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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Rough on Rats road to distraction - Three Tips to Stay on Target During Genealogical Research

Have you ever watched the TV series "Bones?"  Notice how the investigators and forensic scientists always seem to go about their business completely without distraction,  always on track towards analyzing the dead body and solving the case?  Who is taking out the trash at home? Who is writing that rent check or arranging (later in the series) for day care?  Maybe once in a blue moon I've seen them go food shopping.  Nothing seems to really throw them off the path of finding clues, roughing up a few bad guys/girls, and solving crimes.  All in less than 60 minutes.

Genealogical research is no different than CSI work.  Driven by our goal to solve family mysteries we spend hours, weeks, years even, chasing down clues about that one ancestor you may know nothing about- the Elusive One who is leaving a huge gap in the leafy branches of your family tree. However, in real life the powers of distraction are huge and before long, I guarantee, you will find yourself "Off Track."  You will be Alice chasing the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole. 

Here is my "Rough on Rats" story - a short, personal tale of extreme distraction - and some useful tips for avoiding this very common pitfall for the genealogical researcher.

Old age or opium?  Cause of death
While perusing death records for a Maine ancestor online, I discovered that this poor woman had died from an overdose of laudanum, otherwise known as opium.  I will spare you the history of its usage, but laudanum was prescribed for health reasons a tad more liberally than it is today.  Shortly thereafter another death, this time suicide by laundanum, caught my eye on a Maine death record.

Two weeks later, I had almost completed my rampant, obsessive quest fueled by Curiosity, for the appearance of laudanum as a cause of death amongst Mainers.  I literally went county by county, year by year from 1840 - 1920, and from A-Z by surname looking at death records.  Why?  I had become interested in the history of laudanum usage in deleterious ways, and how that issue was eventually resolved in the United States.  Not a bad mission, but what about my original ancestral research?  Oh yes, that.

Wait. (cringe) There's more.  I discovered that besides laudanum used in suicides, another method,  a rodent-killing product called "Rough on Rats," was quite popular in the late 1800's.  "Rough on Rats" was produced by a NJ company and available to farmers and householders alike.  I googled it.  They had colorful, delightful ads of dead rats lying feet up!  Obsession led me to EBay where I discovered that an October 1905 edition of "Woman's Home Companion" contained one of these ads.  You guessed it.  For $11, I now have a real-life original "Rough on Rats" ad in my possession - not one of the really colorful ones, but that's okay. Sad but true. End of my saga. (For now...)

Genealogy is fascinating and inseparable from historical events.  It is easy to find yourself down any number of bottomless rabbit holes and distracted from your main focus.  Here are Three Simple Tips for staying on target, from the start of your research day, through to the end:

1.  Goals: Before you sit down at the computer to commence your online research, write down the specific goal of the day.  Here are some examples:

- Name:    "Alexander Henderson, in Nova Scotia"
- Topic:     "Shipbuilding in Bath, Maine 1840 - 1860"
- Record:   "Death Record of Marietta Small, 1870 - 1920"
- Location: "Migration path of Nelson family from PA to Iowa"

This same tip is essential for visiting a physical source such as historical society or library where you will be surrounded by shelves of books and documents singing their siren call.

As tempting as it will be to deviate from this chosen goal - do not succumb. 

2.  Take Notes:  It is inevitable that you will find important facts along the way that need to be pursued - later.

Write them down, then push them aside.  I enter mine in my "Evernote" app on  my iPad. This way when I switch back to researching ancestry databases, I don't have all these tempting topics taunting me from the sidelines on some piece of paper visible from the corner of my eye.  You have to be cagey when avoiding distraction.

3.  Exercise:  Yes, you read that right.  In order to avoid getting hunched over your computer or desk, locked into eye-straining, muscle-fatiguing research - a situation which will eventually sap your resolve and allow your mental concentration to wander - you need to periodically get up and walk around.  Do some jumping jacks. A Downward Facing Dog or two.  Anything to rush blood to the brain and re-invigorate your commitment to pursue that one topic of interest.  Trust me, it works.

These three simple tips will go a long way to keeping you on track in your genealogical research.  Pretty uncomplicated, but very effective.  Good luck!


  1. Talk about distractions... that advertisement for the maternity corset caught my eye and I pointed it out to my daughter, then the whole family was here discussing the corset, women's fashions, women's figures over the ages, maternity clothing, etc... I had to go back and re-read the entire post. Now I'll go off and do some yoga to get back on track...

  2. That's funny. I was just looking at that ad again after posting it and noticed the corset. Is it possible that a pregnant woman would actually cinch in her waist to that degree? Maybe I should look into of luck getting back on track!