Fudging facts

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Alternate dates of birth for our ancestors, perhaps ranging over several years, are common for many of us, and the reasons can vary considerably. A recent example in my own research came in the form of a deliberate change of birth date, with the sole intention to make the subject appear younger than her husband.

As shown in Albert A. Pomeroy’s History and genealogy of the Pomeroy family, Frances Pomeroy was born 22 November 1893, the daughter of Sanford and Mary (Lottimer) Pomeroy. Her father was an American artist living in Paris where Frances herself was born, and Frances never visited the United States until 1900, according to her 1915 passport application. Between 1908 and 1919, I found six separate records confirming her birth in 1893.[1]

Then, in 1920, as summarized in the Pomeroy genealogy, she returns to the United States permanently to get married. From that point on her age “changes” by two years.

I found this new “1895” birth date in twelve records, including her death certificate and gravestone, where her daughter was the informant.[2]

Frances’s husband Charles Warren Lippitt was born 15 May 1894. Frances was only six months older than Charles, but it appears that that was her reasoning to change her date of birth. Instead of both being 26, Charles and Frances were now 26 and 24, and Frances was a “respectable” eighteen months younger than her husband. The only record after 1920 that gives Frances’s correct 1893 birthdate is the above Pomeroy genealogy in 1922 (part 3). However, that date of birth had first appeared in part 2 of the same genealogy, published in 1912, when Frances was still using the 1893 date. Likely the genealogist kept the same date as had been earlier supplied and only updated her sketch with her marriage and how they met in France, and did not “update” her year of birth! Charles and Frances Lippitt divorced in 1937 and Frances still used the later date of birth on the 1940 census; her daughter supplied the same year on her mother’s death certificate and gravestone.

Being six months older than your husband may seem trivial to us, but this appears to have mattered to Frances in 1920! While not every age variation is as clear and deliberate as this one appears to be, it’s nonetheless an example of what could motivate an ancestor to “fudge” facts.

Notes

[1] Passenger lists in 1908 and 1919 provide an age; U.S. passport applications in 1915, 1916, 1918, and 1919 provide an exact date of birth.

[2] 1920 New York City Marriage Certificate; Passenger lists from 1928, 1931, 1933, 1936; U.S. Passport applications from 1924; 1925 and 1935 Rhode Island State Census; 1930 and 1940 U.S. Federal Census; 1936 Social Security Application; Death Certificate and gravestone. As in the earlier passenger lists, only France’s age was given. Frances appears on lists of US. Citizens. Most people on these lists were given their full date of birth and U.S. birthplace. However, Frances (born in France) is only given her age with the notation that she is a U.S. citizen by virtue of being born to U.S. parents, or after 1920, by virtue of her marriage to an American citizen (citizenship rights for women in the U.S. at the time of their marriage in 1920 were dependent on the citizenship of their husbands).

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

25 thoughts on “Fudging facts

  1. My great grandmother, Jane Baldwin (Md Calendar of Wills) cut the page out of the family bible so as not to show that her second husband, Frederic Cotton, was 11 years younger. She didn’t throw the page away just hid it in a desk to be discovered after her death.

  2. All indications in this country are that my great-grandmother was born in 1884 in Italy. It’s on her headstone and in all other documents. It wasn’t until I was able to obtain her Italian birth record that I learned she was actually born in 1881. I’ve always wondered if she did it so the age gap between and her husband was only 3 years instead of 6. He was born in 1887. A 6-year fib would have made her a minor when they married, so that probably wasn’t a good idea.

    1. Be careful though, in Italian families especially around that time there were multiple people of the same name in the family, especially if they died in infancy or youth. My great grandfather Lorenzo Fascella was born in 1887, but proceeded two sibling Lorenzo’s that were born in 1881 in 1883 respectively who died in infancy.

  3. Gee! I’m in trouble. I’m 5 years 5 months OLDER than my hubby. Could care less, he’s a keeper. Isn’t it GREAT how times change 🙂

  4. I’ve run into a similar situation. All my grandfather’s childhood census records say he was born in Iowa — the only one of his siblings not born in Minnesota. this is confirmed by Iowa birth records. But all of his adult records, including military, social security, census and death records, say he was born in Minnesota. I’m assuming he simply didn’t know the truth — and since he lived far away from his parents (he moved to California as a young man) there was no one to contradict his belief…

  5. I have found this often especially when a woman a relatively young widow or divorcee. With each marriage 2, 3, 4 up to 10 years get shaved! ( maiden daughters too!)
    I have also noticed that when some husbands are giving census info for the family often they give wrong ages for the wife and children and will mix up birth order or names.

  6. My 2x great grandmother’s age fluctuated with the age of each husband. At the end, she was 15 years older than her husband but said she was 5 years older. How did she explain her adult son who lived in the same town? Maybe her husband knew her true age or nearly so and she only lied on the marriage license.

  7. A few years ago, I was researching my paternal grandfather’s parents. Family records told that his mother had been born at sea and both her parents died before reaching the United States. She had been adopted but no further information was known. Using her name and family record of date of birth I found nothing in Federal Census records except a child who was ten years older. I then searched the marriage records for the great grandparents and found that in the city record she was listed as six years older than expected; the church record had no age. Confirmation that the Census record pointed to my great grandmother was made with the Yale University records of my grandfather who listed his parents’ parents. Census records for 1900 and 1920 indicate a birth year ca 1860 suggesting that at her first marriage and subsequently she continued to drop her age by approximately 10 years.

  8. I have found this very frequently during my research on the women of my father’s family. By the end of her life one of my aunts was said to be seven years younger than she really was–before she was born only months before the 1900 census, it was easy to pinpoint the year she was born. Her Irish-born mother also shaved sixyears off her age during the course of her life. The younger age was even found on her death certificate. It’s unclear to me whether she had successfully fooled even the members of her own immediate family, or whether her daughter wanted to protect her “image,” even in death!

  9. My great grandmother was 2 years older than my great-grandfather, and he never knew. When she died, her brother wanted the correct birth date on her tombstone. He knew she wasn’t born in 1876 because he was. My great-grandfather’s response was “Stupid old fool doesn’t even know when he was born.” I do have a couple of census records with her correct age.

  10. I have an ancestor who played loose with her birthdate most of her life–the best estimate based on the first 3 census was 1872. After about 30 the year changed from record to record. Her death certificate by her daughter says 1873 (her best guess she told me) When she was 60 she lowered her age about 5 years to be younger than her second husband

  11. My great great grandmother Minnie also aged slowly, losing a few years each census. On her 3rd marriage, she shaved 12 years off her age, but that still left her five years older than this husband. By 1910, she was under-reporting her age by 21 years, which made her only 7 when her son, who was living with them, was born. In 1920, she was 12 years off; in 1930, she was 20 years off. On the death certificate, her daughter reported Minnie’s age as 69, when she was really 77. An occasional discrepancy could be attributed to record-keeping errors, but not this many. I would love to have a picture of her, to see if she could have passed as 20 years younger than her real age!

  12. My grandmother, who emigrated from Ireland with her mother and siblings, appears to have lied about her age and place of birth when she married my grandfather in 1902. She probably wanted to appear older (18) at the time to comply with marriage requirements and to get out of a bad situation. She also stated her place of birth as Boston, rather than Ireland, and name variants abound for her.

    Such discrepancies, while creating their own analytic hairball, ultimately narrowed the age range and forced a preponderance of evidence approach. Interestingly, reconciling all these discrepancies pushed my research into mapping out her FAN (Friends-Associates-Neighbors) network, which has led to specific records.

  13. I recently had to do a genealogy to help a family prove the great grandmothers age for some record. She was born before birth certificates in this state. She never worked outside the family farm and so had no Social Security number or income. They claimed she was 110. I went back through census and proved she was closer to 95. We concluded that since no one really knew, and there were no Bible or civil records, that as she got older the reverence of age, started moving faster than the calendar.

  14. I have found any number of World War I draft registrations where the birthday shows the man as at least one year older than his birth record … I think it was a war that not many wanted to get into – the country as a whole was anxious to stay out of it – and it seems like that may have been the reason for the mis-stated birth years.

  15. I had a relative who shaved one year off her age at marriage to be six months younger than her husband, and used that dob until her late thirties, when another year came off. Family illness meant she needed to work, and she felt, perhaps rightly so at that time, that women 39 or older had difficulty finding employment. But it’s hard to fool Uncle Sam — the SSDI has the correct age.

  16. One of my great aunts, was by far the youngest of eight. I knew her date of birth because I had a copy of the family Bible. When the 1940 census came out, I couldn’t find her, even though I knew where she lived. My problem was I was looking for her using the correct age. Someone who was helping me knew to try with just her name and where she was living that year, leaving her age off. There was only one Twila McGrew in Everett, Washington that year, and she had shaved 7 years off her age! Once I knew that, I looked for the name of her husband, whom she married two years later. There he was, in Everett, younger than she was, but a “respectable” one or two years. Twila had a surprise baby at 45, and refused to ever tell her daughter her age. When the father died young, one of Twila’s sisters took pity on the girl and told her–the age difference didn’t matter to her.

  17. Like everyone I have found many instances of women changing their ages, but I also have the example of a man doing so. My father lied about his age on the marriage record, and also lied to my mother, changing not only the year but the month and day of his birth. Of course the truth came out when his sisters celebrated his birthday on the true date, to my mother’s bewilderment.

  18. I am amazed in researching my extended family at how everyone seems to have lied incessantly about age! The men lied to get into (or out of) the army or a job; the women lied for reasons of vanity—either theirs or their husband’s. My great-grandfather knocked 5 years off his age in order to be an acceptable suitor for my 19-year-old great-grandmother. He stuck by the new date the rest of his life. But the most striking instance was a cousin who shaved a full 12 years off her life, starting in her 30s, in order to marry a man 11 years her junior. They adopted a child when she failed to get pregnant (which might have had something to do with her being close to 50). When her husband died and she was forced to find a job as a housekeeper, her employer thought he was hiring an energetic 66-year-old woman; in fact, she was an energetic 78-year-old. In her last years, she moved in with a niece, who was only 9 years younger than she and who knew exactly when she was born. Her death certificate gives her correct DOB as 1866, but her grave—the headstone of which she had installed when her husband died—shows the date she chose to use throughout her marriage: 1878.

  19. A family diary mentioned 3 elderly sisters, cousins of some sort to the diarist’s mother. I was unable to pin down the relationship, because their birth dates varied wildly from record to record, Abigail C. Bray was born between 1788 & 1815, Elizabeth G. Bray between 1794 & 1817, and Louisa Bray between 1790 & 1824. Even their birth order was not consistent.

  20. I also have an age-changing male — my grandfather, who claimed a flexible older age beginning by his mid-twenties, and finally settled (mostly) for making himself 5 years older. Census records show his birth in 1854, his tombstone shows 1849. The best explanation I’ve come up with is his occupation of oil geologist/mining engineer; in pursuit of “black gold” a birth date recalling the California gold rush may have seemed appropriate. When he married his second wife (my grandmother) she was nineteen and he was in fact only 68, not the 73 he proudly claimed. I recently located their marriage record, and confirmed my great-grandmother was not present with a shotgun (she’d have toted a rifle anyway, with which she was an excellent shot) but rather entirely absent. My mother was always scandalized by their age interval, and 5 years wouldn’t have made Mom any happier.

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