This illustration appeared in Genealogy Tip of the Day a few days ago, but I decided to write about it a little more here.
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Occasionally the experience and perspective of the informant matters. That’s the case with the two statements about the cause of death for Riley Rampley contained in his wife Nancy’s widow’s Civil War pension application. Nancy indicated that her husband died of lung fever. The death certificate indicated that he died of Pleuropneumonia.
Of course, there’s really no difference between the two. One is a layman’s reason for the cause of death and the other is a statement made by a doctor. The Pension Department likely did not care about the difference. The causes were consistent with each other and the date and place of death given by both the widow and the death certificate were the same. That was what the Pension Department was concerned about: relative consistency.
We cannot expect complete consistency in records that we obtain for a person. Different informants may provide differing details. The same informant can provide slightly different information over time. We just hope that we can see a consistent pattern or tendency in the information. the perspective of the informant matters as well–as it did when Nancy gave the cause of death for her husband and the doctor did. We cannot analyze information provided by someone without taking their perspective (and education and training) in mind.
Legal documents are written from a legal perspective. Statements made by individuals in affidavits, depositions, etc. are supposed to be truthful, but the information they provide may be done in such a way as to “plead the person’s case” and make them seem less guilty, etc. than they really are. Perspective matters. Vital records (at least portions of them) are written from a medical perspective.
We never know when obtaining “one more record” whether the information on that record will be from a different perspective and that different perspective will provide a significant clue to our research.
Added reminder: do not jump to conclusions. In reading the widow’s statement a little too quickly, I thought that “Lung Fever” read “Spring Fever.”