Believing a Tombstone

In gathering and reviewing numerous resources for your family history you sometimes wish there was one source you could count on as always accurate in the information provided. You would think a birth certificate would be right but it is only as precise as the person providing the information or the people receiving the info. That factor is true in just about all the resources. Generally the further from the event the less likely all information is correct. A good researcher will always check with as many varied sources to confirm any information. Generally the one piece of documentation that has the least false data are those done under oath, with a witness and in person. A good example are the World War One Draft Registration forms completed by males in the United States between 1917 to 1918. This is especially true if a person stated he had some type of disability, the signing witness working for the government had to view this disability; a missing finger, the lost of an eye, etc.

Some documents are famous for false information (lies) the person provided; such as marriage licenses, census records, or employment records. Amazing how many people, including men who would give false ages, number of marriages, their job, etc when filing for a marriage license, things you can guess they had not told or were truthful with the spouse-to-be. Whenever you gather data, note the source, the date and the attempt to locate at least one to two other sources to help prove or disclaim what you first found.

Another source with many errors are obituaries. They might be totally correct or filled with wrong names, dates and information. Obituaries are compiled based on information from the decease’s next-of-kin or even a family friend and for sure that could be filled with misunderstood or remembered data.

Even a person’s final permanent marker — their tombstone could be wrong. Names and dates are the most common, again because someone else provided the information for the tombstone. One of the most notable examples of a major ‘mistake’ on a tombstone was one located at the St. John’s Church cemetery in Knockainey, County Limerick in Ireland. A local historian, Michael Quinlan, located a tombstone that dated back to 1784. This cemetery has 67 gravestones dated in the 1700s, the oldest marked 1736.

What makes the 1784 tombstone unusual when found by Quinlan was that engraved below the decease’s name, John Murphy, the death date 1784 and the statement ‘died aged 219 years’, making him born around 1563. There was no special engraving to increase the numbers, it clearly had the original numbers 219. Could this be believed, a man lived over two centuries. No parish records existed that far back. With a name of John Murphy in Ireland, it was extremely difficult to trace that family lineage without more information. What it does show is there would need to be some major research to see how long Murphy did live before claiming he was over two hundred years old. Checking Irish Historic Graves Project found a listing at that cemetery which read: “John Murphy died the 11th day of October 1784 aged 29 yrs. May the Lord have mercy on his soul.” Further investigation of the tombstone itself eventually showed over time the numbers had developed a space (appearing to be engraved ‘1’) between the ‘2’ and ‘9’, that it was not actually engraved 219 but rather John Murphy died at age 29 years old.

So use a variety of resources, keep an open mind and never accept ONE document or record as the sole truth.

Photo: Showing a close up the numbers on John Murphy’s tombstone.

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