A few months ago I watched all the past episodes of the television crime drama Castle (ABC, Monday nights at 10:00 PM Eastern). I’ve always had a thing for romantic comedy shows about crime-solving duos. Castle didn’t disappoint and it’s now one of my favorite shows. It has good plots, interesting and well developed characters, subtle humor, and a hint of romance. While I enjoy the show more for the character relationships, I have to admit the characters’ crime-solving skills are impressive. I had a sudden realization of why that might appeal to me…those skills would work equally well in genealogy! After all, we may not be solving crimes, but we genealogists are solving mysteries all the time! So I offer my favorite detectives as our new research role models…
On Castle, the NYPD homicide unit, led by Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), sets up a “murder board” for each new case. They take a white board and start with a photo of the victim and some pertinent facts. Next they add information on potential suspects, witnesses, and a timeline of events leading up to the murder. The character of Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) is a best-selling mystery author who “assists” the detectives on their cases. Castle usually adds the “outside the box” thinking on how all of the pieces of the mystery fit together with how he, as a writer, would have written the story.
The “murder board” concept is perfect for solving genealogical mysteries. In fact, I realized I’ve had a murder board for years without calling it that. The victim is the research problem – in my case, the birthplace of my great-grandmother Elizabeth (Elżbieta) Miller Pater. The suspects are the potential places based on clues I’ve found in my research of documents such as passenger list records and other documents that contain information about an immigrant’s birthplace.
On the show Castle, sometimes the detectives really think a particular suspect is the killer – the suspect was in the right place at the right time, had means and motive to commit the crime, and all of the facts seems to support the person as the one who did it. But sometimes there’s a problem…the suspect “alibis out”. That’s the term the show uses when a suspect has an alibi that checks out upon further review, so he or she could not have committed the crime because there is some evidence that places the person in another place at the same time. In genealogical research, we often think we have the right answer based on sources that seem to indicate it’s correct. But then the answer alibis out. All records – including some in my great-grandmother’s handwriting – point to the town of Żyrardów as her birthplace. But Żyrardów is the wrong suspect – the town alibis out! When the records were checked, the record for her birth was not found.
What’s next? In solving the murder mystery on Castle, the team turns to other sources such as witnesses or financial records that might lead to more clues or more suspects. Sometimes they take a closer look at the timeline to see if they missed something in their initial research. All of these actions have a lot to teach genealogists looking to solve their mysteries when the Number One Suspect alibis out. In short, look for more clues! Are there any witnesses? Maybe older family members recall information that was passed down about the mystery. Who else was connected to the mystery/victim? Turn to records for siblings, collateral relatives, or even neighbors of the person you are trying to find. When did things happen? Sometimes just creating a timeline for an individual can help cross some suspected places, times, or events off of the list of suspects.
No matter what avenue your research takes, using the murder board concept can be very helpful – write it all down and plot it all out. Even the negative searches – the suspects with alibis – need to be listed so you remember what resources you’ve already checked. Often in the show, the characters literally stare at the board trying to see if they missed something that will lead to a new search for a new suspect – or a new search for a former suspect who’s alibi was questionable or unproven. Often Castle will find a new direction based on his unique writer’s view of the “story”. Likewise, it benefits genealogists to re-view information, and to re-search, in order to find that missing piece to the puzzle. It also helps to get help from someone like Castle – someone not so closely related to the case who might have a different view of those same facts.
I don’t have an actual physical board of information for the case of my great-grandmother’s birthplace, but after watching a few seasons of Castle I’m beginning to think it might be a good idea to throw all the pertinent facts up on the wall, or at least down on paper. This will enable me to review the facts and review the suspects and perhaps finally solve this mystery. Where is Mr. Castle when I need him? I could use his help!
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While we’re at it, let’s use a murder board to solve the mystery of how the actor who plays Castle, Nathan Fillion, who has French-Canadian and Irish ancestry, can look like the long-lost twin of genealogist Matthew Bielawa, who has Ukrainian and Galician Polish ancestry. Hmm, have we ever seen Nathan and Matthew in the same room together? I think a DNA test is in order…