Tom Lipscomb: Mrs. Warren’s profession, cont’d

Investigative reporter/editor Thomas Lipscomb is a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future. He broke stories on questions about the military records of both John Kerry and George W. Bush in the 2004 election in the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Sun. He founded Times Books at The New York Times Company.

Tom writes to follow up on the latest revelations about Elizabeth Warren’s genealogy, touched on in “Mrs. Warren’s profession.” Drawing on William Jacobson’s reporting at Legal Insurrection, Tom asks whether a mistake about Warren’s Cherokee heritage is about to become a fraud:

Have the New England Historic Genealogical Society and its genealogist Christopher Child engaged in intentional fraud in confirming Elizabeth Warren’s disputed Cherokee heritage?

No reputable genealogist or genealogical organization would ever use a family newsletter by an amateur genealogist as the basis for an opinion. They require direct documentation from a certified copy of a birth or marriage certificate or some other objective evidence. While family newsletters, or family web postings may provide a useful tip as to where the real documentation may be, they are just as likely to be dead wrong encrustations of family myth that may or may not be true, but can’t be proven.

While family members may find these myths of interest, professionals like the New England Historic Genealogical Society and Christopher Child, or the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, where I have served on the Heraldry Committee, will not accept them as documentation for any kind of genealogical claim. And they certainly won’t take a chance of embarrassing themselves professionally by making a public statement on the basis of flimsy evidence they regard as little more than rumor.

I have considerable experience with genealogical documentation. I have served as the head or an officer of a number of genealogical associations. My own family history won the Donald Lines Jacobus Award as best genealogical history of the year given by the prestigious American Society of Genealogists. And I have had to help dozens of people support their applications for membership over the past forty years, as well as approve them. Most genealogical associations are delighted to help. They are looking for members, not trying to exclude them. But I have never seen a case in which any application was approved relying upon an item from a family newsletter not supported by documentation.

The inclination to believe family myth is all too normal. Nothing amuses the membership committee of the Society of Washington Family Descendants more than the applications from perfectly nice people claiming to be direct descendants of George Washington. Alas, “the Father of Our Country” was never a father to any of his own children, thanks to a bout of smallpox in the West Indies in his youth, which is why we are “Washington FAMILY Descendants.” So one cannot blame Elizabeth Warren excessively for falling for her own family myths, or even exploiting them to her advantage in the noxious academic atmosphere of affirmative action. However one can certainly look askance at her credentials as a law professor for overplaying such weak evidence that she destroys her own credibility.

But that raises the real question: what in the world did the more than 160 year old New England Historic Genealogical Society and its genealogist Christopher Child think they were doing taking what they knew was only a family rumor, putting their own reputation behind it, and plastering it all over the press?

They had the research and professional in-house capability to pull up the document required to substantiate Warren’s claim. Someone has just done it, and the magic word “Cherokee” appears nowhere on it. And this should come as no surprise to any researcher in genealogy. Research in that field is full of bad information and blind alleys.

So let’s be kind and say that the New England Historic Genealogical Society and Christopher Child made a ghastly professional error against all the training and traditions of a rather rigorous field. It may be unfortunate, but it happens. It will be up to its Board to address the consequences.

But now that the actual document has surfaced, attested to by the local state officer in charge of these vital records, they have refused to comment or revise their much-ballyhooed statements to the press on Warren’s Cherokee heritage. If they continue to do so, they will have gone well beyond making a professional error. After all the questions of their credibility attending the election of a United States Senator from Massachusetts are of a good deal more consequence than assisting in the preparations of membership papers for the Society of Mayflower Descendants.

Something strange seems to be happening these days in the Hub of the bean and the cod. First an indifferent law school student who has never contributed an article to it is elected President of the Harvard Law Review. And now, barring a recantation, it appears the venerable New England Historic Genealogical Society and Christopher Child have colluded in an election fraud upon the people of Massachusetts to publicly and repeatedly advantage a candidate from the Harvard Law School for political office at the expense of their own professional standards and the evidence now staring them in the face. It is time for the press to call them to account.

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