Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Drawing Inferences

There is an iconic painting by Belgian surrealist René Magritte which shows a pipe, under which words are written to explain, "This is not a pipe."

His point, of course, is that the item is, rather, a drawing of a pipe.

Nevertheless, from representations like artwork, or literature, or even newspaper reports, we can infer meaning. We can take a two dimensional representation and from it breathe life into the three dimensional object it seeks to represent.

However, while concrete facts are the staples from which researchers extract their genealogical stories, those facts do not always make themselves obvious. Nor are they always readily available.

As we discussed yesterday, obtaining information that will allow us to piece together a composite sketch of John Kelly Stevens’ life will be a challenge—not because I have no documentation of his birth, his marriages, or his death, but because I have precious little passed down to me. What I do know of him (other than family anecdotes) I had to extract from other public records.

Those public records are otherwise known as newspapers.

Admittedly, in the city of Fort Wayne, where John Kelly Stevens lived since at least 1880, there was no dearth of newspaper reports containing a mention of the man. That serendipity didn’t necessarily come along with the territory of beat cop for the downtown area. There were certainly other policemen on the beat whose names didn’t appear in the paper as often.

This phenomenon only came along with the territory of a cop with an attitude. The man always had something to say, and the newspapers were often quite glad to quote him.

That brings up the sticky question of how to recognize a fact for a fact. Hearsay, whether presented in high court or passed from ear to ear at a gossip fest, is merely that: hearsay. On the other hand, there are so many little statements of reality that slip past our eyes, unrecognized for the facts they are, simply because we miss their significance.

If, for instance, the local newspaper reported that your southern relatives, along with weekend house guests, had had fried chicken for dinner the past Sunday, you would doubtless dismiss that as not newsworthy. And yet, those brief mentions litter the “Social” pages of many hometown newspapers. It’s not the fried chicken that we need to pay attention to, but the other details in the entry.

Many of those details can only be ferreted out by inference, rather than by literal, concrete statements. Asking questions is one way to start drawing aside the curtain masking the helpful details:
  • Who were the weekend house guests?
  • Where did the guests come from?
  • How did the guests get there?
  • Was there any special occasion that brought the guests to that town?
If you are an astute researcher, such as regular reader Intense Guy might be, you’d likely even work to determine whether there were a railroad line connecting the two cities. Filing away the guest names for future reference might later help reveal further connections between the two families, the reason they were together, or the type of lifestyle to which they were accustomed.

Sometimes, newspapers themselves can provide indirect instruction on what was going on in the life of our ancestors. I love how, for instance, blogger Sheryl in A Hundred Years Ago often provides the context of her grandmother’s journal entries of daily life through clippings from local newspapers, magazines and even old textbooks and government statistical reports!

In John Kelly Stevens’ case, I’ve been able to piece together a story of a gregarious and energetic man who worked hard at a demanding job for far longer than many in that occupation would consider customary today. Courtesy of newspapers, I have those Society section niceties about his family visits—and, yes, the crime stories in which his name surfaces after the fact—to help me reconstruct his life and his relationships to others in his sphere of influence.

Through newspaper reports, I also gained a sense of how very sociable his half-sister Kathryn was, and was able to discover and document the growth of the families of other relatives in the city—including some I hadn’t even known existed.

Of course, I also uncovered challenging reports—like that of the arrival of a newborn daughter to the Stevens household, when John Kelly and his third wife never had any children in common. Reporting errors like that force me to hone my research skills—for this story, it was a case of two women with the same maiden name—and to look deeper for explanations.

All these tidbits, however, came not from straightforward statements of fact, but were gleaned from years and years of occasional mentions within the pages of three hometown newspapers. Often the discoveries I made were not the statements themselves, but the context that was uncovered through examinations of those statements. Like pieces composing a mosaic, each inference provided a peek at the character and tendencies of the players to give me a better glimpse of who these ancestors really were.


  1. I have you to thank for the lesson of how important "context" (chronological, geographical, and societal) is when looking at old photos or dusty records. It was you that opened my eyes to putting things into a "what was it like then" perspective.

    From about 1850 to 1915, in order to go anywhere far away (more than 100 miles), most people had to take a train or ship. There were no airlines and no interstates (or even many cars for that matter). My own grandfather was one of the first to drive a car in a city as large as Philadelphia.

    Until the 1930s, there was little in the way of air conditioning outside of small town movie theaters and music halls (remember those?)

    Diseases that we rarely hear of today killed young children by the tens of thousands...

    1940-50 marked a real change in our world - we can communicate and travel around the world in less than a day... and nearly take it for granted.

    And yes, Fort Wayne was "well connected" by rail. :)


    1. What a great link, Iggy. Thanks for posting that!

      You've opened my eyes to the history of the railroads and to remember to think of that history when musing over how our ancestors were transported in those previous time periods.

      These railroads will play a part in the stories linked with this Fort Wayne extended family. I'm taking a cue from you and branching out in my own research--wait 'til you see what's up for tomorrow!

  2. Thanks for the nice mention of A Hundred Years Ago. Old newspapers, magazines and books are such a rich source of background and contextual information.I really like the way you describe those relevant tidbits of information as the "pieces composing a mosaic."

    1. Sheryl, your blog of your grandmother's diary is such a gem! I love reading your posts and seeing what you add to those brief, daily entries! When I think about the concept of adding context, yours is one of the first blogs that comes to mind.

  3. I love those old papers.. I worked with some recently that had entries by township and I included some of those entries from 1923 in my newsletter. Life was different back then..better I think (some days):)

    1. Historic newspapers are such a kick to read through--and sometimes just the antidote I need to counterbalance revisionist "history." Nothing like seeing those times through those eyes.

  4. I often compare family history to doing a logic problem or a crossword puzzle (for the benefit of non-genealogically inclined friends). Joining all the pieces together to make a coherent story is something that I'm enjoying more and more now I've discovered blogging ...

    Thank you for a very astute post.

    1. Yes, Linda, blogging does seem to facilitate laying out a timeline for what sometimes evolves into a complex story. You certainly have taken to this platform in some of your more recent blog posts--and they are puzzles we are putting together through our research. It's delightful, as you've expressed in your recent blog post, when a missing piece falls back into place.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words!

  5. These are really interesting ideas about context. As I read, I was thinking that even with our living friends, we have to think about how to infer context, and how to separate fact from hearsay/rumor. We just do that automatically. Our knowledge of living people is always contingent on a lot of our assumptions. How to separate anything/anyone from its/their representation? A pretty deep question. Intriguing!

    1. That's a good point about how assumptions we make about living people we know flavor the inferences we make. We may be able to do this more automatically because so much goes on behind the scenes, and unconsciously, with every moment we rub shoulders with our family and friends. Perhaps we are blind to it.

      On the other hand, for those in our family whom we've never met, by necessity, it becomes a much more conscious effort. We are often grasping at clues, desperate to conjure up a picture out of...sometimes...nothing.


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