This weekend’s research brought to light that many of our ancestors lied or committed “age fabrication” when filling out documents, especially on marriage certificates or military enlistment papers. And it wasn’t the simple or honest mistakes we often find on census forms when census takers write down or hear the wrong year, or even the ancestor’s lack of knowledge of his or her own true age.
It was outright falsehoods… well, at least from my people.
Now, I realize people have lied or misrepresented their age for centuries. They either claim they are older than they truly are, perhaps making them old enough to participate in a particular event, such as a marriage or participation in military service. Or they shave a few years off of their lives, hoping to fit in the environment they’re trying to be a part of. Maybe an older widow is marrying a younger man and doesn’t want people to know she is older. Or an older gentleman lists his age years younger than he actually is when wooing the hand of a much younger female while trying to impress his suitability to her father.
The marriage certificate of my great aunt Rebecca Mae Breeden reflects her age as 19 when she married Oris Edward Rudisell on Oct. 25, 1930 in Cambridge City, Wayne, Indiana, listing her birthday as March 13, 1911. But, in all actuality, Rebecca was just 15 years old when she married her 21 year-old groom – her true birthday being March 13, 1914.
My great grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Winters stated on her marriage certificate to my great grandfather Thaddeus Clifford Guard, that she was 18 when they married on May 16, 1907 in Cleves, Hamilton, Ohio. Her real birthdate of June 3, 1890 proves she was only 16 at the time of her marriage.
Both of these family members lied so they could get married without having to wait several years to come of age. Pretty harmless I imagine, although, I’m not sure what their parents thought about the life-changing fibs.
And these are just a couple of my inventive ancestors.
But, I also learned this weekend that sometimes people lie about their age to reinvent themselves. I was helping a fellow researcher track down her wayward grandfather, who apparently abandoned his family just a few years and a couple of children after his 1921 marriage to her 19 year-old grandmother in Canada. Her mother is now 94 and would like to know what happened to her father or at least, where he is buried before she dies.
Unfortunately, a quick search revealed that her father, most likely, abandoned a previous family in the United Kingdom and then perhaps, did the same thing to her family. His marriage certificate to his Canadian wife reported that he was a 41 year-old engineer, had been born in Montreal and had never been married. But a Canadian passenger list has him entering Canada as a married 41 year-old engineer, arriving in Toronto in 1911 from Bristol, England. It also says he was born in Ireland and not Montreal. She’s positive this is the same man, and I believe so as well, given his name and occupation, but the trail is cold after the marriage. The wife and children are living with the wife’s parents and the husband has vanished.
I wonder if the young wife ever learned that her husband was in fact, a married 50 year-old Irishman? Did he head back to England or Ireland to be with his other family, or did he move on and start another one?
Why would someone claim to be 10 years younger than they really were? Did our ancestors believe even back then, that people were treated better or worse due to their age? Did they purposely change their age, their status, their residency to knowingly abscond from their obligations? Did they really not know how old they really were? Were they just really poor record keepers?
It was all of the above and more.
Misrepresentation is definitely not a 21st century phenomenon and it will not end with the next century. People do what they feel they need to do to reach whatever point in life they feel they need to be at. Even if it means flubbing a few numbers.