29 January 2015

Henry Stiles’ rule #3: Genealogy scams

Clippings from the Townley estate scams
In A Hand-Book of Practical Suggestions for the Use of Students in Genealogy (1899), Henry R. Stiles reminds us that good research may displace firmly held family beliefs. His top three mythbusters: the emigration of the three brothers; the connection to royal bloodlines; and “that somewhere in Great Britain, and in the British Lion’s keeping, there was an immense fortune awaiting its American heirs” (page 15). 

Undoubtedly, get-rich-quick schemes have been around for centuries. In the 19th century in particular, some gullible Americans believed that by proving their lineage, they would receive an English estate worth gazillions. Ignoring the statute of limitations and the burden of back taxes, clearly there was much legal wrangling to do before they could claim their prize, and that’s where the flimflam man came in.

In the case of the Townley estate, it all started with a letter to the editor to multiple newspapers in the Northeast. Rumors of an inheritance had flourished for 20 years but in the summer of 1845, 200 people who claimed to be members of the family congregated at the court house in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. They read old family records and collected money to send a person to England to investigate the claim. While in England, the investigator kept asking for more information and more money. At some point, the N.J. committee ran out of funds.

However, new claimants continued to fill the pockets of these estate agents. At least two of them were caught. In 1894, James Frazier Jacques and Howell Thomas were convicted in England for obtaining $80,000 under false pretenses and forging documents in another case of Americans in pursuit of the mythical Townley millions.

If your family was caught up in a genealogy scam, be on the lookout for newspaper reports and possible court cases. You may find ledger books, committee meeting notes, correspondence, genealogies, and other materials backing up their claim in archives or in personal collections. Check out local libraries, historical and genealogical societies, WorldCat, and eBay. Also, collect the names of all the other cousins making the same claim. It may turn out that they are related too.

“To the Editor of the Newark Daily Advertiser [from Annapolis, Md.],” Newark Daily Advertiser, 29 Aug. 1845, GenealogyBank.com.

“We shall claim to come in for a share in the Baronial estate of the Townley family,” Newark Daily Advertiser, 10 Oct. 1845, page 2, GenealogyBank.com.

 “Both Convicted. Col. Jacques and Howell Thomas Sentenced for Townley Estate Frauds,” Wheeling Register [Wheeling, WV], 1 Dec. 1894, page 4, GenealogyBank.com.

Thanks to the Genealogy Roadshow on PBS (season 2, episode 3, 2015) for inspiration for this post.

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