November 23rd, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

The Fluctuating Heights of Sailors

Well, I'm about forebeared out now. Three days buried in old records have taken their toll. But information has been gleaned, new relatives discovered and previously thought of relatives discarded as impostors.

Such is genealogy. The ultimate Cold Case mystery. And filled to the brim with unreliable witnesses.

One case in point is my great grandfather. He was born in 1833 or maybe 1824 or even 1827. The reason - his age changed at every census. And it wasn't just him. Sometimes he was the same age as his wife, sometimes four years older and sometimes three years younger. Time was definitely more flexible in the Victorian era.

As was place of birth. Sometimes he'd say one parish, sometimes another. And my grandmother's name ... that started off as Rose Anna, changed to Rosa when she was 7 and Rose when she was 18.

But perhaps the strangest unreliable witness turned out to be my grandfather whose height oscillated between 5' 6" and 5' 9" over a period of 17 years. Never 5' 7" or 5' 8" always 5' 6" or 5' 9".

Not that that was the strangest fact I found out about him. I was sampling the multitude of records that Ancestry have when I noticed that his name cropped up on the US immigration files. Now, Jesse Pelham Dolley is not a common name. And, as far as I knew, he'd never emigrated to the US. But there he was entering New York in 1922.

And 1929, 1938 and 1939.

I was astonished. Either he was ficklest immigrant the world had ever seen or the most deported.

I was wrong. He was a sailor. And US immigration were staffed by people who loved collecting data. I couldn't believe it. Every crew member who arrived in the States, even if they were staying on the boat, had their name, rank, age, years at sea, height, weight, tattoos and name of parrot written down.

Well, perhaps not name of parrot, but everything else was there. Which is how I discovered his fluctuating height. His weight, however, did not fluctuate. It increased, gaining 21 pounds over the 17 years. No tattoos though. In fact there was a distinct dearth of tattoos - less than 10% of sailors had one.

The one solace for lovers of the stereotypical is a possible explanation for my grandfather's fluctuating height. A spare, and three inches longer, wooden leg.