Brick walls are frustrating. I’ve broken through dozens, but I have even more that I’ve been staring at for years. In this quick video, I’ll share one method of breaking through a brick wall and provide an illustrative example.
Quick version: just go back and re-read everything you’ve collected. Don’t just skim it. Read it, and anytime you encounter something that doesn’t add up, look at it more closely.
Let me say that again. Read. Everything. Closely. Because this one of the hardest things you will do in genealogy. Why? You have to fight yourself. You’ll place more weight on your memory—which is plastic and unreliable—than in the document in front of you. You’ll suffer from confirmation bias, which is when you ignore or discount evidence that doesn’t support your existing conclusion. You’ll be overconfident in how you interpreted a given document.
If you’re going to use this brick wall technique, make sure you have a good chunk of free time with few distractions, so you’ll have the patience to review things your brain won’t want to review.
Let me give you an example: Jane M Haggerty, my third great-aunt. I had pulled together a clear map from her birth in Delaware on 4 July 1852, through the 1870 U.S. Census, but she disappeared after that when she was in her twenties.
I figured she either died or got married but I couldn’t make any progress at all. It was like she just vanished. That was the case for two of her sisters as well. I was struggling with all three sisters, and one morning when my wife and kids were out of town, I decided to re-review everything I had.
One document had an oddity: a typed record of the Haggerty burial plot at Old Cathedral Cemetery in West Philadelphia that my Uncle Jim had put together in 1989. A young woman named Mary J. Hunsinger and her three children were buried in that plot, but they weren’t anywhere in our family tree. I had just dismissed them the first few times I reviewed the document.
I also reviewed some notes my grandfather had written down one day when his dementia was in full force. Among other disconnected memories, he noted that his mother had given the title to the burial plot to his sister.
That meant old George Haggerty, Jane’s father, had purchased the lot, which I hadn’t realized. So if George owned that lot, why were four unrelated people buried there? It made no sense.
It was an oddity, so I ran it down. That’s the whole point of re-reviewing everything you have. If something doesn’t fit, or there’s a fact you missed, go check it out.
I searched for death records for a Mary J. Hunsinger and found a record for a Mary Jane Hunsinger whose date of death matched the one in the burial plot record. I was shocked to see that Mary Jane’s residence at death was 2213 Lombard Street, which was George Hagerty’s home in Philadelphia’s seventh ward. Then I looked up the death records of the three Hunsinger children, and two of the three had died at 2213 Lombard Street as well. What was this family doing living with my 3rd great-grandfather and his family?
Could this be Jane M. Haggerty?
I looked back over everything I had on Jane M. Haggerty and noticed her baptismal record named her as Johanna Maria. I had never bothered to type out her full middle name, I just left it as “M” from when I first found her in census records.
Several of Jane’s sisters swapped their middle & first names at various points in their lives. Jane must have done the same. I’d found her, along with her three children. They weren’t unrelated strangers buried in George Hagerty’s burial plot. They were his family.
It’s worth noting that I figured this all out five years ago, in 2013. When drafting the script for this video in 2018, I noticed a baby named Lena Haggerty was buried in George’s plot as well. She wasn’t anywhere in my tree. Even though I had pored over that burial plot and discovered a tragic branch of my tree, I never bothered to investigate that entry.
Little Lena Haggerty had died at 2213 Lombard Street as well. She was born to Jane’s brother, John Haggerty and his wife, Mary. John had died in 1880, and while his death certificate noted that was married at the time, I had no idea what his wife’s given name was until now.