Saturday, March 22, 2014

White lies of men in love

In the context of my genealogical research, I was intrigued, if not amused, by the behavior of my ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860], probably a Scottish Protestant, who maintained that he was an Irish Catholic, ostensibly in order to be able to wed a 17-year-old Tipperary nymph, 15 years his junior. Religion can't compete with sexual passion!

Recently, on the side of my paternal grandmother, I heard of the astonishing case of John Pickering [1851-1926] who decided to call himself "John Latton", enabling him to wed a new wife (while holding on to the original one) and to create an entire parallel family.

Yet another case of this kind was brought to my attention, unexpectedly, a couple of days ago. Here’s the only photo I have of Devon-born William Skyvington [born in 1868], my paternal great-grandfather.

And here’s a photo of William’s son, my future grandfather Ernest Skyvington [1891-1985], in his general store in the Queensland outback.

Whenever I quizzed my grandfather about what might have happened to his father, he had no clear answers… apart from suggesting that William Skyvington may have died in World War I. Needless to say, I found that answer unsatisfactory, because my great-grandfather would have normally been too old to get enlisted as a soldier. So, I concluded that we would probably never know what had happened to him.

Yesterday afternoon, I received an astonishing e-mail from a lady whose maiden name was Nicola Courtenay. She told me that the second given name of her grandfather was somewhat strange. He called himself “William Skyvington Courtenay”. After examining the bits of data that Nicola had included in her e-mail, I realized beyond any doubt whatsoever that her alleged Courtenay ancestor was in fact my great-grandfather. In other words, after the premature death of his wife (my great-grandmother) in London, William Skyvington had succeeded in convincing a young woman—his future bride—that he was a descendant of the celebrated Courtenay family: the Earls of Devon. Clearly, William had fallen in love, and he took the liberty of inventing this white lie to make sure that he would capture his beloved female. Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

For a family historian, the annoying aspect of such identity changes is that there’s no obvious way of searching for them or even detecting their existence. There's no other method of discovering such an identity change than to receive an unexpected message from a total stranger. And shortly after such a contact, the “total stranger” has suddenly become one of your closest relatives, and an excellent friend. What a silly idea to imagine that genealogy is a matter of fossicking around among tombstones!

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