Category Archives: WDYTYA

Who Do You Think You Are?

WDYTYA – 3×02 – Marisa Tomei – The Nitpicker’s Version

Mostly ignoring Twitter for an hour, I finally got to watch Marisa Tomei’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? I preferred watching the week before with the company of other genealogists at RootsTech, and also because it was devoid of spoilers online. I didn’t ignore Twitter as much as I should have.

For the first episode, I expect the extra long introduction to all the celebrities and sound bites about what they’re going to find, but was it necessary to include the two minute introduction for the second episode? Don’t they have a lot of family history to uncover?

Starting In Brooklyn

Marisa said that her father built up a large tree for his side of the family, but I guess nobody worked on her mother’s side before. Parents Gary and Addie, and brother Adam met her and shared some family photos. The big mystery of the family was Marisa’s great-grandfather, Leopoldo Bianchi, who was murdered in 1910. Family lore said that he probably cheated on his wife, but they weren’t completely sure.

This episode jumped quickly to, where Addie had put the family tree data into their web site. Why did she do that? Probably because there wasn’t a single bit of information on the site relevant to the episode. Is it really necessary to use the site in every episode? They insert a bit of genealogy reality, how about the reality that not everything is online and not everything is on Ancestry? They get enough commercials in between.

The family clearly knew quite a bit about their ancestors and the towns where they came from. And what kind of computer was she using? It looked like a convertible laptop.

Marisa then had a talk alone with her brother. While they took the time to show more about how close the siblings were, was that scene really necessary? They didn’t really say any more about the family history and there was no great sharing scene at the end between them. It felt like they were filling time because they didn’t have enough content for the episode. I find that hard to believe.

Off To Italy

The second episode of the season and it almost immediately flew off to Europe once the story was established, just like the previous episode. We must have more America-centered episodes coming later. Marisa headed to Italy, to Cecina in Tuscany, where Leopoldo lived. She also wanted to know about Leopoldo’s wife and her family.

She began her search at the Cecina Municipal Cemetery archives, meeting with a guide, Fabio De Segni. Fabio was speaking English, but they had captions for him. He stayed with Marisa for quite a while in this episode. The cemetery caretaker, Loris Gagliardi, was waiting for them.

Allowing her to “do the research” herself, Marisa asked for information about Leopoldo’s death in 1910. When it wasn’t found, Loris suggested looking in 1911, finding a record. The scene seemed a little confusing, obviously editing whatever attempt at searching in 1910 yielded, then cutting straight to finding the 1911 record, which was most likely waiting for Marisa and the cameras to arrive. However, I did like that it showed good genealogy methodology, to begin looking in the year when you think the event happened, then to check surrounding years if it isn’t found. Not every family story is going to have a perfect memory. Even some documents won’t always have the correct information and a wider berth must be given to the search.

Fabio helped with the translation of the document, then handed her a translation of the entire document. She was most shocked to read that he died of an illness, but also that he was transported to Cecina, because she thought he had been killed there.

I also noticed in the scene that she had a notebook. I didn’t see her writing in it at any time during the episode, but it’s likely she was keeping some notes. It’s always good to see the celebrities taking enough interesting in recording the information for themselves.

Marisa took a walk alone out to the gravesite of Leopoldo and his wife, Adelaide.

Travel By Boat

Knowing where different family members came from, they headed to Elba, a small island 12 miles off the coast, where Adelaide Canovaro was from.

They went to the Parish Church of Rio nell’Elba to find some records on Adelaide’s family. Father Leonardo Biancalania, the parish priest, arrived with a stack of large books. While they captioned some of Marisa’s English while in the church, they did not caption his Italian at all. Kind of an oversight there.

Apparently, Father Leonardo told Marisa that the books were all the Canovaro family, according to what she said. Maybe what he actually told her was that he found the Canovaro family in each of the books. Marisa and Fabio next flipped through baptism registries. Closing the first book after finding Adelaide’s record, they went on to the next in 1855 for Arturo. Switching to the chart view, they traced straight back ten generations to Alesandro Canovaro born in 1641.

A Long Line Of Only Children?

What about all of those men’s siblings, wives, other children? There must have been at least dozens of other people they could have found in those records. Every wife brought a different surname into her ancestry and every sibling brought more cousins to her family. Are people not interested enough in finding their more distant living relatives to search sideways? And of course, one rule of genealogy is to search the siblings because sometimes you can find information on them but not your ancestors, so the only way to learn more and go back further is to research sideways. Knowing there are good genealogists behind the research in the show, I can only assume that they did branch out to each sibling and each spouse, also looking for more interesting stories for the episode. I know that some people really just want to know one line of their family and would be thrilled to find them back to 1641, but I want to know all of my family lines going back.

After they finished with the stack of books, Marisa wondered why they left, or why Adelaide left the island, or was she the one who had “broken the whole lineage” and left the island. I guess she wasn’t thinking of the dozens or hundreds of other people that descended from that same person from 1641. Was the island full of his descendents or did some of the others leave? This is the trouble with WDYTYA going straight back. Even the celebrities don’t realize how many more relatives they could have just gained knowing ten generations of ancestors in a single line.

Pictures of the car driving during her voiceover suggested it was the only car in the city; there was not another one to be seen.

Fabio suggested checking the Elba Historical Municipal Archive, so they met with historian Dr. Gloria Peria. Again, Gloria spoke in Italian and there were no captions. Fabio translated for Marisa, but they could have captioned the Italian. First, they looked at the marriage certificate for Leopoldo Bianchi and Maria Canovaro, with the name Adelaide in parentheses. Marisa did say earlier that Leopoldo’s first name was actually Francisco, so neither went by their given first names.


The next document was another variation of the marriage certificate, which also showed an immigration date, that they moved to Cecina six years after they were married, seven months before he died. Marisa began to piece together the timeline. This is another example of a tool used in genealogy, but she probably didn’t even realize it. Sometimes when putting together a story, or trying to break through a brick wall, if you gather the information into a timeline, you may find that you’ve overlooked something.

An article in the local newspaper in 1911 reported that Leopoldo was killed by Terzilio Lazzereschi in Castiglioncello. They never showed her being given a translation, but considering all the later translations she was given, I think they gave her one and it hit the cutting room floor. The article confirmed that Leopoldo was shot and it wasn’t an illness as the cemetery record stated, which she never believed.

Back To The Mainland

Going to Castiglioncello, Marisa said that Fabio stayed in Elba to look for more information. They make it sound like the research wasn’t done in advance of the filming and he had to find something new. Do they ever find something new while the celebrity is filming? Has any celebrity ever asked a question that they didn’t previously research and they rushed to find it? Or was it just a bad segue, leaving a way to bring him back into the episode later?

In the voiceover, Marisa mentioned that Gloria suggested who she should meet with next, so the experts are guiding the celebrities to the next step. How much is really done in person, we can’t tell from the episode. The voiceovers could have been added months later.

Let’s Meet In A Cafe

The first season had a lot of meetings in coffee shops and restaurants, as if no one had offices and libraries or archives weren’t good enough. There was a significant restaurant meeting for Steve Buscemi also. Steven Hughes, a local expert, met with her in the same cafe where the altercation took place 100 years earlier that ended with the death of her great-grandfather.

Reading another newspaper article about the incident, I loved hearing her frustration at “reasons that are still unknown”. I think every genealogist knows feeling that at some point.

Adding the interview where Marisa told the story about her cousin screaming out “murder in the family” in a dream when they visited the city before just made it all the more unusual.

Almost To The Trial

Heading north to Lucca, where Lazzereschi was indicted, she wanted to know more details of the trial. Meeting with Dr. Francesco Tamburini, he had more documents from the court records. Finding that he was acquitted of shooting someone in the back of the head, I thought it was funny that Francesco compared the lawyers to OJ’s “Dream Team”. She read that he was finally found guilty of carrying a weapon and served only 38 days.

The commercial break cliffhanger sounded like they were about to learn that he would finally be punished for something. It was a letdown, to find he was just insistent about getting his money back. He then disappeared from the records.

Fabio Is Back

Marisa met with Fabio again, at another cafe. He revealed that an 83 year old relative of Marisa’s, Rosetta Vanucci, the daughter of Leopoldo’s sister who remembered Adelaide, was not well enough to meet with her, but sent a letter. Rosetta’s letter filled in the details of how Adelaide remarried and how Marisa’s grandfather ended up in America. I imagine that they had planned to have her come on screen, just as some other episodes have had a surprise distant cousin for the celebrity to meet, but it just didn’t work out.

In this scene, we could see Marisa’s notebook was labeled June 2011, so we appear to have a filming date.

Back Home To Share The Story

Back in New York, Marisa shared the details she learned with her mother. At the beginning, it seemed like there was going to be something more about sharing with her brother, but he was not seen again.

Marisa was surprised to see the relief from her mother upon learning that Leopoldo was not killed because of something he did wrong.

“It’s the things we carry with us from our family’s legacy, our family’s history, even the secrets, that we don’t know that we’re carrying.” – Marisa

“I think all of this absorbs into us and influences our behavior in some mystical way, some spiritual way, affects the generations even to come.” – Addie


This particular episode was one that did not involve using Ancestry at all and so it was forced into the beginning by placing the Bianchi family tree on the site. I know that Ancestry is the sponsor, and that certainly shows in the commercials, but can’t they give it a rest for even one episode? They also had to forcibly insert it into Kim Cattrall’s episode, which was actually filmed by the BBC. They did have multiple commercials, which also perpetuate myths, that I am going to nitpick this time too.

The first commercial I noted was where a woman says she was the family detective. She wasn’t. All she did was click on a leaf on the web site. That is not detective work. It’s not even genealogy research. If she had found the record herself, that would be the detective work.

In another commercial, a man said his ancestor was born on the boat on the way to America. Finding the census showing that he was born in Poland proves nothing. The census is one of the most used genealogy records as well as one of the most likely to be incorrect. By finding that record, he didn’t disprove a family story. Just as this exact episode showed us. If they had stopped at the cemetery where the record said he died from an illness, then there would have been no episode. Ancestry, stop teaching bad research in your commercials while your TV show is actually teaching good techniques.


This episode reminded me a little about Kim Cattrall’s episode, where she basically just researched a single person in her ancestry. So it was a little surprising that I didn’t see anyone complain about that. Once we’ve finished name collecting, we like to switch to story collecting, so stopping and spending a lot of time researching one person isn’t unusual. I suppose one reason “the crowd” preferred this episode is because there were lots of documents involved including newspaper articles and court records, whereas Kim’s episode was more about finding people who knew him. I liked both.

“And now I have much more of a connection to him. I can feel his presence. He’s alive in my heart and in my mind’s eye and in my family again.”

That is exactly what genealogy is good for. Just because someone is no longer alive doesn’t mean that they weren’t important. By researching them, we remember them again, even if we never got to know them personally.

This is the second article in the Who Do You Think You Are? Nitpicker’s Version for Season 3.

  1.  Martin Sheen

The URL for this article is×02-nitpickers/.

WDYTYA – 3×01 – Martin Sheen – The Nitpicker’s Version

Season three of Who Do You Think You Are? began during RootsTech 2012. While I watched with a big crowd last year, this year I was the bridge between a group who wanted to watch and play the drinking game and someone who knew which hotel bar to use for it. Watching at the Peery Hotel bar was one of the highlights of the conference. I had to re-watch the show in its entirety to catch the whole thing, but it was worth it.

I wonder why they picked Martin Sheen first. This episode had a very long introduction to the season, so was Martin Sheen’s episode already the shortest or did they have to cut it more?

The voiceovers talk about Martin discovering information about two ancestors, but neither was an ancestor. The first two people researched were his uncles. Kind of a lax definition of “ancestor”.

Family Visit

“Ramon Estevez”, aka Martin Sheen, stopped in to see son, Emilio. They didn’t discuss genealogy, except that Emilio was carrying on a family tradition of having a vineyard, and the bottle he held featured a picture taken by Martin in Spain. They never again mention how the vineyard is a family tradition during the course of the show. Having a vineyard in my own family history, that would have been interesting to me.

Right To Ireland

After a lengthy introduction from Martin about his activism, he went right to and found a death record for his uncle, Michael Phelan, his mother’s sister. He immediately crossed the ocean to Dublin, Ireland, visiting the military archives, to learn about Michael’s possible involvement in the civil war.

Explaining the history is especially helpful for Americans who know nothing of Irish history and the civil war that began in 1922. It’s sad the amount of history I didn’t learn in public school. Some genealogists study history in college, but I was still in computer programming back then. Even if I went back to learn history, I’d focus on Eastern Europe anyway and still need these bits to have any clue.

Martin thought his uncle was supporting the opposite side during the civil war, but he admitted that he really didn’t know. They showed a picture of Michael, but only a deleted scene revealed where the picture came from: a cousin of his. (I believe it was Michael’s daughter.)

At The Pearse Centre, he met with Dr. Edward Madigan to consult about the number of times Michael was imprisoned, according to a letter in his military file, and his commitment to his cause of Ireland’s freedom.

Prison #1 – Kilmainham Jail

Visiting one of the many prisons where Michael spent some time, Dr. William Murphy pointed out that Michael was held “as far as we know” in a certain cell. Sounds like their records weren’t kept well, or weren’t complete. They didn’t explain why it was a “best guess”. If they weren’t completely sure, how did they guess at all?

On To Spain – Family Visit #2

Headed to his father’s side of the family in Spain, he visited his sister, Carmen, in Madrid. She brought out a few old family photos.

Explaining the family tree by the chart, they jump over to their father’s youngest brother, Matias. Another thing they didn’t explain is the surnames, how they are all listed as “Estevez Martinez”. The children used both the father’s then then mother’s surnames. Was this common only in Spain or elsewhere too?

It turned out that Matias was involved in the civil war in Spain, so this gave us another civil war history lesson, with Spain’s civil war beginning in 1936.

Civil War #2

At Biblioteca Nacional de España, Martin met with historian Dr. Alejandro Quiroga. At the very beginning of the civil war, Matias faced a military tribunal, where he was sentenced to life in prison. Another book showed a list of prisoners in alphabetical and numerical order. There were two Estévez Martinezes: Constante and Matias. Looking back at the family tree chart, there was no Constante shown in the list of Matias’s siblings. I hope they looked into who that was, or are those two names very common? (I think Martinez probably is.) Martin asked and Alex confirmed that 611 was his prison number. How did they manage to number everyone alphabetically? I think the question and answer were misunderstood or something got spliced oddly in editing.

A third book revealed that Matias was sentenced in September 1936, to be released in 1966, and was released in 1940.

Martin took a train to Pamplona to see the second prison where Matias served, but they didn’t mention why he didn’t visit the first. Was it out of the way? Not very interesting? No longer standing?

He met with Dr. Julius Ruiz, a Spanish civil war historian, at Los Fuertes de San Cristóbal for a tour.

To Tui, Galicia, Spain

They didn’t explain why Martin was suddenly in Tui, but he met with genealogist Matthew Hovious at the Archivo Histórico Diocesano with his father’s birth certificate, sent to him by Carmen. I couldn’t see clearly if his father was born in Tui, but obviously more research had been done there, thus forwarding the story.

Matthew read the names of both parents, then the maternal grandmother; the grandfather was unknown. They were able to trace back a few more generations but did they ever find the name of Dolores’s father? Of course, when drawing these charts, they often just show the minimum amount of information, so there is that possibility.

However, they did show her name as Dolores Martinez, and her mother as Carmen Martinez, whereas so many others in the charts had two surnames. So maybe they didn’t find her father’s name, and perhaps there were two generations of unknown or unspecified fathers. And then finally, at the top of the chart, each person again only had one surname. So were they skipping listing the names or was that not the custom to use both parents’ names at different times in history?

They did point out that Paula’s marriage record stated that she was the natural daughter of Don Diego Francisco Suarez and Maria Gonzalez, which specified that her parents were not married, as opposed to listing her as the legitimate daughter if they were. This part they explained clearly, but they had more to say about it. The show likes to skip those smaller details if it doesn’t specifically relate to the rest of the story.


Another record from the 1740s showed that Diego was married to another woman, Manuela de Alfaya. They found that Diego and Maria had six children together. In 1777, at the first confirmation ceremony after Diego’s death, Maria had all of her children confirmed.

Martin asked how Diego became a Don, but again, what that title meant was not explained. I realize they don’t have time to explain everything, but if it leads to the next part of the story, I think it could use up a few seconds. Not everyone knows what that means and it was highlighted.


In La Coruña, at Archivo Del Reino, historian Edward Behrend-Martínez shared the only document they found about Don Diego Suarez, where Diego prosecuted a young woman, Antonia Pereira, for having an abortion.

A fancy scroll was unrolled with the family chart. Martin read first on the side of his grandmother, then he went slowly, one name after another on his grandfather’s side, until he reached the name Antonia Pereira. They must have filled out the entire family tree to find that connection. I can only wonder if the same researcher found that connection and how elated they could have been to find such a convergence of history.

Sharing With The Family

Meeting Martin in Parderrubias, sister Carmen and son Ramon learned the story details. I thought they had mentioned that town name earlier, but I couldn’t easily find it. I think it was mentioned while he was in Tui.


“If you’d written a novel with all these truths in it, they’d say ‘Ah, it’s a bit over the top.’ It actually happened.”

I thought this was a good episode. Instead of being completely guided, each historian and genealogist telling him what to do next, only a few did and often guided by Martin’s questions. Some previous episodes felt like the celebrity had to be told every step to take, but this did not, even though Martin needed guidance and translations in Spain.

With both parents immigrants to America, he immediately crossed the ocean, skipping over his parents to their brothers, then going back farther on the Spanish side. He mentioned that his mother died when he was 11; did they not find much about her? Obviously the show has to be focused where the interesting stories are, but I would have found a vineyard to be interesting enough to mention. Is it just me?

And I’ve finished with time to spare before the next episode. My Twitter feed is already running with spoilers from the Eastern and Central time zones.

WDYTYA – Episode 2×07 – The Nitpicker’s Version

This episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with Gwyneth Paltrow was advertised (at least online) as the Jewish research episode. While she researched her Jewish side for about half the episode, only the last ten minutes really got into anything specifically Jewish.

No Family Visit to Start

Gwyneth started with her mother’s side of the family, recalling a family story about someone being from Barbados, probably her mother’s grandmother, Ida May Danner. Instead of visiting any family to ask questions, her mother sent a couple photos of Ida May. Gwyneth set out to find the Barbados connection.

Starting in New York, for Pennsylvania Research

Beginning at the New York Public Library, she met with librarian Maira Liriano. Gwyneth did the voiceover leading into the scene, stating that she was meeting a librarian “who’s already pulled some records for me.” At least there was no implication that she was going to do the research herself. I didn’t understand the point of what seemed to be a voiceover of Maira welcoming her to the building. Did they have to mention the name of the building in order to put it on the show? That was just weird.

It started much as other episodes where Gwyneth shared the photos with Maira and asked if there was a connection to Barbados. An obituary for Ida May revealed her parents’ names. Right to Ancestry, they searched the 1910 census. Since she died in 1967, why didn’t they start at 1930 and go back? Why didn’t they start in 1900? They skipped over tracing Ida May’s life back and went right to her mother. Rosamund Isabel Yetter’s death certificate, Ida May’s mother, revealed her birth place in Barbados.

Gwyneth asked if there was more they could find and Maira had her search Ancestry to find the ship list. Finding the ship list, Gwyneth assumed that the 18 year old Rosamund travelling with the 27 year old Martha, “she’s got an older sister”. While this may be the most obvious conclusion to make, that doesn’t mean it’s correct. They never did show or mention any evidence to verify the two were sisters.

It was also interesting that there were four different spelling corrections in the index. I can only wonder if they added at least one of those to make the search easier for Gwyneth; the original index spelling is what it looked like on the ship list and may not have been so easily found otherwise.

It was also a bit odd that Maira pointed out that the ship was a bark, highlighting the abbreviation, when later in the episode, they highlighted where it actually said the word “bark”.

When told that she’d have to go to Barbados to learn more, you could tell that Gwyneth was hoping that was coming, apparently having watched the show before.

To the Island

At the Barbados Department of Archives, genealogist Dr. Pat Stafford had some books ready to share. Gwyneth looked down the page opened for her of baptisms and found Rosamund listed. In the burial records, she found that Rosamund’s mother, Sarah Frances Stout, died in 1864 at age 42 and was already a widow. What was also visible in the book listed under Sarah Frances Stout was a 20 year old Samuelina Stout, and two more columns to the right of both listings showed the name Roebuck Stout. Who were these mysterious people? There were clearly some other members of the family, even if they were cousins, but the two sisters were not entirely alone.

When Gwyneth wanted to know more, Pat said that she could only “tell [her] what the records say… and they don’t really reveal anything else to me”, suggesting that Gwyneth needed to speak to an historian. That is one problem with genealogy. The records only tell so much, but there is so much more going on in between the vital records — the stories of the people and how they lived — that we don’t know, and that is often harder to find. Gwyneth joked that she wanted to find that historian on the island and didn’t want to go back to New York.

Between two daughters aged 27 and 18 when they went to America, I also wondered if there were more children. That seems like a large gap in time between kids. We can only assume that Martha was also found in the baptism book to verify that she was the sister, but did they look for any more kids? Was Samuelina another child in the family born between the two?

Historian Pedro Welch was questioned next. Gwyneth again presented part of the previous research but had trouble asking questions. She had the ship list to show him, but she was shown arriving without it. She wanted to know anything at all, like we all do, but sometimes specific questions have to be asked in order to get answers.

Learning more about the history, Gwyneth and Pedro decided that Rosamund was fiesty with great spirit to take the journey to America. But they didn’t consider her older sister. Maybe it was Martha’s decision to go and Rosamund just went along for the ride. Maybe Martha wanted to see her younger sister get married and still single at 27 realized they had a better chance in America. Did they do any more research on Martha in America?

We All Have More Than One Ancestral Line

Switching to her father’s side of the family, Gwyneth wanted to know more about her grandfather Buster. She visited her aunt Fran Paltrow to learn more. Along with a bit of the story, Fran had a death certificate for Ida, Buster’s mother. To me, it looked like it was brand new and had just been ordered for the episode.

An expert in New York Jewish history, historian Deborah Dash Moore had more information for her. It appears they met at a restaurant, which we haven’t seen since the first season. Deborah had a book from the Normal College, which was the previous name of Hunter College, which Fran had mentioned that Ida attended.

The 1900 census showed a family of three, but they failed to highlight the fourth person listed in the household, Esther, Ida’s grandmother.

Another mysterious document was produced showing the family ten years earlier. The type of document was not revealed. Joseph, Ida’s father, was listed about ten years younger, but given the ages shown for Ida and her brother Isaac, it appeared to be about seven years earlier. Was this the 1892 New York census? I recall someone online mentioning that it did not appear to be, but it was from about that time.

Even in the voiceover showing the family chart, Gwyneth gave the document a date of 1890. Was it ever revealed since the episode what the document was? I sure would like to know where to find New York families around 1890.

With two family members missing in 1900, Deborah next revealed the death certificate for Rebecca Hyman, Ida’s mother, in 1897. Again jumping to conclusions, Gwyneth assumed that dying from cirrhosis of the liver that Rebecca was an alcoholic, but Deborah jumped in to correct her because that was not necessarily true. Gwyneth realized that Rebecca died the year before Ida was discharged from college. Next up was Samuel’s death certificate, Ida’s brother, dated two months later.

This also brings up the question of why Joseph’s mother was living with his family by 1900. Did she move in to help with the children specifically? Probably, but this was not addressed in the episode.

Some Logical Searching

At the NYC Municipal Archives next, Gwyneth met archivist Michael Lorenzini. He suggested checking the 1920 census, the first census after Arnold’s (aka Buster’s) birth. She mentioned the name was originally Paltrowicz, first saying it the way Fran had, then Americanizing it while looking at the records. There seemed to be a lot of trouble with this surname as the episode continued.

Seeing the oldest child was 16 in 1920, Michael suggested checking the 1910 census. Finally a bit of research shown logically; find a reasonable starting place and work your way back without skipping decades. Interestingly enough, when they ran the search, there were no results found, but though that web page was briefly shown, the episode was edited to skip any mention of it, going right to the family in 1910. Again, they found a child in the family who disappeared between the censuses.

Asking if that daughter died, Michael said, “That’s probably what happened. And we can pull the death certificate.” Well, if they’ve already found the death certificate, why say that it probably happened? Handing Gwyneth the book of death certificates, he told her the certificate number to turn to. The coroner’s inquest told a bit more information about the death. Pulling an SS-5 out of a folder, he showed that the next daughter was born three weeks after the first daughter died. Could they not find a birth certificate for 1912?

Going Back Further

Switching to Buster’s father’s family, there was a story in her family that they came from generations of rabbis. The only rabbi she knew of was Simcha “Simon” Paltrovitch. I can only question why, on the family chart, they spelled his surname that way and his son’s name as Paltrowitz.

At the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Jewish historian Glenn Dynner had more documents for her. The Polish marriage record between Szymon Paltrowicz and Cypa Lewitanska in Nowogrod in 1862 was shown to her. If they were going to change the spelling of the surname for each generation, why not use the spelling in the record? The rabbi conducting the marriage was Hersz Paltrowicz, Szymon’s father. Also, this was not a typical Polish marriage record like any of the ones I have seen.

Jumping back to the chart, they introduced another spelling, Pelterowicz, which I found in JRI-Poland, but again, they were just changing it every generation with no explanation why. On the marriage record, the surname was spelled the same for father and son, the Polish spelling. They also listed Hersz on the chart as Tzvi Hirsch. While that’s a typical Jewish name combination, there was again no indication of why they were changing his given name.

Glenn next showed a memorial book from Nowogrod. He explained exactly what the book was, saying that, “they would write was is called a memorial book.” Why did he not say it was called a Yizkor book? I’ve never heard a Jewish genealogist refer to those books as memorial books, so they would be called Yizkor books.

Gwyneth read a translation of a section of the book about Tzvi Hersz, but even in that, he was referred to as Reb Herszela and not Tzvi Hersz. Next up was a book called Ketzer Tzvi that Szymon wrote, naming it after his father. That was the first time we saw the name Tzvi used. Again, another translation was read by Gwyneth, something Szymon wrote about his father.

Gwyneth finally visited her mother at the end of the show to share what she had learned.


While I was able to follow the changing names when the episode got into the Polish family, someone else would not know that Tzvi Hirsch is also Hersz, or that Simon, Simcha, and Szymon are the same person. They did not explain it, though an earlier part of the episode explained that Edith and Ida were the same name. It is not unusual to find name variations in older Jewish records, or even Americanized names for those who never immigrated to this country, but I really didn’t understand why every generation of Paltrowicz was spelled differently when they showed the family tree chart, especially since I didn’t see those spellings used anywhere in the records. They did not explain that some were the Polish spellings and some were transliterations of those spellings.

While I think they tried to show Gwyneth more involved in the research, this episode felt a bit more like the first season where the celebrities were just passed from one genealogist or historian to the next with records waiting for them. Others have searched through records, or at least flipped through a few pages of the record books, but the most Gwyneth did was search for a name down a single page of records.

I know another genealogist who likes to check on the Ancestry searches shown in the episodes. I decided to check on the JRI-Poland research. Interviewed about the episode, Stanley Diamond said that JRI-Poland was used for the episode (and their home page has changed to feature the story), but searching the database, that marriage is not found. It seems that his contacts in Poland were probably called in to help, which also might explain why they found the unusual marriage record; it was probably a synagogue record and not the usual metrical records that ordinary researchers usually have access to.

However, there are some listings in Nowogrod for the family of Abram Herszowicz Pelterowicz (Herszowicz is the patronymic, so this was the son of Hersz), a death for Hersz in 1877 listing his father as Paltyl, a birth of Peltyn son of Abram in 1873, and a birth of Peltyel in 1864 son of Symcho Pelterowicz and Cypa Lewitanska, a brother to Szymon Meyer. [Thanks Glenn for correcting me.] This was not a common surname according to the database, and with the repeated given names, for those who understand Jewish naming patterns, clearly this was all the same family. If I was researching the family myself, I would naturally get copies of the documents to verify the index information, verify the familial connections, and look for more details in the records, but the JRI-Poland database is usually correct. The name spelling variations can sometimes be accounted for by variations in the records, messy handwriting, transliterations from other languages (often Russian to Polish), or because the indexes were indexed and they may have alternate spellings.

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

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.

WDYTYA – Episode 2×05 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Lionel Richie’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? naturally started with him playing and singing one of his songs. Growing up in the Tuskegee “bubble”, he was sheltered from the civil rights movement. During his opening monologue, he stopped to look at old family photos hanging on his wall.

This episode was unique to the others because Mark Lowe was one of the researchers involved and he shared with us some behind the scenes information during Thomas McEntee’s BlogTalkRadio after it aired.

To Grandmother’s House We Go

Lionel started by visiting his sister, Deborah Richie. He described her as “the keeper of the family photos”. Rosie O’Donnell described her brother the same way. It’s normal for one person in each family to be the designated “keeper”, but to also find that person has done some genealogy research is quite helpful. In Lionel’s case, she had.

They began by looking at some photos. In my own experience, the non-genealogists in the family don’t want to know about the genealogy. They might like to hear stories, but mostly they love to look at the pictures.

Deborah said that she ordered a document and revealed their grandmother’s Social Security application. Some genealogists were wondering if she did that on her own or if the researchers told her to order it. Judging by the envelope, I’d say that they delivered it to her. It was with this document that they discovered her maiden name was Brown and her father was Louis Brown. Previously, they knew about her mother but didn’t even know the name of her father.

“That’s powerful, right there. I love that,” Lionel said in response to learning the name of his great-grandfather. And that’s how it works in genealogy, especially after spending hours researching to finally find the information you seek.

The SS-5, the application for Social Security, is a fabulous document for genealogy research. Is this the first time we’ve seen one on WDYTYA? Not only does it give the parents’ names, but also the place of birth. If your immigrant ancestor lived long enough or late enough to apply for Social Security, it is probably the best place to find their ancestral origin.

I was a little surprised to learn that Deborah had previously done family research but hadn’t gotten this document for her grandmother before. The first documents I ever ordered were my grandfather’s and his brother’s SS-5s. Maybe she didn’t think Adelaide had ever applied?

They also noted that Adelaide was born in Nashville, so I guess she never told them that either.

To Nashville

Meeting genealogist Mark Lowe at the Nashville Public Library, Lionel shared the SS-5 with Mark, again demonstrating what a normal person would do when meeting with a genealogist: share what you know so they have everything and can move on from there. Mark suggested Lionel start searching the marriages about two years before Adelaide was born, so Lionel was shown turning the pages and looking through the list of names to find the marriage record on his own. When they weren’t found in 1891, Mark suggested looking another year earlier, where Lionel found the listing.

Louis Brown, or J. L. Brown as he was listed, would be a difficult person to spot, but with a great-grandmother named Volenderver Towson, it makes it much easier to know you’ve got the right record.

The only thing I would nitpick about this is assuming the marriage was two years or more before Adelaide was born. Some people got married after their first child, even in that time. They probably started at that year to allow Lionel to search a little and to not make him search a lot.

The next document was a complaint to initiate a divorce. And the final decree showed that the divorce was granted in 1897.

At the Metropolitan Government Archives, Lionel met historian Don Doyle. In the 1885 city directory, they found him listed.

“Now you know what you’ve done. You’ve only stoked my curiosity. Because if we can back this far, we got to go back some more.” Lionel was drawn into the hunt early in the episode. I think this season has shown the celebrities even more interested in the research than many in the previous season.

The 1880 directory was falling apart, so Don handled the book. Not knowing what SGA stood for in the first book, they knew that Editor in the earlier one meant that he was literate.

At Prince Hall Affiliated Organization, Lionel met with historian Corey Walker, who explained what the Knights of the Wise Men was. Lionel compared it to an insurance company, which is partly what it sounded like when Corey explained it. Founded in 1879, J.L. Brown was the Editor only one year later according to the city directory. Seeing the Rules, Laws, and Regulations book, Lionel learned that his ancestor had written the book and SGA stood for Supreme Grand Archon, the national leader of the organization.

By 1891, after an outbreak of small pox and the treasurer running off with what was left of the money, the Knights of Wise Men was mentioned until 1915 but was no longer a nationwide organization.

To Chattanooga

Sneaking in the Ancestry plug during Lionel’s drive to Chattanooga, they quickly showed Lionel finding John Brown in the 1900 census in Chattanooga. How did they know they had the right John Brown? They probably had more information to verify than what they showed on TV; they didn’t even scroll across to place of birth or occupation.

At the Public Library, historian LaFrederick Thirkill had a couple things to share with Lionel. They found J.L. listed in the 1929 city directory as a caretaker at the Pleasant Garden Cemetery. With a smile on his face, Lionel asked, “Any more information?” LaFrederick showed him the book, Biography & Achievements of the Colored Citizens of Chattanooga, which had a page about and a picture of John Louis Brown.

LaFrederick provided one more document: his death certificate. Listed as his father was Morgan Brown, but his mother said “don’t know”.

“Don’t you just love records like that,” Lionel said sarcastically. Yes, Lionel, we do, oh so much.

Visiting the cemetery, Lionel was disappointed at the condition of the cemetery; LaFrederick led him to the pauper’s section of the cemetery, where J.L. was buried, then left him alone to “reflect”. Very respectful. They never did say if he had any kind of marker, whether a stone or something else. I’m guessing he didn’t or we might have seen it.

There were a lot of comments from other genealogists about the cemetery’s condition and how it would not be that way for long. We can’t be certain, but we can hope that these celebrities do the right thing to help preserve and recover cemeteries and old records where they can. If that is happening, then let’s hope that the celebrities continue to have a variety of backgrounds and put some of the money we’ve spent on them to good use for genealogists everywhere.

While many of the genealogists online thought of other US cemeteries that looked similar, I thought of Jewish cemeteries in Europe. I have seen pictures of some and they are in quite similar shape or worse, with some being vandalized or the stones used in sidewalks and buildings. That history can never be recovered.

Back to Nashville

At the Tennessee State Library & Archives, historian Dr. Ervin L. Jordan, with both men wearing the white gloves, reviewed an application for pension in 1924 which revealed the name of his owner, Morgan W. Brown.

“Only assuming that Morgan W. Brown and Morgan Brown, the owner, it’s the same guy.” Later, Lionel said, “I’m on the search now for Morgan W. Brown and Morgan Brown.” Often the celebrity jumps to conclusions and the genealogist has to point out that they’re making assumptions, but in this case, it was Lionel who stated it was only an assumption and was interested in determining if they were the same person. I think even well-seasoned genealogists might assume it was the same person, until they went further in the research and discovered two men with the same name.

Back at the Public Library, historian Jacqueline Jones tried to clear things up, explaining that Dr. Morgan Brown had a son named Morgan W. Brown. In Dr. Brown’s diary, they found mention of Louis’s birth to Mariah, one of the slaves. Further, they found Dr. Brown’s will, where he freed Mariah and her son, gave her a place to live, chose the land to be given to her, and provided two years of schooling for Louis. They could not verify if Morgan W. had carried out his father’s wishes.

Back in Los Angeles, Lionel shared the information with his sister and two of his children. Seen throughout the episode with a black notebook but never seen writing in it, Lionel used his notes to tell his family about the story.

Behind The Scenes

After the episode, we learned some great information from Mark Lowe. He worked on the episode from April to January. For two months, he worked on a part of the family that didn’t make it into the episode. We learned that Lionel was a prolific note-taker, though he was never seen writing during the episode. Apparently, that was partly vanity, as he needed glasses and didn’t want to be seen on screen wearing them, though we saw him folding them up at least once.

Each scene is filmed three or four times, once all the way through to capture the moments of discovery, then again with breaks and camera angle changes to see the documents and such.

Another day of filming that didn’t make it into the episode was platting and visiting the land designated for Mariah in the will, currently on the property of the American Baptist College.


Many genealogists praised the variety of records seen in this episode, also liking that they had to be found in a variety of libraries and archives, just like real genealogy research. The parts they still don’t mention are the eight months of research by the untold number of genealogists working on the project.

They seemed more obvious the first time I watched, but there were a couple times when Lionel had trouble reading the records. I was always a little suspicious about the celebrities being able to read the old records so easily and thought we finally had a break-through, until Mark pointed out the issue with the reading glasses. Maybe someday we’ll see an episode with old Greek or Russian records so we can see how difficult it really is to read some of the old records. ;-)

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

WDYTYA – Episode 2×04 – The Nitpicker’s Version

This week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was a repeat. At first, I thought Kim Cattrall was maybe going to search another part of her ancestry. Then with the teasers, I realized it was the same family as she searched in 2009 on the BBC version of the show. Only as the episode drew nearer did it occur to me that they might just be airing the exact same episode re-edited, which is what they did. I think it was kind of shameless for NBC to do that without being up front about it.


The search for George Baugh, Kim’s grandfather, began by visiting her aunts, Marjorie Haselden and Dorothy Stockton, in Liverpool. Her mother, Shane Cattrall, was also visiting at the time.

They started with a large family wedding photo where George was hiding inside the house and could barely be seen through a window. Shane told that when she was eight years old, George asked her to leave with him, but she stayed and they never heard from him again. The three women were very emotional, talking about how their father abandoned them. Genealogy is usually about generations further removed, but this episode was much closer.

Besides creating all new voiceovers, the US version obviously had to cut back on the time, since the BBC version is 60 minutes long and the US is 42. Bits of many conversations were trimmed.

The voiceover explained about post-depression era Liverpool. The US version cut to the family tree chart before returning to the family. The BBC version did not include such charts. I’m undecided what I think about that. Is the US version “dumbed down” so we can figure out the family tree, or does it clarify the family being researched? Maybe both.

Another obvious difference is the onscreen graphics showing the names of everyone on the show. I definitely prefer the US version that does this whereas the BBC leaves us guessing sometimes about the names and how to spell them.

Kim’s first clue was a newspaper article from 1980 about the wedding dress made by Amy Baugh, George’s mother, for her daughter, which then was worn by her granddaughter.

Again, in the voiceovers, Kim has “asked a researcher to look for any documents on her family”. We know the research was done before the cameras showed up. Why do they have to lie to us? And just when I thought this was an affectation of the US version of the show, the BBC version used the exact same wording in their voiceover.

Knocking On Doors

Knocking on the door from the address from the newspaper clipping, no one was home, so Kim went next door and found Norma Blakeman, who worked with her aunt and still was in contact with Edna Radcliffe, George’s sister. It’s interesting that this woman had known both sides of the family but never mentioned it before. Did she not realize they were related and had no contact?

Meeting George’s sisters in Derbyshire (not shown on screen; hope I got that right), Amy Garrett and Edna Radcliffe, they had some tea and talked about George. It sounded like their mother was shamed by his behavior and didn’t want her daughters mentioning his name, so that probably explains why there was no contact with her family. They also didn’t have any photos of George.

The BBC version of this scene was longer and in a different order. They began with the sisters sharing some photos, one of a wedding picture for their brother (apparently another brother, not named on the show) and George’s parents. Also, answering the door, Amy said she wanted to meet Kim for a long time, obviously contacted during the research phase. Kim learned that George’s father was an alcoholic but George was not. Kim also asked what they thought happened to him and Amy said she thought that maybe he went to America or joined the Foreign Legion. They thought he had stowed away to America.

Another bit they skipped was when Kim said she had some sympathy for George because of his alcoholic father, but he also had a caring mother. The information about him being a stowaway was her next biggest lead.

This is where the US version skipped an entire scene. Many genealogists were complaining that there was no genealogy research shown in this episode, but I believe this scene would qualify for them.

Skipping Whole Scenes

Back in Liverpool, Kim met with maritime expert Chris Webb.

“I think you’ll find that even on passenger lists you’ll sometimes find surprises,” Chris said. Kim was surprised that they might find something about a stowaway at all.

Searching Ancestry, they found him on a ship passenger list going to the US as a stowaway then being sent back to England in 1935, which was before he left the family and even before Dorothy was born. It showed that he was a baker (seen later without having been mentioned before) and he listed himself as single. Seen on screen, but not spoken, he was listed as “George Baugh alias Albert Williams”. Chris explained how someone could stowaway on a ship, but with the 10-12 day trip to the US, he probably had to come out of his hiding place for food or other reasons at some point.

Another interesting part was where the ship list showed a relative left behind. Not explained this way clearly in the episode, it appeared that first it said “information refused” then was crossed off and his wife’s address was listed, which contradicted where he claimed to be single. On the special inquiry page, it showed that he was sent back on the 20th, after arriving on the 15th.

They also searched FindMyPast but did not find him on that site. Neither of the titles of the web sites was shown or mentioned, with neither as a sponsor for the BBC version.

Kim figured out that Dorothy was born the year after his return and wondered what story he had told her grandmother about the month he was gone. At this point, she returns to her hotel in Liverpool and the US version picks up again.

Syncing Up Again

A package arrived for Kim at her hotel. How long was she on that trip to meet her great aunts (and the researcher), I wonder? She opened the envelope to find the marriage certificate for George Baugh and Isabella Oliver in 1939, the year after he left her grandmother. The US version cut to commercial before she revealed what the document showed. Just like on the ship list, he was listed as a baker and single.

And Out Of Sync

Kim met with a legal historian to learn more about bigamy at the time. As mentioned before, the BBC version doesn’t show the names of the people met along the way, so all I got was her first name, Rebecca. She shared statistics showing that in 1938, 287 people were tried for bigamy and 276 were convicted, which carried a penalty of up to seven years in prison, a fine, or both. Divorce was less readily available, was more complicated, and the costs could be much higher.

Durham County

Heading to Durham County, Kim went looking for more information about George’s second family.

“I think I need to find out if he had children. I’m sure he did.”

At the Durham County Records Office, Kim met with archivist Liz Bregazzi to find records. In the Register of Electors, they found both Baugh and Oliver families as neighbors. Next, they looked through the parish baptism registers. Kim looked through the register herself, finding the first child born in 1949, and then two others, with one being born in 1959 making him younger than Kim. Unlike many US episodes, the pages were not marked and Kim was shown looking down the names on each page to find the listings. They never explained why they stopped at 1959, though it was probably the researcher who knew they had found all the listings.

To The Tudhoe Pub

Kim went to Tudhoe Village to try to find more. This is where the episodes are different again. In the US version, Kim is seen asking the Green Tree Pub owner if she knew anyone by the name of Baugh. In the BBC version, a narrator explained in voiceover that there were no Baughs left in the village and they skipped ahead in the scene to flipping through the phone book looking for Olivers.

After the phone call to Maisie Oliver, George’s sister-in-law, Kim had a bit more to say in the BBC version. She made a comment about finding her way to their home, which later turned into an amusing few seconds showing her struggling with the stick shift, also mentioning during the drive that she was a little nervous and didn’t want to alarm Maisie or be a pain in the butt.

George Gets A Face

Maisie Oliver and her daughter Sheila Curtis were the next visit for Kim. She learned that George met Bella in Manchester in 1938 where they had their first daughter before moving to Tudhoe (apparently before they were married). They shared some photos, first from the wedding where George was cut out of the picture, then a couple others of George. And then they showed a picture that was labelled as “emigrating”. The BBC version showed quite a few more pictures.

Just to confuse people more, they showed a Canadian flag right before they cut to the next commercial. Where did Canada fit in to this story?

More Voiceovers Of Details

Both shows went into voiceovers at this point, explaining that George and his family immigrated to Australia in 1961. The BBC version had much more detail. He applied for naturalization in Australia within a year and the family never returned to the UK. George ran a post office and a shop before retiring in 1972. He died in Sydney in 1974, followed by Isabella in 1990. They showed more pictures from the family’s time in Australia, not clear where they came from. Were they sent back to the Oliver family or were they acquired while researching the family in Australia?

The US version mentioned the immigration and inserted another scene to plug Ancestry. Many genealogists questioned why the information was found on the “Catrall Family Tree”. I additionally question why the surname is spelled incorrectly and where they got the footage that they used. Because Kim was never heard completing a whole sentence, it was apparently pieced together from other scenes that were cut.

Not To Australia

This is as far as Kim felt she needed to go. She did not want to meet George’s other children.

The BBC version explained that Shane lived in Vancouver and that Kim brought them together to share what she had learned.


Sitting with the three sisters, Kim read from George’s marriage certificate, showed them the wedding picture that George was absent from, and then went on to name his four children. While Kim told more of the story in the BBC version, the US version told it quickly in the narrator’s voiceover. The US version also held the suspense of showing a picture of George for them to see until after another commercial break. The two younger sisters had a harder time dealing with it, while Shane was relieved to finally know the truth and not have to think about it anymore.

“So one picture escaped,” was Marjorie’s first reaction. Looking at him, she said she saw her two grandsons in him and became more emotional, as did Dorothy. At the beginning of the episode, Shane was the more emotional of the three, telling what she could remember of her father.

The BBC version also showed the sisters looking at more of the pictures. Also mentioned was that his second daughter died of a heart attack “not too long ago”, but the other three were alive and well and still living in Australia.

Shane said, “I feel relieved.” And Dorothy agreed, “I guess we can close the book.”

Again cut from the US version, Kim continued “Or open a new one… Maybe you and I will go to Australia.”

The epilogue explained that they had since been in touch with their Australian half-siblings. That also appeared in the BBC version.


Obviously there had to be differences in the shows due to the time constraints. The US version shortened many of the conversations and the mini interviews that Kim gave throughout the episode. They cut one scene entirely where Kim learned that George had stowed away to the US even before he left the family in 1938. Many funny lines were cut, making the show a bit more depressing than the BBC version. One line at the end was one of my favorites; it wasn’t entirely skipped, but edited: “I think this is the biggest joy that George Baugh has ever brought, other than, you know, being a sperm donor.”

Anyone who didn’t know would probably assume this was a normal NBC episode because they made no claim that it was filmed by the BBC and aired in 2009. It was unneccessary to add the Ancestry plug; I think we all know who sponsors the show and injecting that scene was dumb in my opinion, especially considering all the reactions from other genealogists as well about where the information was found on their web site, in the “Catrall Family Tree”.

As mentioned before, some genealogists complained that this episode didn’t trace back far enough and focused instead on a single person. I saw nothing wrong with that, especially since I have previously said that this show was about family history and not genealogy. Piecing together the stories is harder than just finding the data and continuing backwards in time.

As much as I enjoy watching more episodes, I hope NBC doesn’t repeat another BBC episode. They’re all available online in one way or another. I’d rather see new stories.

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

WDYTYA – Episode 2×03 – The Nitpicker’s Version

This week’s Who Do You Think You Are? took Rosie O’Donnell on a journey to find the identity of a mysterious woman who’s picture hung in her childhood home, as well as tracing her ancestors back to Ireland.

They started filming during her radio show, where she joked that, what if she wasn’t Irish Catholic, but instead found out that she was Jewish. Even though she was joking, this isn’t so far from the truth. Some people believe they know their background and may find it’s quite different. Throughout history, Jews have been persecuted, forced to convert, and often hid their identities from their descendents.

The Keeper of the Photos

Her brother, Ed O’Donnell was called in to start the show. Rosie described him as “the keeper of family photos and history and whatnot.” Ed had a picture that Rosie remembered, someone they still couldn’t definitively identify. He also had an interesting copy of Daniel Murtha’s WWI draft card, their grandfather.

After reading the draft card, Ed then asked Rosie where she thinks someone would start their search. This is where she said, “It’s not gonna be as easy as it looks on TV.” At least she realized that right at the beginning of the episode. These shows make a lot of the research look easy when it really takes hours, and sometimes months of research, just to find a single document.

Jersey City, NJ

In the voiceover on the drive to New Jersey, Rosie said she wanted to track down the mysterious woman from the photo and had to track down more about Daniel Murtha. At the Jersey City Free Public Library, she met with genealogist Suzanne Nurnberg. Going to the microfilm reader, they looked for Daniel in the census, based on his address. In the census, they found Daniel, then his parents also on the same page. Printing out a copy, they examined the details from the census.

Born in French Canada, Rosie automatically jumped to saying Montreal, instead of Quebec. Suzanne suggested “somewhere in that area” as a more correct assessment. Rosie was also looking for the town where his parents were born, which was not shown on the census, and usually isn’t.

“A lot of times, vital records for Irish immigrants only say ‘born in Ireland’, they don’t give you the exact town. And the hardest thing really is to get the exact place of origin in Ireland; not an easy task.” Suzanne was not only correct about Irish immigrants, but for all immigrants. A good deal of the research I do involves making the leap from the US back to their European origins. Depending on when they immigrated, if and when they naturalized, finding that information can be easy or nearly impossible.

Rosie asked about any more information, and Suzanne pointed out more details about Daniel’s wife, Ellen. When Rosie asked about an earlier census, Suzanne plugged Ancestry, having found the earlier census for the family on the site. It’s curious why they didn’t go straight to Ancestry for the first census. Maybe they were using this episode to demonstrate that not everything is online and sometimes you have to search microfilm. The earlier census revealed Michael to have a different wife, and Rosie immediately realized that she could be the mystery woman from the photograph.

Suzanne suggested that Rosie go to New York to try to find more information about Anna, also mentioning that Rosie should check other spellings for the surname. This is also common among immigrants. Many would change their names to Americanize the spelling, or simply changed their names for other reasons. Sometimes name spelling variations happened because our ancestors were illiterate, so the record-taker spelled the name however he wanted.

New York

At the Municipal Archives, Rosie met with chief archivist Ken Cobb who had the death certificate for Anna. Noticing the cause of death, Ken suggested looking at the newspaper for any more details of the incident.

At the Brooklyn Historical Society, Rosie sat at a microfilm reader again, where she found the obituary that explained the event, reading all the details and taking notes. Her notebook had been briefly seen in an earlier scene. She followed up with historian David Rosner, who had another article about the accident.

Heading to the neighborhood mentioned in the article, Rosie met Rev. Robert Czok at the Catholic church to find baptismal records in search of the child that survived the accident. Flipping through the book, he found the listing for Elizabeth, which was not bookmarked as we’ve seen in other episodes. Of course, it was naturally found ahead of time, but in real research, the pages aren’t marked for you before you arrive, and it may take some time to find the listing you are looking for.

In the next voiceover, Rosie said that she got in touch again with Suzanne Nurnberg in New Jersey and asked her to send whatever she could find on Elizabeth. Realistically, we know that the research was already done, so Rosie didn’t have to ask Suzanne to do more research, but that is often how the research really goes. As one clue is found, then a new batch of research is begun to find more.

Returning from the commercial, it seemed like an unusually long recap for this season, almost like they tried to show a lot of time had passed while Elizabeth was being researched.

“Somehow, Suzanne went and found Lizzie Murtha…” Rosie said in the voiceover. Somehow… Armed with the census, a marriage certificate, and a family tree (that wasn’t shown on screen), the show went back to its family tree chart, where we saw more of Lizzie’s family. We also learned in this section that those charts can be kind of random, when Rosie said that Lizzie’s son Christopher was the oldest child, but he was shown as the third of four children on the chart.

Meet the Cousins

In Secaucus, New Jersey, Rosie met her cousins descended from Lizzie. Rosie told them what she had learned about Lizzie and showed them the photograph that they recognized. She also read Lizzie’s obituary to them, which must have been in the package that Suzanne sent her, though it wasn’t mentioned before. It also verified that Daniel and Lizzie must have known each other.

Both of these events are familiar to me and many genealogists: meeting relatives you didn’t previously know you had, and having a mystery photo verified by other relatives. The only way to really verify someone’s identity in a photo is through other people. No matter how much research was done about Anna and Lizzie, unless they found a photo in a newspaper, they could never know for sure who was in that picture without those cousins knowing.

Shifting Focus

In the next voiceover, Rosie said, “now that I’ve found all that I can about Lizzie and her mother Anna…”, except how much did she know about Anna? Was there nothing before her death? Did they find her birth, marriage, her parents? It makes more sense that either nothing was found, or that wasn’t the focus of the research. After all, Anna was not related to Rosie and collateral people are often not researched. She shifted her focus to Anna’s husband, Daniel’s father. She went to Quebec to find more.

They Really Were in Montreal

Rosie met archivist Guillaume Lesage at the Notre Dame Basilica, hoping to find more information about the family. She looked down the page to find the baptism of Michael Murtha in Montreal, which included his parents’ names that she did not previously know, Andrew Murtagh and Ann Doyle. As Guillaume translated the record, Rosie grabbed her notebook to take notes.

He sent her to the National Archive of Quebec to meet archivist Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne, who had a copy of the 1861 census. Going back to the family charts at this point, they seemed to list the kids in birth order this time, showing three born in Ireland and three in Canada.

Back to Ancestry, they searched the Drouin collection, apparently searching by Ann’s maiden name, where they found a death record. Rosie stated that she was at a brick wall again, having not found the Irish place of origin. While brick walls are not uncommon in genealogy research, this was not one. Having a brick wall involves searching for records and not finding them. In this case, the only records Rosie had seen were the census and the death records, neither of which mentioned the origin beyond “Ireland”. Or was there a lot more going on that didn’t make the episode besides the previously completed research? Denyse suggested Rosie look for the obituary.

At the Grande Bibliotheque, Rosie again used the microfilm reader to find the obituary.

“I feel like I’m on a scavenger hunt, in another time, in another country, in another language.” That quote was almost perfect. Genealogy research is almost a scavenger hunt, though I usually prefer to compare it to detective work or puzzle solving. She was in another time and another country, but it was clear that the newspaper she was searching was in English.

Finding the obituary, it said that Ann Doyle was a native of Kildare, Ireland. What they didn’t explain was why she was listed by her maiden name. Is this usual for Irish immigrants to continue to use their maiden names after marriage? Having done no Irish research myself, and certainly not everyone has, it would have been nice to mention why they didn’t find her listed by her husband’s name, or why they even thought to search for her by her maiden name.

“I feel like I won the lottery, in a way, because I never thought there would be a mention of Ann Doyle’s death in the newspaper, but there it was.” Rosie seemed awfully calm in her excitement when she found that obituary. It also seemed unusual that they went straight for Ann’s death and obituary and not Andrew’s or their other three children who were born in Ireland. Of course, according to one of the genealogists for the show, Kyle Betit, we know that a lot more research was done. As he stated on the ProGenealogists’ blog, “We searched many other records, and no other record stating where this family came from in Ireland has been found in North America.” So from this, I can probably assume that all the research that is not shown on TV has probably been done; everything I question in these nitpicker’s versions, where I say that they should have done something or ask if they bothered to look, they probably did look at.

Finally to Ireland

In Dublin, Rosie met with genealogist Nicola Morris. Why Rosie drove the car is beyond me, but she injected her own humor into the show a few times and maybe it was just another attempt. At Manor Kilbride Church, Nicola showed Rosie the baptismal records from the parish. Rosie shared a copy of the Quebec census, then Nicola showed her three of the baptisms, finding another child who was not listed in the Quebec census. Nicola also mentioned that the fourth child, Thomas, was not found in the register, probably because the register was incomplete. Here again we get some realism. Sometimes the record can’t be found because it just doesn’t exist anymore. However, sometimes it is also the case that a child is recorded by a different name. They didn’t mention in the episode the birth years of Thomas and Patrick to verify that they were different people, but they soon mentioned that there were the four children in the family.

Details about the Potato Famine in Irish history followed; explaining foreign history is always appreciated in the US version.

Nicola suggested that Patrick may not have survived to leave for Canada, but watching the rest of the episode, this is never verified.

Nicola sent Rosie to meet librarian Mario Corrigan at the Kildare Library in Newbridge to look into the Poor Law Union records. He showed her the original books from 1854. She asked a lot of questions about the workhouse before finding the listing in the book showing that they did live there and were recommended to be sent to immigrate to Canada. Both Mario and Rosie were wearing the white gloves while looking at the book. Sometimes we see them and sometimes we don’t; there don’t seem to be any consistent rules across various historical societies and archives.

Rosie then visited the site of one of the last standing workhouses, in Birr, where she met historian Gerard Moran for a tour. She likened the living conditions to a concentration camp.

Her brother arrived and they went to a pub to share what she had learned. They ended up in a pub called Murtagh’s Corner, joking that a relative might have owned it.

Conclusion and Opinions

Although we know that all the research was done prior to filming, this episode tried to make it look like Rosie was really doing the research. Of course she was guided, but maybe she expressed more interest in doing the work “erself, thus looking through the microfilms and the flipping through the books a little more than in some other episodes.

They spent almost half of the episode in Ireland, learning about the history of the Potato Famine and even more on the workhouses. This seemed a little mis-weighted, but it was the more impactful part of the story. As Rosie said, “We all have the choice to focus on the horror or the redemption, and the gift is to focus on the redemption.” This is definitely true of Jewish research; no matter where your family was at the time, at some point, you will run into relatives who survived or were victims of the Holocaust.

This is the first episode of WDYTYA where I had a negative opinion of the featured celebrity. During the episode, Rosie seemed genuinely kind to everyone and sincere about the research, but sometimes she just says things that rub people the wrong way, like her recent agreement with Helen Thomas’s statement that the Jews should stop “occupying” Israel and go back to Poland and Germany. I can only hope that after her experience in Ireland, Rosie realized what she was saying. Would she want to live next door to the workhouse where her family had lived and the one child apparently died? Still, at least her family was there for survival and not extermination.

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

WDYTYA – Episode 2×02 – The Nitpicker’s Version

I initially watched this episode of Who Do You Think You Are? in a room full of genealogists at the Family History Library during RootsTech. It was fun to laugh out loud with the crowd in a few places. From a few other blogs about this episode, it sounded like there were quite a few people who had never heard of Tim McGraw, a country music artist. I was not one of them.

His Real Father and His Uncle

We started with the story of Tim’s father, how he discovered at age 11 that the man he thought was his father really wasn’t, and eventually reconciling with his real father.

Visiting his uncle, Hank McGraw, Tim began his journey. Hank asked him, “So dude, tell me, why do you want to get involved in something like this, digging up all the stuff from the past?” Tim’s first response was, “You scared of what we might find out?” Some people in families will ask the genealogist such questions, wondering why we want to know about our ancestry. Though Tim was joking, I think some people really are afraid of what a genealogist might find. Family secrets lurk behind every door.

Hank showed Tim some photos, though he was shown walking up to the house not carrying anything. Hank had a picture of his grandparents, Tim’s great-grandparents. Tim was excited to learn her name, Ella May Nave.

The Journey Began in Missouri

In Kansas City, Missouri, Tim met with genealogist Kathleen Brandt at the public library. Kathleen had Ella May’s death certificate. Tim was again excited to learn the names of her parents from that record. This is so normal for a genealogist when they finally find a record with the next bit of information. I prefer this part when it’s preceded by the search — just having the information handed over would take a lot of the fun out of it for me.

Tim joked with Kathleen when she pulled out the computer, then they searched Ancestry for the Chrisman family. In the voiceover, Tim explained how Kathleen was able to take his family tree back eight generations, while the screen showed the family tree chart. Again, the chart went straight back showing now spouses and no siblings, and giving no indication of the records that brought them so far back. Was it all found on Ancestry? Someone watching the show, who didn’t know any better, might believe that it was all found that easily. They might also think that the entire goal is to keep going straight back as far as you can. Sometimes you have to search sideways in order to go back, but there’s no indication of that on the show.

In the voiceover, Tim said he wanted to know more about Isaac Chrisman, the earliest person in his ancestry, and Kathleen had an old document to show him, dated 1772.

He thanked Kathleen with, “You set us in motion.” For someone who apparently took his family back eight generations, I’d say she did more than set him in motion. Many researchers can’t even go eight generations back, let alone further.

To Virginia

To Rye Cove, Virginia, Tim wanted to see the family’s land.

“It was pretty cool to go back so far so quickly into my lineage.” Too bad that only happens on TV shows where months of research was already completed by professionals. Couldn’t they have him mention something like that in the voiceovers?

Meeting with historian Stephen Aron, Tim showed what he already had and asked to know more about Isaac. This was mildly realistic, in that you have to share with a genealogist what you already know in order for them to continue the search. Stephen shared a few maps, and while they drove out to the location of Isaac’s land, the voiceover explained more of the history of the battle over land with the Indians. At the site, Stephen finally showed Tim a document he found that mentioned Isaac’s death.

In Richmond, at the Virginia Historical Society, historian Daniel Blake Smith shared more about the history of the time, and senior archivist E. Lee Shepard brought another document explaining the fate of Isaac.

The Magic Tree

Tim then said he wanted to go back further to find more about Isaac and where he came from. I don’t think they answered that question at all. Instead, Daniel showed him a “simplified family tree”. What exactly was this magical family tree and who compiled the information in it? Why did they not show him any genealogical documentation? What kind of research was done to compile this magic tree? I’m assuming they did some research. I think this was worse than when just tell the celebrity several generations of names without sources. This is almost like trying to show a source where there isn’t one.

Switching from Chrisman to Isaac’s mother’s family, his grandfather was Jost Hite and the show continued to research this individual in Tim’s ancestry.

In the Shenandoah Valley, historian Warren R. Hofstra explained more about the land orders Tim had just seen with Daniel.

To the Capitol

To Washington, DC with Warren, they went to the Library of Congress. How late at night did he visit? It was dark outside and the reading room was empty; I’m betting it was after hours and opened just for the filming. Curator Julie Miller shared the journal of George Washington from 1748, when he visited the home of the Hites, and another mention by GW in a letter he wrote 20 years later.

“Have we answered all your questions?” asked Warren. “What I really want to know now, is I want to know where Jost came from,” Tim replied. Really, he wants to know more? His ancestor was just mentioned by George Washington, one of his idols, but that wasn’t enough? Of course, Warren already had a document, a subsistence list showing the names of people indebted to the English government.


Warren sent him to New York to find more. At the New York Public Library, Tim showed that subsistence list to historian Philip Otterness, who had another subsistence list from an earlier date, with a description at the top explaining what the list was.

Tim hadn’t suspected any German ancestry, but why? I don’t think he knew anything about his ancestry on his father’s side, so why would he or would he not suspect anything? Philip explained more about the history of those Germans who traveled to the US, including that Elvis Pressley’s ancestor was also on the same boat.

Tim returned home to tell his uncle what he found. Tim had previously compared himself to Jost Hite, and Hank did the same at the end of the episode.


I liked seeing the excitement from Tim upon learning the names and information about some of his ancestors, but I started to think about all the ancestors he didn’t learn about. How interested was he in learning more about the ones whose lives didn’t seem significant enough for TV? Why was he satisfied with knowing about his German-born ancestor and not tracing back even further in the family, when he kept asking to go back further the entire episode?

This also made me wonder about how much the celebrities are coached on what to say when the camera is filming. Many of their questions are added later in voiceovers, but some are asked during the filming. Obviously, the director/producer/whoever wants them to lead into the next documents that the genealogists have already found.

There were a lot of historians in this episode, and fewer genealogists. It felt more like a history lesson, which is not a bad thing. Just like last week, this one went far back into US history where I have never had to research yet, so those details need to be filled in. As usual, it was lacking in many of the genealogy details.

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

WDYTYA – Episode 2×01 – The Nitpicker’s Version

I think someone at Who Do You Think You Are? has been reading my blog (or every other genealogist’s). If the first episode, featuring Vanessa Williams is any indication of the quality of this season, we’re in for a great one.

The Intro Clips

Before we get into the episode, I have comments about some of the sound bites in the introduction.

“It’s not gonna be as easy as it looks on TV.” – Rosie O’Donnell

Well, of course it isn’t. This entire show makes family history research look easy. Go to a library or an archive, find someone who has already spent hours searching through the records for your illusive ancestor. Meet a genealogist and they have all the documents. Find an expert on the specific battle that your ancestor fought in. No, it’s not that easy. To find those documents, you have to search. To find the genealogist or the historian with the expertise you need, might be another layer of research. On TV, they have it easy. I wonder what the context is on that quote.

“This is where it all begins.” Vanessa Williams

Oh no, not that line again. Please?

And Kim Cattrall. Did Sex and the City not make her enough money to hire a genealogist? (Low blow, I know, sorry.) This is her second appearance on the show, previously appearing on the BBC version. In fact, judging by her sound bite, it sounds like she was tracking down the same bigamist ancestor she did in that episode.

On to Vanessa

She goes on a mission “in honor of her late father”. Maybe she hadn’t thought to research her family history before he died, but that’s not an uncommon reaction to losing a parent or grandparent — you want to know who they and their ancestors were because you didn’t find out when they were alive.

The Cemetery Trip

Vanessa started at the family plot at the cemetery, visiting her father’s grave, and looking at some of the other stones for clues. This is a good idea. Look around and see if there are other stones with the same surnames nearby. In my case, I have found more than I was looking for at two cemeteries. At one, I found multiple graves with the same surname, at another, while asking in the office for the location of a couple of graves, they told me about some others in the family that I didn’t know were there.

Vanessa focused on the stone of David Carll, reading the abbreviations in the inscription, assuming what some of it meant, instead of pretending that she was absolutely sure. I like honesty, and it works well in genealogy. They show her taking notes at the cemetery and later in the episode several times. We’ve seen that before on the show. We know that the research has already been done before filming, but the celebrity taking their own notes suggests they have even more of an interest in knowing and remembering the details themselves, and that’s nice to see.

At the Oyster Bay Town Hall, she met the town historian, John E. Hammond. He had a couple records waiting for her. There were two things that bothered me in this scene. First, while she was reading the book, holding that pen in her hand, and even using it as a pointer. Second, John’s comment, “This is where it all started.” Usually it’s the celebrity who says that, and sometimes the genealogist/historian corrects them.


Vanessa headed to Washington DC, but first checked in with the sponsor’s site and searched for David Carll in the US census, finding that David was mulatto and his wife was white. On my second viewing, I noticed the computer: it had a sticker across the middle (where the Apple would have been) with the show’s logo.

At NARA, researcher Vonnie Zullo produced David’s pension folder. I like that she had to tell Vanessa that she could touch the document. I haven’t personally done a lot of work in original records, but aren’t there times you’re not allowed to touch them? At least not without gloves on, I suppose. Soon pulling out the white gloves, Vanessa got to handle the tintype with the picture of David, which they had printed for her. I wonder if they ever found another tintype in a file if they would print it for any ordinary person. Let’s be optimistic and pretend that they would, especially since they probably wouldn’t let it leave the building for someone to print it themselves.

Headed to the South

Going to South Carolina, Vanessa met with Hari Jones, a Civil War expert, who was able to tell her about what David’s regiment did for the war, not only the battles, but staying behind to be sure the slaves were liberated. That was a great story.

Back to the Beginning

Most episodes start with a visit to the family to ask questions. While this one started showing Vanessa with her family, she didn’t ask any genealogy questions. At this half-way point, she began climbing up another part of her family and visited her uncle Earl Williams in Baltimore for more information about her father’s family. She pulled out the notebook and wrote her great-grandfather’s name, John Hill Williams (though she just wrote the name without a note saying who he was), but followed that with asking his wife’s name. And that’s how you do it when you interview your relatives to put together the family tree. You just keep asking for more information; get the father’s name, ask about his wife, ask his dates of birth and death, ask for hers, ask about their parents, etc.

Are We Done with the Restaurants?

Meeting with genealogist Natalie Cottrill, she told Natalie what she has already discovered from her uncle. When hiring a genealogist, you have to tell them what you already know, all of it, and share with them the records you have, so they can find more and not repeat research already done. Natalie found the family in the census, listing his wife Mary, then “went further” and found Mary’s obituary. I wonder what other records were found on the way to that discovery that wasn’t shown in the episode — genealogists know there was probably a lot more done to get there. As Vanessa read the obituary, she again stopped to take notes on her ancestors’ names. I wish she would have read the whole thing through once before interrupting to take notes. I also noticed that after her father’s name, it listed a couple of siblings, which were ignored in the episode. While the episode is focused on tracing backwards, it’s important not to skip over siblings when doing research.

Natalie had another census for the next generation going back in her family, finding that William Fields, father of Mary, was a school teacher. We already learned earlier that both of Vanessa’s parents were elementary school music teachers.

“Every clue I get is just another piece of the puzzle to my life and who I am. Education was in our blood, and the importance of education is here in black and white right in front of me.” Seeing her ancestor with the same profession as her parents was very interesting. I’ve never found a genealogist in my ancestry, but finding the musician ancestor was very meaningful.

The census also showed that he was mulatto. I thought the episode might have been headed back to find his slave origins and who might have been his father, like the earlier episodes for Spike Lee and Emmitt Smith. And him having been a teacher so soon after the Civil War, it got me thinking that perhaps he was the son of the slave owner, but was also educated because of that fact. Of course, that is entirely speculation, but might have been interesting had they followed up on that part of the story.

Back to the South

To the Tennessee State Capitol, Kathy Lauder, an archivist at the State Library and Archives, showed Vanessa a statue listing William Fields, who served in the legislature in Tennessee.

“This is where it all begins,” takes it’s place after this scene. Instead of meaning that her family started there, it seemed like she was saying that that was the place where her family started to take a stand and change history for African Americans, comparing William to her own history as the first African American Miss America. Much better than previous similar lines from other episodes.

They had a photograph of all the representatives, and provided her a larger copy. How often do you go searching for your ancestors and find not just one but two photos that were not held by members of your family?

Again with the white gloves, Vanessa got to see a couple of documents from William’s time in the legislature, including a bill to require parents to send their children to school.

“And this was passed…” Vanessa inquired. “To a committee… where it died,” Kathy finished. It wasn’t actually good news, but I thought it was cute how the question was answered.

To learn more about William, Vanessa met with Dr. Beverly Bond, an historian, at the Memphis public library. A document about the church where he had been a teacher and his obituary were consulted.

At the Shelby County Archives, archivist Vincent L. Clark pulled out a large book of minutes from the Quarterly Court, where William had served. After reading an entry written about him after his death, she got very emotional, comparing his story to her father’s.

Vanessa returned to her home in Los Angeles to share what she had learned about her family.


At the beginning of this article, I suggested that someone had read my previous articles. There was no superfluous music video at the end and no genealogists met Vanessa in a cafe or restaurant; the only non-library or archive meeting was in an office. They still had the “coming up” sections before commercials, but they did away with the recap when returning, which is especially noticeable if you watch the episode without commercials.

Unlike the previously mentioned episodes for Spike and Emmitt, Vanessa didn’t pursue her history back to it’s slave roots, although it was implied that William Fields was probably born a slave. They ended on a positive note of her two ancestors, one who fought to free the slaves and the other who tried to improve their lives after the Civil War. Because this show is about family history instead of genealogy, continuing to trace backwards for more was not entirely necessary, but of course, I wonder if they did.

I don’t know if they included more American history lessons in this show than in others, but I certainly appreciate them. All of my families and most of my clients’ immigrant ancestors arrived to Ellis Island, so the Civil War era is never part of my research. Including details is important for understanding. Watching the BBC version once, I got a little lost in the history because I never learned British history.

This article continues the Nitpicker’s Version series. The previous season ended with the episode for Spike Lee.

WDYTYA – Episode 7 – The Nitpicker’s Version

The final episode in the first series of the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on Spike Lee’s search for more about his mother’s history. Just as with Emmitt Smith, as you’d expect from an African American, his ancestry takes him back to his slave roots.

Beginning at the Cemetery

Spike took his kids to visit his mother’s gravestone at the cemetery. After leaving flowers, they also left rocks on the top of the gravestone. I just read an article about that particular Jewish custom and how non-Jews were adopting it. It was interesting to see it here.

Spike talked about his grandmother and how she stepped up when his mother died when he was 19; she helped put him through college and start his business. Then he realized that, especially as a filmmaker, he had “squandered” the opportunity to film her talking about her family. Of course, this is the regret that all genealogists have — that we didn’t ask the questions when we had the people around. Either we didn’t know what to ask, or we didn’t have the drive to know more until they were gone.

A prior DNA test told Spike that his father’s side came from Cameroon and his mother’s came from Sierra Leone.

First Stop, Dublin, Georgia

As Spike began the “drive into town” sequence, the show skipped to the family tree charts, showing his parents, grandmother Zimmie, then skipping back to find her grandmother because he already knew that his great-great-grandmother, Lucinda Jackson, was born into slavery. However, even when you know the next generation back, you shouldn’t necessarily skip over the documentation of the more recent generation. You never know what you might find in the records that you weren’t expecting or that will give clues you’ll need later in the research.

At the Laurens County Library, genealogist Melvin J. Collier helped Spike to find Lucinda’s death record. I know it’s been a while since I’ve watched the rest of the season, but is this the first episode to have the very first meeting with a genealogist at a library instead of a cafe? They went right for the sponsor’s site,, to find her date of death. At a microfilm reader, they searched for an obituary in the newspaper. Finding it, Spike learned that Lucinda had two other sons.


Melvin called this a “genealogical goldmine”, to find an obituary for someone who was born a slave. Genealogical goldmines are always nice to find. I was recently doing work for client, researching during someone’s lifetime for clues, when the goldmine — and the answer to the client’s first question — was found only in the obituary.

Other goldmines can be jewels in disguise. Years ago, I read that US naturalization papers were a goldmine but that the certificate of naturalization itself was not. I beg to differ on that one. With the certificate, you have all the information you need to find the other paperwork, so I believe that it is just as much of a goldmine since it leads directly to more and doesn’t just serve as a clue to it.

Curious about Lucinda’s husband, Spike continued to look for more by checking the death certificate of her son. In a cafe, though not meeting with anyone, he opened a file on his computer. They don’t mention where this file came from; it just sort of appeared. I wish the death certificates of my great-great-grandparents would just appear on my computer desktop too.

Life on Mars

Spike was amazed to find that Lucinda’s husband’s name was Mars, a name his grandmother had suggested he use in his first film. She told him she had a “crazy uncle named Mars”, though with this discovery, he thought she may have said it was a crazy grandfather. His original memory may have been correct; she may have had an uncle with the same name. The obituary stated that Lucinda was survived by three sons, but it didn’t say if any predeceased her. Did he think about that?

Meeting historian Mark Schultz at the Georgia State Archives, they looked for more information about Mars, specifically to find who owned him. Going to Ancestry again, they found him listed in the 1880 census with the surname Woodall instead of Jackson. This was obviously not such a simple search and again the program failed to show that you can’t always find someone so easily, especially when you’re searching for them listed with a different surname. Mark stated that he was doing an “open search” for the given name Mars in Georgia, apparently with no other search information. By the time they were filming, the research was already done and they knew that searching by the name Jackson would not produce the results they wanted. Also not mentioned, but visible on screen, besides the three sons in Lucinda’s obituary, they had another son and three daughters.

The show went back to their family tree chart, showing the family name changing from Jackson to the earlier Woodall, but didn’t bother to add all the other children in the family. That is sad. How long could it have taken them to add the voiceover “Along with the three sons previously mentioned, from the census, we learned that Mars and Lucinda also had four other children…”?

Who Owned Them?

Back to the Ancestry search, they looked for Woodall in Twiggs County, where they’d already been searching, and found one family with a large plantation. While Spike jumped right to the conclusion, “That’s who owned them,” Mark replied with, “That’s very likely.” Because we know how this show works, we know that Spike is correct, but when someone is actually doing the research, they can’t just jump ahead without verifying this kind of information.

Spike followed that comment by asking if there was any way to verify the slave ownership, but it appeared to be a voiceover, probably added much later while the show was in editing. At least this helps point out that verification is needed. They checked the Slave Schedule and found the list of slaves, but the census only lists the slaves by their ages and doesn’t show their names. They didn’t check if one of the listings matched Mars’s age.

Still working with Mark, next on microfilm, Mars Woodall was found in the agricultural census of 1880 listed as a landowner.

To The Land

Before leaving Georgia, Spike went to see the land that Mars owned, from a map given to him by Mark. Again, they didn’t explain what records were used to find the map to the land.

“It all started here!” How many of these celebrities have gone to a place and said that? I don’t think it started there. I think it started in Africa, where human beings evolved from more primitive beings. Or really it started with the Big Bang. Maybe the generation in this particular part of his ancestry started their free lives there, but why do so many of them say things like that?

Spike had some of the things he wore in his first film as the character Mars sent to him so he could put them on while standing on the land that his ancestor Mars once owned. He then dug up some red clay with a rock and dropped bits of it in a plastic bag. So he planned by having the items sent to him but didn’t think to bring a trowel and a jar for the dirt?

They kept the camera on Spike while he ad libbed all kinds of things while “digging” the dirt. I think a better use of that time would have been to fill in some of the details they skipped over instead.

In a voiceover, Spike said that no one knows what happened to Mars or how he lost his land after 1880.

In the voiceover after the commercial, the narrator still claimed that James Woodall was only the “probable slave master”. They still hadn’t found any verification and unfortunately sometimes that’s the way the research goes. Not everything was documented and not all the documents have survived time.

Back to Lucinda’s Family

The next section started with, “he was sent a copy of her death certificate”. It almost sounded like it was sent anonymously. How about, “the certificate was ordered from the civil records office” or something similar; it would take about the same time to say.

Back to the family chart graphic, they reverted to the earlier version, before finding Mars and Lucinda’s other two sons. Why couldn’t they have just built on to the more complete version?

Spike looked for Lucinda’s parents, Wilson and Matilda Griswold, in the census on his computer. He found Matilda living in Griswoldville with the Grier family, but not Wilson.

To Macon, Georgia

Meeting with historian Daina Berry, she showed Spike several documents. First, on the Slave Schedule in 1850, she found a long list of slaves belonging to Samuel Griswold. A document to hire out slaves mentioned Wilson, probably meaning he was a skilled worker. Another document mentioned Griswold’s home and properties were burned by General Sherman’s army, and some slaves were taken with the army, in 1865.

“An ancestor of mine was on a plantation that General Sherman came and burnt to the ground… That’s history right there.” This line is great, but it’s implication is also wrong. His ancestor has a link to a known historical event, but it’s all history. Every one of our ancestors is part of history, whether they did something significant or not, had some tie to a major historical event or not, it’s all our history. As the tagline goes, “An historian studies history, a genealogist studies history.”


Visiting a large plaque where the town once stood, Spike read that the cotton gin was converted to a pistol factory. Another car pulled up on the other side of the road and historian Bill Bragg shared more information about the factory, including bringing a pistol that was made there. Bill also had a picture of Griswold and another of his wife. They commented that the two didn’t look very happy, but back then, people were told not to smile for the pictures because the exposure was so long that they couldn’t hold the smile long enough to get clear pictures. Because Matilda was listed in the census as mulatto, there was the possibility that the slave owner, Griswold, was her father.


In genealogy research, discovery doesn’t always happen in the most logical order. At this point, the episode returned to the earlier meeting with Daina Berry for more information. Daina pointed out that Griswold’s daughter married Grier, matching Matilda’s age to a listing in Griswold’s list of slaves that was probably her. The narrator explained that when a slave was fathered by the white slave owner, sometimes it was gifted to a family member and sent away. Daina did more research on Ancestry and found a Griswold descendent still alive.

Did they mention Ancestry enough times in this episode? I think this one might have a record number.

Meet the Cousin

In Arlington, Texas, Spike met Guinevere Grier, Samuel Griswold’s descendent. Listening to Spike tell her how they’re related, counting the number of “greats” and explaining their cousin relationship was kind of funny. It is much easier to me to just refer to my ancestors by their names rather than figuring out the relationship, otherwise I stumble over the counts in just the same way.

The superfluous ending music video was broken up with sound bites from Spike. Did they do that in the other episodes? I think so, maybe, but not as much as this one.


Spike seemed satisfied with knowing his family’s slave roots, unlike Emmitt Smith, who wanted to go back further. Emmitt used his DNA test to determine where he was from in Africa, just as Spike did, but this episode didn’t follow up on that with a visit to Africa.

There were several times when Spike would jump to conclusions in this episode. His jumps were the most likely versions of the stories of who the slave owner was or who the father was, but because there is no documentation for proof, and they apparently didn’t try DNA tests to match the families, many of the statements should be said as “likely” and “probably”, as the genealogists and historians stated, instead of “definitely”.

I’m looking forward to the next season of Who Do You Think You Are? Are you?

This article is the seventh in a series: