Presenter Interview: Colleen Fitzpatrick, Forensic Genealogist

(Copyright (c) 2011 Cynthia Shenette) Last week I had the pleasure of conducting an e-mail interview with Colleen Fitzpatrick. Colleen is a scientist and well-known forensic genealogist and author who has worked on a number of high profile cases, including the identification of the Unknown Child of the Titanic, the Misha Defonseca Holocaust fraud case, and the identification of a frozen arm and hand found in the wreckage of Northwest Flight 4422 that crashed in Alaska in 1948. She will be speaking at the 11th New England Regional Genealogy Conference (NERGC), to be held in Springfield, Massachusetts April 6-10, 2011. The titles of Colleen's talks are "Genealogy and the Six Degrees of Separation: How to Find Anyone in the World" and "The Search for the Identity of the Amnesiac Benjaman Kyle."

Why and when did you become interested in genealogy?

I never "became" interested in genealogy. I had the privilege of knowing all four of my grandparents into my adulthood, along with some of their brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. You do not "become" a genealogist when you grow up with living history like that. You are one from birth.

Why did you make a career switch from rocket science to forensic genealogy?

I have been interested in forensic for a long time, and of course have been a lifelong genealogist. You put those things together in the same brain with rocket science and out comes forensic genealogy!

What is your favorite aspect of forensic genealogy--the science, solving the case, the detective work, or helping people?

No question. Helping people. Sometimes as I am falling asleep at night, I am so happy thinking about how I have connected the lost with the people who are looking for them, or how I have helped to solve a mystery that brought distant family members together. I remain close to so many people I have worked with or who I have reunited.

You have worked on so many interesting cases, do you have a favorite?

That's a tough question. The
Hand in the Snow is probably near the top, tied with James-Jake Smithers-Gray. I hear from Maurice Conway and his family regularly. Maurice was the Conway family member who provided the DNA for identifying the Hand. We visit his house in Ireland every time we go, and they make us as really nice big meal and we talk about things. We make sure we phone each other on Thanksgiving Day, since that is the anniversary of when I called him to tell him we had a DNA match.

I am also in touch all the time with the Smithers from the US and the Grays from Australia who I reconnected through their father James Smithers aka John Henderson Gray. I am going to Australia next year for the genealogy conference there, and the Grays and I all can hardly wait to meet each other in person. I've already met quite a few of the Smithers here in the US. We dream of getting everyone together on one continent!

What do you do to prepare when you take on a new case?

Exactly what every genealogist does when he gets a new project. First, I make sure I understand "the story" behind the new case, and then I have a look at what records are available over the Internet - on Ancestry, GenealogyBank and some of the other websites. Then I start asking questions and filling in gaps.

What are your favorite non-traditional sources for information, meaning sources a genealogist might not initially consider using for information?

That is a hard question to answer because most of the materials I use are the same that a genealogist uses researching a personal family history such as census records, obits, and city directories.

It's what I make of that information that makes the big difference in what I do. A typical genealogist, for example, might record the births of an ancestral village searching for the names of the godparents to check for possible family relations.

I've done this too, but in addition, I have noted how the number of births increased and decreased over the years. Noticing that there were no births for ten years is how I discovered the ergot epidemic my Ulmers lived through in the 1600s in Sigolsheim, France. See the chapter The Ulmer Story in my
Forensic Genealogy book.

Have you experienced frustration in researching a particular "brick-wall" ancestor in your personal genealogy?

One of my most frustrating ancestors is a John White, born about 1842 in Boston. The family story is that he was from the family who owned White's Hotel there. According to family folklore, he married a Maria O'Neil who was an Irish governess in their house. His family rejected him and the couple moved to New Orleans, where three children were born, including my great-great-grandmother Julia White (b. 1867). Her younger sister Florence Evangelini White (b. 1884) was deaf and mute.

Julia married Frederick Brechtel (b. 1864 in New Orleans) when she was only 15 years old. Frederick was a bellboy at one of the local hotels. One of the witnesses listed on the marriage record was her father John White.

John fell on hard times and became an alcoholic. In the 1890s, a wealthy woman visited the house in a carriage, and said she was taking John back home to his family. The only person at home at the time was Florence, who could not hear nor speak. He told her (somehow) that he would come back for his children, but he never did. The family received a few letters from him, but the story goes that no one could read, so they didn't mean anything.

I visited the New England Historic Genealogical Society a few years ago, and searched the city directories for White's Hotel, but could not find it. I also searched the birth registrations for a John White - there were several. I believe his middle initial was L.

A while back, I received a response to a message I posted on the White RootsWeb list from someone who said he had a letter from his grandmother, that said the grandmother was working at White's Hotel in Boston. The person who contacted me was traveling a lot for work at that time, and was unable to get to his notes. I lost contact with the person, and have never found any other mention of this hotel.

If any of the attendees to NERGC has information about White's Hotel or the White family who owned it, it would be great to hear from you. You might be able to break down a big brick wall for me!

Who is your favorite ancestor and why?

My great-great-grandfather Bernard Rice who was born in September 1837 in Lower Killevy, Co. Armagh. He came to New Orleans in 1852 with his mother Ann, his brothers James and Felix, and his sister Mary Ann. He married Catherine Swords and they had many children, including my great-grandfather Mathew Adam Rice.

When Bernard died of railroad injuries in 1898, Catherine put on his tombstone "My Loving Husband" and I sense she meant that. She was buried next to him many years later. The Rice relatives I have known during my life have all been good-natured and easy-going. I was very close to Bernard Rice's grandson Bernard Frederick Rice who was my grandfather.

I think it I ever got to meet my great-great-grandfather, we would be very close, too. I'd like to hear his stories about growing up in Ireland, what happened to his father and two sisters who evidently didn't make it to the United States, and what made the family leave and wind up in New Orleans, of all places.

What is your top tip for analyzing a photo for information?

To first spend time with the photo going over the details and understanding what it is "really" trying to tell you.

Do you have any upcoming projects or books you would like to talk about?

I always have quite a few projects going on or on the horizon. At the moment, I am looking forward to identifying
Benjaman Kyle, the amnesiac now living in Savannah, GA. He is the subject of one of my talks at NERGC. If I can identify him by the conference, I may be able to let a few cats out of a few bags, but we'll have to wait and see. ;)

Given Colleen's work and busy schedule, I suspected she didn't have much free time for hobbies and recreational activities, but I still had to ask.

What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?

Spare time? Hmmm...I think I had some once. Just kidding...

I love to travel and meet people from foreign counties. I love foreign languages. I love writing books and articles. I go walking with my good friend a lot.

Andy and I have just begun roasting our own coffee. We bought some green coffee beans for Christmas, and have been learning to listen for the "first crack" and the "second crack" when we roast them. The beans come from six different counties, and we are discovering how the coffees they produce vary in aroma, flavor, etc. and how the flavor changes as you sit there and sip.

If you would like additional information on Colleen Fitzpatrick and her work, check out her websites
Identifinders International and Forensic Genealogy. You can also follow her work at the Identifinders' Blog.

Other Posts You Might Like:
COG 97: Researching "The Coldbrook Tragedy" (Part 1 of 4)
Where They Lived: Every Address Tells a Story
A Matter of Habit: Solving a Mystery
Meditation: The Strength of Ordinary Women


Heather Rojo said...

Love this! I didn't know she was a rocket scientist before genealogy. Very cool, my husband is a rocket scientist, too, so I understood exactly how she took to forensic genealogy. A fascinating interview.

Lucie LeBlanc Consentino said...

Great interview Cynthia!!


Greta Koehl said...

Outstanding interview - and what an interesting lady she is!

Barbara Poole said...

Everything is perfect in your interview; questions, answers, photo and set-up. Very nice Cindy.

Carol said...

Well done!!

Cynthia Shenette said...

Thank you all for your nice comments! I appreciate them. Colleen is such an interesting person. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her.