Omission vs. commission

Detail of Lippitt manuscript, 2020

When I “hand-off” a genealogical manuscript, it can be some time before the work is handed back to me with queries from the copyeditor. Occasionally in that time, more resources may emerge (or become more accessible), and my own choices might have evolved with regard to ways of “ending” research where no solution was found.

While I will look at online trees for possibilities, and may put clues in brackets, my general practice is to remove them later on if I can find no supporting documentation. In a roundtable discussion when asked about this, Robert Charles Anderson said he would prefer to “commit the sin of omission versus the sin of commission.” Indeed, if you include a name itself within a genealogical summary of an article, even if you signal questions with “probably” or “possibly,” expect to see that person attached to the family in online trees soon thereafter, usually without any reference to your article or your caveats.

The Wilmington Weekly Messenger, 13 June 1902

Still, there are occasions where the clue on the tree seems to make sense, and so I am reluctant omit the possibility. The above example was from research a few years ago that I had to revisit after a copyeditor’s query. This concerned the family of John Edward Lippitt (1833-1885) and his wife Athalia Brown (1837-1902) of Wilmington, North Carolina. John and Athalia had seven children, and while I had successfully “married off” two of them (and tracked another four who never married), their third child, Augusta Taylor Lippitt (born in 1863), was the one with whom I had hit a roadblock. I had found Augusta living unmarried in the 1900 census with her brother in Denver, Colorado. In 1902, Augusta’s mother died in New York City, and papers in Wilmington referred to Augusta as still living in Denver. This was the last record I could find of Augusta.

An online tree had said she married “D.J. Tirsway” in September 1903. I researched Mr. Tirsway, who I soon learned was Dennis J. Tirsway, and while I found him in several city directories in Denver (but not listing a wife), I could not find him in the 1910 or 1920 census, and by 1930 (then living in Evergreen, Colorado), he was widowed. Dennis J. Tirsway (1860-1955) was born in Nevada, according to the 1900, 1930, and 1940 censuses (with parents born in Denmark, per 1900 and 1930). To make matters more confusing, in the 1910 census there was a Dennis Tirsway with wife Minerva, living in Sheridan, Wyoming, but this (at first) appeared to be a different Dennis, as his birthplace was listed as Scotland.[1]

I had left Augusta’s possible marriage out of the manuscript but had forgotten to remove the query in the footnote. Thankfully, the copyeditor noticed this. While I could have just removed the reference to the marriage I had been unsuccessful in validating, I decided to take another look. I did a Google search of “Tirsway” and “Lippitt,” which I’m sure I had done previously, but this time I found a monograph entitled Descendants of Duncan & Ann (Cameron) MacRae of Scotland and North Carolina, which is also in our own collection. This genealogy related to the family through Augusta’s grandmother (Amelia [MacRae] Brown) and, given the common surnames, it is not something I would have been led to normally. It appears to be the source of the various undocumented trees, as the marriage is just given as a month and year without a place, and Augusta’s husband is “D.J. Tirsway,” just as he had been in the trees.

Given that this work refers to Augusta as living in Cody, Wyoming in 1928, the year before it was printed, it would appear the author was in touch directly with Augusta or a near relative.

I now knew that Augusta was likely alive in 1928. However as stated above, Dennis was a widower in the 1930 census. With this new information, I searched Wyoming Death records, 1909-1969 (available on, and only released earlier this year), to find “Augustus Tirsway” dying at none other than Cody, Wyoming, on 14 March 1929, aged 65, fitting perfectly with the age of our Augusta Lippitt, who was born 14 October 1863!

I’m grateful when copyeditors prompt a fresh look at research that was done over some time, and also for the opportunity to add additional references that were not readily available before: in this case, the process led to finding better records to confirm an unsourced clue.


[1] This 1910 entry turned out to be the same Dennis Tirsway, and “Minerva” was our Augusta, but whoever took this information got several facts wrong in addition to Dennis’s birthplace and Augusta’s name. They are also with Dennis’s son Harry by an earlier marriage, who had been with Dennis in the 1900 census when the latter was widowed before remarrying. This 1910 entry says Dennis and “Minerva” have been married twenty years (instead of six) and gives her birthplace as Ohio instead of North Carolina.

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

12 thoughts on “Omission vs. commission

  1. Commission versus Omission is spot on! Interesting comment on human nature to prefer the former sin to the later sin. Since I am sometimes this type of sinner I use HO for Hypothesis as a preface to something such as name to remind me it a possibility without assigning a probability and requires more research.

    1. When we were all using typewriters (even Chris remembers those), “commission” of information-as-a-clue was, to me, appropriate. That “may” and “possibly” get turned into facts just reflects human tendencies to smooth rough places. I appreciate suggestions left for me, the future user of what’s been done. I appreciate them even more when they are acknowledged as such in the text. In Chris’ example, he had not included a “source” for the speculation, such as “Such&Such Public Tree, Ancestry.” If he had done so, would that have sufficed for the copy-editor to not query it, and so let it go to publication? That gets you into house copy-editing standards, which can be another Chris VB entry!

  2. I think that Wyoming census taker was just messing with you! What a lot of important details got scrambled. I have no explanation for how my maternal grandfather and his mother were listed as natives of England in the 1930 census, when they were both born in Washington, as was my great-grandfather (who was correctly listed that way).

  3. Thanks – I have used Ancestry’s AI programs in their US census index with ‘View/add alternate info’ then return in a week and check what is in ‘Suggested Records’. This is also a good way to find similar families that are NOT related. In that case be sure to add the correct maiden name to both mothers. Also check

    1. Can not praise the use of this procedure more. I’ve taken to calling it, and a few other ancillary steps, as “jujitsuing Ancestry”. Make those algorithms work FOR you by making the changes and then waiting a few days for Ancestry’s update procedure to sort through. New, more accurate links to other records may very well have been created. And as with Chri’s Google re-search, Ancestry is adding material often.

      An “associative indexing” problem I have noticed is that some related fact does not get swept up in the regular updates. You have to find it first in the particular database, use it, and then later the updating routines go Aha, you mean that with this person.

  4. Tantalizing. Yesterday I was working on a cousin’s family: Samuel Brown Lippitt (1896-1987 in Georgia), married my second cousin, Bernice Sauls (1901-1963 in Georgia). I didn’t attempt to follow his line back, but with both Brown and Lippitt, perhaps I should!

    1. Samuel and Bernice are in the manuscript! Samuel is a ninth generation descendant, son of Addison Jones and Irene Scarritt (Jones) Lippitt of Albany, Georgia.

      Samuel’s line of descent is: Samuel Brown9 Lippitt (Addison Jones8, Alexander S.7, Samuel Chace6, Thomas5, Joseph4, Moses3-2, John1)

      1. Thanks! Now, since you added no probably’s or possibly’s, this line will appear in my online family tree! At some point I may take the time to fill it out…

  5. I think you have hit upon a useful tactic, trying a search with different search parameters. It’s amazing how slightly differing searches pop up new data with new clues.

    1. Yes, asking Mr. Google (or Ms, if you prefer) the correct question is another necessary skill for us. Develop it like any other skill; do it for every search. Change the ask. You will get different hit “answers” and different orders of hits, too. I usually do Husband’s Full Name comma Wife’s First Name in a “let’s see what’s out there search.” I find using the comma still makes a difference. Then, I’ll switch the names.

      And as with Ancestry, Google as a system is still accessing more material, Books especially. Going back after some time (like years!) can lead to pleasant surprises: I know I’ve previously entered search parameters as simple as this: Full Name comma General location, and gotten nothing. Several months ago, I tried it again and, wow, a Smoking Gun hit got returned. I’ve no idea when this 1849 volume of officially published records by Her Majesty’s Printing Office in Dublin got uploaded, but there it was. Would never have occurred to me to even try a World Catalog search to see if such a thing even existed.

      Doing a Google search initially in Books gets you more focused “hits” back, I’ve found.

      Oh, and all those newspapers that Google put up years ago before stopping with the advent of They are still there to be found in Books.

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