The Springer Hoax

When I began researching my second great grandfather, George Washington Springer, I typed “Springer Genealogy” into Google. The search results included links to web sites with a Springer genealogy going back to Adam and Eve as well as links to web sites about something called the Springer Hoax. We all know we can’t believe everything we read on the Internet, but occasionally we still ask, “Really?!”

Researchers need to exercise due diligence to make sure information they find on the Internet is accurate. While this is true for all researchers, Springer researchers have a little extra challenge. If a family tree has gotten mixed up in the Springer Hoax, there is likely a little truth mixed in with a lot of fiction.

The Springer Hoax is a scam that began in the 1800s. Part of the scam involved creating a genealogy of the descendants of Charles Springer of Sweden, who died in New Castle County, Delaware in 1738. Over the years, Springer families continued connecting themselves into this particular Springer genealogy. It sounds crazy, but with an estate estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1800s, people did whatever it took hoping to get their share of the settlement. The scam itself was complicated, and there are a few variations that existed. What follows is a simplified explanation of the scam.

Stories were fabricated about Charles Springer’s estate. One story claimed Charles Springer leased land to the city of Wilmington for ninety-nine years and the land was not returned to his estate at the end of the lease. Another story claimed Charles Springer had ties to Swedish royalty. The common theme in these stories was the heirs of Charles Springer were entitled to share in an estate valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Someone figured out a way to profit from these stories. They created a company called the Springer Heir’s Corp. Heirs wanting legal representation had the opportunity to purchase stock in the company. People bought into the scam by purchasing stock. Although the proceeds of the stock sales would allegedly be used to hire lawyers and pay legal fees, most of the money was retained by the men who perpetrated the scam.

Apparently, heirs purchasing stock in the Springer Heir Corp. also provided names of their ancestors going back to Charles Springer. Lawsuits were filed with copies of Charles Springer’s genealogy. A few small lawsuits involving undistributed property were won. The larger claims could not be substantiated in court. Conspiracy theories went on for years after the court cases were over. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, several pamphlets, newspaper articles, and books were published that kept the Springer Hoax alive for decades. During these years, Springer families continued connecting themselves into this particular Springer genealogy, just in case the stories turned out to be true.

The important thing to remember about the Springer Hoax is Charles Springer of Sweden was a real person with real descendants. As a result of the Springer Hoax and its aftermath, people who never existed were added to the genealogy along with the real descendants. These non-existent people still appear in public family trees on various websites today. More detailed information about this scam can be found by typing “Springer Hoax” into Google.

Public family trees in general may or may not be accurate and complete. The Springer Hoax is an interesting example of how truth and fiction can get mixed together. Here are a few suggestions when considering how to use information from public family trees:

  • When looking at public family trees, be cautious if there are no documented sources of information.
  • Don’t be shy about contacting people and asking them to share their sources of information. Some people are happy to share when asked.
  • When looking at public family trees, independently confirm documented sources of information to the extent it is possible to do so.
  • Take the time to make notes about when and where information was obtained and how it was verified.

I was just beginning my research when I discovered the Springer Hoax. Dad, Grandpa Springer, Charles Elmer Springer, and George Washington Springer were the only Springer ancestors in my family tree. Although I wondered if George Washington Springer was a real person or a made-up name, I was pretty sure he was not a bogus descendant of Charles Springer of Sweden.

The Springer Hoax did cause me to re-think the claim that all Springer families who had been in the United States for any length of time could trace their ancestors back to three Jewish brothers who came from Germany by way of Sweden. Hopefully in time I would be able to determine if my Springer family came from one of those lines.

Sources of information can sometimes come from seemingly unconventional places, and they may or may not be accurate. The same suggestions that apply to public family trees can be applied to unconventional sources information. On Memorial Day 2013, my mother gave me an unconventional source of information — my father’s baby book. That, my friends, is a story for another day.