Genealogical Fraud

We see errors everyday in the course of our research. They may be mistakes included in a family tree posted to Ancestry or FamilySearch by well-meaning but misinformed researchers. They may be honest mistakes in published transcriptions. They may even be occasional mistakes in our most esteemed journals; ergo the existence of a (generally) annual section of most journals called “Additions and Corrections.” But fraud, the intent to deceive for financial or personal gain, is another matter. And it does exist in genealogy.

Perhaps the most notorious genealogical fraudster was Gustave Anjou (or, at least, that’s what he called himself). Born in Stockholm in 1863, he immigrated to New York City in 1890 and set up business as a professional genealogist. From then until his death on Staten Island in 1942, he was employed by a huge number of East Coast families of wealth who were eager to establish connections to European royalty. Anjou was happy to oblige and invented connections where there were none. To bolster the appearance of historical accuracy he even produced fake documents to back up his reported research.

In the decades immediately following his death, diligent genealogists began to put the pieces together. Finally in 1991, the Genealogical Journal, a now defunct journal then produced by the Utah Genealogical Association, published two companion articles about the matter. Robert Charles Anderson’s “We Wuz Robbed: The Modus Operandi of Gustave Anjou”[1] covered the depth and breadth of the fraud, while Gordon L. Remington’s “Gustave We Hardly Knew Ye: A Portrait of Herr Anjou as a Jungberg”[2] revealed Anjou’s actual identity by identifying his parents: Carl Gustaf Jungberg and Maria Lovisa Hagberg.

But Anjou wasn’t alone. Also in 1991, NGSQ editor Elizabeth Shown Mills and co-editor Gary B. Mills relayed their own personal experience with fraud in their “Editors’ Corner” when writing about the importance of verifiable documentation.

This is a lesson your editors learned the hard way, as hobbyists. Aged twenty-five, with milk and shoes to buy for babies, we saved pennies and begged more from Mom, Dad, aunts, and uncles, to hire a genealogical writer who claimed to have traced our lines already. When his work arrived, no evidence was cited—but he was a “well-known author.” Who were we to doubt him? Several expensive years later, we discovered why he disdained documentation: he had manufactured ancestors for us. As he later explained, he “liked to make people happy, and people don’t like dead ends or dull forebears.” This man’s writings are still very much alive on library shelves, as well as on genealogy’s “swap-out circuit.” Over the past two decades, we have commiserated with hundreds of other hobbyists who have spent their own expensive years trying to climb the mythical trees this man painted for them, sans references.[3]

Thankfully, more and more such fraud has been identified in subsequent publications. In my research of Tobias Bickel of 18th-century Pennsylvania, I saw that many earlier researchers had assumed that all records for Tobias Bickel of the Tulpehocken-Heidelberg area of Lancaster and Berks counties must all refer to the same person. But an excellent 1973 article by John F. Vallentine carefully evaluated the evidence to show that there were, in fact, three separate men: Tobias Bickel (Böckel/Boeckel), 1711–1791, the Moravian; Tobias Bickel (Bechtell), “late of Lancaster County,” who apparently lived near Bernville, Berks County, and died in 1748, and Tobias Bickel, who lived “near Myerstown,” in the portion of Lancaster County that is now in Jackson Township, Lebanon County, then moved to Northumberland County. The third Tobias was my subject.

Vallentine was unable to determine my subject’s parents, but he did leave a stark (and useful) warning for future researchers in his final endnote.

It should be noted that one fraudulent genealogy has purported that Tobias Bickel was a son of John Christopher Bickel (1682–1756) and his wife Rosina Soehner, who had arrived at Philadelphia by 16 September 1732. It was further purported that Maria Margaret [Tobias’s likely sister], wife of John Henry Bassler, was a daughter of George Felte Bickel (b. 1683) and wife Maria Haefflen. The presumption of fraudulence is based on the party offering this Bickel pedigree for sale, refusing to document sources for checking, and later being indicted on several counts of genealogical fraudulence through the U.S. mails.[4]

In this case, a link to royalty hadn’t been the goal, just a link to the immigrant ancestor of that line. I don’t care about royalty, but I can certainly understand the yearning to connect to an immigrant ancestor.

And in a 2002 article, James Pylant relayed his personal experience encountering fraud. While at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Pylant discovered a genealogy of the Van Meters of New York that traced his family back to Joost Van Meteren and Sara DuBois, who were married in 1682 in New Paltz. He was particularly struck by the line for Sara, which continued further and further back until it connected to the royal house of Plantagenet.

There was no documentation, but we wouldn’t let it end there. After returning from Salt Lake City, a search was started on the newly found DuBois line. It did not take long to answer that question about documentation for the royal pedigree. William Heidgerd’s The American Descendants of Chrètien DuBois of Wicres, France, Part One (New Paltz, New York: DuBois Family Association, 1968), gave the sobering news. The illustrious lineage was widely published, but that didn’t make it accurate. A French genealogist hired by a DuBois descendant had, as Heidgerd wrote, “perpetrated upon her an outrageous fraud.” The French genealogist copied the lineage of a DuBois family of royal descent from a reliable reference and then grafted the noble branch to the family tree of his client. The French genealogist purposely combined the identities of Chrètien DuBois and Chrètien Maxmillan DuBois de Fiennes. He then conveniently omitted dates of birth and death, for Chrètien DuBois was at least 120 years older than Chrètien Maxmillan DuBois de Fiennes![5]

So, what’s the lesson here?

First, maintain a healthy skepticism for any undocumented work you read. You can still use that data as a potential clue, but follow up on it. If you do the work, you’ll discover the fraud.

Second, even when someone else’s work is documented, look at the citations to see that they make sense and that they give enough information for others to find and verify the same source. If it’s not published by a reputable genealogical publisher (the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s Newbury Street Press, for example) or in a reputable, peer-reviewed genealogical journal, go to the original sources and verify them yourself.

Finally, in your review of existing publications on the family, don’t stop at the first convenient publication and take it at face value. Make sure you search for all publications on the family as exhaustively as you search for actual records. If you do, you’ll often find published warnings about previous fraudulent works as well as previous errors that were not a matter of fraud.

It’s disconcerting to know how easy it is for fraud to hit the printed page and proliferate from there, but we needn’t be overtaken by fear. Be aware, be cautious, and be thorough, and you should be just fine.

 

[1] Robert Charles Anderson, “We Wuz Robbed: The Modus Operandi of Gustave Anjou,” Genealogical Journal 19 (1991): 47–58.

[2] Gordon L. Remington, “Gustave We Hardly Knew Ye: A Portrait of Herr Anjou as a Jungberg,” Genealogical Journal19 (1991): 59–70.

[3] Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, “Editors’ Corner,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 79 (1991), [83]; PDF, NGSQ Archives (https://www.ngsgenealogy.org/ngsq/ngsq_archives/ : 4 December 2020).

[4] John F. Vallentine, “The Tobias Bickels of Old Tulpehocken,” Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, 28 (1973): 59–67; at 67, note 42.

[5] James Pylant, “Watch Out for Fake Family Trees,” GenealogyMagazine.com, 2002, 2004, 2015 (https://www.genealogymagazine.com/fake-family-trees/ : 4 December 2020).

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