What a birth certificate does… and doesn’t… prove
We put a lot of emphasis as genealogists on original documents, and oh BOY do we like anything we can think of as direct proof. When I found a birth certificate that says my first cousin twice removed Benjamin Franklin Ernest Schreiner was born to Herman and Augusta on the Fourth of July, 1895, I was absolutely ready to make that Chicago registrar of vital statistics my new BFF.1
I mean, hey, this thing is perfect, right? It has everything I could want — his name, that he was the first-born child, that his mother lived at 4839 Bishop, doesn’t it?
It says that his father was Herman Franz Schreiner, a safe mechanic, 41 years of age, German American, and born in Gera,2 Reuss Jüngere Linie, Germany,3 and that his 37-year-old mother was Augusta Paula Schreiner, born Augusta Paula Graumüller in Köstritz,4 Reuss, Germany. It was signed by the doctor who delivered the kid, and he should know, no? This is absolute total proof of all KINDS of stuff!
Um… er… uh… no. All that it proves is that a baby boy was born 4 July 1895 at 4839 Bishop Street in Chicago to a woman who told the doctor who delivered the baby that she was Augusta Schreiner. It doesn’t prove that’s who she was. It doesn’t prove when or where she was born, or what her maiden name was, or where Herman Franz (called Frank) was born or how old he was or what he did for a living. It doesn’t even prove that Frank was little Ben Franklin’s father. As an appeals court in New Jersey said recently, “A birth certificate simply records the fact of parentage as reported by others…”5
Like everybody else, I have to force myself to remember: “Sources give us information from which we select evidence for analysis. A sound conclusion may be considered proof.”6 This birth certificate is a source. It’s a great source. It may be the best source I can ever find. It contains first-hand information (from the doctor) about the birth of a male infant at a particular place at a particular time. In the absence of any reason to doubt the doctor, his direct evidence about that birth supports a conclusion that there really was a baby boy born then and there.
But everything else on that birth certificate “simply records the fact(s) … as reported by others…” As to all of those other facts I want so badly to prove, the birth certificate is certainly evidence. But, by itself, it isn’t proof. As much as I want to say “case closed, got enough,” there’s still more to do here. Let’s see… ship manifests, naturalization records, city directories, marriage records, the census…
Sigh… even a genealogist’s work is never done…
- Urban Dictionary, “BFF” (http://www.urbandictionary.com : accessed 22 Jan 2012). ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Gera,” rev. 14 Jan 2012. ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Reuss Younger Line,” rev. 1 Jan 2012. ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Bad Köstritz,” rev. 11 Apr 2011. ↩
- In re T.J.S., 419 N.J. Super. 46, 53 (App. Div.), certif. granted 207 N.J. 228 (2011) (emphasis added). ↩
- Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2d ed. (Baltimore : Genealogical Publ. Co., 2009), 24, emphasis in original. ↩