The Dog Ate my Homework and Other Tall Tales and Little White Lies

One of the hardest things to “knock down” in genealogical research is the tall tales and little white lies that seem to find their way into the documented lives of our ancestors which is synonymous with all of those sayings from the past:

“I caught one this big!”…“The check is in the mail.”…”The dog ate my homework.”…”I’m 29”…you get the picture.

It also reminds me of a poem that was read to me back in the 4th grade at Point Harmony Elementary School, Cross Lanes, WV. My next door neighbor, Mrs. Carl Nutter who was also my 4th grade English teacher. She was the one reading the poem to the class. It has been known as “One Bright Day”, “One Fine Day” and “Two Dead Boys”. It goes like this and this is how it was read to me:

“One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight.

Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other.

A deaf policeman heard the noise, he came and shot the two dead boys.

If you don’t believe this lie is true, go ask the blind man, he saw it too.”

There is no real record of who actually wrote this, but there are multiple versions and variations of it that has come down through time and is known across the world based on the information below according to British Columbia Folklore Society:

“As to the history of “One Fine Day…” it appears to have evolved from tangle-worded couplets that have been popular in Miracle Plays and the folklore and folksongs of the British Isles since the Middle Ages. Tiddy, in his book The Mummers’ Play [1923, Oxford, Oxford University Press], cites the earliest known example of this type of humour as appearing in the manuscript of Land of Cockaigne about 1305 [Tiddy 1923, p. 116] and a 15th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library [MS Engl. poet. e. 1: c.1480] includes four lines that are directly related to our rhyme.”

This poem is the entithesis of what I will be talking about in this post.

One of the first things you always have to do when you read anything that’s from a questionable source or hear something that has been passed down in the family is to verify it with records. That is what I’ll be showing you in this post, which is to either prove or debunk the story or tale that you have in your family or one that has shown up in your research.

I came across prime examples of a tall tale that was attributed to the subjects of this post. Our subjects are one John D. Coleman and Eliza Jane Neal. The following articles from the Beckley Post Herald, Beckley, WV newspaper not only attributes John and Eliza with having lived extraordinarily long lives, but spells out who John Coleman is related to and mentions the long life of Eliza, the wife of John D. Coleman:

Courtesy of Newspapers.com©-Beckley Post Herald, Beckley, WV 31 Oct 1968

This associated paragraph from the same article relates to John Coleman’s wife, Eliza Jane (Neal) Coleman:

Courtesy of Newspapers.com©-Beckley Post Herald, Beckley, WV 31 Oct 1968

Courtesy of Newspapers.com©-Beckley Post Herald, Beckley, WV 15 Nov 1968

According to the second article from 15 Nov 1968, John Coleman’s brothers were Joshua, Seaton and Charley. If this is correct, then the Joshua Coleman that is mentioned is my wife’s 3x great-grandfather.

Alright, let’s get down to business…

I began a search on Ancestry (FamilySearch works just as well) for a John D. Coleman with a death date of 1917 and I found John Coleman’s will:

Courtesy of Ancestry© – Will Books, 1832-1969; County Court (Fayette County); Probate Place: Fayette, West Virginia

I noticed the one daughter mentioned as Mrs. M.S. Mohr. This is probably the mother of Garland and Clarence Mohr mentioned in the second article of 15 Nov 1968. So far so good. We definitely have the right John D. Coleman.

I then found John Coleman’s Find a Grave memorial page and here is the first sign of a birth date which now contradicts the old age attributed to John in the newspaper articles (not that 94 isn’t old, just not 117 years old):

Birth: 15 Sep 1822 Death: 2 Feb 1917

Courtesy of Find a Grave©

Now, let’s go back in time to the censuses because I did not find a death certificate for John D. Coleman. We’ll start with the 1860 Census for Fayette Co., VA since I couldn’t find him in the 1850 Census:

Courtesy of Ancestry©

Estimated year of birth is recorded as 1824 for John Coleman (36 yrs. old) and the estimated year of birth for Eliza is 1834 (26 yrs. old).

The 1870 Census for Fayette Co., WV:

Courtesy of Ancestry©

Estimated year of birth is recorded as 1823 for John Coleman (47 yrs. old) and the estimated year of birth for Eliza is 1833 (37 yrs. old).

Here is the 1880 Census for Fayette Co., WV:

Courtesy of Ancestry©

Again, estimated year of birth is recorded as 1824 for John Coleman (56 yrs. old) and the estimated year of birth for Eliza is 1834 (46 yrs. old).

Here is the 1900 Census for Fayette Co., WV:

Courtesy of Ancestry©

The month and year of birth is recorded as Sep 1822 for John Coleman (77 yrs. old) and the month and year of birth for Eliza is May 1834 (66 yrs. old).

Here is the 1910 Census for Fayette Co., WV:

Courtesy of Ancestry©

The age recorded as 86 for John Coleman would place his year of birth in 1823-4 and the age recorded as 75 for Eliza would place her year of birth in 1834-35.

Here is the marriage record for John D. Coleman and Eliza Jane Neal:

Courtesy of Ancestry©

Now, if we take all things into consideration and we calculate the math for John and Eliza’s ages, we have some contradictions between the records presented and the newspaper articles.

If we calculate John’s age based on the newspaper articles, and he died in 1917 and he was 117 years old when he died, he would have been born in the year 1800 and if Eliza’s age was 100 years old in 1911 when she died, she would have been born in the year 1811.

What the records clearly indicate are the correct ages for John and Eliza Coleman. John D. Coleman would have been 94 years old when he died and Eliza J. Coleman would have been 77 years old when she died.

Remember that it is quite important that you always take what you read and hear as just that, hearsay until you can prove with record evidence that those tales and stories are actually true or false.

Also, newspapers can be a very good source of information and can be very useful, but you must remember that the articles in them were written by people that get their stories from other people, thus can be wrong, so do your homework and don’t let the dog eat it!

Sources:

Ancestry©

Find a Grave©

Newspapers.com©

Blind Pig and the Acorn website (for the “One Bright Day” poem)

Acknowledgements:

Cheryl, my wife and love of my life, and whose West Virginia roots never fail to excite and motivate me. Thank you Sweetie!

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