Forensic Genealogy

Forensic Genealogy

In this post, I’m going to do a review of the book, Forensic Genealogy, by Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., published in 2005 by Rice Book Press. The volume has three major sections entitled The Digital Detective, The Database Detective, and The DNA Detective. As ties in with the book’s title, each section involves the use of some special techniques to resolve some question of genealogical research.

The Digital Detective section explores the analysis of old photographs, such as anyone might have in their family records, in order to uncover where and when they were taken, who they were of, and why they were taken and kept. The detailed methods that Dr. Fitzpatrick uses to date and place images are quite fascinating. They include a study of particular objects in the photograph, such as cash registers, bottle labels, hats, photograph technology, and other incidentals. By analyzing the time frames associated with such incidental objects, she shows us how images can be dated, and often also placed. Through the use of any other knowledge, such as the rough location of the image, other factors such as shadow direction and length, can be employed to date and time images. The work, as she states up front, is exactly the sort of forensic analysis as one might expect a “real” detective to use in solving a crime, which is nothing more or less than a special sort of event. By extending the model of forensic analysis to include the events recorded in family photos, Dr. Fitzpatrick takes to model to a natural and logical extension.

A detailed case study reviews a photograph taken, by her detective work, in the Canadian Pacific Railyards in Winnipeg Manitoba Canada on September 12, 1910 between 12:16 and 12:50 pm. The analysis of the image and its case involves 12 pages of detective work, much of which is also included on a CD that comes with the book.

In The Database Detective, Dr. Fitzpatrick discusses the use of some of the more obvious database as well as many not so obvious ones. For example,,, and are among the obvious databases. On the other hand, census records, city directories, orphanages and insane asylums are starting to put their records online. As well, one can make their own searchable databases of information on people that one is researching. While there are several commonly used programs, such as Access or Excel, for this, as an aside my own personal favorite is DEVONthink Pro. What I like about DEVONthink is that it is so much more “free-form” than the typical database. One can store just about any sort of record in DEVONthink database and the results become searchable.

Dr. Fitzpatrick points out that there are two kinds of databases of people: first are periodical databases, like census records or city directories, that are published on a regular basis such as quarterly or every four years; second are event databases, like birth or death records, that are updated on an ongoing basis as the corresponding events continue to occur. It would be likely to find someone in several census records, but not likely to find someone appearing more than once in a record of births or deaths. The chapter continues with analyses of several families in terms of finding records in city directories and in birth and death records. There is another case study of a single family from Germany that had fled to France in the 1600s after the Thirty Years War. Through research of records in the Alsace region of France, an amazing story emerges of an entire town that appears to have “imploded” due to a crop blight of ergot; but through which the family under study managed to escape unscathed. It is a great story.

In The DNA Detective, Dr. Fitzpatrick first explains much of the material on the uses of Y-DNA and mtDNA to study paternal and maternal lineage. To begin, Dr. Fitzpatrick goes over much of the same material that I have on both Y-DNA and mtDNA in previous posts. She proceeds to review testing companies, their pricing, and databases. Unfortunately, because the book was published in 2005, a good deal of the material here is dated. She also discusses the merits of surname projects in the context of DNA testing, and how valuable these can be. By inviting anyone with a common surname to contribute their DNA profiles into the project database, a valuable body of data can be obtained at minimal cost to the project itself. The topics then proceed to the construction of cladograms for family studies. A clade is, in this context, some ancestor and all of his or her descendants (and no one else). By organizing the DNA structures of the various participants in a family study along the lines of minimum genetic differences between pairs of individuals, a diagram can be created that clusters groups of people within the study into sets that have the most in common with one another. Such a diagram is called a cladogram; and by seeing how these cluster branch away from one another, the diagram can show much about the ancestral backgrounds within the family.

The volume contains software for the creation of cladograms on the CD that accompanies the book. However, the latest version of the software (called Network) is available online here. Allow me to point out here that one should be very serious about proceeding with the use of this software, since the detailed options and calculations are not for the faint of heart. Having said that, I can say that I have personally used this package in a couple of family studies, notably for Y-DNA data from Clan Macinnes of which I am a member. The results were, in my opinion, extremely useful. In Dr. Fitzpatrick’s exposition, she uses data from her own family research on the Fitzpatricks. While the family history that she reviews falls into that British and Celtic background that I’ve mentioned before for my Angus ancestors, there is nothing that limits the use of cladograms for the analysis of a surname DNA project to this sort of background.

Purely for an instructive approach as to how to apply the Network program to Y-DNA or mtDNA data from a family study, this section is well worth the price of admission. The software manual itself, while instructive, doesn’t provide the level of detail that someone would need to begin data analysis properly on their own.

I heartily recommend this volume to anyone interested in starting a DNA-based family study just for this part of the book alone. While other aspects of genetic genealogy, such as the uses of autosomal DNA, have advanced, the construction of cladograms remains stable enough that Dr. Fitzpatrick’s instructions are still timely.

Finally, Dr. Fitzpatrick has her own web site and another at IdentiFinders, which is based on the DNA detective work that she has done. These are both useful sources for information about projects in forensic genealogy and DNA research.

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