Well, Saturday was graduation day for my mother, who's visiting from her new home in Ireland to receive her doctorate from Drew University here in New Jersey -- at the tender age of 72.
As anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm sort of incapable of giving, or doing, anything normal as a present for any occasion. So, here you go, Mom, this is your unconventional graduation present.
First, here's a little background so people reading this (other than my mother) will get why I'm writing it. When my mother, who has been a professional genealogist for a really long time, was visiting at Christmas, we were talking about genealogy scams, prompted by that annoying commercial for the Historical Research Center currently being aired with great frequency on the History Channel. It isn't bad enough that the History Channel has turned into, as Bill Maher so aptly put it, the "Really Bad Life Choices Channel," with its new line-up of completely non-historical reality shows like Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers and Gangland. Now they've sunk to a new low, airing ads for a company that peddles fraudulent history. So my graduation present to my mother, a real certified professional genealogist, is to expose the genealogical charlatan Michael Walshe, and the scam of his Historical Research Center's so-called "research."
To get started on this little project, I went to the Historical Research Center website and ordered my very own family name "parchment scroll," (which is actually a crappy, barely readable print-out on regular paper off someone's less than optimum quality ink-jet printer), to see what they'd come up with for my guaranteed authentic family name origin and meaning. And, because of the special "as seen on TV" deal, I was actually able to get not just one, but two of these lovely scrolls (for just the price of shipping and handling). So, the two family names I chose were my own, Rodda, and my mother's maiden name, Patterson. It was the Patterson name, however, that I was already planning to use to show what a fraud the Historical Research Center really is.
With my mother being a genealogist, I, of course, know way more about my family's history than I ever wanted to know, including the fact that Patterson wasn't the name my great-grandfather started out with. This is not uncommon. Things like spelling errors, bad handwriting, and language barriers often caused an immigrant's name to be written down or copied wrong on a document, and the new name just stuck and became the person's legal name. Many, many immigrant's names were "Americanized," either by choice or by mistake. So, my Danish sea captain ancestor Anders Pedersen became Andrew Patterson, the name on his naturalization record.
For the record, I did not make any attempt to fool the Historical Research Center. When you place your order, they ask you for your name's country of origin, if known, and I truthfully answered that my Patterson ancestor came from Denmark. Apparently, my "personal researcher" just decided to ignore this.
Now, if a real genealogist was told by someone that their Danish ancestor was named Patterson, they would immediately think, "Something's rotten in the state of Denmark." Patterson isn't a Danish name. There must be some explanation, or possibly a mistake. And a real genealogist would figure out pretty quickly that Andrew Patterson started out as Anders Pedersen when they started tracing the records. Not so for the Historical Research Center. Even though I told them that the country of origin was Denmark, I got exactly what I expected -- a generic history of the Patterson name in the British Isles, saying the name originated in Ireland, containing nothing that you can't easily find on any number of websites.
But wait! There's more!
The Historical Research Center's crack "research" team will also find your very own family coat of arms, which you can have printed on all sorts of items that they sell.
Well, if someone claims to be selling you your "family" coat of arms, don't buy it. First of all, in most countries, there's no such thing as a family coat of arms. Coats of arms were granted to individuals, not families, and could only be passed down to the heir of the person they were originally granted to. If a coat of arms was passed down from father to eldest son, by tradition or by law, depending on the country, it could only be used by that son. In other words, unless you're descended directly from that eldest son, and that son's eldest son, and so on, it ain't your coat of arms. A company that claims to be able to find an authentic coat of arms for any family that wants to order one is, to put it plainly, full of crap. They're just slapping together some random heraldic symbols and sticking your family's name on it. Not everybody has an ancestor who was granted a coat of arms, and even if there actually is a real coat of arms that was granted to someone with your family's name, you would need to trace your lineage to confirm not only that it was granted to one of your ancestors, but that it would have been passed down to you. The chances of that are slim to none. So, unless all you want is a neat looking keychain or golf shirt with some cool medieval clip-art and your name on it, don't fall for this family coat of arms scam.
So, who exactly is Historical Research Center founder Michael Walshe? Well, most people would know him best as the man who introduced TV audiences everywhere to the Ginsu knife back in 1978. After making millions off the Ginsu, and other "as seen on TV" products like the miracle painter and the miracle slicer, Walshe went on to write a book titled One Idea Can Make You $1,000,000, which is now available on easy to follow CDs for the incredibly low price of only $19.99. (And if you order right now, he'll even send you two free bonus CDs!)
Walshe's latest way to make millions? His pseudo-genealogy franchise business, the Historical Research Center. That's right. This is a franchise business. You too can generate extra income. All you need is a computer, a printer to print out those fabulous family name scrolls and coats of arms, and a small initial investment and you're ready to go. Want to make some real money at this? You can really rake it in by peddling Historical Research Center products at "fairs, festivals, malls, tourist locations and on your own web site."
Check out these clips from Walshe's Historical Research Center Commercial and his promo video from his myTVmillions.com website.
Like those green-screen shots of Walshe standing in front of Ellis Island? Well, you don't need the Historical Research Center to search for your immigrant ancestors who came through Ellis Island. You can just search the Ellis Island database yourself for free online. You can even search for sound-alike names in case you have an ancestor whose name was spelled wrong. There are also a number of sites where you can search census records, ship manifests, military records, and all sorts of other interesting stuff, although some of these sites do require paid subscriptions.
But, if you're really serious about tracing your family tree and going way back, or if you try to do it yourself and hit a wall, you'll probably need to find a professional genealogist. To find someone reputable, check out the Association of Professional Genealogists website, where you can see the qualifications, certifications, and specialties of all their member professionals.
Congratulations, Mom... or should I say Doctor Rodda ... and may the road rise to meet you, etc., etc., etc.
Follow Chris Rodda on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisRodda1