Monday, May 7, 2018

Wherefore Art Thou Thomas?



This is an article about the problems of doing research, and how sometimes it is necessary to make a judgment on conflicting information from historical sources. The subject is the birth date of Thomas Russell, the older brother of CTR, who is pictured with him in that memorable picture in the Watch Tower but then edited out in the reprint volume.

As to why this matters, it can help us narrow down when Joseph Lytle Russell and Ann Eliza Birney were married, since no certificate or register entry has as yet surfaced. We know that Ann Eliza was still single in March 1849, or at least there is a reference to a Miss A E Birney in the Pittsburgh Daily Post for Wednesday, April 4, 1849.

Knowing when Thomas was born, we can make assumptions about when he was conceived, which – assuming he was conceived within wedlock – would narrow down the date of the marriage quite specifically.

So when was Thomas born? We have three conflicting dates, January, March and May in 1850. Let’s look at the “evidence” for each.

If you examine information on the Ancestry website, you will find Thomas’ birth date given as March 1850. But as often happens with such sites, there is no reference given for the information.  Everyone seems to be copying everyone else on a circular journey with no original source material provided. I suspect that the March date comes from the 1850 census return for Pittsburgh. The entry for the Russell family, father, mother and one son, is reproduced below.


The rules for the 1850 census were that entries should reflect information as it existed on June 1st that year. So we have Joseph L Russell, aged 32, merchant from Ireland, Ann E Russell, aged 26, from Ireland, and then T Russell (Thomas) from Pennsylvania, who might appear on first sight to be 3/12. Reading that as three months old would have him born around March of that year.

The problem arises with the crabby handwriting of the era, using scratchy pen and ink. Numerous enumerators’ hands are found in these census returns, with varying degree of legibility. So let’s zoom in on that entry for Thomas.




Unless my eyes are deceiving me, that entry for Thomas is not 3/12 at all, but rather 5/12. There is no reason why the Russells should give false information, and assuming the enumerator did not make a mistake, then we now have Thomas’ birth pushed back to January, or even the very end of December.

But then we have another source of information, which could be viewed as a potential primary source that gives us yet another month, this time May 1850. This is the burial details for the Russell family plot on file at the Allegheny Cemetery.

This has been reproduced before on this blog in articles about the cemetery and the Russell interments, but it is shown here again.


You will notice on the right that it states very clearly that Thomas Russell died on 11 August 1855, aged 5 years and 3 months – which would give a birth date of May 1850.


The problem is that this is not actually a primary source at all! The document was put together to show how many people were buried in this family plot and where the graves were. This was useful since not all had grave markers and some of those that existed had been worn by time. The plot was sold for ten graves, but in the event there were only nine burials.

The plan shows that the plot was purchased by James Russell, older brother of Joseph Lytle. A little over a year after James made the purchase, his wife Sarah was buried there, and James followed not that long after. The record has the burial of Sarah in one style of handwriting. But then a later hand has added another seven names, not in order of interment, but rather in order of the rows of graves. This handwriting includes Joseph Lytle who was buried at the end of 1897. This is approaching fifty years after Thomas was born. But whoever wrote out these seven names, omitted Thomas whose grave started the bottom row from the right.  So yet another later hand wrote in the number 9, but then instead of adding to the existing list, wrote elsewhere on the document that Thomas died 11 August 1855, aged 5 years and 3 months.

When was this done? Obviously after 1897. How much longer after 1897? We don’t know, but decades after Thomas lived and died.

So where did the information about 5 years and 3 months come from? The writer on this grave plan copied the information out from somewhere. But why the discrepancy with the census returns from all those years before? Joseph and Eliza would know when Thomas was born and how old he was when he died.

I have a theory, and it goes back to the confusion with the census returns. As the numbers three and five could look similar on cursory examination, so could a three and an eight be confused, considering the handwriting of the day and the fact that scratchy entries made in ink may fade in places over time. On that basis maybe the final hand on the grave plan document just made a mistake. Maybe Thomas died aged 5 years and 8 months (rather than 3 months). If he did, then he ­would have been born in the January, which now would tally perfectly with the 1850 census return.

Of course, I could be wrong…


3 comments:

JimSpace said...

This is a very interesting and well-written post, and I really appreciate the inclusion of pictures that illuminates the difficulties in piecing this puzzle together.

Anonymous said...

So do I. Very diligent research, well done!
says German Girl, curious as always.

Chris G. said...

very interesting and thanks for the research!
Thank you!