Getting Negative About Evidence

[from 22 August 2013]

The word “negative” can be confusing when applied to evidence. Negative evidence is “evidence” because it is something we expected to find and did not. The word “negative” is used in the sense of “not finding evidence” that we expect to find.

“Negative evidence” does not mean evidence that indicates something did not happen.

A statement in a court case that “Elizabeth Jones never lived in Missouri” is not considered “negative evidence.” A “negative” word in a statement (such as “never”) does not make that statement negative evidence. In fact, this statement would actually be considered direct evidencethat Elizabeth never lived in Missouri (“direct” because it explicitly states she never lived in Missouri).

“Negative evidence” does not mean evidence of a “negative” event (eg. a record that indicates your ancestor was an axe-murderer).


The nature of the event or item has nothing to do with whether evidence is considered to be negative.

What Is Negative Evidence?


Negative evidence is not found. It is the fact that information is “unfound” that makes the evidence negative. A very simple example would be a person who appears regularly in  personal property tax lists for a county from 1828 until 1842. He also appears in the 1830 and 1840 federal census records for that county. Searches of personal property tax records after 1842 fail to locate him in the county and he is not enumerated in the 1850 census there either. There are no death records for the time period and an estate or probate file cannot be located.His failure to appear in these records would be “negative evidence” indicating he was not living in that county after 1842.  The “negative” is not because he is “not” living…it’s negative because he’s not listed in records we would expect him to be listed in if he were living in the county, particularly when he was listed in those records before 1842.His failure to be listed does not mean he’s dead. He could simply have moved. One needs to be careful when making statements based upon the fact that someone does not appear in a series of records.

[what follows is part of another  post from 17 September 2013]
Negative Evidence in a Probate
When my ancestor died in Illinois 1903, she was survived by her husband who died in 1904. His death record, probate record, tombstone, and obituary all make it clear he died in 1904 as all her records make clear she died in 1903. Their years of death are correct–there’s nothing wrong with them or any “trick” about when they died.The ancestor’s husband is not mentioned in her will (which is not unheard of) and, more importantly, he is not listed in the court record listing all of her heirs-at-law at her decease. In every other record I’ve seen during this time in this state, the surviving spouse is included in the court order establishing heirship as the spouse is an heir. His failure to be listed as an heir is “negative evidence” that he was not her husband when she died in 1903. His absence from the record is what makes it “negative evidence.”It’s negative evidence because we are using the fact that something we expect to be a part of the document is “not there” (ie. his name is not on the heir list). It is his absence that is the evidence. The difficulty for some is that there’s nothing which can be quoted as a part of a citation because his name is not on the list.

Our commentary regarding the order finding heirship should indicate that the husband’s name is not on the order and then cite the order (including name of the estate being settled, date of record, packet number, court, etc.). We can cite a record even if there’s “nothing” we are quoting from it.




You can learn more about negative evidence in the BCG Standards ManualElizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explainedor my own Casefile Clues.


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