Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A.J. Jacobs Cousin Connections - Um, Not Really

Many genealogists have heard of A.J. Jacobs and his plans for a Global Family Reunion in New York City on 6 June 2015.  You can read more about it at  There is also a blog for this site at edited by Eowyn Langholf, who is also one of the WikiChicks.

On the blog, Eowyn has written many articles defining the relationship of A.J. Jacobs with famous historical persons.  For instance (with relationship definitions if provided):

*  AJ Cousin Connection of the Day:  Arnold Schwarzenegger (posted 25 July 2014)
*  AJ Cousin Connection: Louis Vuitton (posted 4 August 2014).  Louis Vuitton is AJ's wife's second cousin's husband's first cousin's wife's fourth cousin once removed's wife's second cousin twice removed's husband's brother's wife's second great grandfather! 
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Marilyn Monroe (posted 5 August 2014).  Marilyn Monroe is AJ's second great aunt's aunt's husband's first cousin twice removed's wife's great niece's husband's great nephew's wife's father's ex-wife.
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Anne Hathaway (posted 6 August 2014).  A.J. Jacobs is Anne Hathaway's husband's first cousin 13 times removed's husband's nephew

*  AJ Cousin Connection:  David Duchovny (7 August 2014).  A.J. Jacobs is David William Duchovny's first cousin once removed's wife's sister's husband's nephew's wife's uncle's wife's great nephew's ex-wife's second cousin.
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Thomas Edison (posted 8 August 2014)
*  AJ Cousin Connection: Andrew Carnegie (posted 11 August 2014).  Andrew Carnegie is A.J. Jacobs' first cousin once removed's ex-husband's second cousin twice removed's husband's first cousin once removed's wife's second great uncle.
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Annie Oakley (published 13 August 2014)

*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Halle Berry (posted 14 August 2014).  Halle Berry is A.J. Jacobs' aunt's ex-husband's third great uncle's wife's first cousin twice removed's wife's 8th great niece.
*   AJ Cousin Connection:  Napoleon Bonaparte (posted 15 August 2014)
*  AJ Cousin connection:  Patrick Swayze (posted 18 August 2014).  Patrick Swayze is A.J. Jacobs' aunt's 6th great aunt's husband's aunt's husband's niece's husband's 6th great nephew.
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Sigmund Freud (posted 19 August 2014).

*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Al Roker (posted 20 August 2014).  Al Roker is A.J. Jacobs' first cousin thrice removed's husband's nephew's wife's brother's wife's nephew's wife's great niece's ex-husband's first cousin once removed.
*  AJ's Cousin Connection:  Joe DiMaggio (posted 21 August 2014)
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Frank Sinatra (posted 22 August 2014).  Frank Sinatra is A.J. Jacobs' first cousin thrice removed's wife's second cousin once removed's ex-husband's wife's ex-husband's ex-wife's ex-husband. 
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Neil Armstrong (posted 24 August 2014).

*  AJ Cousin connection:  Lon Chaney (posted 26 August 2014).  Lon Chaney is A.J. Jacobs' aunt's ex-husband's third great uncle's wife's uncle's wife's fourth cousin thrice removed.
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Michael Jackson (posted 1 September 2014).
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  J.R.R. Tolkien (posted 2 September 2014).  J. R. R. Tolkien is A.J. Jacobs' third cousin once removed's husband's great uncle's wife's sister's husband's sister's husband's first cousin once removed's husband's father.
*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Richard the Lionheart (posted 8 September 2014).

*  AJ Cousin Connection:  Mary, Queen of Scots (posted 9 September 2014).  Mary I, Queen of Scots is A.J. Jacobs' aunt's 7th great aunt's husband's aunt's husband's great aunt's husband's half sister.

Note, if you will, that none of those stated "connections" are true "cousin" relationships - meaning sharing a common ancestor.  All of the connections are through a sibling or a spouse, at least according to the information that is in or

I've been having a good time following along with AJ's connections, putting myself and each day's connection into WikiTree and  For instance, my relationship to Mary I, Queen of Scots, according to, is:

Mary is my 3rd cousin 13 times removed, with a common ancestor of Elizabeth Woodville, assuming that the genealogical research (mine and whomever) is correct.

On the one hand, I appreciate that publishing relationships, and creating the Global Family Reunion, is a worthwhile thing to do, gives publicity to genealogical research, and will undoubtedly is a lot of fun.  However, AJ is not really related - does not have a known cousin relationship - with any of these famous historical persons.

On the other hand, AJ (and me, and you) is probably distantly related to every one of the famous persons, but we don't have a completely filled out family tree to determine the common ancestor or the relationship.

There is also the mistaken impression that "If I am related to X, and X is related to Y, then I am related to Y also."  Many people have stated this over the years and it isn't true, unless I and Y have a common ancestor.  We may have so many degrees of separation, but we aren't "cousins."

I documented my own relationship to AJ Jacobs in WikiTree's "100 Degrees of AJ" Tool and Relationship Calculator (posted 13 May 2014).  AJ and I have 24 degrees of separation, but we are not "related" - not "cousins" - to each other through any documented link.  

The URL for this post is:

Copyright (c) 2014, Randall J. Seaver


Geoff Trowbridge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoff Trowbridge said...

Via the ever-resourceful E. Randol Schoenberg, it turns out that both you and A.J. are descended from King David, at least according to tradition.

See here:
And here:

So there is a common bloodline, albeit not one that is easily verifiable. ;-)

Ashley said...

I still don't get why people are surprised that it's been difficult to get him directly connected to most celebrities. Jacobs is Jewish. He connects as a direct, even rather close cousin to many Ashkenazi Geni users -- users who happen to be one of the most thriving, vibrant parts of the userbase -- but of course he's not going to be very close to people tracing our Mormon and Mayflower ancestry. Were people expecting that?

I'm not disagreeing with you at all that the crazy-long paths to in-laws of in-laws are a poor use of the word "cousin." But:

1) I think his real point is to show connections, not cousinship, in which case he's correct;

2) I'm starting to get really fed up with many bloggers -- certainly not you, Randy -- who almost seem to be shaming Jacobs for not being born a good Englishman like them; and,

3) instead of blog after blog making this same post over and over, why doesn't someone take a constructive approach and propose a better way Jacobs can communicate his idea about connection in a way that doesn't irritate genealogists so much? He's still writing the book. He has an e-mail address. He replies. Make a difference if you want. Now is the time. Maybe I'll even co-sign whatever thoughtful correspondence you post here. But this argument without advisement is becoming white noise. You're a smart guy, Randy. Solve the problem.

Randy Seaver said...

Ashley, it's funny, I wrote my post because I had not seen much of any reaction to the "cousin connection" thing not being "real" cousins. Who else has written about it in the genealogy world?

I know that there have been several major media articles about AJ and his global family reunion, and the trees at WikiTree and Geni. Perhaps some readers made the comment there also.

I also wasn't aware that AJ had Jewish ancestry, and that Geni had a strong Jewish component. That explains the ancestry and the "cousin" connections through siblings and spouses. I'm glad that Geni has that strength, thank you for adding to my awareness.

We cannot choose our ancestry - I'm always amazed at how diverse the USA is. We can only follow the threads back in time and connect to ancestral homelands and distant cousins in those places, and enjoy that. We are all related - the mystery is when and where. For AJ and me, the common ancestor is probably back in medieval Europe or even the Dark Ages.

I admire what AJ is trying to do, and the apparent difficulty that he faces is finding "real" cousin connections.

The emphasis needs to be, I think, on how diverse we are genetically, how different our ancestries are, how similar our shared experiences are, the struggle to succeed in America, how we can learn from every person tracing their ancestry and enjoy their stories, and that we are all related somehow.

Randy Seaver said...

Geoff and E. Randol - the connection depends, of course, on how accurate the genealogical research is in my own ancestry back to Stephen and Ann (Bate) Bachiler, and how accurate the research is back through the other 80 or so geenrations to King David. I need to study this more.

So AJ Jacobs and I may be like 92nd cousins or similar. Cool.

Thanks for the link!

A.J. Jacobs said...

Hey Cousin Randy! Thanks for the post. And thanks for the positivity (e.g. that the Global Family Reunion will be fun -- it will!) as well as the skepticism about whether we are truly "cousins" with these historical figures. You make a good point.

I know we're using the word "cousin" in a pretty broad sense of the word. But if you Google the word "cousin," the second definition, right after "a child of one's uncle or aunt" is this: "A person belonging to the same extended family." In that sense, I think it's fair to say that these folks are all cousins, even the ones who don't share a bloodline that we can identify yet. As Ashley says, we want to show connections.

I suppose I like the expansive definition of family -- that it should include marriages as well as DNA. I consider my brother-in-law family (and he'd be quite annoyed if I didn't).

Plus, as we all know, we DO share the same bloodline if you go back far enough -- to mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam.

Part of my hope with the Global Family Reunion (along with raising money for Alzheimer's and getting more people hooked on genealogy) is to make people realize that we are, in the broadest sense, part of the Human Family. That we share 99.9 percent of our DNA. So that's my long-winded answer as to why we use the term 'cousin' broadly.

Your cousin (?) A.J.

Ashley said...

My endless respect for coming and directly addressing this, A.J. I'm starting to feel like your defense attorney in the blogosphere. ;)

I think of your project as worldwide mishpocha. Maybe that concept is lost on people used to insular genealogy, where research is conducted through specific surname societies and reunions involve an admission fee.

My Old New England WASP family reunions involve handshakes, Robert's Rules, and the rigid, clinical definition of "cousin." My mixed-race West Indian family reunions involve hugging, all fun and no business, and everyone addressing each other as "cuz" regardless of relationship. I think the genealogy community needs to remember that a majority of Americans fall into that second category when it comes to thinking about family. Applying the Anglocentric concept to everyone is a losing battle. Time to accept a shift in definition and thinking.