Forensic genealogy is the application of genealogical research to support the legal identification process.

Colleen Fitzpatrick is an American scientist who is widely regarded as the founder of the field of forensic genealogy. Boasting a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Duke University, Fitzpatrick owned a contract company that specialized in high-resolution laser measurements techniques. After contracts with NASA and other government agencies ran their course, Fitzpatrick decided to close the company and finish writing her first book, “Forensic Genealogy.” It was an overnight success. 

Shortly after, Fitzpatrick was offered her first job as a forensic genealogist by an international investment company locating owners of unclaimed property. Since then, her research has expanded to 50 countries, often working on some of the most difficult cases in the world. Fitzpatrick’s projects have included the Hand in the Snow (Crash of Northwest 4422), the identification of the Unknown Child on the Titanic, the Amelia Earhart Project and the Abraham Lincoln DNA project. On the heels of a presentation at ISHI, Fitzpatrick took some time to sit down and answer a few questions. 

Q: Let’s start off easy, what is forensic genealogy?
Forensic genealogy is the study of identity and kinship in legal contexts. This includes finding family references for DNA identification, fraud exposure, locating heirs for probate matters, clearing real estate titles, determining mineral rights inheritance and more. The tasks that forensic genealogists address are similar to those dealt with by conventional genealogists—establishing bloodlines, researching family genealogies, using DNA to prove kinship—but with a standard of proof that is acceptable in court. Forensic genealogy has also been described as “CSI Meets Roots,” since it involves the application of scientific methods to solve genealogical mysteries.

The American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS) does not yet recognize forensic genealogy as a forensic discipline, since the AAFS only recognizes those disciplines that are practiced by a sufficient number of its members. As of February 2017, I will be the only forensic genealogist who has been promoted to full member. It took me five years to accomplish this. Hopefully in the future, more forensic genealogists will become members of AAFS so forensic genealogy can gain official recognition.

Q: How did the field of forensic genealogy come to be?
Genealogists have assisted attorneys with probate matters and searching for missing heirs for a long time. It was only in 2005 when I published “Forensic Genealogy” that the term was first used to describe the application of scientific techniques to solving genealogical mysteries. 
Since then, the term “forensic genealogy” has taken on a more formal legal context. Forensic genealogists still work for attorneys on probate and missing heir research, but they also assist the Department of Defense on the location of next-of-kin for military identifications, police departments on cold cases, real estate speculators on trace property titles, and collectors to establish the provenance of art pieces. Forensic genealogists can also apply their skills to cases that have legal implications, but where they do not directly work for attorneys. I have been involved in the exposure of several literary frauds about the Holocaust—bestselling books that were supposedly biographies of child survivors, but were proven to be fiction. There are also some forensic genealogists who specialize in photo analysis.

Q: What are the differences between traditional genealogy and forensic genealogy?
Forensic genealogy is the application of genealogical research to support the legal identification process. Forensic genealogists do not work only for attorneys. Forensic genealogical techniques are often applied beyond the legal system. Just as a forensic anthropologist might be consulted on an archeological project, a forensic genealogist might be consulted by an adoptee to find his birth parents for personal—and not legal—reasons. 
There is no accredited certifying organization for forensic genealogists in the U.S. (or elsewhere) accepted by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB). Such an organization would be a body external to the genealogy community that could certify genealogists as forensic genealogists, either based on their education, their experience or both. Usually such certification requires at least an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university in the area of certification. At the moment, Brigham Young University is the only accredited university in the U.S. that offers a bachelor’s degree in family history and genealogy. There are currently no universities offering graduate degrees in genealogy. 

To be accredited by FSAB, a future American Board of Forensic Genealogists must develop, among other things, a set of policies and procedures, a code of ethics, a code of professional responsibility and materials relating to testing and recertification. There are accreditation bodies for other forensic disciplines, such as the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists or the American Board of Toxicology, but not yet for forensic genealogy.

Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick
Forensic Genealogist

Q: What techniques are used in both traditional and forensic genealogy?
Forensic genealogy and traditional genealogy both use the same resources and techniques for researching kindship. These include photo analysis, database mining and DNA analysis. The difference between the two is that forensic genealogists must meet genealogical proof standards so that their results may be used by the legal system.

Q: You mentioned photo analysis as a forensic genealogy technique. What kind of information—seemingly invisible—can be read from scanning a photo in very high quality?
A high resolution scan of a photograph can reveal a lot of interesting details. For example, the letters on a sign may become legible, or details of a person’s face might be revealed that will allow you to compare him to someone appearing in another photograph. The lengths of shadows may be more accurately measured for calculating the time of day and day of the year. A high resolution scan might also reveal objects in the background of a photo or in shadow that could be significant in identifying it.

In one photograph of a bar room I worked on, the items inside the bar (cash register, liquor ads, pictures on the wall) gave it a date of about 1910. Through the open door, a sign could be seen hanging in front of a building across the street from the bar room. Under higher resolution, we were able to read the name of a plumbing company painted on this sign. Knowing when this company was located at that address allowed us to date the picture to within a few months.

Q: What archives, documents and collections are used in forensic genealogy?
Anything and everything. No document or collection is off limits. In one unclaimed property case I was involved in, I could not find the owner in the telephone book for Belgium at his last known address. I was led to him by a website that posted the results of a local foot race that had been held not too far away in a small town in The Netherlands. He was one of the participants.

I have researched in 50 countries. It is amazing to me how far we can reach thanks to the internet. From my kitchen table in Southern California, I have accessed libraries and national archives around the world. I have obtained a will from the National Archives of South Africa, and newspaper articles from the National Library of Riga, Latvia.

Even so, the best resource I have found is the memories of people who have been part of the story I am researching. Someone’s memory can be so much more detailed and can outlast records that have been destroyed. 

Q: What was the most complicated genealogy research you have been a part of?
The most complicated forensic genealogy project I have worked on is probably the Holocaust literary fraud “The Mascot,” the biography of Alex Kurzem, written by his son Marc. The story describes how Alex survived the Holocaust as a Jewish orphan, and then as an elderly man, was reunited with his family in Belarus. Parts of the story were well documented; parts of the story were probably fabricated. There were many inconsistencies and literary slights of hand to divert the reader’s attention from gaps and mistakes.

Trying to establish the truth of “The Mascot” required research in about 20 countries. The elder Kurzem was born in Belarus in about 1930, rescued by a Latvian police battalion around Minsk during the war, and finally made his way to Australia as the foster child of the director of a chocolate factory in Riga. Marc Kurzem, the author of the book, lived in the UK. The family supposedly had cousins in the U.S. The individuals involved in the production of the documentary, book and movie were scattered over parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The book was published in 13 languages and 27 countries. My work on “The Mascot” required emails and phone calls to Jewish organizations all over the world. During a trip to Australia, I met with Alex Kurzem himself. I spoke with some of the top leaders in the Holocaust community—journalists, politicians, religious leaders and many other survivors.

We were not able to find the “smoking gun,” that is, conclusive evidence that “The Mascot” was fabricated. However, we were able to derail the movie by suggesting to the producer that Alex Kurzem take a DNA test to at least prove his Jewish identity. If he passed the test, we suggested, the producers could announce the results the day before the movie premiered, and box office sales would skyrocket. If he did not pass the test, or he refused to take it, the producers would not have to invest any further money in a fraudulent story.

Within the next few months, talk of the movie disappeared and Alex Kurzem no longer made personal appearances.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted and initially published by More Maiorum, first Polish genealogical periodical on-line, no 10 (45) 2016, 10 Oct. 2016. Grazyna Rychlik also contributed. 

Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., is founder of Identifinders International. Her expertise is forensic genealogy, from identifying the Unknown Titanic Child to the analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s DNA to exposing Holocaust literary frauds. She is a past presenter/poster at the International Symposium for Human Identification, most recently discussing new discoveries on the 1948 Somerton Man case from Australia.