TV’s Castle Can Help Solve Your Genealogical Mystery

Ryan, Beckett, and Castle in front of the murder board (Seamus Dever, Stana Katic, and Nathan Fillion in Castle's Season 3 episode "Close Encounters of the Murderous Kind"). Accessed via Castle-Fans.Org on January 9, 2012.

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!

~ ~ ~

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…


22 thoughts on “TV’s Castle Can Help Solve Your Genealogical Mystery

  1. I meant to start watching this show, as my family and I are Firefly and Serendipity fans. You must watch mystery/detective shows the way I do – I keep thinking how much detecting is like genealogical research….

  2. Terri, me too!

    Greta, my fellow sci fi fan! I meant to watch it from when it first aired, but at the time I had a streak where every new show I watched and liked got immediately cancelled. So, Castle can blame its success – it’s now in Season 4 – on ME! LOL. I got caught up via DVD. I’ve also always meant to watch Firefly, and after seeing how awesome Nathan is I went and bought that too (I haven’t had time to watch it yet though…)

  3. I love that show, Donna! I actually have two white boards in my office that I use specifically for that reason (that’s where I got the idea). Now I’m going to have to watch Firefly and Serendipity, I suppose LOL.

    I always knew there was something I liked about Richard Castle (other than the fact that I own all of his books) … he’s French-Canadian and Irish, just like me! What’s not to love??

    Also … after reviewing the photos, I too demand proof that Nathan is not the same person as Matthew!

  4. Great post, Donna. And you’re right, in all the years I have known Matthew, I’ve never seen him in the same place as Nathan!

  5. Oooh another tv show to watch now that the nest is empty! And guess what? It starts in 5 minutes.

    Donna your brilliance never ceases to amaze me. The murder board would be perfect for our genealogy “victims ” as Greta has already figured out. Scheming on how to get one into the house…

  6. Thanks, everyone! Michelle, my new “groupie”, you made my week by calling me brilliant! 😉 I don’t know about that, but I like to look at things a little differently…

    Sheri, dear Motha, this is one of the MANY, many reasons that I LOVE YOU! You will never cease surprising me and never cease making me laugh. And yes, it’s a fine one! Can’t compare to Gene’s though as I have no shot of his nekkidness. Man, I have to watch Firefly REALLY soon now! 😉

  7. Sheri … thank you thank you thank you thank you! LOL I am now officially in love with Nathan Fillion’s butt.

    I can’t help much with Gene Kelly (although now that I’ve found it, I have to agree, it was pretty nice too). Here’s a whole page about it:

    It’s the least I could do 🙂

  8. Obsessed with getting a “murder board”. I found and ordered one today!

    Really enjoyed Castle the other night. I’m now a fan. Forgot I had watched Firefly once and enjoyed. Have to check out Serendipity now that we have all this free time…

    Enjoyed the “butt links” LOL

  9. Loved how you linked genealogy to Castle! I love the show– I watched Firefly/Serenity first (earlier this year) and just really wanted more of Mal: and realised, heyyyy I can have more of him (haha and his butt) on Castle.

    –and then I had to go and fall in love with Stana Katic’s character also. Sighs.

    If you wanted to get all hightech (but expensive) I guess one could upgrade to the Smart Board they had in the war room in Tick Tick/Boom but like Beckett said “the whiteboards always worked for me”.

  10. Wow, I am really glad I found all these “Castle” fans among my genealogist friends…and converted some folks to BE fans. 😉

    Jenny, thanks – LOL. That was a delight!

    Joan, if I’m going to be confused with anyone, getting mistaken for Sheri would make my life so much more interesting…

    Michelle, I can’t believe you went out and got a white board! I expect a blog post on your first “mystery” solved through its use. I’m glad you liked the show – I highly recommend getting the DVDS (library if you don’t want to buy them) or finding the past seasons online through Hulu or other sites. You will see that Castle has a “high tech” murder board at his home and Beckett has a “low tech” one at hers (think sticky notes) in an effort to solve her mother’s murder.

    Rita, I love Stana too – she’s beautiful. I think the key to a great character is when, if it’s a man, the men want to be him and the women want him and vice versa if it’s a woman.

  11. I have been a fan of the show “Castle” since the beginning but the last season and now this season it’s getting even better with the storyline and very creative content! Think out of the box even in your genealogy research because you never know what you may discover.

  12. I have been a fan of Castle since the beginning and my son had me watching Firefly while it was still on TV so I was a Nathan Fillion fan. and the white board idea is so good, have to try that in some way. this is such a great post!

  13. Oh, no – you have the same “jinxing” power that we seem to have on great new shows! I’m sure if we both following anything, it’ll die a quick death…rats!

  14. I often say that being a genealogist is like being a private detective, except that there are no car chases and you hardly ever get shot at.

  15. I found when I was studying genetics that about 10% of fathers were not who the child believed it was. In a racially pure community, this is one thing but in a mixed world like Canada/US, doesn’t this mean that a lot of our genealogical research is inaccurate?
    Castle looks pretty Polish to me.

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