Thursday, April 6, 2023

Considering the Reliability of Books


For those of us who long ago have fallen in love with books, to question their reliability may seem counter-intuitive. After all, at least for non-fiction books, authors have worked hard to ensure that the material they are presenting has been fact-checked, logic-checked, proofread and inspected umpteen ways by diligent editors seeking to launch a successful new publication. However, despite what may be a well-deserved reputation for most books issued by established publishers, there is nothing quite so capable of stopping a genealogist mid-page turn as hearing mention of the name of one author: Gustave Anjou.

That writer, ever since arriving in New York City from his native Sweden—where, upon his birth, he had been given the name Gustaf Ludvig Jungberg, not Anjou—made a specialty of preparing "pedigrees" for well-to-do east coast American families hoping to find gems in their lineage. Representing himself as a professional genealogist, Anjou charged handsome prices for his supposedly well-researched and heavily documented works.

From his 1890 arrival in America through his 1942 death, Anjou created forgeries of documentation for at least two hundred known genealogies he produced. Of course, upon closer scrutiny, other authors were able to spot the errors through a process some have dubbed "critical genealogy"—the analysis and evaluation of any given genealogical reference work to determine its accuracy and trustworthiness. Some have actually published their findings, which can be accessed through libraries or through some online sites.

With the specter of unreliable published genealogies hovering over my head, you can imagine the mixed feelings I had when I discovered the book I mentioned yesterday—the one including a brief portion of the family history of my mother-in-law's ancestors. Could a title as pretentious-sounding as Anne Arundel Gentry have been written by someone like Anjou?

My first thought was to check out the author and see if his name was on any genealogy black list—if there was such a thing. I took a look at the listing of other books written by Harry Wright Newman. Granted, most focused on the history of early settlers in Maryland, including genealogies of specific family names, such as the Lucketts or Dents.

Searching for more of Newman's works, I spotted one title which seemed vaguely familiar: The Flowering of the Maryland Palatinate. Wait a minute! I own a copy of that book! And it is accessible through as well. And it is still being reprinted and can be ordered through a widely-known book distributor.

Even if the works of Harry Wright Newman are currently enjoying a favorable reputation, there is still one more detail I need to attend to: replicating the author's assertions by independently finding verification through documentation. That is the work we have cut out for us in the next several days. Newman may have become my trailblazer, but I still need to put in the "miles" of walking in his shoes and retracing his research steps. If I can verify his material, then for me it will become trustworthy.

And really, isn't that what we should strive to do when we evaluate anyone's genealogy?

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