About Me

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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
Born in Illinois, I grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. I am married, for the 2nd time now, to Butch & got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me grandmother 25 times over & great-grandmother to over 20!. After many years working in industry, I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication, & was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 & returned to school & got my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore & genealogy - & add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/author/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play many folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I write the "Aunty Jeff" column for the Informer, newsletter of the Jefferson County NY Gen. Soc. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega & Sara Cochran as Genealogy Journeys® where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that: genaandjean.blogspot.com. More on our podcasts: genjourneys.podbean.com. More about my own projects: Circlemending.org.

Monday, May 30, 2011

When is a Princess not a Princess?

When she fails the pea test, of course. (No, not pee . . . pea, like the vegetable.)

I received a phone call from a gentleman who was embroiled  in a lawsuit, much of which is irrelevant to my involvement and that I will refrain from detailing here so as to protect his identity, along with the specifics about the other individuals in the case. His main concern was that I might be able to assist him in proving that a person's claim to royalty was nothing more than a fairy tale. With that premise, it was hard to resist my response when the lawyer for the case called and asked me if I knew how to tell whether or not a princess had a rightful claim to such a title. I remembered well the Broadway play "Once upon a Mattress" (my granddaughter played the princess in a college version and was magnificent, but I digress); being a folklorist, I am also well familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale from which the musical took its plot and simply suggested he try that test - a few mattresses, a pea, and a princess (or not, depending on her narcoleptic tendencies, of course).

The lawyer, at first, was mystified, then he howled and said that I appeared to be the best person for the job . . . I had a sense of humor, which, apparently, was necessary for this task of disproving a royal claim.

Shortly after speaking to the lawyer and my initial contact, I was deluged with documentation about the alleged royal highness's lineage. All I needed to do was sort through it all. No problem: I had four days to prepare! Everything in my life was moved to the back burners (and some things were removed to the outside grill): I had a mission!

Genealogists reading this will tell you that one of the mantras of this profession is "work from the known to the unknown." How many times I recite this when giving presentations, I cannot tell. We start with ourselves and work backwards, cutting through the generational foliage to compile a clean (if possible) tree with branches, limbs, and leaves representing the people who came before. But some people, especially those wishing to claim a root from a particularly rare or unusual plant, will start with the desired "source" and work towards the present. Why is this problematic? Well, one complication comes when the sought-after ancestor left no descendants. What then? Some people are content to just stick in a few to make the line continue (these are things that literally cause shivers down the spines of the real genealogists). Others look for a different origin of self to claim as theirs. And some just keep adding names without verification, often using sources that are suspect, at best, and often repeat frequently quoted, unfounded data that has no evidence to back it up (finding the same information on five different sources, all tracing back to the same, incorrectly researched source, is really just a single citation - quantity is not enough to create proof: quality is of utmost importance).

OK, that said, here I sat with a lineage of a very impressive line, going back into the earliest times of recorded history, with a narrative to explain how it ties together to come to the end result: a member of a royal family, living in our midst in America, with roots so long and so old that they must hold up an impressive tree. At least, that is what it seemed at first glance. With a little research, I unearthed the truth: the foundation of this plant was full of root-rot! Sorting through the hard-to-read paperwork proved to be my first challenge (if you want to impress people, the harder the "facts" are to read, the more accurate they must be, right?). Following the twists and turns of the tree led me into a veritable forest of families, intertwined and connected, often by unrelated vines used to bring the branches closer together - but closer together does not make two separate plants part of the same tree . . . or even in the same genus. Instead, I found different families of different locales mixed together to create an apparent jumble of DNA. A great-grandchild born a number of years before the related great-grandparent; everyone's favorite ancestor ("unknown") married to an unrelated person, grafted into the trunk and added to the mix; and a lack of primary (or a sufficient number of derivative sources) to create a sense of reality.

With the work of a professional genealogist who had traced the family from the present back to the earliest provable data, I was able to determine that the royal blood just might have involved a transfusion. I did not disprove her princess claim - but using the Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy ("if it cannot be proven false it must be true") is not how I proceed in the way I do business - I could only state that the claim could not be advanced using the information proved by HRH (her royal highness). While on the witness stand (which ended up being a week after the initially expected appearance), I made it clear that her claims could neither be proved nor disproved with the data provided. I did consider suggesting the pea test, but having no appropriate vegetables (nor the requisite 20 mattresses) with me, I elected to just give the reminder that genealogy, like any science, involves proof: hypotheses are just that - the information that requires further investigation and numerous tests before moving them into the "conclusion" category. I attempted to completely describe the Genealogical Proof Standard, but was not given ample time for a full explanation. Oh, well . . . let it be known by all present (and those not) that I did try.

So, to my reader friends, this is why I have been rather absent of late. It is not a desire to hide or an illness, breakdown, or other ailment - I've just been tangled in some roots and branches and have been out on a limb trying to find my way back down and out of the forest. Perhaps when I entered it to begin with, like the Haunted Forest in the Wizard of Oz with its "I'd turn back if I were you" warning,

I should have been like the Cowardly Lion and tried to heed the warning . . . but look at all I would have missed. And, with no real proof one way or another, I might have missed that opportunity of being in the presence of royalty, right here in the good old USA.


  1. What an interesting challenge and not one a genealogist would get every day :) So...instead of peas, how about DNA? No mattresses needed!

  2. Very amusing and interesting post Jean. I enjoy hearing about your adventures quite a bit. Julie Chlarson

  3. Yes, Joan, I considered DNA. I was surprised no one had suggested it before. However, we have a mix of male/female/male/female ancestry and tracking it from a female would not get her the results she sought and would only lead to "inconclusive" from my perspective. Of course, by the time it got to me there was no time to do such a test (wonder if that was orchestrated?)

  4. Jean,

    The folks on alt.talk.royalty would have loved to take a crack at this. There is nothing they enjoy more than exposing people claiming to be royalty and they are darn good at it.


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