, ends up on the birth certificate.
Before you say “C’mon Dan, isn’t that a little unlikely?”, all I can do is tell you that I have found several dozen mistakes like this one, covering 80 years and many different clerks or priests who wrote the records. For some reason, there is almost no confusion about who the father is, but the mother gets messed up far more often. This is likely because the father is frequently the informant. The mother, having just given birth, is NEVER the informant. She never gets to say “It’s-a me!”
This kind of mistake is easy to find, especially when you cannot find the marriage of the parents. There are other mistakes you may never find. If the clerk wrote down the birth date of May 3rd and the actual birth was on May 1st, and the baby lived to be 80 years old, there is no way to know that the clerk wrote it down wrong. You might have a death certificate that says “May 1st” was his birthday, but you should trust the birth certificate because it is closer to the date of the event. You can always list the death certificate as an alternate date and alternate source. I have run into a few cases of people who died before they were born……because the date of birth was written incorrectly, and the age at death is only a few days, so it shows that the birth certificate was wrong. But unless that child died within a month, it’s almost impossible to be sure of a mistaken birth date.
All I can tell you is to A) check other records for support, and B) ask your friends who are also researching Italian records to help you with the logic. There is a lot of value to the “sounding board”.
If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line. Have fun!