My first thought when I saw that obituary handed to Sarah Jessica Parker was that there was no way John S. Hodge could be John Eber Hodge’s dad. John Eber was born in late September 1850; by my calculations, that’s just a bit too late for him to be the son of a miner who died en route to California the year before.
When it comes to genealogy, it’s the juicy stories that really hook me, which is probably why I immediately jumped to speculation and scandal. Never once did it cross my mind that the obituary might be wrong (c’mon, it was in a newspaper – those are always reliable sources, right?).
I should know better. Seriously, how many times have I looked at two census records for the same person, different decades, and found a discrepancy in birth years? I know to chalk it up to bad reporting, get a second opinion, another record that helps me figure out exactly which date is right. But for some reason I never thought that could happen in an obituary.
Natalie Cottrill of ProGenealogists, who provides Sarah Jessica with the obituary and the documents that prove the obituary wrong in Friday night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, summed it up nicely for me. “John’s date of death from his son’s obituary is a good example of why it is important to put more weight on primary source information than on secondary information,” she told me. Primary sources, said Natalie, are recorded close to the time of the event. Ideally the information in a primary source is reported by someone who witnessed the event, who has firsthand knowledge of what occurred. Birth records, draft registration cards, even a passenger list (at least in regard to arrival information) – those are primary sources. Obituaries, on the other hand, summarize a life and are written after the fact by someone other than the deceased. What’s stated in one can provide important clues but may not be perfectly accurate, particularly in regard to an event that occurred six decades earlier.
Lesson learned. From now on I’ll consider the origin of the information I’m looking at before I deem it absolute fact. And I’ll let those wonderfully scandalous stories that I conjure up merely encourage me to dig for better proof so I know that they’re right (or wrong).