The curious case of Hannah Gorry

Like Benjamin Button, my 3x great aunt Hannah Gorry seemed to have the magical ability to age backward.

Hannah was the older sister of my great great grandfather Jimmy Gorry. Hannah and their two other siblings, Michael and Mamie, never married, and when youngest sibling Jimmy died suddenly at the age of 28, the spinster aunts and bachelor uncle, who lived together their whole lives, took in my young great-grandfather, Elmer. I imagine them all as a little eccentric, not least of which is because the one fact I've always known about Hannah is that she refused to tell anyone her age. My grandfather had an old autograph album of hers from junior high with beautiful, sweet messages from all her classmates, a glimpse into school-aged minds from the past, but we didn't know when in the past because all the dates were scratched out. Hannah's a little bit like a family historian's worst nightmare. My dad's dad told him he was pretty sure Hannah had been born during the Civil War, but I didn't have a birth certificate so I had no way of knowing. Jimmy was the youngest, born in New York in 1869, so Hannah was definitely older than that. Her obituary lists no age. So I've always relied on her presence in the census records, which has been an endless source of amusement and frustrated for me. And here's why:

In the 1870 census, Hannah is listed as being 9 years old.
In the 1900 census, Hannah should be 39 based on her age in 1870; she is listed as 33 years old.
In the 1905 NY census, Hannah should be 42 based on her age in 1870; she is listed as 32 years old.
In the 1910 census, Hannah should be 49 based on her age in 1870; she is listed as 41 years old. (At least this time around he age went up!)
In the 1915 NY census, Hannah is listed as 53 years old - this actually jives with her age in 1870.
In the 1930 census, Hannah should be 69 years old; she is listed as 50, which puts her year of birth at about 1880...making her 11 years younger than her younger brother.

So here Hollywood made this big-budget fantasy story about a man who aged backwards, and all along I had the real Benjamin Button in my family tree! In addition to showing that magic is, in fact, real, this case illustrates the unreliability of records we often take as fact. In a census, a person is providing information about themselves to the census-taker. If that person was vain like Aunt Hannah and lied about her age, how would the census-taker know? How would we, the descendants, know? A lot of times we'll see people's ages wobble between a 2-3 year range just because people weren't always certain how old they were, and that's not an attempt to trick a government worker. But Aunt Hannah is a good example of why we need to use multiple sources whenever possible to verify life facts such as date of birth. Sometimes we end up having to just make an educated guess based on the data available. Sometimes we end up getting lucky. Using Find My Past's new Archdiocese of New York baptismal records, I found Hannah's baptismal record, which lists her year of birth. Since she was an infant, this record was made contemporaneously to when she was born, so we can be pretty sure that this record is the most accurate to tell us how old Aunt Hannah really was.

I got you, Hannah! But don't worry - your secret is safe with me! ;)

Websites I used in my research:
Find My Past