Monday, 20 January 2014

Why You Should Never Take Information On Even Official Records At Face Value

Recently I obtained a copy of my grandmother’s death certificate.  She died in 1968.  Because I was quite familiar with her & her family, I noticed straight away that some of the information was not accurate.  The death certificate incorrectly listed her name, her father, her mother’s name, & the name of her first husband.  Applying what I have learnt about the GPS to this information, I can understand why the information wasn’t accurate.

At an initial analysis, the evidence seems quite strong.  It is direct & in some respects it is primary – it is provided by someone with reasonably close knowledge near the time of the event:

1.                  Direct Vs Indirect – The death certificate provides direct evidence of her name, the identity of her father, her mother’s name & the name of her first husband.
2.                  Primary Vs Secondary – Time-wise this information is primary, as it was provided near the time of the event.  You could also conclude that it is primary as the informant, being her husband, should have reasonably close knowledge of her parents, & former husband, particularly as they had known each other for a long time (decades) before they were married.

Thankfully I have other sources that give correct information, such as my grandmother’s birth certificate, her marriage certificate, my mother’s own birth & marriage certificate, & my mother’s & my own personal knowledge.  Plus my own developing ability to analyse the evidence.

1.                  Direct Vs Indirect Evidence – I have several other sources that contradict this particular information.  They also provide direct evidence.
2.                  Primary Vs Secondary Information – The death certificate provides secondary information about my grandmother’s date of birth, parent’s names, names of spouses, names of children.  This means it has to be evaluated based on who provided the information, whether he was an eyewitness to the events & how closely this evidence correlates with other available sources.  As already stated, the informant was her husband, but they had only been married for about 2 years. 
a.      Name - He may have given her name as Glady instead of Gladys because that is what he called her, or it may have been a miscommunication.
b.      Father’s Name – The informant gave her stepfather’s name instead of her father.  Her father had died almost 30 years earlier, my grandmother may have even referred to her stepfather as ‘dad’.  I can understand why her husband made a mistake with her father’s name.
c.      Mother’s Name – My grandmother’s mother’s (great grandmother’s) surname was Luhrs.  Her parents changed the name to Lewis (to avoid the stigma surrounding a German surname) in 1922, but my great grandmother married in 1921, before the family’s surname was changed.  Her marriage certificate states her surname as Luhrs (at least her first marriage, I haven’t checked the second marriage).  It would be reasonable for the informant to assume that my grandmother’s name was Lewis, seeing as her parents had been known by Lewis since 1922 & she died in 1968.
d.      First Husband – I can totally understand why the informant gave the name of her first husband as John Barnes – everybody called him John Barnes, even me.  However, on his marriage & birth certificates his name is actually Harold John Barnes.
3.                  Correlating the Contradictory Information- there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that disproves the contradictory information contained in this death certificate.  I’ve also correlated the contradictory information in the above points.

So I guess the moral of this is to use the GPS (Genealogical Proof Standard).  If you encounter this type of problem, make sure you have other relevant sources.  Consider the evidence.  Correlate the conflicting evidence.  Come to a reasonably sound conclusion. If someone else obtained the certificate, they may very well take the information at face value, particularly since it is an official BDM record.  They don’t have the information that I have, nor do have the benefit of knowing about the circumstances surrounding these events.

I hope I haven’t missed any thing too important, it’s the first time I’ve tried to use the GPS, or elements of it, in a blog post.

Btw, I went NSW Parramatta Registry Office to have it amended & will pick up a correct copy in a few days.  My mother will be very happy to see her mother’s accurate death certificate. J


  1. Sensible advice. So interesting to read this post after our Hangout tonight aand now that I've read the "About me" section on your blog I have put you in my Google+ education circle.

  2. Thank you Jill, I feel honoured :)

  3. Very wise advice Sherie. I've also found anomalies in certificates. I've also found differences between church records and official certificates, in which case I'm weighing in on the baptisms...I figure they can't have been baptised before they were born, and either the father made a mistake or he didn't want to pay the fee for a late registration.

  4. In Queensland we have a big problem with inaccurate *typed* certificates issued by the Registry. I once sent a death certificate back to have a glaring typing mistake (in the placename) corrected. In the replacement certificate, the year of death was typed incorrectly, so I sent that one back too. The third time, the certificate arrived with *my* name as the name of the deceased. At that point I spat the dummy and wrote a letter of complaint to the Minister. The moral of that story is - always look for other copies of the death certificate, as explained in Free Certificates in Archives Files.