By Warren Nunn (a journalist who makes mistakes)
As a journalist, I pride myself on making sure I get my facts straight.
In reality, no matter how hard to I try, I do make mistakes.
My mistakes (and there have been many) have often been from lack of attention to details; misinterpreting information; misunderstanding what someone told me and repeating someone else’s error when drawing from previously published information.
As well as being a journalist, I am a family researcher. That means I read through and interpret lots of documents. Official records are always preferred pieces of information. As well, newspaper reports can also be useful in clarifying a situation and/or confirming a piece of information.
What follows is a bit of a study in how mistakes can cloud an issue and how the reporting of a situation can partly clarify but also bring further confusion.
Facts of a bigamy case
The following image is an excerpt from court proceedings at the Old Bailey in London, England in 1903.
My interest is in case 662: PETER LINNOTT (53), to feloniously marry Ellen Jessie Coker, his wife being alive. Three months’ hard labour.
You would expect that the official record from the Old Bailey would be free of error, right? Well, it wasn’t. The man’s name was Peter Sinnott (also spelt Sinnett in some records).
The next image is an earlier newspaper report of the case in the East London Observer, dated 1 August 1903. Note that the newspaper reported the husband’s name as Peter Sinnott (not Linnott) but gave his wife’s name as Ellen Jessie Coghill, rather than Coker.
Something else to note is details of their wedding at St Andrew’s Church, Lambeth on July 6, 1900. However, as the following image shows, the wedding was on 16 July, 1900. Also the husband’s name is spelt Sinnett, not Sinnott.
Facts aren’t always as accurate as we might imagine
So, you see a pattern here of spelling variations, dates, and a wrong surname; in court documents, newspaper reports and the wedding certificate.
Details in the newspaper report are the responsibility of the reporter and the newspaper’s production process.
The wrong spelling of Sinnott’s (Sinnett’s) surname as Linnott in the court record is puzzling but goes to show that where humans are involved, mistakes do happen.
I point you back above to the marriage certificate which only records information as given by the parties involved. Peter Sinnett lied about his age which he gave as 41 when he in fact would have been 50. He also wrongly said he was a bachelor.
On the other hand, Ellen Coker gave her correct age and marriage status, as witnessed by her sister Florence Clara Coker and her future brother-in-law Charles Tiller (he later married Florence). I should point out that I have done extensive research on the Coker family. Ellen was a first cousin of my great-grandfather Harry Coker.
History tells us that we can be mistaken
So, what does all that tell us?
History is made up of pieces of information that journalists … and others … bring together in a form of words that describe something going on at a point in time.
I have focused on what was a relatively minor incident where a older man deceived a younger woman. I fully explore all the details in a separate article.
The details recorded about the situation; when collated and studied separately; can be properly interpreted with a bit of effort.
But, when you take this to a bigger scale, you can see how historical details can become distorted.
What can journalists do?
Nothing in the above suggests that journalists, or officials, behaved badly or tried to deceive anyone.
But more than one person made mistakes.
I submit there’s very little any journalist … or historian … can do about that.