Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Steve Buscemi

It was very appropriate that I read an article today on how the OED (Oxford Dictionary of the English Language) has added several modern abbreviations, because my reaction to the Steve Buscemi episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was WTF?  Some of the logic leaps made in this program were utterly amazing.

The episode started well enough.  As Buscemi drove to meet with his parents in Brooklyn, he ruminated on how he would like to find "another character where the story is compelling."  When he arrived at his parents' home, he looked over photos with them and talked about what his mother knew about her family, which was the side he had chosen to focus on.  His mother's mother committed suicide, and he immediately made the assumption that there must be a history of depression in the family.  This was WTF #1 -- it is not reasonable to make such a sweeping generalization about a family based on one person.  In addition, nothing was stated about why his grandmother had committed suicide, so even if it was due to depression, we the audience never heard about that directly.

The information Buscemi began with was that his maternal grandmother Amanda Van Dine had committed suicide, her parents were Charles and Jane Van Dine, and Jane died in Brooklyn in 1928.  From that, his first stop was at the New York City Archives to try to find Amanda's death certificate -- not unreasonable.  He met with archivist Joseph Shumway, who said, "Let me show you what I've got," making me think at first that this was going to be another episode where the celebrity merely goes around collecting information from researchers (kind of like a computer puzzle game).  Shumway had Jane's death certificate.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Buscemi actively reading and analyzing the information on the certificate, instead of merely being fed the data by the archivist.  The certificate stated that Jane died of bronchial pneumonia, her parents were Ralph Montgomery and Julia Vanderhof, and her usual residence was 207 7th Avenue, which Buscemi recognized as the address of a restaurant he and his wife like (Sette Enoteca e Cucina, which will probably see a boost in business).  It also stated that Ralph and Julia were born in the U.S. and that Jane had been a resident of New York for 32 years, so Buscemi wondered where Jane had been previous to living in New York.

The next step of research shown was finding Jane in the 1880 census as an 11-year-old in Camden, New Jersey, working as a servant with the Tillman Turner family.  WTF #2 -- if there is no one in the household she is related to, how in the world could they know this was the correct person?  I could be generous and give the WDYTYA researchers the benefit of the doubt and say they did their homework behind the scenes, but with the lingering unexplained blunder of the Lionel Richie episode, I'm not really willing to do that.  The least they could do was make passing mention of, say, other censuses they found Jane in that had indicated what state she was born in.  Why didn't they show her in 1870 with her parents?  This was just unbelievable.  In addition, they relied only on the index to show them which people in the census seemed to be likely candidates for Jane.  Unfortunately,'s indices are not perfect, and I look at other sources when the results don't look logical.

That said, Shumway gave a short history lesson and discussed how poor families might send their children out to work to help bring in some income.  He also mentioned that he had looked for Jane's parents in the area around Camden and had not found them.  Based on this, what did he suggest as a next step of research?  Look for the family in 1870?  Look in city directories?  No!  WTF #3 -- he suggested looking on for people researching the same family tree.  Excuse me?  The trees on Ancestry are well known to be rife with errors because people don't give sources for most of their information, and any sources given are merely links to records on Ancestry.  But Buscemi dutifully typed in Ralph Montgomery and found a family tree listing Jane.  The tree showed Ralph as having been born in Milton, Pennsylvania, which Buscemi accepted as being correct -- "So he was born in Pennsylvania." -- with no documentation.  He also noted that there were living descendants, and Shumway told him he should send a message to the owner of the tree.

So now that a message had been sent to the person who posted the family tree, what was the next step in Buscemi's research?  WTF #4 -- the Pennsylvania State Archives, because he was going to start with Ralph Montgomery's birth and work forward to 1880.  Let's see, the only information we have seen that said that Montgomery was born in Pennsylvania was an unsourced family tree on, so we're going to head to the state archives.  Let's just ignore the fact that the logical way to do research is start with the most recent information and work backward.  Even if they couldn't find the family in the 1870 census, what about looking for Ralph in 1860 and 1850?

But off we went to the archives, where Buscemi met with archivist Aaron McWilliams.  McWilliams explained that a fire in 1880 destroyed most of Milton's early records (what about county records?) but suggested that Buscemi look for Montgomery in tax records while he looked in censuses.  Buscemi found a Ralph Montgomery listed as a dentist (I believe it was in 1856) but with no one living with him.  McWilliams found a Ralph B. Montgomery in the 1860 census, living with people whom he said were "most likely his wife and children" (thank you! this is the appropriate conclusion, because the 1860 census does not state relationships between people in the same household), who was a grocer.  WTF #5 -- they came to the immediate conclusion that these two men were the same person and that Montgomery must have had some tragedy occur in his life to have stopped working as a dentist, and that this was the same Ralph Montgomery from the online family tree, even though the wife and children don't match.  Okay, we know they've done all this research before the episode was filmed, and they probably are the same person, but there is no way someone could reasonably make that connection based only on the pieces of information the audience was shown.

McWilliams now suggested that Buscemi look for more information about Montgomery in newspapers and court records.  While these are excellent sources to research, Buscemi began his search in the 1860 Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph.  Um, why not start in 1856, the last year Montgomery was found as a dentist?  But Buscemi found a short item on November 28 titled "Supposed Suicide" that discussed the discovery of what appeared to be a suicide note signed by Montgomery, found in a bottle in or near the Susquehanna River.  Because Montgomery was known to have lived after this date, the assumption was made that he threw the bottle in and then changed his mind about jumping, and that he suffered from depression.  I'm sorry, but knowing that Montgomery had another family later, my first thought was that he had left the suicide note as a ruse and then had deserted his family in Pennsylvania.  Either idea is a hypothesis that needs to be tested, however, not a proven fact.

Buscemi went out to the Susquehanna, theoretically in the area where the suicide note was found, and mused about how Montgomery must have suffered from depression and felt so badly about how his life was going that he contemplated suicide.  I think this is assuming a lot based on just a tiny bit of information.  McWilliams met Buscemi by the river and delivered copies of some court records he had found.  The first page detailed an 1857 "grand inquest" (maybe the same as a grand jury?) against Montgomery and another man in the matter of the beating of a third man.  A second document showed that the case was dropped in 1859.  From these ensued a discussion of how this case would have had a negative impact on Montgomery's dentistry practice and could have been a contributing factor to his becoming a grocer.  As these documents were used to bolster the argument that Montgomery was suffering from depression, it would have made more sense to reveal them before Buscemi's musings.  Maybe it was just poor film editing.

Somehow we hear next that as of 1861 Montgomery was gone.  I couldn't figure out where that came from.  One would think that court and census records might have been searched?  But this is where we did have another very logical step -- if a man disappeared around 1861 in the U.S., look for him in Civil War records.  Of course, we had the screen (this episode more than others started to look like a long advertisement for Ancestry).  Ralph B. Montgomery was shown as having enlisted in the Pennsylvania 91st Infantry.  Buscemi said he must have left his family behind.  WTF #6 -- lots of men told their families they were enlisting; why assume Montgomery abandoned his family?

Buscemi went to Fredericksburg, Virginia, to meet with Andy Waskie, a "Pennsylvania Regimental Expert" (what kind of title is that?).  Waskie showed Buscemi one muster roll at a time, drawing everything out.  We learned that Montgomery had a rather checkered military history.  He deserted in June 1862; was "gained from desertion", i.e., came back, in August 1862; suffered with the rest of the Union forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg under General Burnside (who truly was incompetent, and who was relieved of duty after the battle); and deserted again in 1864.  The records that Waskie showed Buscemi aren't stored in Fredericksburg; the location was purely window dressing.

And now back to  Buscemi searched the 1890 veterans census and found Margaret Montgomery listed as a widow.  The comments on the page say that Margaret "thinks [Ralph Montgomery] dead."  What they did not state on the show were that the comments also mention the destruction of Milton, Pennsylvania's, records in 1880 (always nice to find corroboration of something) and that Margaret was enumerated in the Home for the Friendless in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.  She definitely was going through difficult times.  Also not stated on the show was what happened to her children, which were Buscemi's great-grandmother's half-siblings.

The next place Buscemi headed for research was Camden, New Jersey.  He was there because Jane was enumerated in Camden in the 1880 census (though I never saw anything definitive that would have made me certain she was the right Jane).  WTF #7 -- Buscemi said it was his "only lead."  What about the 1870 census?  What about city directories?  If the researchers searched and couldn't find the family, tell us that.  (I tried a cursory search for Ralph, Julia, and Jane in the 1870 census on and on and couldn't find them.)  It's irresponsible to present it the way it was done.

Buscemi visited local historian Paul Schopp to "see what documents he's discovered."  Schopp met Buscemi in the middle of an unidentified field and showed him Montgomery's death certificate.  The certificate said that Montgomery died July 14, 1878 at age 44 of tuberculosis.  His occupation was listed as dentist, and his address was given as 207 Arch Street (I would say that address should expect a lot of visitors in the near future, except it now appears to be a government building).  Schopp then showed Montgomery's "death card", which appeared to be an index card, saying that he was buried in 11th strangers row lot 34.  We then discovered that the field the two men were standing in is the indigent cemetery, which has no markers.  Buscemi talked about how he was trying not to judge Montgomery and conceded that the man had a difficult life.

Buscemi headed back to Brooklyn, because he had received a response from the person with the online family tree.  He met Carol Olive, his third cousin, at the address Jane was living when she died in 1928.  Olive told him that after Ralph Montgomery passed away Julia remarried, to Charles Brandenburg, and showed him the marriage license.  She also showed him a page from the 1892 New York State census, with Julia Brandenburg and her children living in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  (They couldn't show this on, because Ancestry doesn't yet have Kings County online for the 1892 census; it's available for free at, however).  Olive didn't mention that Charles Brandenburg is not shown on the census with the family; it's possible that Julia had already buried a second husband.  Also, if you do the math, Jane was apparently a resident of New York for at least 36 years, not 32 years as stated on her death certificate, showing yet again why it's good to do thorough research.

After meeting with Olive, Buscemi headed back to his parents to tell them what he had learned.  He mentioned uncovering a history of depression in the family, but he didn't really do that, or at least it wasn't shown in the episode.  Two individuals two generations apart do not constitute a "history."  Depression is not the only reason people commit suicide or contemplate doing so, and it wasn't definitively shown that Ralph Montgomery actually was considering killing himself.  Buscemi said that it was "not a simple story", and that's true, at least.

A lot of assumptions and leaps were made in this episode that weren't warranted.  As I mentioned earlier, I would like to believe that the behind-the-scenes research supported all the conclusions that were presented, but after the unresolved question of Morgan W. Brown, I just don't feel comfortable doing that.  I was surprised that Montgomery being a bigamist was not addressed at all in the episode.  Maybe the thought was to downplay that because of all the other things going on in his life.  After having seen the episode, I am also surprised that GeneaBloggers Radio talked about this being a "black sheep" episode.  I consider Kim Cattrall's grandfather to be much more of a black sheep than Ralph Montgomery, and the Cattrall episode wasn't touted that way.


  1. If this had been the first episode of this show that I had ever watched, I would not watch any more shows. As it is, this is simply the worst one I've seen.

    So much bad genealogy in one place. So many leaps of unsubstantiated logic, using unsourced material or badly researched sources... if I were a professional genealogist presenting this bag of fantasy to a client, I'd expect to be fired.

  2. Carol, I admit that the episode had some serious flaws. I'm willing to concede that at least part of the reason it looked so haphazard is due to the medium. I'm still hopeful that the research that didn't make it on air supports the conclusions we did see. Unfortunately, we don't get to see all that research, and most people watching the show might not realize the difference.

  3. A small postscript: I'm on's e-mail list, and this morning I received a marketing message saying that I could "watch and learn" "from the experts who helped make the discoveries on Who Do You Think You Are?" The link connected me to a short video with sound bites from several researchers associated with, including Joseph Shumway, identified as an researcher, not by archivist, the title he was listed with on the Buscemi episode. You would think that Ancestry would be a little more subtle.

  4. Very funny! My first thought was also that Ralph faked a suicide to leave his family. They never even mention that as a potential option. I will also have to check out the behind the scenes stuff to figure some of their choices out.

  5. Thanks, Heather! At least now I know I'm not the only one whose mind went in that direction.

  6. I agree with the points you made. I also got stuck thinking about the beating for which Ralph Montgomery was apparently prosecuted before the case was dropped. Wouldn't you think there would have been details in local newspapers about this, or more information in court documents? Wouldn't that be worth showing?

  7. Beth, I agree there probably would have been something in the newspapers about whatever "altercation" may have taken place, but it's a given that they're not going to show or discuss all the records they find, due to time constraints. Since the case was dropped, maybe the newspaper accounts were more in favor of Montgomery? If that were so, it wouldn't have fit with the slant they were pushing, that he was a man on the edge ready to commit suicide because everything was going against him. Just coming up with possibilities; I have no idea what any articles actually said.

  8. I had the same reaction to this episode you apparently had. When the " expert" (or whatever title they gave him) showed up, and all he said was "let's look at another tree on" I almost shouted at the Tv screen. Their "professional genealogists want $25 an hour, and if all one did was tell me "let's look at another tree" - which I could do myself - I'd scream. Steve deserved better than this. He seems like a really nice guy. I can only hope that the show lucked out, and that "other tree" or someone else, had the documentation they neglected to show the viewers. I too thought the bottle was a ruse, if indeed it was thrown by Steve's ancestor. I too thought "what if it's another Ralph Montgomery" since that so often happens. It's amazing how many exact same names, even for both spouses and even for the children too, are in families in the same area and time frame. They missed several teaching moments. It would've been nice if they had said "here's what to do when all you have to go by are some random census documents." Oh well.

  9. Thanks for your comments. This is absolutely my least favorite episode over the two seasons. If they did solid research on Buscemi's family, it definitely didn't come across in the episode that was aired. From a viewer's perspective, there's no real way to tell if the problem was with the research or the editing. The problem is that even though it's only meant as entertainment, too many people watching it will think this is a reasonable way to do research. I think they should put a big disclaimer at the beginning of the show -- "For Entertainment Purposes Only."

  10. The Buscemi episode has only just been shown here in the Netherlands. The German and particularly Dutch names were of interest to me.
    However the whole thing doesn't make sense. If Julia VanderHof/van der Hooff etc etc. was married too Charles Brandenburg as well, she would have had both son Harry Brandenburg as well as daughter Jane Montgomery almost at the same time... approx 1868-1869. The whole thing is full of impossibilities. Other than that I agree with all the previous comments.. skipping over bigamy... making assumptions.

  11. It's been a while since I watched this episode, so I don't remember the specifics of the Brandenburg children enumerated with Julia in the 1892 New York census. If Harry was about the same age as Jane, however, my first guess would be that this was a second marriage for Charles Brandenburg also, and Harry was a son from the first marriage.

  12. Just got around to watching this episode and I don't think anyone has yet noted: -- According to the death certificate of Steve's g-grandmother Jane, she died in 1928, age 48. If that Jane appeared on the 1880 census, she would have been an infant, NOT 11 years old, and I'm not surprised you didn't find her in 1870. That 11 year old servant girl MAY have been tied to Ralph B Montgomery, but if Steve's Jane was born about 1880, that's two years after Ralph Montgomery died. I think the whole second family notion a thin theory and that most of this episode was about people unrelated to Steve Buscemi.

  13. Now that's an interesting conflict. I think I'll try to watch the episode again just to see that. Assuming you're correct, that doesn't automatically mean that the Jane in 1880 is the wrong person, because it wouldn't be the first time someone's age was wrong on a death certificate. It's common to find a difference of two to five years (usually making the person younger than she actually was). But for someone so relatively young, ten years is a significant difference in age, and it would call into question the accuracy of identifying the 11-year-old in 1880 as the same person.

    1. Yes there could be an age error on the death certificate, or certainly on a census record (but probably not between age 0 and 11) but they provided I think not one item of evidence establishing she was the correct Jane, and did not address the conflict. Wouldn't we want to see Charles & Jane in 1920 and 1910 to substantiate her age? And in 1900 was she married yet and what age? Instead, they leaped back into the drama of poor servant girl, suicide note, army desertion, possible faked death, second family ...a great yarn with no linkage. Even if, as another writer suggested, this was just an ad for Ancestry, it's a terrible ad -- it fairly screams, "Stay away from us, we don't know what we're doing!"


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