A red herring is a literary device where the author of work inserts a clue that misleads the reader into thinking one thing, when the truth lies elsewhere. Frequently deployed in mysteries, where the author makes you think one person is guilty of a murder, when really it’s someone else. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for using the technique in his movies. Red herrings are also yummy little fish frequently found at the kiddush table after attending synagogue on the sabbath, but I digress.
In genealogy, sometimes you spend a lot of time researching a lead that is not actually a lead at all. I sometimes think that when you have a very unique surname that you’re researching, you’re more prone to being fooled by a red herring, because you think there’s less chance of the name being from a different family. My own surname, Trauring, is fairly rare. In general, I’ve always been able to connect Traurings to my own family, although there are some exceptions. What I’ve found is that many times when I find the name Trauring, it’s not actually Trauring – that’s where the red herring come in.
The Guatemala Plane Crash
Take, for example, a plane crash that occurred in Guatemala in 1974. A few years ago I ran into an article from the Baltimore Sun that covers a plane crash where 21 American tourists were killed in Guatemala. The crash occurred in 1974, and among the listed victims was a family: Jonathon, Edith, David and Robert Trauring. Here’s the article:
Certainly a plane crash in an exotic location where a family that shares your rare surname is something that draws your attention. I spent some time trying to figure out who these people were, and how they were connected to my family. Something seemed wrong, however, right from the beginning. How was it that I had never heard of a family that lived not that far from mine (I grew up in Massachusetts, this family lived in New Jersey), with the same last name, who died in a plane crash during my lifetime? That issue nagged at me, but I continued to look. I figured they must have been from a distant branch of my family that I was in touch with, that lived mostly in the mid-west. I contacted one of those distant cousins, a fourth cousin once removed I believe, and yet they had never heard of this family either. Another clue that something was wrong was that I didn’t find any evidence of this family existing at all. I eventually gave up, filed the article into my Mysteries folder, and figured I’d work it out later.
Recently I decided to take a look again. I found two other articles that covered the same crash, one on Google’s News search, and another on Ancestry’s Newspapers.com. Here’s the article from Newspapers.com that was published in the El Dorado News-Times (El Dorado, Arkansas) on 30 December 1974:
|El Dorado News-Tribune (El Dorado, Arkansas) 30 Dec 1974 Page 2 (Newspapers.comme)|
So the surname is Traurig, right? Well, truthfully the information from this article is no more reliable than the other one so how do I know? Obviously finding evidence of the existence of this family as Traurig would be helpful in closing the book on this red herring.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. Look at both articles. What are the names listed? The first article says:
Jonathon Trauring, 74 Skyes Avenue, Livingston, NJ; Edith Trauring, same address; David Trauring, a child of the same address; Robert Trauring, a child of the same address.Clearly according to this article the family is Jonathan and Edith the parents, with David and Robert their children.
The second article says:
Jonathan, Edith, David and Robert TraurigIt doesn’t explicitly state who the children are, but the normal assumption would be that the first two listed are the parents and the last two are children.
So Jonathon is the father, right? Wrong. Robert, the last listed and the one explicitly listed as a child in the first article, is the father. Edith is the mother. David and Jonathon are the children. How do I know this? Well, the obvious person to search for first is the father, and so following the article I searched for Jonathon Trauring, then later Traurig, and found nothing. I finally decided to search for Edith Traurig, where I found her SSDI entry and on Ancestry.com, finally, some solid evidence. Ancestry.com has a collection of documents from the US State Department called Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1835-1974. I actually found my great-grandfather’s records in this collection in the past. In this case, considering the deaths occurred on December 28, 1974, I was lucky as the collection only goes through the end of 1974 – only a few days later. Here’s a excerpt of Robert’s file:
|Report of the Death of American Citizen Abroad – Robert Bernard Traurig|
Just so you know, with the information in these reports (which includes the names of the parents of Robert and Edith and their addresses at the time), it’s possible to trace the family back quite a bit. Robert and his parents show up in the 1930 and 1940 censuses. Robert’s father came from Austria, likely Galicia (likely because in one census Austria is crossed out and Poland is written in – and the region of Austria that became part of Poland after WWI was the Galicia region). With a little more digging, such as getting a copy of his naturalization papers, we could probably track this family back to the town they came from in Austria/Poland.
One other thing worth noting. Both articles use the unusual spelling Jonathon. The report of death for him spells the name Jonathan. Which is correct? I don’t know, but you’d think the State Department document would have double-checked the name, so possibly both newspaper articles misspelled this given name, but only one misspelled the surname? Pushing that point further, the name given for the father in the original article – Jonathon Trauring – was completely wrong (not the father, spelling of the given name wrong, spelling of the surname wrong). Wonder why I couldn’t find this family originally?
Did my gg-grandfather have two wives?
Ever run into a piece of information on your family that you wish you had not? This is the story of finding one such piece of information, but luckily finding out it was a red herring.
Searching on FamilySearch.org one day, I came across a record of an Isac Trauring in the 1915 Rhode Island state census:
|Isac Trauring in 1915 Rhode Island Census (FamilySearch.org)|
A rare name like Trauring. First name Isaac. Born in Austria. In 1862. I mean, come on, obviously the same person right?
My gg-grandfather had lived in the US from the late 19th century up until about 1913 when he returned to Europe just in time for WWI (lucky him). That was another red flag. I had documentation of him in Vienna in 1914, and plenty of documentation of him living in Antwerp in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but the problem was I couldn’t prove he had not returned to the US in 1915. Indeed, I didn’t have much evidence at all from that document from 1914 until after my gg-grandmother died in 1925. So was my gg-grandfather married to two women?
Luckily, even without the original census record, I was able to prove otherwise. At the time it wasn’t easy, but what I came up with was the following:
|Maria Traurig in 1930 US Census in Rhode Island|
|Original 1915 Rhode Island Census entries for Isac and Maria Traurig|
Still, it’s worth considering for a moment that this typo (from less common name to more rare name) was made for a person what matched every other metric exactly – same first name, same birth country, same birth year. Too many coincidences? Apparently not.
Greenberg Traurig is a fairly well-known global law firm headquartered in Miami, with offices around the US and around the world (even here in Israel). Among other areas of law, they file patents. I’ve had to do patent searches in the past and I have one patent, so occasionally I would search for ‘Trauring’ in the patent database online and see what came up. Besides my patent, and one by a cousin of mine, I saw a few that didn’t seem to fit. Here’s one such patent filed on behalf of Disney:
|Disney Patent on Interactive Character System, filed by Greenberg Traurig|
Apparently, Trauring is a natural mistake to make, because it’s not the only place it shows up. Look at this screen shot from Greenberg Traurig’s web site:
|Web page on gtlaw.com, the web site of Greenberg Traurig|
Luckily, I’m familiar with the law firm and knew the name was Traurig. If the typo had been on the inventors name, and I had spent hours trying to track down a person that didn’t exist, that would not have been fun. The point here is that even documents prepared by global law firms can have typos that can lead you astray.
Indeed all of these mistakes could originate simply as typos. The misspelled name in he news story could have been a typo, or perhaps a misheard spelling on an international phone call between Guatemala and a news bureau in the United States. The census record could have been a transcription mistake, or a typo. The Greenberg Traurig mistakes are almost certainly typos.
So next time you come across a name of a possible relative, and your gut tells you there is something wrong, trust your gut and make sure you’re not following a red herring.
So what can you learn from the above cases? Here’s what I learned:
- When your gut tells you there is something wrong with the lead you’re following, listen to your gut.
- Always search for all members of a family, not just the adults (or who you think are the adults).
- Just because an index says a name is correct, don’t assume it is correct. Always check the original document.
- Never settle for one record to provide you with information you’re seeking – always look for corroboration from multiple additional sources (and different types of sources).
- Red herring should be eaten, not followed.