On a trip to Kings County Surrogate Court a few weeks ago, I opened up a typical, boring-looking probate folder.
Inside, I discovered that my one of my great-aunts (by marriage) had five aliases.
Now, I was aware that my great-uncle Joseph C. Haigney was married to Catherine Maude, nee Reilly. Given the overstock of Catherines in the family – including Joseph’s mother, a niece and a cousin – it wasn’t surprising that his wife needed an alias. But five?
My great-aunt’s probate file named her as Maude Haigney, a k a Catherine Maude Haigney, a k a Miss M. Reilly, a k a Maude Reilly, a k a Mrs. M. Ridley, a k a Miss (A) Farrell.
Two of these names are variants of Catherine Maude’s married name, and two are variants of her maiden name, which makes some sense.
Reading the file, I learned that my great-aunt had two sisters, Margaret Miller and Mary Ridley. That might explain the reason for the “Mrs. M. Ridley” alias, although the file had nothing to indicate how the sisters’ identities became entwined. As for “Miss A. Farrell,” it’s anyone’s guess how that name came up.
Finding an alias on your family tree does not automatically mean you’re dealing with criminal behavior. There are many historical reasons for aliases, including:
• Changes in marital status (where “alias” indicates “formerly,” as in a woman’s marriage or remarriage).
• To indicate foster children or stepchildren.
• To indicate a nickname. (Well, of course.)
• To indicate illegitimacy. (Under a practice beginning in 17th-century England, a person born out of wedlock might adopt the surnames of both parents; i.e., Green alias White. Either the father’s or the mother’s surname might be first; there was no firm custom.)
• To avoid persecution. A striking example is that of the Sephardic Jews of Portugal, who adopted aliases to conceal their Jewish identities.
So why did my great-aunt end up with five aliases in her probate file? I’m thinking her case is probably one of sloppy forms more than anything else, but only more research will tell for sure.
As I was packing up, I asked the clerk in charge of the records room if aliases crop up often in Kings County probate records.
“Oh, sure. Two, sometimes three, even.”
“What about five?” I asked.
“Five? That’s weird.”
More about aliases:
• Schelly Talalay Dardashti at Tracing the Tribe has an interesting discussion of Sephardic aliases.
• A site maintained by John Palmer of Dorset, England lists many reasons for aliases in English parish registers.
• And here is advice on how to record aliases in your family tree.