The relation between genealogical and judicial truth

At the Rootstech 2016 conference, American genealogist James Ison made an interesting remark regarding direct and indirect genealogical evidence. Ison is currently Manager of Strategy and Planning at the Family History Library, an important genealogical research facility in Salt Lake City. The library is operated by FamilySearch, the genealogical arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ison earned a Master’s Degree from George Washington University. He is recognized as an authority in the field of genealogy. Ison stated:

Direct evidence is awesome. A birth certificate will list the name of parents. It’s direct evidence. It answers a question. A marriage license will say what the bride’s maiden name is. A baptismal record will say the dates and the places of birth—just exactly what we want.

(…)

Indirect evidence is like a puzzle piece. You can’t answer any particular question just based upon this piece of evidence. You have to fit it together.

In cases where only indirect evidence is available, the Genealogical Proof Standard is helpful in establishing credible research. The Standard is based on a book written by mrs Christine Rose; Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. It includes five essential steps for accurate research:

  1. Reasonably exhaustive research has been completed.
  2. Each statement of fact has a complete and accurate source citation.
  3. The evidence is reliable and has been skillfully correlated and interpreted.
  4. Any contradictory evidence has been resolved.
  5. The conclusion has been soundly reasoned and coherently written.
Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, original taken by Thomas Helsby in Santiago, January - February 1854

Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, original taken by Thomas Helsby in Santiago, January – February 1854

Applying the Genealogical Proof Standard does not guarantee that the truth will prevail, but it serves accountability and transparency. In my opinion genealogical proof resembles Lakatos views on the concept of truth. Lakatos’ suggested that in science, a scientific theory should be seen as a succession of slightly different theories and experimental techniques. These theories all share a common hard core, called a research programme. The question of whether a theory is true of false is replaced by the question of whether a research programme is progressive or degenerating. A progressive research programme is characterized by growth and prediction of novel facts and more precise predictions. In contrast, a degenerative program is marked by a lack of growth and does not lead to novel predictions that are later verified (Imre Lakatos, Philosophical papers. Vol I: The methodology of scientific research programmes. I. Science – Philosophy 2. Mathematics – Philosophy. I. Title 11.). Genealogical research can also contain some of these characteristics. After establishing the basic facts (often in the form of a family tree), theories regarding missing facts can be based on indirect evidence. To a certain extend, they can be characterized as a prediction for finding direct evidence (e.g. a marriage certificate). If, for example, someone has lived and worked in England for all his life, it can be predicted that he has married in England and research regarding his marriage should not start in South America. A genealogical progressive research programme elaborates on certain basic findings and develops theories (in the form of predictions) about the missing information.

In some cases, genealogical evidence is used in legal matters. Legal evidence has a totally different character, in particular when court rulings are given. In such cases a progressive research programme can hardly be determined. The case ends in a decision in a relatively short period of time.

Judicial evidence

The judicial process can be seen as a a kind of black box, within which information from all kinds of sources is processed according to defined rules of evidence in order to produce a new form of truth: the ‘judicial truth’. This type of truth becomes, to a certain extent, simply one more competing version of truth. Like other versions, it can be accepted, refuted, celebrated or simply ignored. This is illustrated in two cases where genealogical evidence was essential for establishing judicial truth. In the first case, the evidence is in particular based on witness statements, with some degree of technical evidence. In the second case, conclusive evidence is given by a DNA-test.

The Tichborne case

The Tichborne case was a well-known legal dispute in Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s. It concerned the claims by a man called Arthur Orton, later Thomas Castro, to be the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. Orton failed to convince the courts, was convicted of perjury and served a long prison sentence.

Roger Charles Tichborne was born in Paris on 5 January 1829. He was raised mainly in France, although the Tichborne lands and fortune were based in Hampshire, England, where his uncle was the 8th baronet. As a result of his upbringing, Roger spoke English with a strong French accent.  At the age of 20, Roger joined the 6th Dragoon Guards in Dublin, but sold his commission three years later in 1852. In 1853, Roger’s father inherited the Tichborne baronetcy after the deaths of his two elder brothers. In the same year, Roger, now the heir to the Tichborne title and fortune, travelled to South America. In 1854, he boarded a ship, the Bella, bound for New York, but less than a week later, the Bella was lost at sea and Roger was declared dead in 1855. The Tichborne baronetcy was passed to Roger’s younger brother Alfred in 1862 when his father died. Alfred died only four years later, just months before the birth of his son, who inherited the title at birth in 1866.

Roger’s mother, Lady Henriette Tichborne, was devastated by the news of her son’s disappearance at sea. She remained hopeful that he had survived the shipwreck and sent out inquiries across the world as to his whereabouts. In November 1865, Australian solicitor William Gibbes sent Lady Tichborne a letter, informing her that a man, claiming to be her son, had contacted him. This man was a butcher from Wagga Wagga, calling himself Tom Castro. Although he was physically larger than Sir Roger, had lighter hair and spoke no French, these discrepancies did not bother Lady Tichborne, who had not seen her lost son for more than ten years.

After Lady Tichborne’s death in 1868, Orton was compelled to continue the pretence, as he needed the Tichborne inheritance to pay off his large debts. This led some of the Tichborne family to take him to court over his claim, beginning one of the most celebrated legal cases of the nineteenth century.

The first trial lasted almost a year, from 11 May 1871 to 5 March 1872. Tichborne v. Lushington was a civil trial to establish Orton’s claim to the Tichborne inheritance. Nearly one hundred people spoke in Orton’s defence, but the holes in his story soon became obvious, particularly his inability to speak French – Sir Roger’s childhood language.

Arthur Orton’s perjury trial, Regina v. Castro, began in 1873 and lasted over six months. This time a jury had to be convinced that Orton’s claim to be the lost Sir Roger Tichborne was false. Again, the evidence against Orton was damning, and in February 1874, he was convicted of two counts of perjury and sentenced to 14 years’ hard labour by Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn (source: State Library New South Wales).

An important issue was the degree of facial resemblance of Orton to the Tichborne family, which fact never has been fully explained. It may suggest that there was some kind of biological relation between Orton and the Tichborne family. In the University College London Galton Papers a document can be found, stating:

2225. [stamped in left margin]University College London Galton Papers 158/2M[end stamp] [underscore]MEMORANDUM We have had submitted to us, for Examination,[end underscore] enlarged authentic [italics]Photographs;[end italics] First, of Mr. Roger Tichborne, (date, 1854): Secondly, of the person claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, (date, 1874). [underscore]These Portraits have Geometrically Bisected[end underscore]: and the several divided sections we have ourselves affixed, interchanged, and transferred from one Portrait to another. [underscore]We are of Opinion that the Perfect Combination[end underscore] and Minute Correspondence of the several sections are [italics]bona fide[end italics] and unimpeachable, and fully justify the conclusion that [italics]one and the same person sat for each portrait.[end italics] Fredk. Snary, Photographer, [established, 1856] 26, Castle Street, Bristol. Louis Lowenthall, Photographer, [established, 1858] 14, N. Wine Street, Bristol. John Hayward, Print-Seller, [established, 1840] 1, Corn Street, Bristol. Frederick Bowden, Print-Seller, [established, 1850] 27, U. Arcade, Bristol. H. Gardiner, Ornamental Carver, [30 years] 28, Victoria Place, Clifton. T. Sherwood, Smith, Practical Surveyor and Land Agent [40 years] 30, Corn St. Bristol. [end]

The case however was finally solved by applying classic legal rules of evidence. There was no room for developing a research programme.

The Pringle of Stichill case

The law is a living construct. It develops with society, bringing new challenges and new opportunities into the courtroom. Currently, the law is changing rapidly as a result of the ongoing evolution of digital technology. In one specific field, that of evidence gathering for genealogical purposes, the Pringle of Stichill-case should be seen as a milestone case.

On 5 January 1683 Charles II granted the Baronetcy of Stichill (“the Baronetcy”) to Robert Pringle of Stichill “and the male heirs of his body”. The eighth baronet was Sir Norman Robert Pringle, who lived from 1871 to 1919. He married Florence Vaughan, who gave birth to Norman Hamilton Pringle (“Norman Hamilton”) and subsequently to two more sons, the first of which was Ronald Steuart Pringle (“Ronald Steuart”), who died in 1968. Norman Hamilton was enrolled without opposition as the ninth baronet. When he died in 1961 his son Sir Steuart Robert Pringle (“Sir Steuart”) was enrolled without opposition as the tenth baronet. Sir Steuart died in April 2013.

The two claimants in this matter are Sir Steuart’s son, Simon Robert Pringle (“Simon”), and Norman Murray Pringle (“Murray”), son of Ronald Steuart. Following Sir Steuart’s death, both Simon and Murray registered claims to succeed to the Baronetcy. Simon’s claim is made on the basis that, as Sir Steuart’s male heir, he is entitled to be enrolled as the 11th baronet. Murray, however, claims that Norman Hamilton was not the legitimate son of the eighth baronet and that accordingly the true ninth baronet was his late father, Ronald Steuart. Murray thus claims to be the true tenth baronet.

Murray’s claim relies upon DNA evidence obtained as part of “the Pringle Surname Project”. This was founded by Murray to determine the chieftainship of the clan Pringle, and the late Sir Steuart provided his DNA for the project. Expert opinion on the totality of the DNA evidence was that it provided “very strong support” for the view that the eighth baronet is grandfather to Murray but not Sir Steuart. Simon does not dispute the DNA evidence, but he raises four arguments as to why it should not be admitted on public policy grounds. By this reference the Board is required to advise Her Majesty as to (i) who is entitled to be entered on the Official Roll of the Baronetage as the Baronet of Pringle of Stichill and (ii) whether the DNA evidence should be admitted in order to determine the first question.

The Board finds that there is no legal ground for excluding the DNA evidence, which demonstrates to a high degree of probability that Norman Hamilton was not the son of the eighth baronet. The Board therefore concludes that (i) Simon is not the great grandson of the eighth baronet and is not the heir male of the first baronet; and (ii) Murray is the grandson of the eighth baronet and is, as the heir male of the first baronet, entitled to succeed to the Baronetcy (source: The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Privy Council Reference No 0079 of 2015).

Conclusions

The term ‘evidence’ is widely used in many different ways and in many different contexts. Genealogical evidence is often used for claims regarding the use of titles of nobility. Even when based on so-called ‘direct’ evidence, it is not certain whether these claims are true or not true, as the Pringle case shows. The concept of truth is the core of many philosophical discussions and it is my advice to be careful when claims of nobility or genealogy are either accepted, refuted, celebrated or simply ignored. In numerous cases regarding such claims, truth is no more and no less than a personal choice, often based on the assumption that written statements in official registers correspond with biological facts (see e.g. C.W. Delforterie, Liegen tegen de dominee: drie voorbeelden van het laten dopen van buitenechtelijke kinderen als zijnde tijdens een huwelijk verkregen / door C.W. Delforterie In: Liber Amicorum Jhr. Mr. C.C. van Valkenburg / [met een ten geleide van A. Snethlage en bijdr. van W.J. Kolff … et al.]. – ‘s-Gravenhage: Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie, 1985. – P. 69-80: geneal. tab. Met lit. opg.). One thing is certain. Written statements cannot change biological/genealogical facts but such facts can change written statements.

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