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April Fooled: Three Hoaxes That Make Jokes out of Genealogical Research

Most genealogists know to keep walking by those mall kiosks selling "your surname history" or "your family coat of arms". But are you aware of past frauds and hoaxes that may be affecting your research today?


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Most genealogists know to keep walking by those mall kiosks selling "your surname history" or "your family coat of arms." But unscrupulous characters trying to make a buck with slipshod research were just as common back in our ancestors' days - and with most people unable or unwilling to verify a fraudster's work, some of these fake family histories may have been unknowingly passed down to wreak havoc on the accuracy of your own family tree. Here are three hoaxes that hopefully don't turn up in your research.

Gustave Anjou and the Family Histories Too Good To Be True

Gustave Anjou (1863-1942) wrote a number of expensive and fake family histories in the early 20th century. Robert Charles Anderson's 1991 article "We Wuz Robbed!" in the Genealogical Journal of the Utah Genealogical Association, lists four warning signs that a family history may in fact be an Anjou work of fiction.

1. An intricate map of connections between many New England immigrants.

2. Unusual geographical leaps.

3. Many proper citations of documents which do in fact exist.

4. Invented documents which form the research basis of the well-connected New England immigrants. Anjou would create churches and then forge the appropriate records, especially to graft his client's lineage on to a famous or noble family tree.

Family histories on the FREEMAN, BLAISDELL and SHAPLEIGH families were actually printed, although many more Anjou genealogies were and are in circulation. The website America's First Families has a list of Anjou surname histories, some of which made their way to the Family History Library.

Writing on the AFF website, Ryan Jackson explains that hoax pedigrees like the ones Anjou created are one reason that most genealogical or pedigree societies don't accept listings from family histories as sources. "A family history is not a source," writes Jackson. "Only the sources given to prove a statement should be quoted as the source."

Franklin W. Horn and "The Horn Papers"

In 1932, a carpenter from Topeka, Kansas, was making big waves in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. He had a collection of historical papers, never seen before, "which seemed likely to revise and complete nearly the entire history of this area," reported the Pittsburgh Press in 1947. FW Horn had maps, court dockets and diaries dating, he said, from the 1700s.

"The Horn Papers" were so valuable that Horn became a popular lecturer, wrote newspaper articles based on the diaries and gave historical tours. Unfortunately, once the Greene County Historical Society sunk $20,000 and nine years into publishing three volumes of the Horn Papers, Franklin got caught.

A 1947 investigation by the Institute of Early American History and Culture found that much of Horn's original documents from the 1700s were written using pens and inks not available during that time, as well as being sprinkled with phrases (such as "race hatred") not used in the 18th century. The committee's report deemed the first two volumes of The Horn Papers "unreliable" and not for use by historians or genealogists. The third volume, which consisted of maps from the Pennsylvania Land Office, had nothing to do with Horn's documents and was suitable for research.

Col. Jacob Baker and the Philly Fortune

"Quite recently an ad appeared in a number of papers through the country," wrote The New York Times in 1878, "asking for information of the heirs of Col. Jacob Baker, a Revolutionary soldier, who died intestate at the residence of his brother, in Canada, in the year 1801."

Col. Baker, "an odd, eccentric character", according to the 19th century New York Times article, had forgotten to tell his family that he owned almost 1,500 acres of downtown Philadelphia, had leased it to the U. S. government, and now had a gigantic fortune waiting for his heirs.

The chase for Col. Baker's Philly fortune, which of course did not really exist, would last from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Proving a genealogical collection to Col. Baker, obtaining documents, initiation fees and "legal fees" were all ways different Baker inheritance associations made money during that time. Despite occasional debunkings, the story refused to die.

In the 1878 NYT article, a Benjamin Baker of Brookville receives money from 57 Baker relatives to investigate their claim to the fortune. A 1916 Toronto World article (remember that Col. Baker had Canadian relatives!), reports that the president and secretary of the local "Jacob Baker's Heirs Association" are charged with fraud, but still enjoy the support of their association members, who "expressed indignation and protested against the proceedings."

By 1937, however, the fraud was on its last legs, as the government began convicting different groups of mail fraud or conspiracy, including four people in Pittsburgh. "In its case," wrote the Pittsburgh Press, "the Government has proven that every strip of land in Philadelphia mentioned by the "heirs" has a clear title dating back to the days of William Penn."

Another jury read a letter from a Philadelphia National Bank cashier informing a Baker association that, "There is no such thing as the Baker estate, nor does this bank or any other bank in Philadelphia have any such funds."

Except for the loss of money and fake genealogical connections to a Revolutionary War colonel, the Baker estate swindle has actually been good for Baker family genealogy, argues Crystal Jensen, who maintains a website on the scam. "I do think we can be grateful to these "con artists" to a certain degree," writes Jensen. "The history of many Baker family groups were charted (some legitimately) instead of being lost."

Jensen warns that occasionally someone new to genealogy will come across Baker association paperwork in the attic and start the chase all over again. Having discovered 300 years of genealogical information thanks to a relative's attempt to build a case for the inheritance, Jensen calls the real genealogical work performed by ancestors hoping for some Philly fortune "the only riches the hoax left". Anyone expecting more than that, unfortunately, is just an April Fool.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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