Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The "What If?" Strategy


In the process of searching for our specific ancestor, it is tempting, once finding a reasonable document, to assume that is the proof we are seeking. That's never a foolproof approach, though. There are several reasons why we seek more than one document to confirm the details of an ancestor's life story.

For one thing, we need to consider what I call "name twins." There is a strong possibility—especially given common names of folks living in population centers—that someone else could be given the same name as the ancestor we are researching. A wise alternative is to seek several documents along that person's life trajectory to confirm we are following the same person's history. 

Likewise, keeping track of not only the timeline but the locations where significant life events occurred is important for ensuring we are still researching the same person. Impossible feats of travel, given restrictions of the time period, would be a clue that we have jumped track from our ancestor to someone of the same name but different family.

In the case of my father-in-law's mystery great-grandfather, Stephen Malloy, we have a situation where the family received one report of his demise which might be quite believable—until we begin asking questions about the circumstances.

Questions, as it turns out, are a good device to employ in genealogical research. We always need to consider possible alternative explanations. And in Stephen Malloy's case, there are questions.

One question we had mentioned yesterday: the fact that Stephen's wife Anna chose to remain unmarried for the rest of her life, despite being free as a widow to remarry—indeed, in that day and age, especially with a child to support, that would have been the norm. Was there any doubt about that story that her husband had been killed in Boston?

Another question flows from the very details found in the passenger record of the ship upon which our Stephen was supposed to have been aboard. The age for that man was cited as twenty six, and yet his supposed bride would have been thirty seven that same year—hardly a believable age spread for a couple during that time period.

The least verifiable of my doubts comes from the overarching history of the region which Stephen Malloy left in 1849. Ireland had experienced some civil unrest, both politically and from a sectarian point of view, and Stephen's abrupt and seemingly mysterious defection plays with my own doubts in ways not likely to be substantiated without further evidence. I begin to wonder: why did Stephen Malloy leave home so abruptly? Could it be that he never made it on board the ship in Liverpool? If he were fleeing trouble back home, could he have assumed an alias?

Perhaps my questions might never have found a satisfying answer—except that now, we have search capabilities unparalleled in previous generations. While I can take the tedious route of searching Boston newspapers for crime reports of the murder of one Stephen Malloy, I can also search for alternate explanations by other means as well.

One possible alternate explanation could be that Stephen did make it to Boston and decide to settle there, making a new life for himself. Searching online records did reveal one document which gave me pause to consider these alternate possibilities: a petition for citizenship filed by one Stephen Mulloy in the state of Massachusetts in 1855.

According to the document, this Stephen arrived in Boston on or about the first day of April in 1849, only a few days after the date given on the passenger list for the Anglo American. The document also provided his date of birth and current age: born December 24, 1827, he claimed to be twenty eight when he completed that 1855 document. Thus, he was nearly—but not quite the same—as the age of the Stephen Molloy on the passenger list.

Though the tantalizing detail of the record was that this man, too, was born in County Limerick—location of the home where our Stephen sent his letter to his wife in 1849—his age, being so much younger than his supposed wife Anna, gives me pause to wonder whether this traveler was the same man as our Stephen. Indeed, records of this man in the Massachusetts 1855 state census, where he was boarding with a Reardon family, could lead one to presume he was waiting for his wife's arrival from Ireland—but the subsequent state census in 1865 showed him a married man with two children. Hardly our Stephen Malloy. Or was he?

There are, of course, other possible explanations for our Stephen Malloy's disappearance. Coming here in 1849, of all times, he could possibly have caught gold fever and headed for California. He could, once in this country, have assumed an alias. Either of those scenarios could have reached a climax of finding him shot to death—but even with today's search tools, we might never find the full story.

With that, we have some other search options to explore before the month is out and we turn our attention to other research goals. At this point, the best way to determine next steps is to talk it all out. We'll grapple with the possibilities tomorrow.


  1. Could it be Anna's age that's recorded incorrectly? It seems she would be younger if Catherine is her only child

    1. One would think, Kat, that that would be so. However, I only have one record--supposedly--of Stephen's age, but at least two separate records of Catherine's.

      I am hoping that there might be some records concerning Catherine at her church in Chicago which could clarify the issue. Even that, though, may be a case of records no longer in existence.


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