I recently saw the Tony award-winning musical In the Heights, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the same man who went on to create Hamilton. Hamilton, as you might have guessed, is about the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. And today, January 11, just happens to be his birthday, although the exact year is a little fuzzy. According to Hamilton himself, he was born in 1757. According to official records from Nevis however, the small Caribbean island where he was born, his birth year was 1755. Why the discrepancy? No one really knows, but according to one theory pitched by Ron Chernow, the historian who wrote what is considered to be the definitive biography of Hamilton, he got a relatively late start in going to college. So when Hamilton entered Columbia University (King’s College at the time) in 1774, he stated he was born in 1757.
While I haven’t seen the musical, I do know a little bit about this most riveting Founding Father. It is not surprising that someone with Hamilton’s background would have a discrepancy such as this. As someone who grew up poor and orphaned in a remote Caribbean island, he was constantly running from his past but was somehow able to work himself into the inner circles of the American Revolution and eventually the new government. He is a man of fascinating complexity. The type of person who grew up poor but laid the foundation for the biggest economy in the world, who used his words and logic to help create the Constitution, who constantly tried to balance freedom and the rule of law, yet who died tragically in a gun duel.
Why the Details Always Matter
Even Hamilton’s year of birth is complex. But, in the end, does it really matter after 260 – or 262 – years? As part of history, yes, it does. As someone who prides herself on accurate research, yes, it matters to me. As someone who is curious and wants to know the answer for the pure sake of knowing, yes, it matters. But if I am thinking about it from the angle of my work as an investigator, what I really need to know is that there are two possible years in question. There are a number of research-driven initiatives that we undertake that rely on knowing someone’s date of birth, possible date of birth, or age.
We conduct criminal searches in almost every investigation, many times by using someone’s full date of birth, including a year. While some states and jurisdictions allow for searching without a date of birth, others require it, and we would always need one when the subject of our research has a common name or even a semi-common name so that we can ensure the record relates to the right person and not a namesake. So if Alexander Hamilton was the subject of our research, we’d definitely want to know about his two possible years of birth, regardless of which one is correct, and especially given his somewhat common name.
Red Flag or a Glitch?
We’ve seen plenty of subjects whom we later find have two dates or years of birth in public records. Often these individuals have been arrested previously and gave two dates of birth during the course of the arrest. On the flip side, we have also seen commercial databases make an error on someone’s date or year of birth, not through the fault of the individual but because of a database error. We’ve even seen people who were born in a leap year have two dates of birth reported due to what can be glitches in a government database. For instance, take a subject who has a fairly uncommon name and whose real date of birth is February 29, 1980 (a leap year). During our research we found a possible criminal hit on someone with the same fairly uncommon name but whose date of birth shows as March 1, 1981. At first glance, it didn’t seem like the same person, but after further research, we confirmed through the court file that the case did in fact relate to our subject. Apparently the police agency’s computer system wouldn’t allow for data entry of a February 29 date of birth and instead rolled it over to the following day and year.
DOBs are Critical in Investigations
As investigators, if we know that a secondary date or year of birth exists, it is crucial that we keep this in mind during our investigation or we could miss key information, such as media reports that we erroneously rule out if the article mentions someone’s age. We might miss a DUI or be unable to confirm someone’s education. We might rule out very important civil litigation because the party named in the proceeding is described as being a different age. In fact, we might miss a heck of a lot if we aren’t at least paying attention and on the lookout for public records that have an error in the file. For instance, in the case of Hamilton, we might not be able to verify his degree from King’s College since the date of birth is often required to verify diplomas. Although, in his case, we could probably determine that his statue in front of Hamilton Hall is proof enough!
If you missed my colleague Andy Davis’ blog on the hit musical Hamilton, it’s a great quick read on how Miranda is able to tell Hamilton’s life story in a compelling way. Whatever your opinion of the man or the musical, I hope you’ll join me in saying, “Happy Birthday Alexander Hamilton,” however old you are.