Casefile Clues

22 August 2013

Getting Negative About Evidence

The word "negative" can be confusing when applied to evidence. Negative evidence is "evidence" because it is something we expected to find and did not. The word "negative" is used in the sense of "not finding evidence" that we expect to find.

"Negative evidence" does not mean evidence that indicates something did not happen.

A statement in a court case that "Elizabeth Jones never lived in Missouri" is not considered "negative evidence." A "negative" word in a statement (such as "never") does not make that statement negative evidence. In fact, this statement would actually be considered direct evidence that Elizabeth never lived in Missouri ("direct" because it explicitly states she never lived in Missouri).

 "Negative evidence" does not mean evidence of a "negative" event (eg. a record that indicates your ancestor was an axe-murderer).

The nature of the event or item has nothing to do with whether evidence is considered to be negative. 

What Is Negative Evidence?

Negative evidence is not found. It is the fact that information is "unfound" that makes the evidence negative. A very simple example would be a person who appears regularly in  personal property tax lists for a county from 1828 until 1842. He also appears in the 1830 and 1840 federal census records for that county. Searches of personal property tax records after 1842 fail to locate him in the county and he is not enumerated in the 1850 census there either. There are no death records for the time period and an estate or probate file cannot be located.

His failure to appear in these records would be "negative evidence" indicating he was not living in that county after 1842.  The "negative" is not because he is "not" living...it's negative because he's not listed in records we would expect him to be listed in if he were living in the county, particularly when he was listed in those records before 1842.

His failure to be listed does not mean he's dead. He could simply have moved. One needs to be careful when making statements based upon the fact that someone does not appear in a series of records.