If Sherlock Holmes Were a Genealogist (Part 4): Step #3—Analysis, Sorting through the Jigsaw Pieces

Step #3—Analysis, Sorting through the Jigsaw PiecesBy Barry J. Ewell

The brilliance of Sherlock Holmes often came in the analysis of putting the jigsaw puzzle of clues and facts together to solve the mystery.

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (Sherlock Holmes from The Adventure of The Blanched Soldier)

Think of a jigsaw puzzle. When you have all the pieces and they are all right-side up, you can then start to analyze where they go and how they fit together. The more pieces you have, the easier it will be to infer what the big picture will be. So the more angles you have observed a problem from and the more facts you have gathered about it, the more likely you are to be able to see the final solution. Let’s take a look at how one might approach putting together a real jigsaw puzzle:

  1. Take all pieces out of the box.
  2. Using both hands, turn pieces face-up on the table and spread them out as you go.
  3. Arrange the lid of the box so that you can see the picture.
  4. Separate the edge and corner pieces and put the border together using the box lid picture as a guideline.
  5. Find the edges and identify the four corners.
  6. Hold each edge piece up to the picture to determine whether it’s a north, south, east or west edge, then place them toward the like edge of your table in a line with the edges to the outside.
  7. Divide the remaining pieces and organize them in groups such as colors, patterns, textures, and shapes.
  8. Start placing similar pieces together until they fit and begin to form small parts of the larger picture.
  9. Connect clusters together once you can, and keep looking at the box lid picture to find the locations of the groups of pieces.
  10. Finish the puzzle, connecting all pieces together, and decide whether to glue the puzzle or take it apart and start another.
  11. Important lessons when putting together a jigsaw puzzle:
  • Use a table that you can keep a puzzle on for a few days or longer.
  • Keep checking the box lid to remember what the overall picture looks like and to figure out where a certain piece might go.
  • Avoid getting frustrated. Puzzles are supposed to be challenging but not overly frustrating. If you do get frustrated, walk away and come back later to try again.

How is this like genealogy? You take the pieces of the jigsaw— the facts—and you begin to think about how they fit together, how they relate to one another, how one links to the other, and what affect that has on the overall picture.

“Each fact is suggestive in itself. Together they have a cumulative force” (Sherlock Holmes from The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans).

Principle 1 of Analysis: Study the merits of any information you receive.
To study the merits of your information, sort your information into the following categories:

  • Actual Truth (proof is certain)
  • Probable Truth (proof is probable, but not absolutely certain)
  • Supposed Evidence (you suspect this is true, but you can’t be sure). Give reasons why you suspect it to be true.
  • Absolutely Ridiculous (utter nonsense, but it can’t be ignored)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important” (Sherlock Holmes from A Case of Identity).

“One drawback of an active mind is that one can always conceive alternate explanations which would make our scent a false one” (Sherlock Holmes from The Problem of Thor Bridge).

Use the five Ws. The “five Ws” method of analyzing can be applied to every document and source that you acquire.

  • Who? Before you start your search define the “who.” Was the surname spelled differently during different times? Was the spelling changed at the time of immigration?
  • What? What do you want to know?
  • Where? This is probably the most important fact, after “who.” If you don’t know the “where,” you’re not going to find anything!
  • When? Give a time frame or time period so you know where to search for records.
  • Why? Find the reasons behind the facts. Why did your ancestor immigrate from Germany to the United States? Why did they move from Illinois to Wyoming? Why are there so many German (or Irish, or Italian, and so on) people in the area? Why did grandma have her first child at fifteen and grandpa was thirty-two? Was he married before?
  • How? Determine how you will go about your research. How do you answer all these questions? How will you find the records you need?

Principle 2 of Analysis: Compare all the evidence.
It’s relatively easy to compare data. Get your data together, arrange it in usable form (chronological or group), and then compare and contrast the information. If there are differences, note them until you can prove the differences one way or another. I prefer to keep all of it and make the appropriate notes, such as “This is family tradition, but it was disproved by (source).”

“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different” (Sherlock Holmes from The Boscombe Valley Mystery).

Research that you have previously completed may contain more clues than you might think. When we are new and starting our research, we grab anything and everything we can find—and then never look at it again. Many of the answers we are looking for now may be in those records and notes. You could find useful materials that you previously missed.

When looking at the documents you so painstakingly acquired, just remember to use them, reuse them, and then use them again.

Principle 3 of Analysis: Check for warning signs.
Your research should be critically analyzed for accuracy and completeness at each phase of your search. As you analyze your records and research, be aware of the warning signs that may denote that your information is off the mark.

“My dear Watson, you as a medical man are continually gaining light as to the tendencies of a child by the study of the parents. Don’t you see that the converse is equally valid? I have frequently gained my first real insight into the character of parents by studying their children” (Sherlock Holmes from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches).

For example, let’s consider the common warning signs we see in pedigree charts and family group sheets:

  • Do you have blank lines?
  • Is there incomplete information on the children?
  • Is circa (CA) or “about” used too often?
  • Are dates too close together or too far apart to be correct?
  • Check for historical impossibilities. If a child was born in 1860, there is no way he would have served in the Civil War. On the other hand, look for historical possibilities. What war could he have served in? Was there a massive migration? Check the timelines to see what was happening in the world, state, or county at the time this ancestor was alive.
  • Do you have wrong locations or missing locations? Is a county or town listed, or just the state?
  • Is there any other missing information? Marriages of children? Second marriages?
  • Each line on that form serves a purpose. Make sure all of them (or as many as possible) are filled in.

Principle 4 of Analysis: Draw your conclusions.
Once you have done the above, you are ready to make a decision. This means you have found solid, indisputable proof that will extend your pedigree. These indisputable facts are your “for sure” group. Then there are the “maybes;” you need to work on these more, but perhaps they will prove to be true. And finally, there is the “might be” category. You keep these and review them from time to time because they may fit in when you get additional information.

“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.” (Sherlock Holmes from The Reigate)


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