Evaluating Court Testimonies as Genealogical Evidence

The Genealogical Proof Standard includes “(a) a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event, or situation in question[.]”[1] Court records are generally considered “reliable sources,” but what of the testimonies recorded in court cases, particularly when they conflict? Is it possible to properly evaluate their reliability?

On 10 May 1872, 78-year-old Andrew Williams recorded his will in Long Island City, Queens County, New York, where he lived and owned property in the neighborhood of Astoria. Among others, his will named “daughter” Ellen Butler, “son” Jeremiah Williams, and “grandson” Andrew Elias Williams, the latter of whom was named executor.[2] Andrew [Sr.] died 21 March 1878 on East 85th Street in New York City almost six years later.[3]

About a week after his father’s death, Jeremiah Williams went to the New York County Surrogate’s Court to apply for letters of administration for his “intestate” father’s estate, saying that he was his father’s sole surviving heir. After receiving those letters, he attempted to withdraw $1,800 from one of his father’s bank accounts, only to discover that it had been vested in the name of Andrew Elias Williams, Jeremiah’s nephew and Andrew [Sr.]’s grandson and executor. Accordingly, the bank refused his request for the withdrawal.

Another week later, Jeremiah returned to the New York County Surrogate’s Court (but to a different court administrator), this time alleging that Andrew E. Williams was his cousin, had died in San Francisco, and that he was his cousin’s sole surviving heir. He applied for letters of administration and received them a week later. With those letters, he went to two banks and withdrew all of the cash in his father’s estate, totaling $3,100.

Those letters of administration were challenged shortly thereafter. In the first instance, Andrew did not die intestate, and Jeremiah was not the sole surviving heir. In the second instance, Andrew E. Willliams was his nephew; not his cousin. He was also not dead. The fraud was soon discovered, the letters revoked, and perjury complaints filed, but the cash had already been taken. The results are a 55-page District Attorney file, including 28 pages of testimony devoted to examining who was related to whom among the Williamses, a middle-class African American family of 19th-century New York City and Long Island City.[4]

Unsurprisingly, testimonies from Jeremiah, Ellen, Andrew Elias, and six of their former neighbors and associates were rife with conflicting evidence, the core of which concerned whether or not Ellen was truly Andrew’s daughter. Jeremiah maintained that he was Andrew’s only son and only next of kin. He declared that Ellen was his mother’s child by another man named Titus Orchard, two years prior to his parents’ marriage. He also maintained that his father had left no will—even when faced with a copy of it.

Ellen (now Ellen Phillips after a recent second marriage) testified that she was in fact Andrew’s daughter and had always been called so. She had never heard anyone say that she had been born before her parents’ marriage or anything to that effect; never been called “step-daughter.” Jeremiah had always called her “sister” until recently. Ellen’s son (and Andrew’s executor), Andrew Elias Williams, added that he had always been called grandson and son in the family.

Former neighbors called to the stand testified that they had once heard Andrew say that Ellen was not his daughter during a heated family argument. Other unrelated witnesses said they never heard any such claim.

After two days of conflicting testimony, the jury wasted little time in finding that Jeremiah “falsely, knowingly, wickedly, wilfully, maliciously, and corruptly did commit wilful and corrupt perjury.” He was sentenced to five years at State Prison [Sing Sing].

In terms of Ellen’s and Elias’s identities as daughter and grandson of Andrew Williams, the perjury conviction certainly gives more weight to the reliability of their claims and less weight to the reliability of Jeremiah’s denial. This assessment is corroborated by the fact that all witnesses agreed that the Williamses had always lived as a family. Additional and very strong corroborating evidence is Andrew’s 1872 will in which he explicitly calls them “daughter” and “grandson” without qualifiers such as “step” or “adopted.”[5]

Given the combined evidence discovered so far, Ellen and Elias are reliably identified as daughter and grandson of Andrew. It is possible, however, that ongoing research into Titus Orchard, the man that Jeremiah claimed was Ellen’s father, may reveal new evidence that changes the reliability of that conclusion.

But what of the many details given throughout the testimonies: birth dates and places, marriages, death dates, residences, occupations, military service, names of aunts and uncles and whether deceased or alive? Each statement made by each person needs to be evaluated separately.

During the trial on 17 and 18 October 1878, for example, Ellen testified under oath that she was 52 [born about 1826]. However, in an affidavit she signed about the same matter three months earlier on 5 July 1878, she said that she was 50 and would be 51 in December [born December 1827]. Furthermore, at her second marriage—on the same day she signed the affidavit—she said she was 47 [born about 1831].[6] Over the course of three months, she reported three different ages that spanned five years. So Ellen’s testimony in court is not as reliable as we may have originally thought.

In another example, both Ellen and Jeremiah made similar or identical statements:

  • Their mother and Andrew’s wife, Betsey, died in 1865 (Ellen) or 1866 (Jeremiah).
  • Andrew was 97 when he died 21 March 1878.

Their occasional agreement, however, doesn’t translate to greater accuracy. In the first instance, Betsey was buried 15 August 1867 in the family plot at St. Michael’s Cemetery, Queens.[7] It was surely a small and honest mistake on the parts of both Ellen and Jeremiah, but their testimonies were in error nonetheless. With no other known death records located to further corroborate, the interment record alone is more reliable than their inconsistent memories.

Andrew’s reported age of 97 at his 1878 death [born about 1781] is a more significant departure from the likely truth. In his 1872 will, Andrew himself stated that he was 78 [born about 1794].[8] Various censuses reported him to be somewhat younger, having been born anywhere from 1795 to 1803: 50 [born about 1800] in the 1850 federal census,[9] 55 [born about 1800] in the 1855 state census,[10] 57 [born about 1803] in the 1860 federal census,[11] and 75 [born about 1795] in the 1870 federal census.[12] While censuses are known to often contain inaccuracies, particularly for African Americans of the period, the preponderance of evidence suggests he was likely born between 1794 and 1800, not about 1781.

In the end, testimony presented in a court case should be treated just as any other evidence: as data to be assembled and collated with other evidence. Only then can each piece of data—and the conclusions based on them—be properly evaluated for reliability. Falsehoods and inaccuracies in this context are generally minimized if not completely eliminated.


[1] Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, (Nashville, TN: Ancestry, 2014), 1–2.

[2] Andrew Williams will, 10 May 1872, Record of Wills, Surrogate’s Court, New York County, 259: 146–147; image at FamilySearch in New York Probate Records, 1629–1971 (https://www. familysearch.org/collection/1920234 : 20 November 2017), New York [County], Wills 1878–1879, vol 259–260 (FHL #876,067).

[3] Andrew Williams death certificate #287,309, 21 March 1878, New York City, Department of Health, New York City Municipal Archives.

[4] The People vs. Jeremiah Williams, two indictments for perjury, 7 August 1878, District Attorney Indictment Papers, 1790–1887, box 1010, 7 August folder 3 of 4, New York City Municipal Archives. Unless otherwise cited, all data relayed in this article is from these unpaginated papers.

[5] Andrew Williams will (note 2).

[6] Phillips-Butler marriage certificate #3,737, 5 July 1878, New York City, Department of Health, New York City Municipal Archives.

[7] Interment records, section E, lot 35, St. Michael’s Cemetery, 72-02 Astoria Boulevard, East Elmhurst, NY 11370. Data received by email dated 17 February 2017, from Rita Gambino (rita@stmichaelscemetery.com), Office Manager of the cemetery, to Aaron Goodwin.

[8] Andrew Williams will (note 2).

[9] Andrew Williams household, 1850 U.S. Federal Census, 19th Ward, New York City, New York County, page 391[B], stamped 198[B], dwelling #1684, family #2612, lines 13–17, (NARA M432, roll 559).

[10] Andrew Williams household, 1855 New York State Census, Third Election District, 22nd Ward, New York City, New York County, [unpaginated], dwelling #428, family #550, lines 27–32, New York State Archives.

[11] And [sic] Williams household, 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Astoria Post Office, Newtown, Queens County, page 175, dwelling #1048, family #1125, lines 1–9, (NARA M653, roll 843).

[12] Andrew Williams household, 1870 U.S. Federal Census, Astoria Post Office, “Astoria in Newtown,” Queens County, page 16, dwelling #91, family #127, lines 15–23, (NARA M593, roll 1080).

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