Having Fun with Genealogy – A Look at Genealogical Humor
By Carolyn L. Barkley
I’m a firm believer that genealogy should be fun. If we lose sight of the enjoyment of solving puzzles and discovering new information, genealogy simply becomes work. To me having fun while researching takes many forms: talking to myself (statements like “well, it’s about time, there he is!”), pumping my fist enthusiastically into the air when the elusive bit is found on an almost unreadable microfilm reel, and finding that three hours have passed in the blink of an eye.
I often look around me to observe other researchers to see if they too are having fun. This week I have been at the Federation of Genealogical Societies annual conference in Philadelphia and I have observed conference goers as well. It’s easy to pick out those who are enjoying themselves while they learn, but it is equally easy to spot those who are way too serious. This article is for all of us who have been too serious – lighten up! It’s also for those of us who love what we do and have fun while we do it. Here are some ways to leaven your passion with some humor.
The following example [slightly edited due to space limitations] came to me from a friend. The attribution is unknown, but I think it provides a humorous confirmation that there are forces in the universe that appear to converge to make our genealogical research challenging (challenging is a fun way to say difficult).
“It is New Year’s Eve 1852 and [ancestor’s name redacted to protect the not-so-innocent] sits at his desk by candlelight. He dips his pen into the ink well and begins to write his New Year’s resolutions:
- No man is truly well-educated unless he learns to spell his name at least three different ways within the same document.
- I resolve to give the appearance of being extremely well-educated in the coming year
- I resolve to always alternate my kids’ and wife’s first and middle names when the census taker comes and to call my children by odd names which he is unable to spell incorrectly.
- My age is no one’s business but my own. I hereby resolve to never list the same age or birth year twice on any document.
- I resolve to have each of my children baptized in a different church – either in a different faith or in a different parish. Every third child will not be baptized at all or will be baptized by an itinerant minister who keeps no records.
- I resolve to move to a new town, new county or new state at least once very ten years – just before those pesky enumerators come around asking silly questions. I also resolve that I shall be absent on the night of the census, or if unable to be absent on census night, I shall endeavor to be enumerated twice.
- I will make every attempt to reside in counties and towns where no vital records are maintained or where the courthouse burns down every few years.
- I resolve to join an obscure religious cult that does not believe in record keeping or in participating in military service.
- When the tax collector comes to my door, I’ll loan him my pen which has been dipped in rapidly fading blue ink.
- I resolve that if my beloved wife Mary should die I will marry another Mary.
- I resolve not to make a will. Who needs to spend money on a lawyer?
- I resolve to not clutter up good farm pastures with headstones that will just get broken or fade with time anyway.
- I resolve to come from Ireland (where there are no records or if there are, they can only be examined by visiting the exact village, pleading with the local clergyman – who is hostile to anyone not of his belief – you) and/or require you to hand over a fee equal to or exceeding your yearly income, for one hour’s research which may not find anything.
- I resolve that not only shall I not die in my country of birth, but neither shall my children (yea verily) unto the sixth generation.
- I resolve that I and most of my family shall die suddenly just before death certification is established, in a parish where easy access to the records ceases the previous year.
- I resolve that when I die, my children/wife are instructed to give the wrong details for my death certificate.
Sound familiar? Like the Hawkeye and B. J. on MASH, we must see the humor of the situation or we will lose our minds.
Sometimes the humor is found in the records themselves – you can tell by the giggles at the microfilm readers. The General Register House of Scotland web site includes genealogical gems from old parish registers. For example: “George Something lawful son to what-ye-call-him in Mains of Barskimming was baptized April 9th 1704.” (Ochiltree, 1704 OPR 609/1. page 9). Another register provided the following written exchange: [Note by Session Clerk:] “Any person that wants a child’s name in any of the three preceding pages may scarcely expect to find it in the proper place. They being wrote by Mr King, late schoolmaster depute here without any regularity or order.” This observation was followed in different handwriting and ink by: “The above ill natured ungentlemanlike observation was written by Mr James Whyte and stands as one mark of his own distinguished Idiotism.” (Dunning, 1764; OPR 3510/1, Fr 124)
Needless to say, genealogical humor abounds on the Internet. Cyndi’s List provides links to a variety of sites including a genealogical chart for Barbie, Donald Duck and various studies of the genealogies of Disney characters. An entire mailing list is devoted to genealogical humor. Subscribe to the mail version at firstname.lastname@example.org or to the digest version at email@example.com) and your mailbox will soon be full of good – and not-so-good – examples of genealogical humor. One site that I particularly enjoy is My Elusive Ancestors as it includes a variety of humor and trivia including several lists: how to tell if you’re addicted to genealogy, top ten genealogical one liners, towns with unusual names (how about Lizard Lick, North Carolina, or Idiotville, Oregon), county names most commonly used (Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Jackson and Lincoln), states with the most counties (Texas with 254, Georgia with 159, Kentucky with 120, North Carolina with 100 and Virginia with 95) and those with the least (Delaware tops the list with only three). The site also provides an extensive group of links to other genealogical humor sites which lead to even more sites and links.
Want even more? Check out the following:
- Collecting Dead Relatives by Laverne Galeener-Moore (Genealogical Publ. Co., 1987, repr. 1998.)
- Further Undertakings of a Dead Relative Collector by Laverne Galeener-Moore (Genealogical Publ. Co., 1989, repr. 1998)
- Sunny Side of Genealogy by Fonda D. Baselt (Genealogical Publ. Co., 1999)