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Posts from the ‘Genealogy Insights’ Category

To Be or Not to Be… a Descendant of William Shakespeare

One recent evening, I was browsing my online family tree at I had just days earlier confirmed a connection that led me to being able to identify a tenth-great-grandfather on my mother’s side: John Hill, born in 1572, in Sommerset County, England. Having identified John Hill, my next mission was to see what other records might exist that could perhaps lead me to even older ancestors.

Anyone who is familiar with can easily imagine what I did next… On my profile for John Hill, I clicked the folder tab titled “Hints”. (A “Hint” is a term Ancestry uses to refer to a promising lead that might help one identify additional family connections. Ancestry scans their databases for such leads and then passes them on as links to historical records or information submitted by other genealogists.)

Amongst the several hints that appeared for my John Hill, were some links to the family trees of other genealogists who also claimed to be descendants of John Hill. (Such leads can prove valuable, as someone else may have already discovered meaningful information about a common ancestor that you could, in turn, incorporate into your own family tree.)

As I scanned through several of these other genealogists’ family trees, I noticed something that most of their files had in common: they showed John Hill as being married to Susanna Shakespeare. Exploring this further, I clicked one link, and then another, and then I gasped in disbelief…

This Susanna Shakespeare was noted to have been the daughter of a William Shakespeare. “Nooo,” I thought to my self, could this be THE William Shakespeare??” Sure enough, he was: William Shakespeare, the famous English poet and playwright, born 449 years ago, in 1564! And if what I was seeing was correct, that would make William Shakespeare MY eleventh-great-grandfather!

“Wait until I tell my family!” I thought to myself (in proper Shakespearean English, no less).


Armed with this new information, I did what any eager family historian would do… I searched for as many historical texts as I could find that might describe the personal life and the family of my new-found ancestor, William Shakespeare (information that would both validate this new discovery and, perhaps, lead to yet more family tree connections).

As I did so, one contradictory fact emerged that was nagging at my inner historian self. In my prior research, I had understood John Hill to have been a farmer; but all of the historical texts I was reading about William Shakespeare referred to his son-in-law, John Hill, as having been a prominent physician. Determined to resolve this discrepancy, I dug further and was surprised to find my ancestor’s life painted in a very different way than I had previously known.

My inner historian self still troubled, I returned to my prior research. Laying the conflicting information side by side, it was immediately apparent what I had done. My tenth-great-grandfather, John Hill, was indeed a farmer, a simple man and a Puritan. John HALL, on the other hand, was a prominent English physician. And yes, it was John HALL, not my ancestor, who married William Shakespeare’s daughter.

Frustrated and angry, I slammed the palms of my hands down on my desk. Mind you, I was not angry at learning that I was not descended from William Shakespeare. Rather, I was angry at myself for having made such a simple mistake. With all my experience, how could I have let myself get drawn down this erroneous path?! Of course, it then occurred to me that I was not alone in my error. After all, numerous other genealogists commingled the identities of John Hill and John Hall and included the Shakespeares in their online family trees. (More than half of those researching John Hill on had done so!)

An Analysis of the Problem

Personally, I am a big fan of Ancestry’s “hint” system. Through their hints, I have found some remarkable information that I might otherwise never have known about. That said, I nonetheless caution people to look very closely at every hint before accepting it as fact and incorporating it into one’s own family tree. (On average, I estimate that I have rejected about 75% of such hints as being inaccurate or not applying to my family.)

One shortcoming of Ancestry’s hints is that they will include records for individuals with similar names. Interestingly, this is also a strength of their hint system. (Every genealogist has encountered documents with misspelled names. For that matter, people, and sometimes entire families, have themselves changed the spelling of their names over the years. So it helps to be openminded to name variations.) My mistake, in this case, was that I scanned over the hints so quickly that I didn’t even notice the difference in spelling.

More than simply missing a different spelling of my ancestor’s last name, however, I also neglected to thoughtfully analyze other conflicting information. Had I done so, I would have noticed more quickly the different professions of the similarly named men. And I would have realized that the timeframe of the supposed marriage to Susanna Shakespeare was not logical, given the dates of birth of John Hill’s known children. Instead, I seized on the excitement of thinking that I might be related to William Shakespeare; and, albeit it only temporarily, I accepted the findings of other genealogists without first reviewing their sources with a critical eye.


I think it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.” (He was so ahead of his time!) This is especially the case with genealogy.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that internet-based research be avoided. Quite the contrary, I am a big fan of the internet! It has facilitated the sharing of information like mankind has never known before; and this sharing of information has led many a genealogist to discover meaningful legacies! (As a personal example… While I might have been disappointed to learn that I am not a descendant of William Shakespeare, through the internet I was able to discover — and verify — a connection with another tenth-great-grandfather, George Calvert, First Lord Baron Baltimore.)

Nonetheless, genealogists have a responsibility to themselves, and to the genealogy community overall, to include citations on all information they publish online. And genealogists, likewise, need to be diligent in reviewing and verifying the sources cited by others, lest they make the mistake that I did and accept as fact something that is far from it.

As William Shakespeare himself said, “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.”

Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “To Be or Not to Be… a Descendant of William Shakespeare”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted May 3, 2013, ( accessed [access date]).


The Debate Over the Ethics of Photo Restoration

At first glance, one might question how photography and genealogy are linked. The reality is, however, that a big part of genealogy and historical research is simply basic detective work.

To do a complete study of an ancestor’s past, a genealogist or family historian needs to put on their detective’s hat, turn over every stone and investigate every clue at their disposal. And old photographs just happen to provide a wealth of such clues — clues about what our ancestors looked like, where and how they lived, possibly what kind of job they had, what their likely economic status was, and what their hobbies were. Group photos, in particular, are also very helpful in solving mysteries about family relationships and other missing links.

So yes, collecting and studying old family photographs has become both an accepted and expected part of modern genealogy. This reality aside, however, what can be said about the growing trend of photo restoration?

Photo Restoration Defined

In the context of historical photos, “photo restoration” in the strictest sense, is defined as the practice of using tools to repair a photo to what one assumes was its original appearance. Typically, this includes repairing the evidence of tears, removing scratches or cracks, correcting fading or color damage caused by sunlight or other environmental factors, and removing stains, mold, or other damage that was not present when the photo was originally created.

In the past, such restoration efforts required a trained professional who used the likes of air brushes, natural hair brushes, erasers, charcoal, various pencils, paints and knives to work their magic. In today’s digital era, such photo restoration can be accomplished by anyone with a computer, a scanner, photo editing software (such as Adobe Photoshop) and a little patience.

Of course, as with anything, some individuals are more skilled than others at using such tools. This, and the fact that one person’s assumption of what the original photo looked like might not be the same as someone else’s, is what creates some of the controversy over what is commonly referred to as the “ethics” of photo restoration.

Differing Opinions Amongst Historians and Genealogists

There are some historians and genealogists who believe that ANY alteration of an original image is unethical — even if such alteration is simply repairing damage caused by time, the elements or neglect. Such purists believe that any damage to the original image simply explains the historical “journey” that the photo experienced over the years and should be preserved as the character of the image in its current form. They also question the judgement or ability of the restorer in being able to actually restore the image to its original form (as opposed to perhaps mistakenly altering some piece of the image that was historically relevant).

In contrast to the opinion of such purists, there are other historians and genealogists who actively support the practice of photo restoration. At the heart of their support is a desire to honor their ancestors by returning their photos to an unstained, untorn, non-discolored state and sharing such repaired images with as many family members as possible. Backing up their thinking on this are the efforts of art conservationists who have painstakingly restored the works of such masters as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinchi and Raphael. A family historian of this thinking could argue that, if the Vatican thought it appropriate to restore the painted walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come, then families deserve no less.

My Personal Opinion

Personally, I lean more to the camp of those who support and encourage photo restoration. After all, my entire approach to family history is from the perspective of discovering and preserving a family’s legacy for years to come — an approach that entails uncovering the story of our ancestors by piecing together the many details of their lives with both nuance and emotion. When looking at historical photos, I want to be able to see the details of my ancestors’ faces, the details of the clothes they were wearing and the details of the homes they lived in, without the distraction of scratches, torn edges and discoloration. More importantly, I want future generations to be able to see them in a similar manner, to understand them and to enjoy them as well.

All this said, I do have concern with a growing trend amongst some family genealogists to go beyond simply restoring a photograph and instead manipulating and changing the image to suit their whims. Personally, I don’t see it as productive to embellish historical photos with fancy borders and graphics. Worse yet, I find it troubling when some use Photoshop to remove certain individuals from a photo altogether or to add individuals who weren’t present when the original photo was taken. (I have encountered, for example, photos of families where sons or brothers who were away at war or who, in some cases had even died, were digitally “pasted” into family group photos as if they were present when the photo was taken. I see this as very problematic to a future historian who might not be aware that the photo was altered.)

In my opinion, sensitivity to how a photo appeared in its original form is critically important. Repairing tears, scratches, cracks, fading, discoloration, stains, mold or other damage that occurred over time is not inconsistent with historical principles of preservation. But such repairs should be conducted in a conservative manner; and copies of original photos (damage and wear included) should be made available to family members who request them.

An example of a simple, conservative photo restoration.  (The contrast and tone were balanced; scratches and other surface damage were corrected; shadows were reduced and the overall image was sharpened.)  While the final product is not "perfect", the goal was for modifications to be as minimal as possible, while also allowing for faces to be brightened and the detail of the image more readily visible.)  [Appearing fourth from the left is my grandfather, Joseph Heuisler Tormey, Sr., with his parents and siblings.  The photo was taken in the spring of 1917, just prior to my grandfather leaving for France during World War I.]

An example of a simple, conservative photo restoration. (The contrast and tone were balanced; scratches and other surface damage were corrected; shadows were reduced and the overall image was sharpened.) While the final product is not “perfect”, the goal was for modifications to be as minimal as possible, while also allowing for faces to be brightened and the detail of the image more readily visible.) [Appearing fourth from the left is my grandfather, Joseph Heuisler Tormey, Sr., with his parents and siblings. The photo was taken in the spring of 1917, just prior to my grandfather leaving for France during World War I.]

Consider Adopting a Photo Restoration Protocol

With an eye towards conservative principles, I encourage genealogists and family historians to adopt a photo restoration protocol and to be consistent in following it.

Following is an suggested plan:

1) With the mindset of a preservationist or a museum curator, take steps to secure and preserve original family photographs in an archival-safe, acid-free environment. (There are numerous storage containers on the market developed for exactly this purpose.)

2) Consistent with the approach of such a preservationist, adopt a policy of not manipulating or altering historical photographs in a manner that goes beyond repairing damage. (i.e., Avoid the temptation to embellish or add something that wasn’t in the original photo.)

3) When scanning photos, save original scans in a master file (preferably in a non-degraded TIFF-type format and at as high a resolution as is reasonable, given the limitations of the scanning hardware you are using) Preserve such original scans as your digital masters and be careful not to save altered versions over them. (i.e., When using photo editing software to make repairs to a damaged photo, save such changes as a separate file, rather than overwriting your original scan.)

4) Don’t forget in your preservation efforts to be diligent about identifying the subject of each photo. (Who is pictured in the photo? Where was the photo taken? What was the date, or estimated date, of the photo?) Catalogue and mark the back of original photos with such facts using an acid-free medium, such as a soft, light-colored pencil; and clearly name electronic files with as much identifying detail as possible.


Like it or not, photo restoration efforts are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the world of genealogy. My advice to genealogists and family historians is to embrace the benefits made available with modern photo editing software, but to do so conservatively and in a manner that doesn’t detract from the legacy that your ancestors would want you to inherit and pass on to your own descendants.

Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “The Debate Over the Ethics of Photo Restoration”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted May 1, 2013, ( accessed [access date]).


The Math Behind a Family Tree: The Cruel Side of Genealogy

I have been actively working on my family’s genealogy for the past thirty-three years. In that time, I have uncovered some amazing facts and have learned more about my family than I ever thought possible. So why is it that, after all these years of hard work, I feel I have barely scratched the surface of all there is to discover?

As I have pondered on this question, I have had to come to grips with the duplicity of my my relationship with “Miss Genealogy”.

You see, I love Genealogy. From the first day I set my eyes on her, I was captivated by the hope and promise she tempted me with. And, indeed, she has been very good to me. She has inspired me; and she has opened my eyes to a greater understanding of myself. And I, in turn, have been motivated to work hard and please her with the rewards of my labor. Sadly, though, my efforts never seems to be enough to please Miss Genealogy; and she constantly reminds me of my inadequacy.

Putting my tongue-in-cheek humor aside, the reality I am trying to express about genealogy is that the more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know. The more you discover, the more missing links you find, the more family mysteries you solve, the more you realize is yet undone. Simply put, genealogy is a never ending endeavor. And the reality of this lies in what I call “the math behind a family tree”.

The simple mathematical formula of genealogy is that with each generation backwards you look, the number of ancestors waiting to be discovered doubles. Each person has two biological parents. They have double the amount of grandparents: four. They have double the amount of great-grandparents: eight. They have double the amount of great-great-grandparents: sixteen. And double begets more doubles, to the point of infinity.

And this, my friends, is the math behind genealogy. It is why I fret that my ancestor sleuthing is never going to end. Alas, all my effort will never be enough to please Miss Genealogy!!

I stumbled across this realization one day after celebrating the discovery of my first set of tenth-great-grandparents. After the euphoria of my discovery wore off, I set about to figure out how much work lie before me to find all of my other tenth-great-grandparents. I’m embarrassed to say, I couldn’t do the math in my head. Putting pen to paper, I was shocked at the size of the number.

And the answer is… (drumroll please)… 4,096! (Gulp!)

After coming to this shocking realization, the conversation in my head quickly moved on to a discussion with self as to whether the glass is half empty or half full.

The moral of the story is that genealogy can indeed be a numbers game. And if one’s motivation is simply to fill pedigree charts with names, then one’s measure of success lies in how many individuals are in his or her family tree. My challenge to genealogists, however, is to change the focus from the quantity of names in a family tree to the quality of information in a family history. That is to say, the legacy of one’s tenth-great-grandparents lies in their personalities, their triumphs and struggles, their dreams and their disappointments. Learning these things will help us discover more about ourselves. And yes, all my previous humor aside, this is what will lead to a happy and rewarding relationship with Miss Genealogy.

Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “The Math Behind a Family Tree: The Cruel Side of Genealogy”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 30, 2013, ( accessed [access date]).