People lie about their age – how to handle it in genealogy

People lie about their age. When I turned twenty-eight eleventy decades
ago, I decided that was a good age, and stuck with it until I was in my mid-thirties. Kids say they’re older so they can use online
services such as Facebook. Adults claim they are younger for fear of
ageism in the workplace. And people have been lying about their age
for centuries for a variety of reasons. That means you’ll encounter it when researching
your own ancestry. So what do you do when you find records where
someone’s year of birth is off? In this five-minute genealogy video, I’ll
share the questions I ask when I see discrepancies in birth year on different records, and share
a couple illustrative examples. I ask myself four questions.
First: how likely was it that the person reporting
the information knew the facts? How carefully have I checked for another person
with the same name? Do other facts support the relationship? Is there a reasonable story for the discrepancy? I was reminded of this recently, when I broke
through a brick wall with my wife’s Palatine ancestors in Pennsylvania. The wall I had broken through was that of Philip Heyl, finding birth records for both his parents and his older siblings in the village of Neckarbischofsheim in the Palatinate. I’ve read a few books about immigration from that part of Germany at that time, and it wasn’t just families. Portions of entire villages, sometimes half of a village, packed up and moved to Pennsylvania over the course of a few years. I wondered if Philip Heyl’s wife, Jacobina could be from Neckarbischofsheim as well. I had an 1804 church death record for Philip’s wife,
Jacobina Heyl nee Zeigler, that recorded her date of birth as 1 Jun 1740. Searching for Jacobina Ziegler in the same
village, turned up a baptismal record with a birthdate of 1 June 1736. Four years earlier than that death record in Pennsylvania. This was the same village that Philip Heyl’s family was from, and the same date of birth, just four years prior. This had to be the woman who married Philip
Heyl in Philadelphia. But with the four year discrepancy, I wanted to make sure I had a solid story. Back to my four questions. First, check the person reporting the information. Unfortunately, the death record didn’t name the
person who reported Jacobina’s death So I really can’t know if they knew
what they were talking about. Second, check for similar names. I searched for birth records in Germany for women with
the same name between 1730 and 1750, and found three born in September 1740, October 1741,
and November 1742. But the mismatch in months didn’t feel compelling, and none of these were in Neckarbishofsheim which really did feel compelling. Third, I looked for supporting evidence that Jacobina’s family, the Zieglers, immigrated to Pennsylvania And found that a man with the same name as Jacobina
Ziegler’s father arrived in Philly in 1751. I would have liked a little more data
in Pennsylvania, but that’s pretty good. Fourth, was the story reasonable? I think so. I have seven different primary sources showing
Philip was born in 1738 or 1739, and a reliable secondary source reporting his birth on
15 September 1739. If Jacobina were born in 1736, she would be
over three years older than her husband, but if she said she was born in 1740, she would
be nine months younger. Even in today’s culture, it’s more common
for women to marry older men. Back in 1740? I think it’s utterly reasonable for a woman to lie about her age in that case. As another example, my second great-grandmother,
Mary Shiel Gallagher, who is sort of the reverse of Jacobina Ziegler. I know the story of her life from her daughter
via my uncle—she was born near Swinford, Ireland, spent some time in Worcestershire,
England, and then immigrated to Philadelphia. I have no idea when she was born, with different
records suggestion 1844, 1849, 1851 and 1857. My conclusion stops with my first question:
I don’t think anyone, including Mary, knew exactly when she was born. With Jacobina Ziegler, I could use a convincing
narrative about her birthdate to associate two records with different birth dates. For Mary Shiel, I have to rely on other methods—namely,
oral history and her father’s name—to tie records together. The inconsistent birth years are only helpful as supporting evidence once I’ve got a really strong story locked down.


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