Forensic Genealogy Explained

Several newsletter readers have recently asked, “What is Forensic Genealogy?”

The word “forensic” means “relating to the use of science or technology in the investigation and establishment of facts or evidence.” In this case, forensic would mean to use science or technology in addition to traditional records. In short, Forensic Genealogy is the use of something OTHER THAN standard records to add to your family history.

This is not to say that forensic genealogists ignore the records. Quite the contrary. Forensic genealogists always start with the available records. If those records are insufficient to prove a relationship, the forensic genealogist then looks for other clues. In other words, forensic genealogists think differently.

Actually, forensic genealogy is a term that usually means to research ancestry by the means of standard records AND MORE.

The term “forensic genealogy” is often misused as part of heir searches: finding heirs who stand to inherit property or goods left by a deceased individual. Actually, heir searchers often do use forensic genealogy to locate heirs, but the terms are otherwise unrelated. Forensic genealogy can be applied to almost all genealogy studies, whether heirs are involved or not.

The standard reference for forensic genealogy is Colleen Fitzpatrick’s book of the same name, Forensic Genealogy. You can read more about her book, or order it online, as well as read more about Colleen’s work at her web page at http://www.forensicgenealogy.info.

Here are several examples of forensic genealogy:

Forensic genealogists will digitally scan old photos and then magnify them greatly or use photo editing software to emphasize certain colors to find details not otherwise visible. Don’t know where the photograph was taken of the old automobile? Scan the picture at very high resolution, and then see if you can decode the license plate information. How about a distant sign in the background? What is unique in the photo?

Would you like to determine the date of an old photograph so that you can find approximate dates of birth of the family members in the photo? If the photographer has his studio name on the photo, you might research the years he was in business.

When you cannot determine the ancestry of some individuals, you start researching the relationships of the person’s neighbors. Families often lived close to each other. Sooner or later, you will often find a connection.

(Click on the above image to see a very large picture of the painting.)

Tamura Jones wrote an interesting article about the work of Dudok van Heel, a Dutch genealogist and Rembrandt specialist. In an effort to identify the subjects in Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” painting completed in 1642, van Heel spent years researching archives and inventories of estates of those suspected of being models in the painting. In several cases, van Heel found that clothing and other items depicted in the painting were later mentioned in inventories of estates. Those inventories clearly identified who was wearing what. He also consulted with experts in firearms to determine the value of the muskets shown in the 1642 painting and then was able to determine the relative wealth of each musket owner. This helped align the musket owners with certain families and paved the way for later identification of the individuals.

You can read Tamura Jones’s interesting article at http://www.tamurajones.net/NightWatchIdentitiesRevealed.xhtml.

A more formal definition of forensic genealogy written by Dee Dee King is available at the Forensic Genealogy Services web site at http://goo.gl/T9NS7.

In short, forensic genealogists look “beyond the records” to gather all available clues.

You can learn more at the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy web site at http://www.forensicgenealogists.org/.

20 Comments

Interestingly, here in the UK, forensic means pertaining to the law and the word has no link to science. In fact, we have forensic scientists who use science in pursuit of the law. Forensic genealogy is not a term I’ve come across but would imply using genealogy in support of a court case, perhaps contesting a will.

Very interesting article. Actually, the word forensic has another meaning in that it “pertains to the law”, especially courts of law, public discussion and debate. It comes from the Latin word forens. Therefore, another meaning of the term “forensic genealogist” is a genealogist whose knowlesde and skills are applied to legal matters, particularly submitting affidavits and depositions as well as testifying as expert witnesses in courts of law. I believe that Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy in the US acknowledges this skill as one of their qualifications for membership but please correct me if I am wrong.
Eileen M.ÓDúill, CG (probate genealogist)
Dublin, Ireland

A very interesting article. Thank you!

The Academy of Forensic Sciences, all it’s members that I could find, and the legal profession all define forensic as the application of a “science” [engineering, odontology, accounting, "genealogy"] to something within the criminal or civil [legal] system, a case with legal implications.

Of all the sciences that provide forensic work, genealogy is the only discipline in which some apply science to the science and calls it forensic. In other words, some say the application of advanced analysis, skills, or methodology or scientific methodology is forensic genealogy. However, it is the application of engineering to a legal case that makes it forensic engineering. It is not the application of advanced or scientific methods applied to engineering that makes it a forensic engineering case. It is the application of accounting to a legal case that makes it a forensic accounting case. It is not the application of advanced skills or methodology within accounting that makes the case a forensic accounting case.

The profession of genealogy is woefully behind in defining its specialties. Those who define forensic genealogy as the application of advanced skills, analysis, or methodology to the practice of genealogy are out of step with the Academy of Forensic Sciences, the legal community, and all the other professions which provide legitimate forensic services. This misuse of the term forensic genealogy precipitates some of the same difficulties for the field of forensic genealogy as the issues genealogy encounters within academia.

I retired in 2007 as a forensic scientist with 35 years of experience in two large forensic laboratory systems. Whenever I would encounter a trainee or a new applicant, I would ask them to define “forensic”. Every single one of them referenced scientific, or laboratory, or legal, or examination, or a number of different terms which had apparently been picked up from the popular press, or TV, or movies. All were wrong. Forensic means “Public Speaking”. How anticlimactic. But true. It is because every use of the term “forensic”, when added to the term “science”, or “accounting”, or “analysis”, or “genealogy” (or any of the multitude of terms to which it is attached) results in some public speaking in a court of law. This is commonly called “testimony”. That is the one characteristic that ALL the “forensic this” and “forensic that” share.

    Black’s Law Dictionary since first published in 1891 has used these descriptions:
    Forensic – Belonging to courts of justice.
    Forensis – In Civil law, belonging to or connected with a court; forensic. (1)

    (1)
    Henry Campbell Black, /Black‘s Law Dictionary/, (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co., 1891), p. 506.
    Henry Campbell Black, /Black‘s Law Dictionary/, (St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Co., 1951), p. 777.

Forensic Genealogy can be interpreted as “pertains to the law” but it certainly is not limited to legal uses. Anything referred to as “forensic” also can be used for scientific studies and especially by professional and amateur genealogists alike for use in identifying ancestors when the vital records, census records, and other commonly-available records fail to establish the identities of the people we need to identify. Learning forensic techniques can certainly help anyone become a better genealogist.

    Dick, that is one viewpoint for which I have found no reference prior to Colleen’s books. There have been others who have taken up the definitions attributed to Colleen’s works. Colleen’s works describe wonderful techniques, skills, and advanced methods of analyzing items or issues. Many of these have been taught in advanced genealogical courses for decades and were not described as forensic by the teachers. In no other forensic profession are those types of definitions accepted – as far as I can find in my research.

    Forensic is not a technique. None of the forensic sciences I have researched refer to forensic as a technique or a methodology or an advanced level of analysis. For the field of genealogy to do so puts us out of step with the accepted use by those professions engaged in legitimate forensic work. The use different from other professions, the legal world, and the members of the Academy of Forensic Sciences gives the appearance, in my experience, that “forensic genealogy” is often an amateurish effort to apply a cool name seen in the media to something that it isn’t.

    Those of us in the genealogy community live in a world in which anyone can call him/herself a professional genealogist, any kind of genealogical specialist, or make up whatever definitions they want to apply. Our field has set no definitions and no standards for specialties or terms that apply to those specialties. (With the exception of the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy.) I have seen forensic genealogy described as the use of records in a courthouse to help you identify your own family, the identification of family members in grandma’s photo collection, research to figure out how a family heirloom was handed down. A forensic genealogist as someone who researches records held at a courthouse, someone who hires a researcher to obtain records from a courthouse, and any number of misuses of the term. We have standards for research, analysis, source citations, reporting our finding and conclusions, which are related to the same types of academic and scientific standards found in other fields. Why should the terminology for our specialties not also have standards?

Hello, Mr. Eastman,

Thank you for this article about Forensic Genealogy. This is a fairly new avenue of study and Dr. Fitzpatrick’s writings are truly the crux of the field. Now, to the point, forensic genealogy IS forensic. It is forensic in that it is used (by Dr. Fitzpatrick) in legal proceedings, mostly in order to identify persons not known, find lost heirs for purposes of inheritance, etc. Genealogy is, absolutely, a discipline of scholarly research (or it should be), and the fact that Dr. Fitzpatrick describes her work as Forensic Genealogy is not a slight to genealogy, it should be taken as a compliment.

This lady speaks five languages, she has a PhD in nuclear physics, she has worked on projects for NASA. She has research methodology skills that supercede even those of the most learned academics. She knows what she is talking about, and it is blatantly obvious that her methodology works if you review her record of successful projects. She has taken two fields of study and combined them in a fantastic, complicated way and yet described some of her method of work in ways that those less gifted than herself can understand and then use for themselves. Of course there are people who will define it in different ways, as people will always define things things in different ways, that does not make her work any less scholarly, brilliant, useful, or valid.

Moreover, “forensic” is absolutely, in fact, a technique, in any fashion that you use it and particularly in the case of forensic genealogy. It is a masterful, extremely detailed scientific type of analysis that is usually used in legal proceedings. When you combine genealogy with forensic, that equals a masterfully scientific type of analysis accompanying genealogy. Genealogy was always meant to be a hard science, of solid documentation and very little inference. But, anyone who has ever even dabbled in genealogy knows that this is not always so. What Dr. Fitzpatrick does with Forensic Genealogy is combine strict, analyzing techniques that would stand up to even the harshest of standards (e.g. in legal proceedings) and apply them to genealogy. Forensic genealogy is used in legal proceedings (as per the projects of Dr. Fitzpatrick) but it is also describing a type of genealogy that is more strict and scientific than the norm. Additionally, by applying the methods she uses, it allows the user to discern more from any document or photograph (and not just in genealogy, you can use these methods to apply to any forensic photography or forensic document endeavors). One can say that an esteemed genealogist would do these anyway, but this information is not meant for those few, but for the bulk of us others who need it.

Also, Dr. Fitzpatrick does a weekly quiz on her website that is great fun. In replying to one of these quizzes I had some email interaction with her and found her to be a completely delightful lady. This woman is a genius, should be commended for her work, and the expansion of the field of Forensic Genealogy will be of benefit to all of us who are genealogically inclined.

Thank you
Marsha Hylton Rice

Forensic scientists and genealogists share the same goal–to find out who was
who, and who did what and when. In explaining how to analyze photographs, to
mine databases, and to use DNA analysis to reveal family history, Forensic
Genealogy emphasizes the creative parts of an investigation over the mechanics.

“Creative” is a key word. Creative thinking in full. When one hits a brick wall, it may be just that, but better is trying to jump over or trying another spot in that wall. I think a link to an article of hers, “One Man, Two Names, Three Families” is worth reading where she does the latter.

    Glowby,
    Yes, this is important! Forensic as applied in the term “forensic genealogy” is a creative approach to scientific analysis, but that doesn’t make it any less scientific. Thank you for this astute observation. And I agree, the article you mentioned does provide a good example of how she does what she does.
    For those who may not have read it, you can find a copy here:
    http://www.forensicgenealogy.info/images/amfeature_22-33.pdf
    Many thanks,
    Marsha Hylton Rice

Marsha, first let me say none of my posts were any slight to Colleen. The issue is the definition of forensic genealogy. Dick, Marsha, glowby, may I ask you this question? What source in the non-genealogy professional world can you cite in which forensic is referred to as a technique, a scientific analysis, the analyzing of photographs, mining databases, using DNA to determine your own family, or using creative thinking to solve a brick wall? This is a serious question asked for a legitimate reason.

Since 2005 I regularly spend a day or two each year deep researching the term forensic and its applications. A current project is an article for consideration by the APGQ about forensic genealogy. In this latest round of reasonably exhaustive research, there are now more than 100 accurate source citations to whittle down into a manageable article that analyzes and correlates the information from a broad spectrum of fields which offer forensic services. The only conflicting evidence to resolve is that genealogy is the only source found to this point that uses the term forensic in the ways you three describe. It is important to my article to write a soundly reasoned and coherently written conclusion. If you have sources outside the field of genealogy, please provide them so that I can research them and add to the article.

My extensive research, upon which I base my opinions and conclusions, all supports the use of forensic meaning the application of a science or a field of work to a case in the legal system or with legal implications that could lead to an actual case in the system. (In other words, researching for a case with legal implications, but charges could be dropped in a criminal case, or the case settles and no one goes to court, etc.) None of the sources identified to this point use the term to mean the application of science or techniques or creative thinking or advanced methodology to a field of work. All the sources identified so far define forensic as the application of the science or field of work to the legal, court or justice system. The field of genealogy is the only one identified so far that uses the term differently. Please, if you have sources outside of genealogy, please share so that they get equal treatment in the article.

best of regards,
Dee

Dee,

In any deep application of academic endeavors or research, there are things that you will find to be bluntly stated, and things that are implied. They are implied because to get to Point B, you have to go through Point A, such as the concepts of certain algebraic functions are necessary in order to perform and interpret certain aspects of statistics when performing analysis. Hence, your knowledge and acceptance of Point A is taken as a given when you are dealing with Point B. Yes, the term “forensic” may technically be simply defined in places as a descriptor of a thing or process involved in the legal system, but this resides on the understanding of the unspoken premise of what is acceptable in legal proceedings. Do you see?

“Forensic” is a descriptor that describes a thing being involved in legal proceedings, but that involvement is possible because of the standards of science, scholarliness, discipline, critical thinking, and cogency applied–not just because it says “forensic.” I also have studied “forensic” as a method for many years, as I have applied the concepts in writing and doctoral research in coding and semantics of both quantitative and qualitative case study methodology. Forensic does not just mean it involves the legal system, it is a representation of an academic and scientific standard that would allow whatever is involved to be admissible in the legal system. For instance, to get a simple definition of the word “forensic,” one would simply look up the word in the dictionary. To get a forensic definition of the word, however, one would need to not just get a surface definition, but a) breakdown the definition into all its separate parts, b)fully identify each of these parts, c) fully identify the interaction of these parts separately and as a whole, d) code these parts, e) reassemble these parts, f) reevaluate the results from a non-prejudicial standpoint for accuracy and cogency.

I hope that this makes sense to you, if not, let me know and I will try again.

Thank you,
Marsha Hylton Rice

Marsha, please cite the source, outside genealogy, that states: “Forensic does not just mean it involves the legal system, it is a representation of an academic and scientific standard that would allow whatever is involved to be admissible in the legal system.”

American Academy of Forensic Sciences: “The American Academy of Forensic Sciences is a multi-disciplinary professional organization that provides leadership to advance science and its application to the legal system.” http://aafs.org/ An authoritative source that represents:
“For sixty-five years, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) has served a distinguished and diverse membership. Its 6,260 members are divided into eleven sections spanning the forensic enterprise. Included among the Academy’s members are physicians, attorneys, dentists, toxicologists, physical anthropologists, document examiners, digital evidence experts, psychiatrists, physicists, engineers, criminalists, educators, and others.” http://aafs.org/about/about-aafs Perhaps genealogy is not included as we have not defined forensic genealogy to the standards accepted by other fields or the legal system?

I would counter that it is the legal standards set by precedent cases like Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, etc., and applicable rules of evidence for the jurisdiction that “allow whatever is involved to be admissible in the legal system.” Those standards usually follow along the lines:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
That example is taken from Rule 702. Testimony by Expert Witnesses from the Federal Rules of Evidence.

It’s a chicken and egg discussion. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences, each of it’s affiliate professional organizations, and the legal community all define forensic as the application of the science, technical, of other field of work to the legal system. Of course all the science, technical, of other fields of work must have those academic and scientific standards. It is those academic and scientific standards within the field that qualify the field to apply their expertise to the legal system, making the case a forensic case. In no other profession I have found, does having those standards cause the field to claim it is forensic just because it applies those standards. Except in genealogy, and then so broadly as to sometimes include researching records at a courthouse – birth, marriage, death, deed, probate records. Not advanced, but the very basic of records.

As they say, I rest my case. :-) But stand by my statement that the field of genealogy uses the term forensic in whole different ways than the definitions accepted by other professions. Which makes our profession out of step with other professions who provide forensic services.

Dee,
I honestly have no idea what point you are trying to convey. You are saying there are no standards, then you turn around and list some. You are saying forensic does not entail expertise, then counter this with saying it does. You are saying no standards apply, then saying that they do. You say it is not a method, then it is, but only sometimes ???

And then you say that standards apply everywhere except by the application of forensic to genealogy? How can you argue that forensic can be used as a method in any area EXCEPT genealogy? That just makes no sense. A method can be used in any situation.

Have you even read any of Dr. Fitzpatrick’s work? Because I honestly can’t see that if you had you would even be asking these questions. Dr. Fitzpatrick is not a neophyte at genealogy, and the methods she employs to provide “forensic genealogy” are valid, scientific, and involve critical thinking, it is an approach to genealogy, it does not seek to replace the entire discipline. I am truly baffled at why you are trying to discredit her work and the field of forensic genealogy in general as not being up to par, as it were, to regular genealogy?

As to this:

“Marsha, please cite the source, outside genealogy, that states: “Forensic does not just mean it involves the legal system, it is a representation of an academic and scientific standard that would allow whatever is involved to be admissible in the legal system.”

If you are as deeply involved in research as you imply, I should not have to answer this. It is apparent, implicit, implied, as is any inductive reasoning involved in research. And besides that, you even list the same thing in different words in your post above describing legal standards.

I honestly do not understand what point it is you are trying to make.

Marsha, I had intended to rest my responses, but since you queried me specifically. I am not saying the things you attribute to me. I have read Colleen’s works. I have in no way tried to discredit her. Each field has its standards. It is when those fields can apply those good standards and methodology to a case that “Forensic – Belonging to courts of justice. Forensis – In Civil law, belonging to or connected with a court; forensic” that is becomes forensic work. My point of view was developed after researching a myriad of sources that provided consistent evidence. I did not develop a point of view and go looking for sources to support it. I applied the GPS to the research, analysis and reporting of conclusions. My contention is that genealogy is out of step with other professions in the use of the term, pure and simple. Would you not agree that if the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and 16 professions recognized to provide legitimate forensic services define their work as forensic when it is applied to legal issues, and genealogy applies it to all kinds of other things, that genealogy is out of step with those professions? Marsha, I’d be happy to visit with you privately so as not to continue to take up space on Dick’s blog.

    Dee,

    This conversation is going nowhere. If you cannot see how the things you have stated are contradictory in more than one instance, and how the things you have said here are obviously going to be interpreted as being detrimental to both Forensic Genealogy as a discipline and Dr. Fitzpatrick personally, then nothing I can say is going to change that.

    I will let Dr. Fitzpatrick speak for herself.

    Thank you,
    Marsha Hylton Rice

Marsha, it is regrettable that you chose to respond with a personal attack.

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