Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Researching the Doppelgänger Family


At a local genealogical society meeting yesterday, I was talking with a fellow member about a research problem she was tackling. Apparently, she and other family members had traced back one line of her family to a possible tie with a key aide to George Washington. While that would make a fascinating connection, there was one problem with the story. When my friend looked more closely at the genealogical assumptions, she realized the son of that presidential aide—the man in her direct line—was listed as born two years after the aide's wife had died.

This is a problem.

We all know to keep an eye out for those genealogical gaffes. Children born long after their "parents" die are a telltale sign. But there are others, too.

I'm not entirely sure finding an ancestor alive and listed in a census record almost seven years after his death would qualify as a bona fide resurrection, but finding another Timothy Cullinane, complete with correct names for his wife and three of the four children I had in my records, certainly made me stop and take another look. Perhaps, incredibly enough, I was wrong.

Let's take a double-check of what we have found on our Timothy Cullinane, brother to the Patrick Cullinane who was ancestor of one of my husband's DNA matches. We learned from Timothy's 1883 marriage record that he married Margaret McCarthy, and that his parents were Daniel and Debora Cullinane. 

While we have, in looking at the many records for Timothy, his family, and even his brother's family, uncovered documents which recorded that Cullinane surname in many permutations—everything from the innocuous dropping of the final "e" to render Cullinan, to added vowels or chopped off syllables—we still have been able to piece together his history through to the next generation.

Double checking that next generation, we can see that eldest son Daniel had, for his May 16, 1884, birth record, a listing of parents with at least their given name listed: Timothy and Margaret. While I could not find a birth entry for second son Patrick, his death record, showing a birth in 1886, mentioned his parents' names as Timothy Cullinane and Margaret McCarthy. For daughter Margaret, while we need to rely on a digitized scan of a very faded handwritten record from Boston in 1889 listing "Maggie" Cullinane, the July 4 entry at least confirms her parents were Timothy and Margaret, though the mother's surname was missing from the record. Even the short-lived third son Timothy had, for his October 25, 1891, death an entry confirming his parents as Timothy Cullinane and Margaret McCarthy.

If we have the parents correct for all these children, and if we already have documentation showing us that Timothy Cullinane died in Boston on November 15 of 1893, why, when looking for what became of his widow and children in the 1900 U.S. Census, do I find another Boston family with almost the same details?


Admittedly, the surname listed was spelled "Cullane," not Cullinane, but I have seen that surname chopped up in similar manner elsewhere. While there also was one other person listed in this family—I omitted the line for a younger daughter in the household named Sarah, who was born in August of 1894, nine months after our Timothy died—the details on the rest of the family line up almost too close for comfort.

At his death in 1893, Timothy's age was given as thirty two years and three months, which would have yielded a birth in August, alright, even though the year would have been 1861—though such errors in death records are not unusual. While I don't have a date of birth for his wife, Margaret's age at their marriage was listed as the same as Timothy's, so a five month difference wouldn't be that far off. And the children? May of 1884 lines up perfectly for Daniel, and at least the year agrees for Patrick. July is spot on for Margaret, though the year misses it by one. Even baby Timothy, who died in 1891, was appropriately missing from the family constellation.

Think of all the records you've scrutinized for your own family trees. How many times have the census records reported ages a year or so off? Or spelling missing a few letters? Even the year of marriage lines right up.

The only problem: I've already found the death record for the head of the family. Not, apparently, the head of this family.

While it may seem I've belabored the point, a discovery like this points up a valid consideration. What are the chances that the ancestor you are researching has a doppelgänger family, as well? You might not need to worry about exposure to such a risk if you are researching, say, the Aktabowski family in New Jersey, but when it comes to Boston at the cusp of the twentieth century, the influx of Irish immigrants yielded that city multiple Patricks and Margarets who all claimed the same surnames. These are genealogical waters through which we must tread cautiously.

While I could argue that I've seen more than my fair share of city directories in which the widow was too timid to have herself listed as a woman living alone—forget then, I know women who do this now—I tend to doubt that our Timothy's widow Margaret would have reported her husband still alive and well for the 1900 census. 

I dunno...I may be a bit unreasonable in some of my assertions. But I wouldn't be surprised if I just stumbled upon yet another of a multitude of Irish immigrant families who chose to name their children with the same Daniel, Patrick, and Margaret pattern of this family, whoever they turned out to be.

Above image excerpted from the 1900 U.S. Census for the Boston, Massachusetts area; image courtesy Ancestry.com.

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