A Michigander tale

There are simply no records available anywhere that tell the stories that probate records do.

These are, as the name of The Legal Genealogist‘s class for Ancestry Academy points out, The Records of Death. They report and document the deaths of many of those who came before us.

But they also document so very much of the lives of the survivors.

And they tell such stories.

Like the one I came across from Wayne County, Michigan, just yesterday.

A story of brothers that didn’t quite get along… and a teenager who wanted things more his own way.

VernierImagine, if you will, the situation of Edward Vernier dit Laducere, 16 years old, and an orphan.

His father, Charles, died sometime before 1850. His mother, Marie, died about the first of July 1850.

He was the youngest of four brothers, with Charles, Daniel and John Baptise being older than he was. Charles was the only one of age in 1850, so he was named as the guardian of his younger brothers.

The year at the time of this court record was 1853, Edward was living in Wayne County, Michigan, with his guardian and older brother Charles. Charles, at the time, was the grand old age of 24. And, according to Edward, he was bossing Edward around.

And, it almost goes without saying, Edward didn’t like it one bit.

So he wanted somebody else as his guardian, instead.

So in July 1853, he asked the court to replace Charles.1

Now because Edward was over the age of 14 in 1853, he was entitled to choose his own guardian, but the court wasn’t simply going to remove Charles without hearing Charles’ side of the story. It required notice — to Charles and to “persons interested in (the) estate” — that Edward wanted Charles removed and Joseph Bellone appointed instead.2

In March of 1854, the probate court there in Detroit heard the case. And here’s the story Edward told the court, through an interpreter because his native language was French:

He (Charles) made him work very hard … at braiding straw hats. … He used him very hard when he was sick. … He laid out work and ordered him to do it. And whipped him once. Witness is 16 years 30 July instant. Was not 14 when he went to live with Charles. He has always been ailing. Has had a sore leg. Charles took no care of him, brought him to town to a Dr. once, and then sent him to work. … The general treatment has been … hard when sick and made him work too hard. … He told Charles he was not satisfied with his living. Charles said he might go, that he thought he would be no better satisfied than he was there and that the same treatment would be given him. Never gave him any money of his Estate. He went to a public school. … All he has ever had is his board. Charles never paid him for any work. Thinks he has worked enough for his board … Raking hay & loading hay … He (Charles) never treated him kindly … (but) harder than he did his own child. … He never asked Charles for money. … He did not complaint to Charles about working too hard…3

There are statements by various others in the records that follow — including Charles’ own statement that Edward didn’t work enough to pay for his board, that he’d absorbed the costs for eight months that Edward lived with him and “made him a present” of that.4

Daniel and John submitted statements as well, with Daniel saying he didn’t think Edward had earned enough to pay for the whole costs of living with Charles5 and John saying Edward probably earned enough during the harvest season but not during the winter.6

Now the personal story by itself is worth the effort of tracking down these records. I mean, seriously, doesn’t this whole thing strike you as about the kind of story you’d hear from (and about) almost any teenager, at almost any time? And wouldn’t this detail be a joy to include in a family history?

But of course there is more in the file.

We learn about work in the area braiding straw hats, and chores like picking apples and milking the cow, raking hay and picking corn.

We find a map with the land of the deceased Vernier father and how it will be partitioned among the sons. We see what the taxes were on the property.

We learn what legal fees were like at the time — Charles paid his lawyer $5.00 in legal fees for representing him in the dispute. Which, by the way, ended with a new guardian, but no other repercussions for Charles.

And there is so much more.

Battling brothers. Local conditions. The value — and annoyances — of work.

Oh, yes, the stories that probate records tell.


  1. Wayne County, Michigan, Probate Court, Probate Packet No. 1713, Estate of Vernier, verified statement of Edward Vernier, July 1853; digital images, “Michigan, Wills and Probate Records, 1784-1980,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 21 Sep 2015).
  2. Ibid., Printer’s Bill, Detroit Free Press.
  3. Ibid., statement of Edward Vernier, March 1854.
  4. Ibid., statement of Charles Vernier, March 1854.
  5. Ibid., statement of Daniel Vernier, March 1854.
  6. Ibid., statement of John Vernier, March 1854.
Posted in Resources | 2 Comments

Dower and reversion and merger, oh my!

Because The Legal Genealogist is headed off to Detroit later this week for the amazing free Family History Festival at the Detroit Public Library, Michigan is getting some special attention here.

And there’s no question that can be more puzzling than the one asked by reader R.A. Hill in April 2012 about a Michigan land deal that left him baffled as they brought a lot of legal concepts into play.

Here’s a reprise. First, the fact pattern:

Plat map, Alpine Twp., Kent Co., MI

A 40-acre tract in Alpine Township, Kent County, Michigan, was first purchased on 15 February 1851 from the Michigan State Land Office by Bella Chase on certificate 3177 for $160. Chase made a partial payment of $40 leaving a balance of $120 owed.

Chase died intestate 9 March 1859. On 18 April 1859, Bella’s widow Rachael M. Chase petitioned the Judge of Probate for the County of Kent for appointment as administrator. On 14 February 1860, commissioners appointed by the court set off one-third part of the real estate as dower to the widow. The 40-acre tract purchased on certificate 3177 was set off as dower. The tract was valued at $833.33; however, a balance of $120, plus interest, was still owned to the State of Michigan. A license to sell the real estate of Bella Chase dec’d was granted on 19 March 1860 to the widow.

The “Reversion of Dower” to the 40-acre tract was sold on 2 May 1860 to Erasmus Chapman for $78 at public auction after notices were duly published. On the same day, Erasmus Chapman and Eliza his wife sold the same reversion to David Herrick for $78. Then on 1 June 1860, David Herrick & Margaret his wife of Alpine sold the reversion to James Snowden for $80. Finally on 6 June 1860, Rachel Chase sold the certificate from the State of Michigan for the 40-acre tract to James Snowden for $500, authorizing Snowden to receive a Patent on the tract. Snowden paid the principal and interest on Certificate 3177 on 11 August 1860 and received a Patent on the same date. On 24 August 1860, James sold the same 40-acre tract, except for five acres in the NW corner, to Rachael Chase for $500. James apparently kept the five acres for his $80 purchase of the reversion of Rachael’s dower and perhaps his payment of the $120 owed on the purchase price.

The key question from all of this: “I don’t understand what ‘selling the reversion of dower’ means in this example,” the reader wrote. “What role did it play in the final outcome?”

Cool question!!

Let’s start with some basic concepts.

Dower was what the common law called the right of a widow to certain of the lands of her husband for her support and the support of her children.1 What the widow got, however, was not what a widow today might get on the death of a husband. What a widow usually gets today is fee simple ownership: total unlimited ownership that she can sell, give away, put in her will, mortgage, etc.2

To the contrary, dower was a life estate, not a fee simple ownership.3 At common law, it was usually a life estate in one-third of the husband’s lands.4

That was also the prevailing rule under Michigan law at the time: “The widow of every deceased person shall be entitled to dower, or the use, during her natural life of one-third part of all the lands whereof her husband was seized…”5 Here, then, setting the 40 acres of land aside for Rachael’s dower only meant setting it aside as a life estate for her — her right to live on, use, farm the land during her life only.

The reversion of dower referred to is what would happen to the land after the life estate came to an end. When Rachael died, if nothing happened in the meantime to change the ownership of the land, that 40-acre tract would “revert” to the original Bella Chase estate.6

These two things — the life estate that Rachael had and the reversionary interest that the estate had — are totally separate interests in this land. Each one could be sold separately. In the language of the law, each interest was alienable.7

That meant that Rachael was legally able to — and did — sell her own interest in that dower land as a separate part of the land deal, but only what she owned: a life estate. It also meant that, as administrator of the estate, she also was legally able to sell the estate’s interest — the reversion of dower, meaning the right to own the land free and clear, but only after Rachael’s death.

But something else much more important happened in this chain of transactions. On 6 June 1860, one man — James Snowden — ended up owning both interests in the land. He’d already bought the reversion of dower on June 1st. On June 6th, he purchased the life estate from Rachael.

Now think about that for a moment: James now owns all of the rights that Rachael would have during her lifetime and all of the rights the estate would have after Rachael’s death. Sounds pretty much like fee simple, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what the law does in that sort of situation. It applies something called the doctrine of merger.8

As explained by Blackstone, “Whenever a greater estate and a less coincide and meet in one and the same person, without any intermediate estate, the less is immediately annihilated; or, in the law phrase, is said to be merged, that is, sunk or drowned, in the greater.”9

The greater interest here was the estate’s interest, the rights that would exist after Rachael’s death. The lesser interest was the life estate. There wasn’t any intermediate interest — immediately on Rachael’s death, the estate would have full fee simple ownership. So what happened here was, by a complicated set of transactions, Rachael got the life estate and the reversionary interest joined in a single owner (James Snowden) which wiped out the life estate and turned the land ownership into a straight fee simple.

When James sold the land back to Rachael in August, keeping the five acres for his troubles and his expenses, she owned it free and clear: the life estate was gone. Why would Rachael care to go through all these steps just to erase the life estate? Because as a life tenant, not only was she legally restricted in what she could do with the land, she could even be sued by other heirs for waste, meaning a use of the land that didn’t benefit those heirs.10

But why the complicated transactions involving a whole chain of people? Most likely because of the need to hold an auction and, in general, to satisfy the probate court that this was a good thing for the estate. It turns out that — except for the man who first bought the estate’s interest at the auction — all of these people were very close neighbors and friends — and James Snowden was not only Rachael’s next-door neighbor but an old hand at dealing with the Michigan Land Office.

Bottom line: This was most likely a set-up deal designed to accomplish just what it eventually did accomplish: wiping out the life estate, turning the land interest to a fee simple ownership, with no money out of the pockets of the young widow and her family.


Originally posted 17 April 2012.

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 393, “dower.”
  2. See ibid., 482, “fee-simple” (“An absolute or fee simple estate is one in which the owner is entitled to the entire property, with unconditional power of disposition during his life, and descending to his heirs and legal representatives upon his death intestate”).
  3. See ibid., 720, “life estate.”
  4. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Second: Of the Rights of Things (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1765-1769), 129; html version, Yale Law School, Avalon Project (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/blackstone.asp : accessed 16 Apr 2012).
  5. Chapter 89, Estates in Dower, § 2772, in Thomas M. Cooley, compiler, The Compiled Laws of the State of Michigan (Lansing: Hosmer & Kerr, State Printers, 1857) 2: 850.
  6. See ibid., 1040, “reversion.”
  7. Ibid., 59, “alienable.” See also ibid., “alienate.”
  8. See ibid., 769, “merger.” See also J. M. Perry, “Merger of Estates,” Virginia Law Register, Vol. 5, No. 10 (Feb., 1900), 651-660.
  9. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book the Second: Of the Rights of Things, 177.
  10. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1236, “waste.”
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | 7 Comments

Not an outlier any more

In case you’ve been living on the dark side of the moon in recent years, DNA isn’t the new kid on the block any more.

dna.NYIt’s not an outlier in the genealogical community.

It’s part and parcel of what every genealogist should be doing, whenever it can provide relevant evidence in resolving a genealogical question.

And you don’t have to take The Legal Genealogist‘s word for it at all.

Over the past few days, we have had powerful evidence of how much genetic genealogy is at the forefront of our community.

As one example, in the popularity voting by genealogists around the world at John D. Reid’s blog Anglo-Celtic Connections in his annual review of what he calls genealogy rockstars, the gold winner in three major categories (International, USA and Genetic Genealogy) was genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, author of the Your Genetic Genealogist blog and a DNA consultant to the PBS genealogy program Finding Your Roots, featuring Henry Louis Gates. And, I suspect, it’s my own interest in genetic genealogy that put me in the silver position in the International and USA categories and the bronze in Genetic Genealogy.

But that’s hardly the only evidence we have.

Friday afternoon, at the New York State Family History Conference in Syracuse, co-sponsored by the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society and the Central New York Genealogical Society, Thomas W. Jones challenged attendees to answer the question, “Will Your Family History Have Lasting Value?”

Tom is uniquely qualified to ask that question: he is co-editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, a fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, a former president of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, and the list of credentials just goes on and on. He is a genuine heavyweight as a genealogical scholar.

And what he said to that standing-room-only crowd of genealogists is a powerful testament to what DNA has become as part of good genealogical practice.

Because he began by outlining the first steps every genealogist should take to ensure that what we do in our research is the very best we can do. We must, he said, gather the oral history of our families from the living people whose voices can be heard today but will be silenced by time. We must gather our family artifacts: the photos, the letters, the diaries, the items that tell so much of our family stories. And we must, he said, as one of these very first steps gather our family DNA by testing our family members as broadly and as deeply as our pocketbooks will bear.

He urged the crowd to test the YDNA of the men of the family, to capture the evidence of their fathers’ fathers’ father’s line. To test the mitochondrial DNA of the men and women of the family, for their mothers’ mothers’ mother’s line. And to test as many of the oldest members of the family as we can for autosomal DNA evidence of all of our ancestral lines.

Not as an afterthought.

Not as an outlier.

But as part and parcel of all of our genealogical research.

So that, in the end, our work will have lasting value.

The conference went on to cement that notion in the minds of the attendees by presenting a full-day of genealogical education yesterday: Blaine Bettinger, author of The Genetic Genealogist blog, and I alternated in presenting an overview of DNA (Blaine), the law and ethics of testing (me), YDNA and mtDNA testing (Blaine), autosomal DNA (Blaine) and a case study in using all DNA types to reconstruct a family in a county where the courthouse burned — twice (me).

So if you’ve been sitting on the fence, and thinking about whether DNA testing is right for you, the answer by now really is a no-brainer.

Test. Test as broadly and deeply in your family as you can afford to test. Because we do want our research to have lasting value. Because DNA isn’t an outlier any more.

Come on in.

The DNA testing water is just fine.

Posted in DNA | 13 Comments

Support for Preserve the Pensions

Imagine, if you will, 1,812 miles.

That’s roughly the distance from, say, New York City to Breckenridge, Colorado.

It’s roughly the distance from, say, San Francisco to Topeka, Kansas.

It’s roughly the distance from, say, Detroit to Lordsburg, New Mexico.

In other words, it is one humongous distance.

Now imagine, if you will, walking, running, biking or swimming every last one of those 1,812 miles.

And imagine doing it to raise funds for one of the best causes ever to raise its head in genealogy: to preserve, forever, in digital format, some of the most valuable records ever created in the United States.


The War of 1812 pension files at the National Archives are rich in details of military service, chock full of original records evidencing births, marriages and deaths, and among the best genealogical treasures that our National Archives has to offer.

In part because of their age, in part because they are so often requested by researchers, however, the millions of pages of War of 1812 pension files are also among the most fragile genealogical treasures that our National Archives has to offer — and in desperate need of permanent preservation.

Raising money for this effort is a thankless task… organized under the umbrella of Preserve the Pensions, spearheaded by the Federation of Genealogical Societies. It’s a long-haul proposition that involves extraordinary efforts by many people.

And in this particular instance, it involves one man — walking, running, biking or swimming 1,812 miles.

Michael J. Hall of FamilySearch did just that — and, yesterday, just about 12:45 p.m., he ran the last quarter-mile of those 1812 miles.

His last quarter-mile brought him into the Conference Center of the New York State Family History Conference in Syracuse, New York, where he was greeted with cheers and applause.

And with cold hard cash.

The Legal Genealogist, together with you — the readers — and so many others, had backed Mike’s decision to do these grueling 1,812 miles by pledging at least a dollar a mile to sponsor him.

A dollar a mile.

$1,812 total.

That’s what we hoped for when we began.

Here’s where we ended up:

• By noon yesterday, at the Preserve the Pensions website, some $3,316 had been contributed by people who said they were doing it in honor of Mike Hall.

• By noon yesterday, readers of this blog had contributed by PayPal another more than $2,000 — and since I can’t tolerate odd numbers, I added a few more of my own to present Mike and the Preserve the Pensions fund with a check for $2,500.

A total of $5,816 — a little more than $3.20 a mile. More than three times what we were hoping for.

And then the New York State Family History Conference decided to let everyone here get into the act. The conference let us throw down a challenge to everyone who attended the lunch yesterday: could we get it up to $4 a mile?

Last night, at the banquet, I was privileged to announce the final numbers:

When we began the day, we had raised $5,816 for the Preserve the Pensions campaign.

At lunch, we added another $2,375.25 for a grand total of $8,191.25. (I’m delighted to report that even included two cash contributions from Canadians — in Canadian bills!)

That grand total is matched by the Federation of Genealogical Societies, and becomes $16,382.50.

And that is matched by Ancestry, and becomes $32,765.

And that means that this effort made it possible to digitize and preserve forever — free to all — some 72,804 pages of pension files from the War of 1812.

Well-played, genealogists! Well-played.

Thanks to all — and especially to Mike Hall.

So… what’s our next idea for fundraising for this campaign?

Posted in General | 4 Comments

Some fun for your Thursday

Do the New York state courts believe in ghosts?

That’s the question The Legal Genealogist has to consider now that the case of Stambovsky v. Ackley has crossed this blog-writer’s radar.

ghost.BlackTenshiIt’s a 1991 decision of the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court,1 and you can read it yourself, online.2

And the opinion begins:

Plaintiff, to his horror, discovered that the house he had recently contracted to purchase was widely reputed to be possessed by poltergeists, reportedly seen by defendant seller and members of her family on numerous occasions over the last nine years. Plaintiff promptly commenced this action seeking rescission of the contract of sale. (The) Supreme Court reluctantly dismissed the complaint, holding that plaintiff has no remedy at law in this jurisdiction.3

Here, according to the court, were the facts:

… (T)he buyer …, as a resident of New York City, cannot be expected to have any familiarity with the folklore of the Village of Nyack. Not being a “local”, plaintiff could not readily learn that the home he had contracted to purchase is haunted. Whether the source of the spectral apparitions seen by defendant seller are parapsychic or psychogenic, having reported their presence in both a national publication (Readers’ Digest) and the local press (in 1977 and 1982, respectively), … no divination is required to conclude that it is defendant’s promotional efforts in publicizing her close encounters with these spirits which fostered the home’s reputation in the community. In 1989, the house was included in five-home walking tour of Nyack and described in a November 27th newspaper article as “a riverfront Victorian (with ghost).”4

The opinion was written for the court by Justice Israel Rubin, a graduate of St. John’s University both undergraduate and law school who became a judge in 1973, rising to the Appellate Division in 1989. He served on the Appellate Division until he reached mandatory retirement age in 2002; he died in 2014.5

And he was no slouch in the mental capacity departmemt:

Justice Rubin was an adjunct professor at St. John’s University School of Law, a frequent author and lecturer, and had won numerous professional awards, including the Distinguished Judicial Service Award from the New York County Lawyers’ Association; the Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone Memorial Award from the Association of Trial Lawyers of the City of New York; and the Benjamin N. Cardozo Award from the Jewish Lawyers Guild. In addition, he received an Honorary Doctorate from St. John’s University School of Law in 1992.6

And yet… and yet… with all that brain power, with all that experience and all those smarts, Justice Rubin still wrote some of the most amazing words ever to appear in a court opinion:

“As a matter of law,” he wrote, “the house is haunted.7

Now don’t go off the rails here, folks. I know very well that what the good judge was really saying was that the seller of the house couldn’t have it both ways: the seller couldn’t make a buck by telling the locals the house was haunted and then turn around and not tell the buyer about the reputation the sellers had been building up for the house.

Justice Rubin went on to note that “Where a condition which has been created by the seller materially impairs the value of the contract and is peculiarly within the knowledge of the seller or unlikely to be discovered by a prudent purchaser exercising due care with respect to the subject transaction, nondisclosure constitutes a basis for rescission as a matter of equity.”8 To hold otherwise — to put the duty to discover the issue on the buyer –

conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineer and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale. It portends that the prudent attorney will establish an escrow account lest the subject of the transaction come back to haunt him and his client — or pray that his malpractice insurance coverage extends to supernatural disasters. In the interest of avoiding such untenable consequences, the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.9

So it really is a legally defensible — and quite reasonable — decision.

Except …

Don’t you just love the idea of writing up a family history, or a family house history, that includes a positive assertion by a learned jurist that…

“As a matter of law, the house is haunted.

And people wonder why I love court records…


Image: OpenClipArt.org, user BlackTenshi.

  1. Don’t get confused here. The Supreme Court in New York isn’t really a supreme court at all; it’s a trial level court. From that trial court, you get an appeal to the Appellate Division, and then to the New York Court of Appeals. It’s that Court of Appeals that — anywhere else — would be called the Supreme Court.
  2. Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 AD 2d 254 (N.Y. Appellate Div., 1st Dept. 1991); online at Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com/scholar?as_sdt=6,31&hl=en : accessed 16 Sep 2015).
  3. Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 AD 2d at 255-256.
  4. Ibid. at 256.
  5. Israel Rubin,” Justices of the Court (Historical), Appellate Division, First Judicial Department, Supreme Court of the State of New York (http://www.nycourts.gov/courts/ad1/ : accessed 16 Sep 2014).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 AD 2d at 256.
  8. Ibid. at 259.
  9. Ibid. at 257.
Posted in Court Cases | 15 Comments

Finding New York statutes

Tomorrow will see the start of three days of genealogy in upstate New York — Syracuse, to be precise.

It’s the 2015 New York State Family History Conference, co-sponsored by the Central New York Genealogical Society and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, with tomorrow’s sessions in conjunction with the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

Topics for sessions starting tomorrow morning with the FGS Focus on Societies Day and running through Saturday afternoon range from mastering social media for genealogical societies to using DNA as part of our family history research to specialized resources to crack tough New York research problems.

And there’s an all-star cast of speakers lined up — Jen Baldwin of findmypast.com; Blaine Bettinger, The Genetic Genealogist; Laura Murphy DeGrazia, former editor of the NYG&B Record; Ed Donakey, Jim Ison and David E. Rencher of FamilySearch.org; Dick Eastman; James Folts of the New York State Archives; Eric G. Grundset of the DAR Library; Henry Hoff, editor of the New England Historical Genealogical Record; Karen Mauer Jones, editor, NYG&B Record; Thomas W. Jones, co-editor, NGS Quarterly; Matt Knutzen, New York Public Library; Terry Koch-Bostic, NGS board member; D. Joshua Taylor, findmypast.com and FGS president; Jane Wilcox, host of the Forget-Me-Not radio program; Curt B. Witcher of the Allen County Public Library; and … who am I forgetting? Oh yeah… me, The Legal Genealogist.

Laws.1802So you might think, knowing my track record, that I’ve been spending some time poking around in old New York statute books.

And you’d be right.

And you might even think, knowing my track record, that I’d share with you some links directly to some of those old statute books.

And you’d usually be right.

But not today.

I’m not gonna do it.

Not because I have any aversion to sharing New York statutes, mind you.

But because somebody else has already done all the hard work of putting together a really good resource list for New York statutory research.

Enter the website Manhattan Past.

The person behind the website is Don Rogerson, author of the book Manhattan Street Names Past and Present,1 described by his publisher as “a freelance writer living in southwest Iowa, just west of Manhattan.”2

And this website has links to the Google Books digitized editions of New York’s laws from before there even was a New York: it starts with the 1638-1674 New Netherlands period and then proceeds, with few exceptions, all the way through 1922.

So if you’re looking for New York statutes to answer a question about what the law was at that time and place, save yourself a little bit of research time and head over to the “Laws of the State of New York” page at Manhattan Past.3

And then you can further your research by looking at the compiled laws collected on the “Laws of New York State” page at the website of the New York State Library. It includes “New York State revised statutes/consolidations that have been digitized from volumes in the New York State Library’s collection,” including the two-volume 1802 set by James Kent and Jacob Radcliff; the three-volume 1829 laws; the two-volume 1882 set edited by Montgomery H. Throop; and the official consolidated laws of 1909.4

Because, after all, we all need to understand the records in the context of the laws that existed when and where the records were created.

And these websites make that a lot easier in New York.


  1. Donald A. Rogerson, Manhattan Street Names Past and Present (Charleston, SC : Griffin Rose Press, 2013).
  2. From the website, I’d take bets that the publisher — Griffin Rose Press — and the author are one and the same…
  3. Laws of the State of New York,” Manhattan Past (http://www.manhattanpast.com/ : accessed 15 Sep 2015).
  4. See “Laws of New York State,New York State Library (http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/ : accessed 15 Sep 2015).
Posted in Primary Law, Resources, Statutes | 7 Comments

No records for you!

It’s part of New England lore, the murderous woman.

In Massachusetts, the lore begins with allegations that there were murdering witches in Salem,1 and continues at least until, according to popular lore but not according to a jury verdict,

Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.2

In New Hampshire, it’s Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenney who were the first to be hanged there.3

Amy-Archer-GilliganAnd in Connecticut, it’s Amy Archer Gilligan — the serial killer who inspired the play and 1944 movie “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Whose records, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled yesterday, will remain sealed, because the records were created while she was a patient at what’s now called Connecticut Valley Hospital — a psychiatric hospital.

No matter that Amy Archer Gilligan has been dead since 1962.

No matter that her only child has been dead since 1968.

No matter what the records say.

No matter what kinds of records they are. Even administrative, billing, and dental records are to remain sealed.

All because of the kind of patient Amy Archer Gilligan was — a psychiatric patient.

The five-member majority on the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Dennis G. Eveleigh, focused almost exclusively on the fact that, under Connecticut law, all communications and records related to psychiatric treatment are confidential, not to be disclosed. So, the majority concluded, everything that happened to Gilligan as a pschiatric patient was confidential “because all of the documents at issue were created during care for a patient at an inpatient mental health facility, and that medical diagnosis and treatment are part of psychiatric treatment and diagnosis at an inpatient mental health facility.”4 It concluded that even “medical and dental records that are created by an inpatient mental health facility during the treatment of a patient are exempt from disclosure.”5

In a much more nuanced opinion agreeing in part with leaving some records sealed because they really did relate to psychiatric treatment, but that would have allowed disclosure of other records that didn’t really relate to treatment, Justice Andrew J. McDonald noted the tension between the desire for confidentiality in psychiatric treatment and the equally powerful public right to access to information. “Rather than charting a path that balances and accommodates both of these statutory priorities,” he wrote, “the majority construes one to vanquish the other and, in the process, deviates significantly from critical principles at the core of open government.”6

The majority’s approach, the Justice wrote, painted with too broad a brush:

Rather than looking to the contents of the documents to determine whether they meet the statutory requirements for applying the privilege, the majority … does not recognize that many of the documents are not medical and dental records at all, but are merely administrative records and correspondence having nothing to do with Gilligan’s psychiatric treatment. Moreover, the privilege does not protect every document that finds its way into an inpatient’s file, nor does it protect every communication made at a treatment facility. … The contents of the communications and records dictate whether they are privileged, not the fact that the communications and records happen to reside in a particular patient file.7

It’s long been said that hard cases make bad law. Nobody disagrees with the notion that psychiatric patients must be free to disclose anything and everything in the course of their treatment if that treatment is to have any hope of succeeding.

The precedent set by this decision in this hard case makes for bad law — bad in Connecticut, bad anywhere. When the reasons for sealing records no longer exist, keeping them sealed just because is a bad decision.

It may well be that, in this case at this time, the public interest in the records was due to mere curiosity. The action was brought by Ron Robillard, an East Hartford author writing a book about Gilligan, and not by a descendant or family member interested in family medical history.

But the rule will be followed even when the case does focus on a descendant or family member interested in family medical history.

When it comes to the public interest in access to records, well, the Connecticut Supreme Court took an ax…


Image: Wikimedia Commons

  1. Jess Blumberg, “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials,” Smithsonian.com, posted 23 Oct 2007 ( : accessed 14 Sep 2015).
  2. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Lizzie Borden,” rev. 8 Sep 2015.
  3. American female hangings 1632 to 1937,” Capital Punishment U.K. (http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/ : accessed 14 Sep 2015).
  4. Freedom of Information Officer, Dept. of Mental Health & Addiction Services v. Freedom of Information Commission, No. SC 19371(Conn. Supreme Court, 14 September 2015), majority slip opinion at 6.
  5. Ibid., majority slip op. at 10.
  6. Freedom of Information Officer, Dept. of Mental Health & Addiction Services v. Freedom of Information Commission, No. SC 19371(Conn. Supreme Court, 14 September 2015), concurring and dissenting slip opinion at 1.
  7. Ibid., conc. & diss. slip op. at 5.
Posted in Records Access | 16 Comments

The rockstars, redux

The Legal Genealogist has said it before: there’s an old adage that says you’re best known by the company you keep.

And, once again, here in 2015, boy do I hope that’s true.

Because I am in amazing company right now, thanks to you and your votes in the Genealogy RockStar voting over at John D. Reid’s blog Anglo-Celtic Connections.

The rockstars are the people John describes as “those who give ‘must attend’ presentations at family history conferences or as webinars. Who, when you see a new family history article or publication by that person, makes it a must buy. Who you hang on their every word on a blog, podcast or newsgroup, or follow avidly on Facebook or Twitter?”1

And I am so grateful to be included in that company, once again, here in 2015. As you can see, the voting has to be looked at as such a win for genetic genealogy!! DNA is obviously a major component of everything we do today in genealogy, and it’s wonderful to see it getting the recognition it deserves.

Here’s the company your votes landed me in, this year, in three different categories:2

International, USA, Genetic Genealogy

CeCe Moore



International, USA: Judy G. Russell


Genetic Genealogy: Roberta Estes

Silver (1)


International: Thomas MacEntee


USA: Roberta Estes


Genetic Genealogy: Judy G. Russell



  1. John D. Reid, “Rockstar Genealogist 2015 Nominations Now Open,” Anglo-Celtic Connections, posted 1 Sep 2015 (http://anglo-celtic-connections.blogspot.com/ : accessed 9 Sep 2015).
  2. See Ibid., “Superstar Rockstar Genealogists 2015,” posted 15 Sep 2015, and “Rockstar Genealogists 2015: Silver and Bronze,” posted 14 Sep 2014).
Posted in General | 2 Comments

The Promethease option

Ever since 23andMe stopped providing health information to new customers as the result of a disagreement with the federal Food and Drug Administration,1 readers have been scrambling for options to obtain basic information about how their genetic makeup may be affecting their health risks.

By this time, here as we close in on the fall of 2015, most readers seem to have an understanding that they have options, but still have questions about the option most commonly used by genealogists — Promethease.

The Legal Genealogist wrote about Promethease last year2 but it’s clear that folks are still confused. For example, reader Gwen Digby wrotethat she was “interested in family ancestry and medical information. Is Family Tree DNA the best source for this, then transferring the info to Promethease for medical info?” while a reader using the moniker “Just Curious” was also interested in testing “for family tree and medical reasons” and asked, “As I understand it, 23andme is best test for this and then import the raw data into Promethease (please confirm).”

Let’s start with some basics.

Promethease1Promethease is “a computer program developed by the SNPedia team which allows users to compare personal genomics results against the SNPedia database, generating a report with information about a person’s attributes, such as propensity to diseases, based on the presence of specific single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) within their genome.”3

It “builds a personal DNA report based on the scientific literature cited in SNPedia and a file of genotype (DNA) data. Customers of DNA testing services (23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, Ancestry.com, Complete Genomics, …) can use it to retrieve published data about their DNA completely independent of whichever company produced the data.”4

SNPedia, in turn, is a wiki devoted to the medical consequences of DNA variations, including software to analyze personal genomes. It describes itself this way:

SNPedia has been launched to help realize the potential of the Human Genome Project to connect to our daily lives and well-being.

Our genes are important, and the variations in them help define our uniqueness. Yet at the same time they help forge links between us, as many of us carrying certain variations find ourselves facing similar medical issues. SNPs are those variations. SNP stands for Single Nucleotide Polymorphism and means variation in the same place (polymorphism) within the DNA sequence.

SNPedia is based on a wiki model, in order to foster communication about genetic variation and to allow interested community members to help it evolve to become ever more relevant. We anticipate that as the cost of genotyping (and especially of fully determining your own genomic sequence) continues to drop, we’ll all want to know more – a lot more – about the meaning of these DNA variations. And SNPedia will be here to help.5

What Promethease does is compare your raw autosomal DNA test data — and you can use your raw data from any of the three major test companies (Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA) — to information collected from peer-reviewed scientific journals at SNPedia to “create a personal report linking your DNA variations to the information published about them.” It’ll cost you a whopping $5.00 to get each report.

Among the specific DNA markers (called SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms6) it looks at are ones now believed to raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, influence baldness, determine sensitivity to anesthetics, trigger obesity and type-2 diabetes, impact the risk of coronary heart disease, or result in lactose intolerance.

So… which of the big three genetic genealogy companies is the best to test with if what you want is medical information? For genealogy, of course, I’ve already given my recommendations (start by testing at AncestryDNA, transfer your raw data into Family Tree DNA, then test with 23andMe to be sure you’re fishing in all the ponds).7

If what you want is medical information, then here’s what I know about the differences among the companies.

This morning, I ran my own results from 23andMe, AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA through Promethease. And the differences are very apparent when you do that.

First, in terms of how long the reports took, there was a difference, and it isn’t at all clear why the difference was so stark:

Family Tree DNA
Waited 11 seconds
Runtime 5 minutes 25 seconds

Waited 45 seconds
Runtime 9 minutes 25 seconds

First run
Waited 3 seconds
Runtime 40 minutes 2 seconds, then failed
Second run
Waited 40 minutes 5 seconds
Runtime 7 minutes 29 seconds

So be prepared to wait, depending on what company you’ve tested with, and perhaps depending on time of day, server load and the like.

Second, and more significantly in terms of choosing a testing company if what you want is health information, there really is a difference in how much data you can get. This is because 23andMe in particular is skewed towards testing for medical information, while Family Tree DNA deliberately excludes known medical markers — making it much the best choice for those who only want genealogically-relevant information and don’t want to risk disclosure of health data. The key difference is in the number of genotypes annotated, meaning the analysis available of the two alleles inherited for a particular gene8:

Family Tree DNA
11487 genotypes annotated

13007 genotypes annotated

23284 genotypes annotated

Breaking this down by the numbers of alleles reported as good results, bad results and not set (a category meaning that scientists don’t know or aren’t sure if the alleles have any health implications), here are the numbers:

Family Tree DNA
Good 1,261
Bad 166
Not set 10,070

Good 1,538
Bad 255
Not set 11,225

Good 5,281
Bad 413
Not set 17,613

In short, you’re going to get a lot more information using your 23andMe raw data than if you use the raw data from either of the other two companies, and more if you use your AncestryDNA raw data than if you use the raw data from Family Tree DNA. Comparing AncestryDNA’s bigger lists of negative results rather than Family Tree DNA’s results, I see that AncestryDNA’s data will show me that I have an elevated risk of type 2 diabetes and of atrial fibrillation and cardioembolic stroke. And using 23andMe’s results rather than AncestryDNA’s, I find out that I have an increased risk of endometriosis and am a carrier of hemochromatosis.

Oh joy.

Now seriously remember that interpreting any of these results is far more difficult than getting them. I have a whole slew of results no matter what report I look at, starting with a SNP that provides “an apparent resistance to several diseases such as invasive pneumococcal disease, bacteremia, malaria, and tuberculosis” on the good side, followed by one that poses “an increased breast cancer, type-2 diabetes, and aggressive prostate cancer risk” on the bad side. But these are risks, not diagnoses. So… What to make of all this?

There’s help available in understanding your results once you get them. First and foremost, read the Promethease help page, starting with the section “How to read a Promethease Report.” You can also read up on Promethease, including:

• “You Can Transform Your Genetic Ancestry Data Into Health Info, But Your Results May Vary,” by Dr. Barry Starr of Stanford University at KQED Science.9

• “Promethease – Genetic Health Information Alternative,” by Roberta Estes of DNAeXplained.10

• “My 23andMe Results: Getting a (Free) Second Opinion,” by cdwScience of the My Biomedical Informatics Blog.11

• “How a Wiki Is Keeping Direct-to-Consumer Genetics Alive,” Antonio Regalado of MIT Technology Review.12

And you might want to join the Promethease Users Group on Facebook.

Now… remember… each of these three reports costs $5.00. You can buy one, you can buy them all. And And understand that before you do anything else at Promethease, you’re going to have to sign off on a set of disclaimers:

Before you may use Promethease to retrieve information about the human genome, you must read and agree to the following statements. Please read each statement and check the box next to each one and then click ‘I Agree’.

• I understand that the information provided in my Promethease report is based on SNPedia.com and that my report is for educational and research purposes only.

• I realize that most published reports about DNA variations explain only a small part of the heritability of a trait, and they also don’t take into account how different variants might interact. In addition, published reports typically ignore environmental, dietary, microbial, medical history and lifestyle factors, any or all of which may well affect my true risk for any trait or disease.

• I am aware that I am strongly encouraged to discuss my Promethease report with a doctor, genetic counselor or other health-care provider prior to making any medical or reproductive decisions. I also acknowledge that I am advised to confirm any significant finding discovered in part through the use of Promethease by an independent, clinically validated test for use in connection with the medical trait in question.

• I have read and understand the Privacy Policy and the Legal Terms and Conditions of this website. I agree to these conditions.13

Promethease. A healthy choice for those of us who still want health information. But one that takes some work to understand.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “23andMe suspends health tests,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Dec 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
  2. See ibid., “A health data option,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 13 July 2014.
  3. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Promethease,” rev. 3 Jan 2015.
  4. Promethease,” SNPedia (http://www.snpedia.com/ : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
  5. SNPedia:About,” SNPedia (http://www.snpedia.com/ : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
  6. ISOGG Wiki (http://www.isogg.org/wiki), “Single-nucleotide polymorphism,” rev. 27 Aug 2015.
  7. Judy G. Russell, “2015: Most bang for the DNA buck,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 2 Feb 2015 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
  8. Glossary, Genetics Home Reference, U.S. National Library of Medicine (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/glossary=Glossary : accessed 13 Sep 2015), “genotype.” An allele, if you’re not sure, is “one of two or more versions of a gene. An individual inherits two alleles for each gene, one from each parent.” Ibid., “allele.”
  9. Dr. Barry Starr, “You Can Transform Your Genetic Ancestry Data Into Health Info, But Your Results May Vary,” KQED Science, posted 30 June 2014 (http://blogs.kqed.org/science/ : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
  10. Roberta Estes, “Promethease – Genetic Health Information Alternative,” DNAeXplained, posted 30 December 2013 (http://dna-explained.com/ : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
  11. cdwScience, “My 23andMe Results: Getting a (Free) Second Opinion,” posted 27 February 2011, My Biomedical Informatics Blog (http://cdwscience.blogspot.com/ : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
  12. Antonio Regalado, “How a Wiki Is Keeping Direct-to-Consumer Genetics Alive,” posted 19 October 2014, MIT Technology Review (http://cdwscience.blogspot.com/ : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
  13. Promethease, Promethease.com (https://promethease.com/ : accessed 13 Sep 2015).
Posted in DNA | 9 Comments

The lawyer who wasn’t

There should have been another lawyer in The Legal Genealogist‘s family.

Oh there are, and have been, others over the years.

But there should have been one more.

RaviaThe ability was there.

The desire was there.

Even the opportunity was there: the attorney for whom this family member worked was willing to give this youngster a full ride to get the education needed, whether college or law school, even in the depths of the Great Depression.

But the time period of the Great Depression was a very different time period from today.

And there was one thing this young member of my family lacked in that time and in that place: a father who would understand and support those academic dreams.

Not because the father didn’t understand or value education.

But because he didn’t understand its value for this youngster — his oldest child.

His daughter.

Florence Ravia Gottlieb was the oldest of three children born to Morris and Maude (Cottrell) Gottlieb. Born 23 April 1914 in Cooper, the county seat of Delta County, Texas,1 Ravia can be found first in the records of the 1920 census, living with her parents and siblings in McKinley County, New Mexico.2 She appears next in the 1930 census, living with her family in Bernalillo County, New Mexico.3

In 1930, she graduated from Albuquerque High School4 and worked as a legal secretary for an Albuquerque attorney named John Sims.5 Sims was so impressed by the natural ability of this young woman that he offered her the opportunity to get the education she would have needed to become a lawyer and join him in the practice.6

Ravia’s father Morris was born in Rheinhessen, Germany, in 1883,7 and emigrated to the United States in 1904.8 He came to America at the request of a cousin, another jeweler, who wanted him to work with him in his store in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Morris soon went his own way and met and married Maude Cottrell, my grandfather’s sister, in Fort Worth, Texas, in September 1912.9

Ravia was the first-born child, shown on the left in the image you see above, followed by a son — her brother, Frederick Merledon Gottlieb, in the middle — in 1917,10 and another daughter — her sister, Bobette, on the right — in 1918.11 Morris suffered from tuberculosis and that ailment took the family to New Mexico by 1920. A healthier life, mostly as the owner and operator of trading posts on or near Indian reservations, gave Morris a long life: he lived until 1961, when he died in Albuquerque.12

Morris certainly valued education for his children. But he didn’t see any particular benefit to a higher education for a girl. Not ever, but particularly not then, not during the Great Depression. A steady paycheck and a steady beau were valued much more highly.

So Morris said no to the offer to his daughter. And Ravia dutifully accepted her father’s decision.

She went on to have a good life. In 1937, she married Samuel Ivan Moore in Albuquerque,13 and they raised three children: Richard, Jerrold and Barbara. Ravia too lived a long life: she died at home in Albuquerque, 20 years ago yesterday, on 11 September 1995.14

But to her dying day she had one key regret.

There should have been another lawyer in The Legal Genealogist‘s family.

And, if The Legal Genealogist has so much as a whisper to say about it, no dream of any child in our family will ever again be crushed for no other reason than that the dreamer is a girl.


  1. New Mexico Death Certificate no. 598822, Florence Ravia Moore, 11 Sep 1995; Bureau of Vital Records & Health Statistics, Santa Fe.
  2. 1920 U.S. census, McKinley County, New Mexico, Gallup, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 77, p. 192(A) (stamped), dwelling 46, family 52, Ravia Gottlieb; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 15 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 1074.
  3. 1930 U.S. census, Bernalillo County, New Mexico, Albuquerque, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 6, sheet 20(B) (stamped), dwelling 408, family 438, Ravia Gottlieb; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 9 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 1392.
  4. Interviews with Richard I. Moore and Frederick M. Gottlieb (Albuquerque, NM), by the author, April 2004; notes privately held by author.
  5. See e.g. Hudspeth’s Albuquerque City Directory, 1934 (El Paso, Tex. : Hudspeth Directory Co., 1934), 199; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Sep 2015).
  6. Interviews with Richard I. Moore and Frederick M. Gottlieb (Albuquerque, NM), by the author, April 2004.
  7. New Mexico Death Certificate, Morris Gottlieb, 21 Nov 1961; Division of Vital Statistics, Santa Fe.
  8. Passenger manifest, SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, August 1904, p. 91 (stamped), line 1, Moritz Gottlieb, age 21; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Sep 2015).
  9. Tarrant County, Texas, Marriage Book 28:92, Morris Gottlieb and Maud Cottrell, 1912, marriage license and return; County Clerk’s Office, Fort Worth.
  10. Interview with Frederick M. Gottlieb (Albuquerque, NM), by the author, April 2004. See also “Personals,” Wichita Daily Times, Wichita Falls, Texas, 18 May 1917, p.8.
  11. See U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007, entry for Bobette Gottlieb PhillipsAncestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Sep 2015).
  12. New Mexico Death Certificate, Morris Gottlieb, 21 Nov 1961.
  13. See “Bernalillo County, New Mexico, Marriage Index, 1888-2011”; index, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Sep 2015).
  14. New Mexico Death Certificate no. 598822, Florence Ravia Moore, 11 Sep 1995.
Posted in My family | 24 Comments