When I heard about the death of actor Mickey Rooney, I did what many genealogists do when a famous person of that era passes away: I looked for him in the 1940 census. It turns out that his entry tells us not only about him, but also an important lesson about the not-so-famous people in our own family trees.
Names Can (and Do) Change
Armed with information from several short biographies that were published when he died, I looked for a Mickey Rooney in California, who was born around 1920 in New York. None of the results seemed to fit the bill.
Maybe he was enumerated using his birth name, which was given in various news accounts as either Joseph Yule, Jr. or Ninian Joseph Yule, Jr. Again, nothing seemed to fit using those names.
There are a number of ways to spell Yule, including Ewell. What if the name was horribly misspelled or under a variation that I hadn’t thought about? I tried searching for him without a surname. I searched for first name Mickey, born in 1920 (+/- 2 years), living in California, with a mother named Nell (who was listed in many of the news accounts).
Bingo! The surname Rooney had been crossed out on the record and he was enumerated as Mickey McGuire. His occupation was “screen artist” in “motion pictures.” (Also living the household was Richard Paxten, whose relationship was “stand-in Mickey Rooney.”)
Upon further digging, it appears that Mickey Rooney’s mother wanted him to change his name legally to “Mickey McGuire” as part of a lawsuit involving copyright and royalties in a string of movies he did based on the comic strip character Mickey McGuire.
What We Can Learn
We expect that a famous person might use a name that’s different than the one he or she was given at birth. But name changes are something that we need to keep in mind with “regular” people, too.
Some name changes were done legally. Massachusetts Name Changes, 1780-1892 lists nearly 40,000 records of name changes handled by courts in Massachusetts. Divorce records sometimes decree that the woman (and occasionally her children) may use her maiden name again.
For all of the legal name changes, there are countless more that were done on a more informal manner. Step-children can be listed with their step-father’s surname instead of their own. People can go by their middle name or a nickname instead of their “real” first name. Women sometimes use their maiden name or the name from a previous marriage when she divorces or becomes a widow.
The Take Away
Even if “Rooney” hadn’t been part of his census entry, we could still identify this record as being Mickey Rooney in 1940 based on his age, birth place, residence, occupation, and his mother’s name. If you’re not finding your person, think about what other names he or she might have been using. Also think about other identifying facts (birth date, birth place, etc.) and who else that person is associated with.