Genealogical Frauds:  Traps for the Imprudent

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

[Note:  This article first appeared as Myra Vanderpool Gormley’s “Shaking Your Family Tree” column for 26 January 1995 (copyright © Los Angeles Times Syndicate, 1995), and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.  For other articles in this series, see the Shaking Family Trees website.]



Not even genealogy is safe from fraud or from those who would take advantage of you. Everything from fabricated genealogies to estate frauds abound, and you could be a victim and don’t even know it.


Earlier this century about 200 fabricated genealogies were produced by Gustav Anjou, a Staten Island, N.Y. genealogist, who developed a profitable business in mail order ancestors. More than 100 genealogies compiled by Anjou have been located. They are widely accessible and probably being used by genealogists, who are not aware that the pedigrees are false.


According to Robert Charles Anderson, certified genealogist and a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, a typical Anjou pedigree displays four recognizable (to the more experienced researcher) features:



Not only did Anjou falsify many genealogies, evidently he fabricated his own pedigree and credentials, according to Gordon L. Remington, Fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association and editor of Genealogical Journal, in an article that appeared in Volume 19, the combined issues of Nos. 1 and 2 of that periodical. In the same issue also appear an excellent article by Helen Hinchliff on estate frauds and one by Anderson on the Anjou pedigrees, identifying many of them by surname.


Estate frauds touched hundreds of thousands of American families, and if you uncover references to a fortune or estate that some of your relatives tried to obtain years ago, be wary. Also, you may encounter family members who will not admit that they or their parents were defrauded and who still believe there is a lost family fortune.


One of the oldest cases of estate fraud is the one surrounding Anneke Jans Bogardus, a New Amsterdam woman who died in 1663 and whose farm eventually became the property of Trinity Church. It is known by such names as Bogardus, Anneke Jans Bogardus, Webber, and Wyckoff-Jans Estates, and was the object of litigation, off and on for more than 200 years. Many descendants of Anneke – the subject of approximately 400 published genealogies and articles – also erroneously believe she was the granddaughter of William the Silent, Prince of Orange. This myth continues to find its way into the genealogies of naïve researchers.


The bulk of estate frauds has been associated with common surnames. These scams – many of which occurred about 75 to 100 years ago – worked like this: Confidence men sought “missing heirs” by placing advertisements in the personal ads or legal notices of newspapers. Then they planted stories in newspapers about huge estates that were soon to be awarded to rightful heirs. Naturally many people responded. Then these “heirs” – at the urging of the swindlers – would form associations as estate claimants, incorporate under the laws of their state and write letters to their cousins encouraging them to join the association, and pay the membership dues and special assessments for legal fees to fight for their “estates.”


Newspaper wire services picked up dozens of such items about meetings of these various “heirs groups” in small towns. Eventually these stories began to appear in major newspapers such as the New York Times. Naturally, appearance in prestigious newspapers gave credence to the stories of the estates. Among the well-known estate frauds are those for these surnames: Edwards, Edwards-Hall, Mercer, Harper, Jans, Baker, Drake, Fisher, Kohler, Springer, Hyde and Van Horn.


Genealogists who accept undocumented pedigrees discovered in manuscripts, books, family group sheets, and computer databases may be guilty of perpetuating genealogical myths and errors. Check the accuracy of your pedigree by consulting primary sources. Just because something is in print or a database does not make it so.



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