This is my great-grandfather Alexander McGinnis' tombstone in Crown Cemetery, near Morriston, Ontario. You can see that his date of birth is 1844. My uncle took me to this cemetery when I was starting my research into my father's family tree. After seeing the tombstone, I copied the information inscribed and dutifully entered 1844 into my genealogy program as Alex's date of birth.
Then I searched census records for Alex, and the more I found, the more discrepancies were revealed. Each census recorded him with a variety of ages that of course resulted in an equal variety of estimated years of birth.
* In 1861 his age was recorded as 12, giving him a year of birth of circa 1849
* In 1871 his age was recorded as 23, giving him a year of birth of circa 1848
* In 1881 his age was recorded as 30, giving him a year of birth of circa 1851
* In 1891 his age was recorded as 41, giving him a year of birth of circa 1850
* In 1901 his age was recorded as 43, giving him a year of birth of circa 1857
* In 1911 his age was recorded as 62, and the record year of birth was 1848
I knew the questions asked about an individual’s age varied on different census years. That meant that different questions, such as what was the individual's age at last birthday, at next birthday, or right now, would result in an age range of a few years.
Alex's years of birth, except for 1901 census, were fairly consistently showing his date of birth to be between 1848 and 1851. But that was quite different from the 1844 date of birth shown on his tombstone!
I decided to find his marriage record. But that was no help either. At his marriage in September 1876 he gave his age as 22. That put his year of birth at circa 1854. Surely he knew how old he was, or so I reasoned at the time. So perhaps the 1854-year was most accurate. But what about that tombstone?
I eventually discovered that his eldest daughter Mary had paid for his stone and had it engraved. My uncle had also questioned the year of birth on Alex's tombstone but apparently Aunt Mary had always insisted that she celebrated her father's birthday every year and thus she certainly knew how old he was, therefore she knew when he was born.
Alex and his family were Roman Catholic. I knew what church the family attended but the records of that church were not available to the public nor were they microfilmed. Then came a bit of luck. A few years ago the church began offering a research service. For a reasonable fee the church secretary would look through the original church books for a record.
I sent a request for the baptism of Alex, and soon received a copy in the mail. He was baptised on 3 February 1850 but born on 3 November 1849. His tombstone, erected by his daughter, was out by five years.
So why the discrepancies? Why did Alex not give his correct age when he married in 1876? He was actually 27 years old that year, so why did he say he was 22? The census years were fairly close to his correct year of birth so obviously he knew his age. It is not uncommon to find that an ancestor might not his or her exact age but Alex appeared to know his (except for the 1901 census)
Then I realized that the marriage registrations are copies of what was sent in by the minister. So the original entry may indeed have read "27" but the "7" could have been misread as a "2" resulting in the incorrect age of 22 for Alex.
So everything can be explained except for the 1901 census record and the tombstone inscription. But can we explain the census record? Yes. We do not know who gave the information to the census taker. In 1901 Alex lived with his sister, her husband and daughter, and his mother who was in her late 70s. Depending who the census taker spoke to, the age given for Alex could be quite incorrect.
That brings us back to the original culprit - that darned tombstone. Aunt Mary was 60 when her father Alex died. She thought he was 91. In reality he was 87. Was she confused? Had she never known her father's real age? Or did Alex tell his family his wrong age as he reached his 80s?
My mother did that. She turned 92 in 2006, but for two years prior to that birthday she had been adding a year or two on to her real age. In July 2006 she told everyone at a family reunion that she was 93 and would be 94 on her birthday in September. So she added two years to her real age. She was as sharp as a tack so I still have no idea why she fibbed to make herself older. I'm the only one of my siblings who seems to know her actual age, my brothers and sister believe whatever she tells them. If they were to have a tombstone inscribed for her, it's almost guaranteed it would have the wrong year of birth.
And thus we have the moral of my story of a Grave Mistake - that even if it's written in stone it could be wrong.
Lorine McGinnis Schulze is a Canadian genealogist who has been involved with genealogy and history for more than thirty years. In 1996 Lorine created the Olive Tree Genealogy website and its companion blog. Lorine is the author of many published genealogical and historical articles and books.