If Sherlock Holmes Were a Genealogist (Part 1)

By Barry J. Ewell

I have always been a fan of detective stories. My father was a detective for the Las Vegas police department during the 1960s. In his later years, I enjoyed listening to his stories of how he was able to crack the case after careful research and analysis.

As I read and listened to the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Conan Doyle, I noticed that Sherlock used the same strategies as my father.

I thought it would be fun to create a personal research project where I would use Sherlock Holmes as model. What would Sherlock Holmes do if he were a genealogist? My intent was to see if I could uncover and understand the principles and then apply them to my own genealogy research practices. The results of my project dramatically changed my approach to genealogy research. I’d like to share with you what I found.

Sherlock Holmes Understood Analysis
Analysis is a systematic approach to problem solving. Complex problems are made simpler by separating them into more understandable elements. Sherlock Holmes plainly identified analysis when he said, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever you have left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

Some analysis is simply common sense. For example: You find a family record that identifies a mother to be younger than her off¬spring. Obviously, this cannot be true.

Other situations are cause for careful research and analysis. For example, I have an ancestor named Permitt Lee in the 1780s from Virginia. I was hoping he was related to General Robert Lee. However, there appears to be at least four Lee families in or passing through Virginia at this time. We are taking each family line one by one and seeking to “eliminate the impossible” so we can focus on the possible.

Throughout the many Sherlock Holmes stories, there are four main steps followed for solving mysteries:

  1. Observation—soaking up the facts
  2. Search—getting to the nitty-gritty
  3. Analysis—sorting through the jigsaw pieces
  4. Imagination—the workshop of the mind

These steps will be discussed in further detail in parts 2-5 of the this series.

Much like Sherlock Holmes’s approach to his cases, genealogical research methods involve beginning with a general concept and moving toward a more specific conclusion. This is also referred to as deductive reasoning. This is a process of reaching a conclusion that is guaranteed to follow if the evidence provided is true and the reasoning used to reach the conclusion is correct and logically sound.

Deductive reasoning involves using a foundation of known information and analyzing it in such a way as to make valid, objective, educated arguments for a family ancestral connection. Making such a case requires multiple pieces of information, oftentimes with supplementary resources, that logically tie personal circumstances together and consider facts that would otherwise exclude or negate the relationships in question from being established.

Deductive research is not a guessing game, a stab in the dark, or a linkage of names simply because you have found someone else with a family tree with the same surnames as yours.

As a beginning genealogist, I found my review of the facts to be either uniformed or analytically complex, trying to join too many pieces of the puzzle that didn’t belong together. The following story will illustrate what I mean.

Deductive Reasoning, Dr. Watson Style!
Taking a well-earned break from the detective business, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, in A Study in Scarlet, were on a camping and hiking trip. They had gone to bed and were lying there, looking up at the sky.

Holmes said, “Watson, look up. What do you see?” Watson replied, “Well, I see thousands of stars.” “And what does that mean to you?”

“Well, I suppose it means that of all the planets and suns and moons in the universe, that we are truly the one most blessed with the reason to deduce theorems to make our way in this world of criminal enterprises and blind greed. It means that we are truly small in the eyes of God but struggle each day to be worthy of the senses and spirit we have been blessed with. And, I suppose, at the very least, in the meteorological sense, it means that it is most likely that we will have another nice day tomorrow. What does it mean to you, Holmes?”

Holmes replied, “To me, it means someone has stolen our tent.”

Your research and deduction don’t need to lead to a groundbreaking, intricate discovery; sometimes the simplest solution is exactly what you’re looking for.

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