Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Genealogical advice from Sherlock Holmes

In the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes [Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. London: G. Newnes, 1894] the story entitled Silver Blaze addresses the problem of conflicting evidence. Holmes' recitation of the principles of examination have amazing relevance to genealogical research today. Here is the beginning of the quote from the story:
It is one of those cases where the art of the reasoner should be used rather for the sifting of details than for the acquiring of fresh evidence. The tragedy has been so uncommon, so complete and of such personal importance to so many people, that we are suffering from a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact—of absolute undeniable fact—from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns.
Sometimes our investigations are just as Holmes portrays, a sifting of details rather than acquiring fresh evidence. The answer to the puzzle may be right before our eyes and we cannot see it. All of the great detectives of fiction, Holmes, Marple, Poirot, Monk use superior talents of observation to seem almost superhuman. How much attention do we pay to the evidence we already have. What does what we have suggest? Have we really gotten all of the information out of those census records, or is there more that can be learned? Holmes goes on to say:

At least I have got a grip of the essential facts of the case. I shall enumerate them to you, for nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person...
 Do we "get the grip of the essential facts of the case?" How many times do we jump ahead to what we want to know before we understand what is already known? Do we go looking for the lost grandparent in Ohio before we know that is where he really lived? Are we too busy to go back and review what we know about his children or grandchildren before we jump back two generations?

After reciting the facts to Watson, Holmes says, "Those are the main facts of the case, stripped of all surmise, and stated as baldly as possible." Don't forget, sometimes the only way to make headway in a case is to enumerate it to someone else. Note here that Holmes doesn't expect help from Watson, he just needs to state the facts so he can understand them better himself.

Well, back to reading Sherlock Holmes, then on to Agatha Christie.

1 comment:

  1. I just listened to "Silver Blaze" on an audio book today. Didn't think to connect the quote to genealogy. Also went through all 66 Agatha Christie novels as audio books over the course of a couple years of daily commutes.