WDYTYA – Episode 2×06 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Steve Buscemi was the focus of this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? This was another episode that focused mainly on a single ancestor. I noticed no complaints again like Kim Cattrall’s episode. I did notice, after someone mentioned, that Vanessa Williams no longer appeared in the opening credits.

From the Country of Brooklyn

I loved Steve’s story about having his bicycle stolen, “while I was riding it”.

During his drive to visit his family, we learned that Steve didn’t know anything about his maternal grandmother’s family as Amanda, his grandmother, had taken her own life when his mother was three. His parents, John and Dorothy, and brother Michael were waiting for his arrival. He learned Amanda’s parents were Charles and Jane Van Dine, looked at some pictures, and learned that Jane Van Dine, his great-grandmother, died in 1928. That seemed like a good place to start, and that’s exactly where the episode went.

Real Versions of the Records

At the NYC Municipal Archives, Steve met genealogist Joseph Shumway, who had Jane’s death certificate. It was especially interesting to me to see the original record book like that, as I am constantly looking up those same records on microfilm. But do ordinary people ever see that or would the archivist just make copies? Steve read the information quite out of order how it’s presented on the certificate: cause of death; usual residence, which happened to be the same as a restaurant he frequented; her parents’ names, Ralph Montgomery and Julia Vanderhof, both born in the US. He also noted that she was 48 but only in New York for 32 years, and born in the US. I really like when the celebrities pay attention to the details like that.

Going to Ancestry, they searched for a census record to find Jane with her parents. Only one search result was consulted, which matched “the age range”, for 1880, showing her born in Delaware and living in New Jersey at 11 years old as a servant. Steve was confused by that listing, as was I, but for different reasons. They had no evidence that this was the correct Jane Montgomery. Not knowing where she was born, besides the US, and only having her death certificate could not possibly lead to that 1880 census listing. Her death certificate said she was 48 in 1928, which meant she was born about 1880. How could she be 11 unless they already had some other documentation showing that her death certificate was wrong? Joseph specifically stated that they wanted to find her with her parents, but they didn’t seem to look for it. If Jane was 11, she should have been in the 1870 census with her parents. But if she was born 1880, she clearly wouldn’t be.

Her parents were not found in the 1880 census in Camden or surrounding areas. What about the rest of the US? If they were so poor that they had to send their 11 year old daughter to work, who’s to say they didn’t move farther away to stay with other relatives or somewhere with a lower cost of living?

Bad Advice

Joseph next suggested searching through Ancestry member trees to find someone else researching the family. Why would they do such a thing? Obviously, we know they did this ahead of time and found something, but I would not recommend that as a research step to anyone. When looking for other living cousins it might be a good idea, but those trees are filled with errors, the errors are duplicated by others, and there are likely a large number of abandoned trees. I can only hope that someone watching the show who doesn’t know better doesn’t follow this advice for doing research. I would suggest searching other people’s family trees only as a last resort when you can’t find anything else.

They found a match that had only Ralph’s estimated birth year and location, 1834 in Milton, Pennsylvania. The rest of the people in the tree had almost no details. The “Living Descendent”, Joseph suggested, was probably who created the family tree. Was there only one living person listed in the tree? This could have been a collateral line to someone else’s family. It didn’t seem to me to have enough information to be entered by a descendent.

Steve sent a message to the user asking more about Jane and if s/he knew anything about the lives of her parents, Ralph and Julia.

Researching Out of Order

Apparently with no other ideas, Steve was sent to the State Archives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to look for more about Ralph, beginning with his birth. Again, they’ve strayed from the research path. In genealogy, the rule is always start with what you know and work your way back. Why would they not look for Ralph in the 1870 census, or the 1900, and try to find his death rather than his birth? All they had to go on about his birth at this point was apparently that Ancestry member tree which was desperately lacking details about the family.

Archivist Aaron McWilliams told Steve that there was a fire in Milton so many records were lost. Steve searched the tax records while Aaron “checked” the federal censuses. This gave Steve the opportunity to flip through the books himself. This season, the celebrities seem more involved in the search process than the previous one. Whether they were really more interested than the first batch or the format of the show was altered to allow them to “do the work themselves”, I can’t know, but I like to see them actually looking for records.

Steve found Ralph listed as a dentist, but after skipping backwards so much, there was again no way to verify if he’d even found the correct person.

“I don’t think that I would have ever imagined that I had a dentist in my family.” I liked Steve’s humor in this episode.

“I am a Dentist. I have a talent for causing things pain!”

The narrator explained the practice of dentistry at the time, emphasizing the use of anesthesia and the problems with it, and the need for dentists to build trust in the community, almost like they were saying that Ralph did not have the trust, or had killed someone through misuse of the anesthetic. I was half expecting them to find information about some such event, but nothing ever came of it. Why so morbid a description of his occupation?

Aaron “found” the 1860 US federal census for “R. B. Montgomery”, listed as a grocer, only a few years after the tax records that Steve had found. Aaron also pointed out the other individuals listed in his household were “mostly likely his wife and then the children”. A smattering of good advice in the episode: best to not assume, especially with no other evidence yet found.

Steve questioned the names, not recognizing Ralph’s supposed wife’s name of Margaret. Again, this only showed that they had skipped information and were looking at records with no indication that they’d even gotten the right person. “He seems to have had another family before the family he had with Julia.” Thank you Steve. Ignoring the fact that they are already assuming that they’ve got the correct Ralph Montgomery, it’s good that they are stating that these are likely and they seem to be, as opposed to making them facts that haven’t been proven.

Steve questioned what happened to the first family, knowing that they are not the family that showed up later. Where exactly did they show up later? On Jane’s death certificate was the only place we’d seen the names of Ralph and Julia, right? Did they skip over a lot of other research that they showed Steve and not us? Probably.

Aaron suggested going through more local records, including court records and newspapers.

Right about this time, a tweet appeared in my stream about “The History of Anesthesia”. It seemed appropriate.

Another Day, More Records to Randomly Search

Back at the State Archive on another day, Aaron suggested that Steve search the newspaper in 1860 while he looked through court records.

Steve, in a voiceover, said that if he didn’t find something in 1860, he would work his way back. Finally, some research that might go in the correct direction in time. Steve was shown looking at the paper on microfilm, skipping quickly past many pages. What was he skipping past? How did he know not to look at every page? You never know what kind of an article might mention a person. He must have been told to watch for a certain type of article, which he eventually found,  a short bit that started with “Supposed Suicide” in November. They didn’t really make him search the entire year of 1860, did they?

Out by the river of that supposed suicide, Steve read the contents of the article for the viewers. Aaron showed up (at a river in winter?) with some court records of a grand inquest where Ralph, with another man, apparently beat a man in 1857. A second document showed that in 1859, the prosecutor dropped the charges of assault and battery.

Where did he go in 1861?

Discussing the events, Aaron mentioned that Ralph disappeared from the tax records in 1861. Again, more records that we weren’t told about previously. Also, what could have possibly happened in 1861 that he would leave town? Gosh, that’s a tough one.

I don’t know why Aaron had such great suggestions before (to check newspapers and court records) but didn’t think about checking army records from the Civil War. That wasn’t mentioned until the voiceover, quickly followed by Steve searching Ancestry again. And voila, there he was in the army.

“He didn’t just up and leave town, he joined the Civil War. This is pretty amazing.” I’m glad it all made sense to Steve because I was still wondering how they knew that they were even searching the correct family.

And Suddenly to Fredericksburg, Virginia

Looking for more information, Steve met with historian Andy Waskie to learn more about Ralph’s time in the army. Andy showed Steve a few muster rolls, one at a time, explaining they had to be filled out every two months for pay. The second one showed that Ralph had deserted. The next muster roll showed that he returned after two months.

Why did Steve go to Virginia? Was there something on the Ancestry search? I didn’t see anything. Again, more research in the background that wasn’t shown in the episode, but not even a voiceover explaining that research revealed his regiment was stationed in Virginia?

Between Andy and the narrator, we learned about the battle, also learning that Ralph deserted for a second time, with a record shown that was dated 1864. What they didn’t mention was his rank on that document read Private but the Ancestry record showed he was a Corporal.

So much Ancestry in such a short time

Back to the computer again, Steve searched the special 1890 census for veterans which showed Margaret as a widow. The details stated that she did not know what happened to Ralph and presumed he was dead.

Because Jane showed up in Camden, Steve went back there to find out more about Ralph’s second family after the war. Before the commercial, Steve read from the death certificate, “cause of death”, then got cut off. Were they trying to imply something?

Skipping Ahead

Historian Paul Schopp met Steve in Old Camden Cemetery, handing over an envelope. Inside, Steve opened it to reveal the death certificate for Ralph, listed as a dentist again, died at age 44 i n1878, showing his birth place, and the cause of death as tuberculosis, which Paul explained was an occupational hazard for a dentist.

They skipped from the Civil War to his death, but in between, didn’t he have another wife and several children? “With Ralph gone…”, Steve wanted to find more about that second marriage and family. Interesting that when seeing his death certificate and standing in the cemetery, Steve suddenly felt like Ralph was finally dead and wanted to move on.

Back to Brooklyn

Driving back to Brooklyn, in a voiceover, Steve said that he received a message from the person who posted the family tree on Ancestry. The narrator said he was going to meet “a relative he never knew he had”. We all have those. What are the chances that someone who isn’t a genealogist knows their third cousins?

Carol Olive was waiting for him in the restaurant mentioned at the beginning of the episode. This was the first time that meeting someone in a restaurant made perfect sense, and I do believe it’s the first one we’ve seen this season. Jane and her great-grandfather Ralph were children of Ralph B.

Carol had Julia’s marriage certificate from after Ralph died. She also had the 1892 New York census, showing the family in Brooklyn, Julia with five children, but with Jane listed as Jennie.


This episode seemed put together in a very haphazard way. When doing research, we don’t always find records in an order that would make logical sense for a TV show. For instance, all of the Ancestry searches probably would have been discovered at the same time. They were obviously trying to present the information in a logical order, but it did not work. There was too much skipping around in the order the “research” was presented and in the records that were shown. I know they have more documentation than what is mentioned in the episode, but the documents they did share didn’t make any sense and contradicted each other. There was no evidence that they were even researching all the same family.

They never mentioned anything about the fact that Ralph’s first wife assumed he had died but then he got married again and thus was apparently a bigamist. He also had two sons named Ralph, one with each wife. I can only wonder if they did any more research on that first family or even on the other kids from the second marriage. How many other cousins does Steve have that he didn’t know about?

Steve said, “We have to learn from the past so that we can make the future better.” They like getting sound bites like this from the celebrities. Can they take this one to heart and do better with future episodes?

As much as this was a compelling story to watch, and even with all my complaints and excessive “quotes”, I still enjoy watching even the worst episodes of WDYTYA. But in this one, there was too much missing for the evidence to be believed by someone who pays enough attention.  Next time, maybe instead of taking a lot of randomly acquired information and trying to present it logically, they should be more true to the actual research and reveal the family history in random order.

This article continues the Nitpicker’s Series, Season 2.

6 thoughts on “WDYTYA – Episode 2×06 – The Nitpicker’s Version”

  1. Bravissimo! Excellent forensic genealogy work. A++ for analysis and conclusions. (I don’t hand those out very often).

    You hit all of the points I felt at the time of watching, and several that I didn’t. I too thought this was the worst episode, as far as the “flow” of the research went. My guess is that we’ll hear from the researchers about what else they found that caused them to go the path they did in the show. There must be much more information about the first Montgomery family, and the second one too. Too much information perhaps to show in the program.

    1. Thank you Randy! I really appreciate your comments here and on your own blog.

      This episode posed problems because when I would check the episode to verify what I’d written, I’d find something else that didn’t make sense and have to rewrite several paragraphs. I wonder how many more details I may have missed.

      I also hope the researchers share some more about what they found and how they justified some of those leaps we saw.

  2. Hello Banai,
    I’m so glad I found your blog with these wonderful insights into the WDYTYA episodes. Even a haphazard episode can be enjoyable when it features Steve Buscemi and his family but it was annoying to not be clued in on how the right people were sorted from similarly named ones. I also wished there had been some follow-up on the deserted first wife and children.

    The TB was not a surprise… as soon as I heard “dentist” thought of dentist-with-consumption, Doc Holliday, alive around the same time.

    I kept thinking how cool it must have been to be the cousin who got to meet Steve at the special restaurant.

    Annie (primarily a gardenblogger but am addicted to genealogy)

  3. I agree with your critique of this episode. I’m sure that their research was sound, but the way they presented it… well, I wouldn’t have put that information into my family tree. I had many moments while watching the episode where I wondered how on earth they “knew” this was the Ralph they were searching for. At one point my mom, who follows my research but doesn’t do her own, asked how on earth they could think they were talking about the same man.

  4. I had the same thought you did about Steve scrolling through the newspaper microfilm. No mention was made as to whether there was an index.

  5. I always wonder when I see scrolling through microfilmed newspapers like that. What are they skipping? Rosie did that too, but it may have been while looking for an obituary or something specific like that.

    I know these shows are for entertainment, but someone watching them who starts to think about doing their own genealogy might take these as a lesson of how to do the research. We want new genealogists to learn to do certain things right at the beginning instead of having to correct themselves later, and this episode more than others had a lot of bad examples.

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