Fitzpatrick, Colleen. Forensic Genealogy.

Fountain Valley, CA: Rice Book Press, 2005. 220p., softcover. Illus. $26.50 + $4.95 s/h. ISBN 0-9767160-0-3. (Andrew Yeiser & Assocs., 302 Cleveland Ave, Huntington Beach, CA 92648 / Web:

“Forensics” refers to the use of science and technology in the investigation of evidence and establishment of facts. We generally use the term in relation to legal and police work, but there’s no reason forensic methods can’t be applied to any sort of research in the social sciences, including genealogy. In this book, however, it often seems to have acquired a looser meaning — something like “close, careful examination.” And that’s incorrect, but ever since CSI became popular on TV, “forensic” has become a sexy word. And the author makes some excellent points about paying attention to the sources you examine, so I won’t carp about the label she adopts. Dr. Fitzpatrick (who, in the real world, is a physicist with a specialty in laser optics) is becoming quite well known as a genealogical conference speaker at the local and national level, partly, I think, because she does a good job explaining concepts and methodology in the area of DNA research — which is definitely a forensic topic.And that’s part of what you’ll find in this very well written and very readable volume, but not all of it by any means. In fact, DNA work is only one of the three subjects she explores, the others being interpretation of photographs and the proper use of databases. Fitzpatrick is a proponent of the notion that almost any kind of information source can have genealogical implications. Most of us started out reading the census on microfilm (or on Ancestry these days), plus the published sacramental records if your family is from south Louisiana, and many supposed researchers never get beyond that. But what about old weather and hospital records, railroad history, and the development of photographic technology? You may have done a straightforward search of 19th century city directories, but have you considered making a methodical analysis of a family group through a series of city directories over time — especially when they are associated with multiple addresses? Not to mention using directories for “widow tracking.” There are hundreds of potentially very useful databases — collections of information — available online these days whose very existence you might never have previously guessed at. Have you ever tried to calculate the latitude of the unknown location of an old photograph by examining the shadows in the picture? Sometimes, merely scanning an old photo at the highest possible resolution and then examining the digitized image at high magnification brings to light key details you never noticed before. (On the other hand, trying to guess the time period from the clothing styles is much less useful than one might think, especially for farm families who habitually wore old clothes.) Fitzpatrick suggests a number of other techniques you’re probably never heard of for squeezing every bit of information from old photos. And in both areas she includes some deeply interesting case studies. I turned to the DNA section with particular interest because (being an historian and not a “hard” science sort of person) it’s a topic I still don’t feel entirely comfortable with. Quite a few books have been published in recent years on the use of DNA testing in family research, some better than others. DNA analysis is the best-known area in which developments in criminal investigation have led directly to genealogical applications, especially in determining whether family traditions regarding lineage have a provable basis in fact. Fitzpatrick obviously understands the subject thoroughly and in depth, and she’s more successful than many in communicating the essentials (and even many of the details) to the non-specialist family researcher. She provides a short background on the subject, then discusses mutations and why they are a key concept in family research, what “markers” are and what the numbers mean, how to join or start a single-name DNA project, how to deal with “non-paternity events” (every family has them, like it or not), an evaluation of the major commercial testing companies, . . . and even such abstruse subjects as haplotypes, cladograms, and pairwise mismatches, which may be more than most of us really need to know. But even DNA studies can’t solve every mystery, and the author considers that problem, too. All in all, any researcher, regardless of level of experience, will find something new here, whether basic concepts or innovative techniques. Some of it may be tough going, but this book will certainly repay the time you spent with it.

Published in: on 11 January 2010 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

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