#52Ancestors: Sorting fact from fiction in the case of Ernest Loop [Tweet this!]
Genealogy would be a very dull hobby without people like my second great-grandfather, Ernest Loop… and possibly a much simpler one. He’s easily one of the most colorful characters in my family tree, along with being one of the most difficult to track. As you’ll soon see, “colorful character” is a bit of a euphemism, but the main problem with Ernest Loop is knowing what to believe.
I thought for this week, we should talk about categorizing the tricky details of colorful characters—separating facts and legends, making sense of contractions in the data and recognizing errors.
First of all, what exactly do I mean by “facts” here? It’s a little like knowing what the definition of “is” is, right?
A fact, for my purposes, is a statement that’s backed by a reliable source… and that makes sense in the real world. Thinking cap, activate!
Here’s what I know for certain: Ernest Loop was the son of William R Loop and Eliza Clark. He was born at Nelson, Pennsylvania. He married Elizabeth Krauss. They lived in Hornell and Olean NY, and my great-grandfather was among their children.
Also, Ernest served time at the Huntingdon Reformatory in Pennsylvania for forgery, and he also served as a private in the US Army, 29th Inf. Co. B. His discharge record stated “very good,” and as far as posterity is concerned, that’s the only time that particular label was ever applied to him.
Oops, I’m getting into the legends part.
If facts are backed by reliable sources, does that mean legends aren’t?
Not necessarily. Memory is a crucial component to an interesting and detailed family history. It records details never captured by official records. It’s subjective and given to fallacies and impressions, holes and exaggerations, but then again, to quote Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Legends, for good or for ill, are the words said of a person who’s not there to set the record straight. Those words are echoes of how that person made others feel.
My grandmother’s memories of her grandfather were less than flattering. “Rotten, mean,” she called him. This fits with the picture painted by decades of newspaper mentions. However, another memory doesn’t: she told me that Ernest Loop was some kind of “special cop” in his elder years. I don’t know what that means exactly—was he a security guard? A deputy of some kind? So far, I haven’t found a reference that illuminates it.
Another legend, not directly involving Ernest . . . my grandmother told me a ghoulish story from Gramma Loop (i.e., Elizabeth)–she claimed that a bird flew around the crib of one of her babies three times, and the baby died.
The family data passed down to me indicates Ernest and Elizabeth had three children who didn’t survive, but I have only names for them—Milo, Ernest, and Annabel—and no dates other than two losses reported on the 1910 census. I have no idea what to make of this strange story, other than to wonder if it is somehow connected to this awful one:
Rotten, mean, indeed.
What’s worse when it comes to family tree research—two or more things that cannot be true at the same time, or two or more things that might be true at the same time, but most likely aren’t?
Either way, contradicting sources require more than critical thinking. At times, you end up digging for the weirdest details, looking for clues.
The biggest contradiction I find with Ernest Loop is with his marriage year and the birth of Elizabeth’s first child, Evelyn. Something here doesn’t fit with the old nine-pound preemie story we’ve all come across at one time or another.
Elizabeth’s obituary states that she and Ernest married at Hornell in 1902.
That’s . . . not impossible? But also not very likely. Ernest was sent to the Huntingdon Reformatory on December 18, 1901. His name is found in General Fund Expenditure reports in the Wellsboro newspapers in March 1903, March 1904, and March 1905—each citing an expense associated with his incarceration the preceding year. (And unfortunately, Elizabeth’s obituary contains other errors that make it a less reliable source.)
As mentioned above, Ernest was in the military from September 12, 1904 until January 4, 1905. I don’t have a solid chain of custody, so to speak, but suffice to say that from December 18, 1901 to January 4, 1905, Ernest was a little busy to be getting married.
Then there’s the birth of their daughter Evelyn to consider. According to a 1938 newspaper item announcing the annulment of her marriage from Anthony Graczyk, Evelyn was born on March 31, 1905. However, on the official census date of June 1, 1905, the New York State census shows Elizabeth Krauss living with her parents, and Ernest Loop living with his, both in Hornellsville. Furthermore, the 1910, 1915, and 1920 enumerations suggest that Evelyn was born around 1906-1907. I think that’s probably true—but when she wanted an annulment 15 years after the fact, why say she was born in 1905 when a younger age makes the case for her illegal nuptials that much stronger?
But then again, what if she was born on March 31, 1905? She might’ve been kept away from the census taker’s eyes for appearances, but it raises a difficult question. In 1910 and again in 1920, Evelyn is enumerated with her grandparents, John and Augusta Krauss. If Ernest believed the time frame for Evelyn’s conception and birth was at odds with his prison sentence and/or military service, could he have entertained doubts that she was his child?
It’s not a pleasant thought, I know, and without Ernest’s prison records, the Krauss-Loop marriage record, and/or a reliable birth record for Evelyn, I don’t know how these contractions will be solved. The answer lies with stronger sources, and probably with records sets beyond the low-hanging fruit available online.
And if this all seems too much to believe, well, perhaps it is. As luck would have it, there was another Ernest Loop of Steuben county. Of course he was of a similar age as my Ernest. He lived in Avoca, (about 46 miles from Nelson PA, 70 miles from Olean, and only 19 miles from Hornell).
After all this time, I’ve more or less trained myself to filter out any reference to “Ernest Loop of Avoca,” and to require a Nelson PA, Hornell/Hornellsville, Canisteo, or Olean NY connection. Does this introduce errors? Probably.
Another thing: Loop is easy to spell and easier to misspell. I’ve seen Lupe and Loope and Coop and I don’t know what else turn up in my searches. And whether Ernest was earnest, I strongly doubt, but nonetheless, he’s occasionally called Earnest.
Last but not least, the birth date on his tombstone is wrong. I only suspected this for many years, as I have birth years for the man ranging from 1875 (when his mother would have been about 11 years old, and at least 5 years before she married) all the way to 1886 (which doesn’t work at all with the 1900 census record). This counted as a contradiction—until I found his veteran’s headstone application. The image includes mark-up suggesting that 1875 is indeed a mistake—but unfortunately, the stone was still cut with the wrong date.
Sometimes it’s easy to spot an error. Other times it takes guts to look an official record in the eye and say, “That’s not right.” You need rock solid first hand knowledge, indisputable record (if there is such a thing!), and/or a healthy dose of logic, and you have to learn to develop an eye for recognizing squirrelly data. A bad lead can cost a researcher years of fruitless searching.
Why take the time to separate facts from legends and contradictions from errors?
For ancestors whose stories are detailed, complex, difficult, or intensely interesting, it’s often helpful to take a fresh approach to the accumulated data. As facts and legends interact, I can develop a very clear idea of what kind of man Ernest Loop really was. By identifying contradictions in the available sources and errors—in the records, in the stories, in my own conclusions—I can focus my next research steps and watch out for known pitfalls. The more context, the better.
You can view the records I’ve attached to Ernest Loop on my newly minted Ancestry tree.
What about you?
Got an ancestor who keeps you guessing? Tell me all about it in the comments!
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Quick note on best laid plans… last week was awesome, but went just a little sideways on the blog schedule. Combine that working on two research-heavy posts, and . . . yeah. We’ll be back to the normal posting schedule on February 22, when I’m going to ask your opinion about how to look at some unorthodox census data. What do I mean by that? Well, you’ll have to come back to find out.
One last thing!
In the mean time! I’m hosting a Sweepstakes this week, giving away one copy of my debut novel Whispers in the Branches. (No purchase necessary; open to US residents age 18+; ends the earlier of 2/25/16 or when the prize has been awarded; official rules available with entry page.) To enter, just click this link: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/f8bda6eb6236d822 and follow my author page on Amazon. That’s it! Good luck!