Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What do we know and How do we know it?

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

While working on the Clay County News retrospective column a few weeks ago we encountered the 100th anniversary of the indictment of Melchoir Luebben and the failure of his First National Bank. Prosecutors documented an $80,000 discrepancy on the books at that Sutton bank.

The headline of a major 1914 Sutton story as multiple hiccups and more
threatened the local banks for several weeks while busy men sorted it out. 
I was confronted by a “discrepancy” in those stories, kind of like Sherlock Holmes’ “dog that didn’t bark” story. The Melchior Luebben’s indictment and subsequent jail time is a sidebar to online accounts of the invention of the round baler in Sutton by Ummo Luebben. Those accounts state, or at least imply that Melchoir’s downfall came as a result of his use of bank funds to finance his son Ummo’s initial baler manufacturing operations.

The 1914 newspaper accounts make no mention of any connection to the round baler, its manufacturing operations or Ummo. The violations in the indictments were all banking issues, creative accounting and the like.

I’ve been including the jailing of Mr. Luebben and the bank failure as a “rest of the story” aspect to the local invention of the round baler. It looks like I have been wrong all along on that.

Original source documents are great confidence builders in any story. Here is an image of Ummo Luebben's drawing
describing his "Baling Press" invention. Especially interesting as the patent was awarded on my father's birth day,
not his birthday, but his Birth Day, October 18, 1910 - had to mention that.  jj
First, with further review, we learn that Ummo was not Melchoir’s son. He was a younger brother according to census records. So I’ve been wrong about that too.

Those accounts that conflated the bank failure with the round baler factory likely stem from something written once and copied often. Things said often enough, and loud enough become “truth.”

The problem of knowing things for sure that just ain’t so is widespread impacting us in many ways. Genealogy research is all about reconstructing the time and place of events of people in our past generations. Most families have stories that have been passed from generation to generation and often have things written down as well as the oral stories. It was common for families to write down the dates of births or christenings in the family bible. Those dates can be trusted to be correct as they were recorded “contemporaneously” that is, at the time they happened. That is an ideal situation, unless the bible was purchased years later and the dates filled in by grandkids who really didn’t know what was right.

Similarly, the dates inscribed on tombstones have credibility. After all, they are literally, “etched in stone.” And at least the dates of death were recorded contemporaneously. But the dates of births are not recorded at the time of the stone etching but a whole lifetime later.

Our family has such an instance of a gravestone with erroneous birthdates and I’ll use that to illustrate my point.

Etched in stone doesn't always make it right.
Jonas and Ingri Klintberg came from the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. They immigrated in 1876 joining their daughter and her family in Saronville where they are buried in the Lutheran Cemetery.

Ingri died in 1895 and Jonas in 1905 and contemporaneous documents, newspapers, census, family records, etc. all confirm that. The gravestone tells us that Jonas was born on January 16, 1811 and his wife Ingri on May 7, 1807. So she was three, almost four years older. Okay, fine.

However, upon further review, maybe not.

A cousin, Ken Nelson who grew up near Clay Center and now lives in Manassas, Virginia picked up the genealogy bug several years ago. His family background is entirely Swedish leading to his enviable expertise in researching Swedish records. He was initially unable to locate the birth records for Jonas and Ingri. We knew the parish they were born in and had the birth dates from the tombstone but their names did not appear where and when we expected.

But Ken persisted. He finally located the birth record for Jonas Petter in Sanda parish, as expected but in
Two hundred year old Swedish language hand writing by rural preachers
can be a challenge to read, decipher, translate and maybe understand. 
January of 1816, not at all as expected. The image of Jonas’ portion of a page of the Fodd (birth) record is included with this article so you may check it for yourself. But you may see that the parents of little Jonas Petter are recorded as Daniel Nöbelin and Anna. Do not fret if you cannot read the record. These records were hand-written, in Swedish, about 200 years ago by clergymen with varying penmanship skills.

Ingri’s birth was not recorded in Sweden on the date appearing on her tombstone either. Her birth seems to have been on July 19, 1807. We should expect that the fellow in the parish in 1807 had a better idea about that date than the fellow who chiseled the date on the tombstone in Saronville. Contemporaneous recording should win out.

So why did my great, great, grandparents “lie” about his date of birth? We can’t be certain, but we can enjoy guessing. It looks like he was almost nine years younger than her and she appears to have had a son just 13 years younger than him. I guess it looked better for the step-father to be older than he actually was.

Let’s look at one more example, Mr. John Maltby, the fellow who named Sutton.

Pieces of the John Maltby story appear in many of the texts about the history of Sutton. We learn about his youth in Sutton, Massachusetts, how he went to the Australian gold fields, to India and to England. He and Matilda Mary Cooke entered into a stormy marriage in London and that story survives in several versions too. The Maltbys made it to Sutton after more adventures where, among other things, John Maltby named our town after his own home town in New England.

Our well-circulated and multi-sourced
photo of John R. Maltby
So how sure are we that this story is accurate or even credible? We can first guess that since all of the published accounts are similar the later ones probably drew upon the early ones. So how did the details become parts of the early accounts?

Short answer: we have the goods on this guy. An internet query based on Mr. Maltby and Sutton leads you to the Nebraska Historical Society’s website where we find the inventory of the contents of 13 boxes of material about John Maltby.

I visited the state historical society a couple of years ago to check out the Maltby collection. The material comes from as early as 1837 through his death in 1895 in Fairfield. The man kept diaries through much of his life and we can read about the 5 month voyage from Boston to Australia, travels in India, his many business dealings (mostly unsuccessful) and his days in Clay County. There are receipts and financial papers from the very early days of Sutton and much more.

I believe we can be sure that some, maybe all of those who wrote about John Maltby’s story spent some quality time with those boxes of John Maltby’s stuff to learn the details of his life.

To learn more about the Sutton related “stuff” at the historical society, go to their site at and search on “Sutton.” You’ll have to work past some references to guys named “Sutton” but you’ll find local church records and much more. There is material from the Buck-Hoerger families and early hotel registers from the Occidental Hotel.

If we are serious about accurately relating the stories of the past, then we must understand how to distinguish information that may be factual from that which is just “close to right” or just ain’t so. We do this by questioning everything and evaluating our sources. There really are good sources and the best are those from the time of the event that generated the information.

Even then, we cannot be certain that we’re right. We’re taught that it is bad to tell a lie so when writing about things in the way-back past there is always a cloud hanging over our heads reminding us that it is only a matter of time before we write something that “just ain’t so.” To the extent that we speak in certainty we are heading for trouble.

Or as Bertrand Russell said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

One exception. On February 12th Sid Caesar died at the age of 91. I am certain that he was the greatest comic of the 20th century. End of exceptions.  

This article first appeared in the February, 2014 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. For information about this publication contact Jarod Griess at (402) 983-4203 or LIKE Mustang Media, Inc. on Facebook.

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