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. Continue reading

If Sherlock Holmes Were a Genealogist (Part 2): Step #1—Observation, Soaking Up the Facts

Step #1—Observation, Soaking Up the FactsBy Barry J. Ewell

Whenever you are faced with any research situation or problem, you must first observe it. To gather the facts, we must first know what we are looking for. No matter what kind of investigation you are beginning, there are only two ways to obtain data. The first is by verbally interviewing people (taking the history). The second is by carefully scrutinizing objects (the physical examination).

Principle 1 of Observation: Genealogy observation requires the “eyes of a hawk.”
Think of one of those intense, icy glares from Sherlock Holmes as he pans a room, taking in every detail.

“You see, but you do not observe,” he said in A Scandal in Bohemia.

In The Five Orange Pips, Holmes said, “The observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able accurately to state all the other ones, both before and after.” Continue reading

If Sherlock Holmes Were a Genealogist (Part 3): Step #2—Search, Getting to the Nitty-Gritty

Search, Getting to the Nitty-GrittyBy Barry J. Ewell

When he was on a case, Sherlock Holmes was like a bloodhound. He’d be down on his knees peering at cracks in the floorboards and then bounding through windows, over chairs, and up to the ceiling. You can picture him now with magnifying glass in hand, eyes sharply focused for clues.

“He was out on the lawn, in through the window, round the room, and up into the bedroom, for all the world like a dashing foxhound drawing a cover” (Sherlock Holmes from The Devil’s Foot).

This is the nitty-gritty, down-in-the-dirt aspect of problem solving. Don’t be afraid of the minutiae. The solution lies in the details. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

If Sherlock Holmes Were a Genealogist (Part 5): Step #4—Imagination, The Workshop of the Mind

 Step #4—Imagination, The Workshop of the MindBy Barry J. Ewell

Sherlock Holmes often sought seclusion to help him solve a problem; he would remove himself from all disturbances so that he could use his imagination to freely explore the problem from all angles.

As with Einstein, Holmes would take up the fiddle to help himself relax. While one part of his mind would be occupied with playing the violin, the greater part of his mind was able to roam free and form new ideas.
Continue reading