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Archiver > TMG > 2000-01 > 0947990074


From: "Stuart Armstrong" <>
Subject: TMG-L: Last-word Evidence
Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2000 19:34:34 -0700


So often I have read on this list statements to the effect that obtaining a birth record or death record is the last word, to which all other evidence must humbly bow.
Well, I've examined many death records and it just ain't so. They just aren't that accurate. A death record is composed at a difficult time when nobody remembers much of anything, and the physician may not even know the guy. This isn't theory but experience. A death record's statements about parentage, age, and place of origin are often grossly wrong. Just because it is an official record doesn't mean it is accurate. The only reliable information on a death record is probably the fact that he died, and maybe the date and cause of death, if you can read it.
Birth records, especially vital records ledger entries, aren't much better. They often misspell names, are duplicated with several variations, miss-identify the parents, or are recorded weeks or even years after the fact. Why people trust them so baffles me. I have seen too many mistakes in them to have that much faith in vital records. After all, a birth Certificate is often no more than a transcription of an entry found in a worn-out ledger with hard-to-read handwriting, which in turn is a transcription by an overworked clerk of information found on a physician's statement which no longer exists, written in a physician's scrawl before the parents had firmly decided upon a name.
Marriage records suffer from the same problems. Ages stated are seldom truthful, birth places are only approximate (he may be Irish but he was not born in Ireland), and parents' names are frequently confused with other relatives. Think about who fills out the marriage record and you will know why: a minister who barely knows the couple -- the form filled out in the midst of festivities and mirth. Then think about who records the information into the ledger, when, and under what circumstances.
The best evidence is a preponderance of evidence from several sources.
The point of all this (please forgive my soapboxing) is that Vital Records, or any other "primary" evidence, are not only not the last word, they are not even nearly as good as most people think they are. In modern times we are prone to think of official documents as things that are created with great care and precision. But it has not always been so, and is not always so now. Clerks are under no mandate to guarrantee accuracy. Therefore, save all of your evidence, unless you really know it's unreliable. The next piece of evidence you find will probably disagree with what you already have. And who knows which is right? If you think I'm being overly critical, then wait until you've examined a few more vital records.
The best evidence is a preponderance of evidence from several sources, and the usual conclusion is not that he was born here on this date, but here or there around this time. Precision varies inversely with the amount of evidence, but confidence increases as the preponderance of the evidence is in general agreement even (or especially!) if the details slightly disagree. (If there is too much agreement you get suspicious that all the evidence is derived from one source). That doesn't set well with those who like things neat, but it is the reality of life.
As for surety levels? As Elizabeth Mills says, they aren't worth much. I can't even agree with my own surety assessments six months later, so I use 1-2 (flip a coin) for "print it", zero for don't print it, and 3 for satisfied.

Stuart Armstrong
mail to:
web page: http://cgi.aros.net/~stuarta
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