A Genealogist Has Fun with Names & Mistaken Identities

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak shares some of the newspaper articles she’s found that report on “name doppelgangers.” Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

When genealogists bark up the wrong tree, it’s always a case of a mistaken identity.

People often have the same names and even live in the same place. It’s easy to get it wrong, even if you find people with the same names living in different time periods.

To illustrate the point of how many people share names, I had some fun looking up colleagues and famous characters to see what their “name doppelgangers” were up to.

Note: The term “doppelganger” comes from the German word “doppelgänger.” Its two parts break down into two words: double and walker.


Have you ever looked up your own name?

I suspect many of our readers have queried the archives for their monikers. When I did mine, I found a scandalous report. A Mary Harrell of earlier days (not a relative that I know of) testified at a murder trial in which a Sheriff Greenlee was found dead.

An article about Mary Harrell, Knoxville Journal newspaper article 30 May 1890
Knoxville Journal (Knoxville, Tennessee), 30 May 1890, page 3


Carrying on with this theme, I found my GenealogyBank colleague Tom Kemp in this newspaper clipping. In 1879, a man sharing his name owned a large theater in Leadville, Colorado. Known as the Grand Central, it was advertised to seat 3,000 patrons.

An article about Tom Kemp, Denver Rocky Mountain News newspaper article 7 December 1879
Denver Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado), 7 December 1879, page 6

Other reports in the archives tell you more about this (probably) unrelated man.

An article about Tom Kemp, Black Hills Daily Pioneer newspaper article 7 September 1878
Black Hills Daily Pioneer (Deadwood, South Dakota), 7 September 1878, page 2

I also found this 1926 report of a man who shares his name with GB Blog editor Tony Pettinato.

An article about Tony Pettinato, Springfield Republican newspaper article 24 April 1926
Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 24 April 1926, page 7

Sorry, but I found another Tony Pettinato, nicknamed Little Tony, who made an ominous quote when indicted on a murder charge.

An article about Tony Pettinato, State newspaper article 27 February 1937
State (Columbia, South Carolina), 27 February 1937, page 12

Where do we go from here? Let’s look up names of some famous people.

Comedians, Singers, and Actors & Actresses

Looking up the name Rosie O’Donnell didn’t come up with anything exciting – but there was a Rosie O’Donnell in 1911 who visited her brother in Chicago during the holidays.

An article about Rosie O'Donnell, Saginaw News newspaper article 30 December 1911
Saginaw News (Saginaw, Michigan), 30 December 1911, page 5

Looking up Jimmy Fallon found an interesting story. There was a Navy boxer named Jimmy Fallon who went up against Kid Lewis in 1909. Is it me, or is there a slight resemblance between this boxer and today’s television host? Might have to research his genealogy to see if there is a connection to the pugilist.

An article about Jimmy Fallon, New Orleans Item newspaper article 8 May 1909
New Orleans Item (New Orleans, Louisiana), 8 May 1909, page 8

It turns out Michael Jackson the singer wasn’t the first well-known man by that name.

Brevetted General Michael Jackson died at Newton in 1801. He was wounded in 1776 during the American Revolution, but was better known for his printing innovations including diecutting and using glass UV on offset machines.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Jackson_(American_Revolution)

An article about Michael Jackson, Columbian Centinel newspaper article 11 April 1801
Columbian Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 April 1801, page 2

Movie and Sitcom Characters

Funny that a real Tony Soprano was already a thief at the tender age of 11. After snatching $2 worth of fountain pens, he was turned over to Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Home. Would be fun to trace this Soprano through his life to see if his klepto habit ever got corrected.

An article about Tony Soprano, Omaha World-Herald newspaper article 5 March 1922
Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 5 March 1922, page 9

Who would have thought that Queen Elizabeth loved canary yellow enough to be referred to as “Liz Lemon”? Wonder if Tina Fey ever pondered that while playing the queen’s character in the hit show Thirty Rock?

An article about Queen Elizabeth, Jersey Journal newspaper article 23 January 1954
Jersey Journal (Jersey City, New Jersey), 23 January 1954, page 7

Politicians and Presidents

After searching on the name of our former president Jimmy Carter, I found another boxer. I don’t see a shared resemblance in this case, but it was still fun to find.

An article about Jimmy Carter, Heraldo de Mexico newspaper article 28 July 1928
Heraldo de Mexico (Los Angeles, California), 28 July 1928, page 5

You’ll find  the name Abraham Lincoln in a number of newspaper reports unrelated to the 16th United States president. The famous one married Mary Todd in 1842, whereas another Abraham Lincoln married Mary Upham in 1825.

An article about Abraham Lincoln, Columbian Centinel newspaper article 5 January 1825
Columbian Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 January 1825, page 2

To be fair, Mary Todd had a namesake who married Charles Worthington in 1802 in Baltimore, Maryland.

An article about Mary Todd, Federal Gazette newspaper article 17 September 1802
Federal Gazette (Baltimore, Maryland), 17 September 1802, page 3

Now if we could find a marriage of a Mary Upham to a Charles Worthington, that would be something!

Ever wonder how many George Bushes there have been aside from presidents #41 and #43?

Turns out you can find quite a few, including the publisher of the Newark Daily Advertiser. Good for him. Newspaper publishing is an important component to solving our genealogical puzzles. Next time I hear about a George Bush I will probably also ponder this man.

An article about George Bush, Newark Daily Advertiser newspaper article 26 May 1832
Newark Daily Advertiser (Newark, New Jersey), 26 May 1832, page 1

Names That Didn’t Make the Cut

Next time you’re stuck on your genealogy or just want a diversion, have fun by searching for famous or illustrious characters in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. If you need ideas, look for early examples of these names that didn’t make the cut for this blog article:

Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson of Grey’s Anatomy), Johnny Carson, Olivia Pope (Scandal’s Kerry Washington), and Betty White.

If you like to read about names, here’s one of my earlier articles you might enjoy: Genealogy Humor: Unusual & Funny Names of People.

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