Premier Forensic Genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick Shares an Ah Hah Moment

Posted by on Dec 25, 2012 in DNA Genealogy, Expert Interviews, Forensic Genealogy, Genealogy, Genealogy Research | 2 comments

Premier Forensic Genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick Shares an Ah Hah Moment

Photo courtesy of Colleen Fitzpatrick

RC: What is your definition of forensic genealogy?

CF: Forensic Genealogy is CSI meets Roots, the application of forensic techniques to genealogical mysteries.

My definition is much broader than the conventional definition of a forensic genealogist who is involved with assisting attorneys with probate and other legal matters. My definition includes any methodological approach to solving genealogical mysteries. It overlaps many other disciplines.

A good example is my discovery of an ergot epidemic in the 1600s in my ancestral village of Sigolsheim, France. This involved research into 17th century childbirth practices, the reconstruction of 1,000 year old weather records, religious beliefs and medical knowledge in the 1600s, and tie-ins with other historical events such as the Bubonic Plague and the Salem Witch Trials. (See “The Ulmer Story” in my Forensic Genealogy book for the full story).

RC: Why did you choose to enter the realm of forensic genealogy?

CF: I didn’t choose to enter the realm of Forensic Genealogy. I believe I have created a new realm arising from my deep interests in both disciplines. I have been applying forensic methods to my own genealogical research since I formally started investigating my family in the 1970s. For many years, I believed these techniques were standard genealogical approaches. I was quite surprised when we published Forensic Genealogy to find that methods well-used by me were quite novel to most other genealogists.

RC: What have been your most interesting cases to date?

CF: Having played a role in some of the most fascinating cases, the Hand in the Snow, the Identification of the Unknown Child, and the search for the family reference for Amelia Earhart’s navigator Fred Noonan – that’s a tough question. Although it is my most recent case, and we still have so much to do on it – I would have to say my favorite case so far is Abraham Lincoln’s DNA. We have not publicized much about it yet. Abraham Lincoln is perhaps one of the most profound individuals in modern history. What we have discovered about his DNA is just as compelling. Watch this space.

RC: Are there any current cases in the news (or not in the news) you would like the opportunity to investigate? Is there a case in history — whether provable or not — that you would have liked to have solved?

CF: Sure! The Tamam Shud case. I would like to do DNA testing on the Somerton man, who was found dead on a beach in Adelaide, Australia, in 1948, with no personal identification and no tags in his clothes. His autopsy suggested that he had been poisoned, although no poison was detected in his system. The most intriguing clue found to his identity was a minute scrap of paper in the watch pocket of his trousers that read “Tamam Shud” (“It is Finished”), the last words in Persian of the Rubayiat by Omar Khayyam.

Nearly a year later, the police located the book the scrap had been torn from, with a faint phone number penciled on its back cover. The unlisted number belonged to a nurse living near the beach. When she was confronted with a cast of the dead man’s face, she was completely taken aback and nearly fainted, although she firmly denied knowing who he was. Along with the nurse’s phone number, police discovered five faint lines of letters that formed a code that even Naval Intelligence was unable to decipher.

The Somerton man has never been identified, nor has the poison been discovered that killed him. An exact duplicate of the man’s version of the Rubayiat has never been located, and the code found on the back cover of the book has never been cracked. The nurse has since died.

The Somerton man is buried in West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide. Was he a suicide? Was he murdered? Was he the nurse’s lover? Was he in the intelligence community? The mysteries linger.

For the moment, Australian authorities have prohibited DNA testing to identify him, finding no purpose to do so other than “curiosity.” I will be available to assist them if ever they change their minds.

RC: There were two recent cases in the national media involving ancestry. I’d like to know how you as a forensic genealogist would go about investigating these cases:

a) Earlier this year, Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio claimed that President Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate is a fake. Evidently, the numerical coding that Hawaii used on birth certificates at the time Obama was born in the early 60s is not readily available, and the state didn’t keep a copy of the numeric codes for their long-form birth certificate. A 95-year-old former state worker, who signed the president’s birth certificate, had to explain numerical coding used on birth certificates at the time Obama was born. If you were asked to verify the location of birth, how would you prove the President was born in Hawaii?

CF: I would first analyze the chemical contents of the paper and the ink that were used to produce the certificate. I would compare them to the paper and ink used for other certificates created on the same date and at the same place as Obama’s.

There is also a laser technique called profilometery that can be used to measure the thickness of the ink in a signature. Each person applies pressure on a pen in a unique way as he writes, causing changes in ink flow. This manifests itself as a unique profile in ink thickness along a signature that can sometimes be used to identify the writer.

To authenticate Obama’s birth certificate, I would use this technique to compare the ink thickness profile of the original signature of the state worker on Obama’s certificate, with the profile of his signature on another birth certificate produced the same day. If the profiles do not match, I would study multiple originals of the state worker’s signature to determine the variation in thickness profiles of those signatures, and confirm whether or not the profile of the signature on Obama’s certificate fell within that variation. A match in thickness profile along with a match in chemical analysis of paper and ink would prove to a high degree of probability that the birth certificate is the real thing.

RC: b) Massachusetts U.S. Senator, Elizabeth Warren, said during her campaign that she is Cherokee, a claim which has been challenged and is still unproven. With the aid of a forensic genealogist, how would Elizabeth Warren prove her ancestry?

CF: If Senator Warren’s claim is that she is Cherokee along her direct maternal line, mitochondrial DNA would be able to establish at least that she is Native American. If her claim is that she is Cherokee along a line other than her direct maternal line, autosomal DNA testing would be able to tell her what percent she is of Native American origin. It is my understanding that neither test would be able to establish if she is specifically Cherokee.

RC: What do you recommend to genealogists who are considering entering the world of forensic genealogy? Classes? Seminars? If so, which do you think are the best?

CF: As far as becoming a forensic genealogist, I’d suggest finding a case to solve, and going to whatever lengths it takes to solve it. For example, check out Missing Identity, a website for child survivors who lost their birth identities during the Holocaust. See if there is a case you think you can help with. You might also find an adoption search you can assist with.

As far as taking a seminar, you might want to try one of mine – I’ll be co-teaching a workshop with Dr. Mary Ann Boyle in January at the Salt Lake City Institute of Genealogy.  Mary Ann will cover the practical aspects of starting and maintaining a practice, and I will cover how to approach cases from innovative and unexpected directions.

For more information on Colleen Fitzpatrick’s workshop, access Course 7 through the Utah Genealogical Association’s website

RC: Can you give us an update on the “Benjamin Kyle” case?

CF: Sure. I have been researching Benjaman Kyle since early 2009. Although public interest in him has waned to a large extent, I have been relentless in my continued research into his identity. I have spoken with several hundred people in the last four and a half years and have followed scores of leads.

After widespread publicity of his situation failed to produce anyone who recognized him, I am concentrating on using DNA to identify him. Y-DNA tests yielded Powell as the most likely family name for him, with Davidson a second possibility (See my blog dated August 9, 2010 on Identifinders).

After we could not find a link for him to living Powells or Davidsons, Benjaman took an autosomal test through 23andMe. A geographic analysis I performed on his results indicate connections with a very large extended Powell family in the Western Carolinas (See my blog dated December 9, 2010 on Identifinders).

I have identified several relatives of his on the order of 2nd -3rd cousins within this family. To expand our DNA-reach, I am collaborating with 23andMe to facilitate additional testing and analysis. The results of recent tests have allowed me to rule out more distant branches, and direct my attention to more closely related family members. It is taking some time to do this because of the extremely large size of the family and the high rate of intermarriage.

In the meantime, I have compiled a family tree from pedigrees given to me by his matches, and am developing software tools to query the nearly 36,000 entries to find the “sweet spot” where he best fits in.

The mapping and analysis methods I am developing to identify Benjaman have proven useful on my Child Survivor DNA identification project (also a 23andMe collaboration). (See my blog dated September 5, 2012).

RC: What about forensic genealogy parallels nuclear physics? What about it is the complete opposite?

CF: Parallel: They both require an objective look at data, with an intuition about the right way to interpret it. Neither discipline ever produces a final answer – rather, one answer only leads to more questions. In both areas, it’s often just when you think you are ready to give up that you have a “eureka” moment.

Completely opposite: Nuclear physics requires a lot of equipment, and a strong background in math. To be a crack genealogist you only need a laptop and a cell phone. I miss the math.

RC: Can you suggest some of the databases you use that you find to be helpful in forensic genealogy cases?

CF: You will laugh. Ancestry, Genealogybank, Familysearch, brsgenealogy.com, Scotland’s People, and any of the public record databases like Intellius or PrivateEye.

It’s not special access to data that is behind my success. It’s the creative process that knits that data together into a coherent story.

RC: You have blown the lid off two hoaxes involving the Holocaust? How did you become involved with these cases? Do you have an “intuition” for these kinds of cases, or does the science side of you demand solid evidence before you get a sense for the case?

CF: Actually, I see no difference between intuition and science. It might sound like an oxymoron, but I use scientific intuition to get at the truth about something. This is a kind of objective assessment of plausibility. I can usually get a sense for the truth well before I have the facts to confirm it or disprove it. When I “follow my nose,” I can usually find the evidence I am searching for.

To set the records straight, although I was a key person on the two Holocaust frauds you mention (Misha Defonseca’s Surviving with Wolves and Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence), Sharon Sergeant was really the point man who originally took on the two projects. Sharon and I spoke nearly every night, analyzing recent developments and planning the next steps, so I did play a significant role in both exposures.

I am now working on a third possible Holocaust literary fraud – The Mascot by Mark Kurzem. (See my article dated September 16, 2012 on J-Wire).

RC: You have published three books. Any thoughts for a fourth? If so, can you give us an idea what it might be?

CF: Of course. Once you’ve written three books, it becomes a habit. The working title of my next book is The Identifinder – How to Find Anyone in the World. Stay tuned.

RC: You have had two extraordinary, but very different, careers in your life time. Do you think that’s it, or might there be a third profession on the horizon? If so, what would that/might that career be?

CF: You never know.

RC: What was your last “Ah Hah!” moment?

CF: My last two “Ah Hah” moments happened when I discovered the birth parents of a man who had been adopted in Manhattan in 1934. He had been searching for his biological parents for the last 56 years. He had hired an attorney in an unsuccessful attempt to get the State of New York to open his adoption records, he had hired a private investigator to sneak a look at his records at the New York City vital records office, he had hired a well-known genealogist to follow up on the names the PI came up with, and he had his original birth certificate accompanied by a statement from his birth mother that he had been named after his birth father.

All of his efforts had been unsuccessful. Two years ago, the retired director of the adoption agency that had handled his case told him to give up – that at 76 years old, he would never be able to find his birth parents.

His luck was about to change last January when he read an article about me in his local newspaper, and he called to find out more about DNA testing. To make a long story short, on September 7, 2012 at 8:52 pm, I found his father. Three days later, on September 10, 2012 at 2:53 pm, I found his mother.

His life has not been the same since.

RC: Who is/was your mentor?

CF: I don’t think I’ve ever had a mentor, although I draw strength and inspiration from all women of accomplishment.

2 Comments

  1. What an incredible interview! Colleen, thank you so much for taking the time to share this incredible information with our readers. I am completely captivated by the story of the Somerton man.

    We will wait eagerly to see what you can share with us later about Lincoln!

  2. Awesome and exciting work to be involved with. This is very interesting work that can answer the difficult questions. Thinking I need to get her involved with my diverse lines. Would truly love being involved in this kind of work. Great interview.

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