Tag Archives: surnames

Pursuing Genealogical Red Herrings

Plane crashes, bigamy, and global law firms – enjoy.

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)
Notice the difference? In this article, published on the same day but in a different paper, the surname of this family is Traurig, not Trauring.

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 Traurig
It 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
This file represents a certification of the details of a citizen’s death, including documents signed by the US Consul in Guatemala and records from the medical examiner in NY that verified the identity of the body. As far as I’m concerned, we can safely say this family’s surname was Traurig, not Trauring. Case closed.

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)
At the time I originally viewed the record, there was no image available to double check (see the image above for what I saw then, click on the link in the caption to see what it looks like now). The record did show the name of his wife, however, which was Marie. Now, my gg-grandmother’s name was Esther, not Marie, so obviously this was a different person, right? Except my Isaac Trauring was born in 1862 in Austria – and sure enough so was this Isac Trauring. Seemed a bit too much coincidence.

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
So in 1930, a woman with the same name as Isac Trauring’s spouse in the 1915 Rhode Island State census, the right age and in the right location, had the last name Traurig, instead of Trauring. Now, that’s not conclusive proof, but it’s a step in the right direction. At the time it was enough to let me stop looking until more evidence became available. More recently, that evidence has been added to FamilySearch. Most importantly, the images of the 1915 Rhode Island Census are online now, and here are the original handwritten entries:

Original 1915 Rhode Island Census entries for Isac and Maria Traurig
The index was transcribed incorrectly. The name is clearly Traurig, not Trauring. Case closed.

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 Trauring?

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
The reason the patent showed up when I searched for ‘Trauring’ was because the name of the law firm was misspelled in the patent! Considering the law firm itself filed the patent, that’s particularly odd. Where this mistake originated, I certainly don’t know. Maybe the USPTO made a mistake somewhere, or maybe someone who worked at Greenberg Traurig just made a typo, but why Trauring of all things? Is that a natural mistake when typing 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
Note the title of the web page – Greenberg Trauring! Maybe the same employee who typed up that patent also worked on that web page?

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.

Lessons Learned

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.

A little known Facebook feature (for genealogy)…

I just ran across an interesting Facebook feature that is fairly helpful for genealogy. I don’t know if this has been around a long time, or if this is something they recently introduced.

Simply, if you go to facebook.com/family you can search all Facebook profiles by surname. Not only that, but the search is created using an easy to remember web address, so you can share a search result page. For example, searching for the surname Zylberman would send you to the page:


which is the first page of search results for the surname Zylberman. Similarly, if you changed the 1 to a 3 at the end of the web address, you would be taken to the third page of results. Of course, these search result pages will change as new accounts are created, or old accounts are deleted, etc. so sending a result page might show the names you want to show someone in the short term, but may not show the same names later.

In addition to searching in English, you can search in other character sets, such as Hebrew:


There are actually more Zylbermans listed in Hebrew than in English, but that’s likely because there are less alternate spellings in Hebrew. For the same name in Hebrew, it could be Zylberman, Zilberman, Zylbermann, Zilbermann, Sylberman, Silberman or Silbermann in English (only the variation Sylbermann does not show up on Facebook).

You can also browse surnames which is interesting. One thing you can see is how many surnames are fake on Facebook. Besides that you can see lots of variations of surnames you may not have thought to search. Like in searching, you can also browse in other character sets. When browsing, Hebrew started on page 14893 of the ‘Other’ character set listings when I tried to find it, which you can jump to by going to this page:


It may or may not be where Hebrew names start when you read this, but it’s probably not too far off if you’re reading this post not long after it was written. I could be mistaken, but it looks like Hebrew follows Armenian and is followed by maybe Farsi? When I searched, Hebrew names ended on page 17611, which means there are currently over 2700 pages of Hebrew names, or with 96 names shown per page, over a quarter of a million surnames in Hebrew on Facebook. I suppose its possible some of those names are actually in Yiddish and not Hebrew, but presumably the majority of them are Israeli users who have listed their names in Hebrew.

What if you want to search for names in Hebrew (or Yiddish) and don’t know enough Hebrew to spell the name in Hebrew, or have a Hebrew keyboard to type it out? Try using Stephen Morse’s Transliterating English to Hebrew in One Step web page, where you can type the name in English, and receive the text in Hebrew. There are slight differences in the transliteration in some cases if you choose onto the options: Sephardic, Ashkenazi or Yiddish. In the case of Zylberman, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi options return the same result (the same spelling I guessed above). Yiddish is less likely to be useful (and in this case no search results were found using the Yiddish tranliteration) for the simple reason that anyone who uses a Yiddish spelling for their name (as opposed to English or Hebrew) is not very likely to be on Facebook altogether. Once you get the text in Hebrew letters, you can copy that text and paste it into the Facebook search box.

So there you go, a super-easy way to search and browse surnames on Facebook, even using foreign alphabets.

Religious marriages, civil marriages and surnames from mothers

For many Jewish genealogists, there is a kind of ultimate brick wall of reaching past the institution of surnames around two hundred years ago. Surnames were instituted in different areas at different times, but the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, instituted surnames by declaration of their emperor in 1787. When the empire expanded in 1795 absorbing part of Poland, it took in a large Jewish population which were for the first time required to take on surnames. Depending on where they lived, some Jews were not required to take on names for another decade or more after that, so if you have successfully tracked back your family to the point where they adopted surnames, it’s not so easy to reach past that point. There are some patronymic records, which are records that only list the first name of a person and the name of their father, that exist in these areas going further back, and it may be possible to track your family back for a generation before surnames, but that’s really the maximum most people will be able to accomplish if their families did not have surnames earlier (which some rabbinic families did, as did many Sephardim).

Adding to the difficulty of tracking back that far is that many Jews had little use for their assigned surnames in the 19th century. Thus, even though they had assigned surnames which the government used to assess taxes, conscript men into the army, etc., in terms of everyday usage Jews really didn’t care about their surnames. In addition, civil marriage was largely ignored by many Jews, as it generally was expensive. Jews tended to have religious marriages and only got civilly married if they or their children for some reason needed it. This thus lead to many civil marriages long after a couple had their children, something which might seem strange at first glance, but you need to realize thati n most cases these people did get married (religiously) before they had children, they were just not married from the perspective of the state.

So what happened if your parents did not have a civil marriage? In some cases it meant you would need to take your mother’s maiden name as your surname. That’s because even if your father was listed on your birth certificate, he was not legally married to your mother, and thus you needed to take on your mother’s last name for legal purposes. If you parents were legally married at a later date, a note could be written on your birth certificate in the town records showing that your parents were legally married, and thus declaring you as legitimate (and able to take your father’s name).

In the late 19th and early 20th century, civil marriage became easier for Jews, and thus around this time if you look at marriage records you will see a large number of marriages that seem to be relatively old people. In many cases these married couples already had children and grandchildren. As their children and grandchildren became more mobile and wanted to travel out of the small towns they had been in, they needed travel documents, and in some cases this was only made possible if their older parents got married (at least if they wanted to get travel documents with their father’s surname instead of their mothers).

I have a number of examples of children taking on their mother’s surnames in my own family.

In one case two sons took on their mother’s surname when born. One traveled through Europe and eventually ended up in the US, where the passenger manifest for the ship he arrived in the US on shows he and his children still with his mother’s surname. When he became a naturalized citizen a number of years later, however, he had already changed his surname to that of his father (as did his children). The second son moved to Israel, where he kept his mother’s surname. Thus two brothers living in different countries with different surnames.

Another case was utterly confusing for a long time, until I was finally able to put the pieces together. I had the birth record for a woman named Taube Traurig. I had birth records for children of Taube Traurig and a man named Wigdor Kessler. It seemed likely that the Taube Traurig from the original birth record and the Taube Traurig who had children with Wigdor Kessler were the same person. Then I ran into something strange, a death certificate for Taube Traurig (relatively young) before the children were born. This thus indicated either a mistake in the records, or a second Taube Traurig. The problem was that I didn’t have another Taube Traurig in my records that could be the mother (there was another Taube Traurig, but she was the mother of the two sons in the previous example – and a first cousin of the one in this example).

This was a mystery for a long time, until I noticed a notation on the original Taube Traurig’s birth record that had the name Wigdor Kessler on it. That made no sense to me. How could the name of her husband be on her birth record? Not being able to translate the Polish annotation, I posted an image of the birth record to ViewMate, a great service from JewishGen that lets you post an image or photograph and ask for help with translating records or any general problem-solving that you think others can help you with concerning the image. The responses I got indicated that the parents of Taube Traurig had been legally married in 1906, thus making all of their children ‘legitimate’ in the eyes of the state. Wigdor Kessler had signed the records of the couple’s children in 1906 as a witness that they were now considered legitimate by the state.

The person who translated the record for me had said something which stuck with me – he said Wigdor Kessler was not listed as the husband of Taube Traurig in the record. Now I didn’t necessarily think they would require him to state he was the husband, but I also guessed the person telling me this had seen other similar records and if he made the comment, he probably had seen others indicate they were the husband. I also found another record which showed Wigdor Kessler having a child several years later with a Taube Engelberg instead of Taube Traurig. That was utterly confusing since the original Taube Traurig had a sister Sara who had married someone with the last name Engelberg.

So what’s the answer here? The Taube married to Wigdor Kessler was the niece of the Taube in the original birth record. Searching through the marriage records I was able to find a marriage record between Wigdor Schopf and Taube Engelberg after all the children who were born where Taube’s name was listed as Taube Traurig, and before the child was born where she is listed as Taube Engelberg on the birth record. Who is Wigdor Schopf you’re asking? Schopf was Wigdor Kessler’s mother’s name (as shown in the marriage record). Traurig was Taube’s mother’s name. Her father’s name was Engelberg. Thus in all the earlier birth records she had been using her mother’s surname. Wigdor had used his father’s name all along on the birth records of his children, although why he had to use his mother’s surname in the marriage record is not clear.

Thus there were four birth records from 1898, 1900, 1902 and 1904 where Wigdor used his father’s surname and Taube used her mother’s surname. A wedding record in 1905 where Wigdor used his mother’s surname and Taube used her father’s surname. Finally, a birth record in 1910 where Wigdor uses his father’s surname and Taube uses her father’s surname.

What is not clear is why Wigdor was able to use his father’s surname in his childrens’ birth records but not his own marriage record, and why Taube used her mother’s surname in the first four birth records, but then used her father’s surname in her marriage record and in the later birth record. I would surmise that this later Taube’s parents were legally married in between the birth of Taube’s fourth child in 1904 and her marriage in 1905, although I have nothing to indicate that other than her own change of recorded name.

So what lessons have we learned here? If you’re researching your Jewish family in Poland or the surrounding countries, and they were born in the 19th century, don’t assume a person took on their father’s surname. Genealogy programs tend to automatically fill in the father’s surname when adding a child record, thus it’s easy to create a record where you assign the father’s surname even if you have no evidence that the child used the father’s surname. In many cases it might be a safe assumption, but in the case of 19th century Jewish records in Europe it clearly is not a safe assumption.

Two books that discuss some of the issues involved here are Suzan Wynne’s The Galizianers: The Jews of Galicia, 1772-1928 and Alexander Beider’s A Dictionary of Jewish Surnames from Galicia. If you’re asking why I’m pointing to two books that specifically deal with Galicia (a region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire which currently is partly in Poland and partly in the Ukraine), it’s because the issues discussed here were particularly prevalent in Galicia, and as a big chunk of my family originates in Galicia, it’s also the area I know the most about (and of which I know about relevant books).

If you’ve had similar stories of relatives taking on their mother’s surname, please add your stories in the comments.