Purcell Family of America

An association to help those trace the Purcell family line

Make Your Ancestors Come Alive With Physical Descriptions

Posted: 16 March 2014 at 4:04 p.m.

Make Your Ancestors Come Alive

With Physical Descriptions


Genealogy is a fascinating hobby as we explore the lives of our ancestors through wills, property deeds, newspaper accounts, military campaigns and a variety of other life experiences. Some of us are fortunate to have photographs of our kinsmen which give us a true glimpse of the person we have been studying. But what about those other family members for which a photo does not exist or has not yet surfaced in our research? There are, in some cases, tantalizing bits of information about the physical characteristics of our paternal ancestors just waiting to be discovered.


My family history, Lumber River Scots and Their Descendants, published in 1942 by the estate of former North Carolina governor Angus Wilton McLean, has many physical descriptions which help build a picture of those depicted in this book. For instance, consider this description of John Edwin Purcell (1842-1921) who was one of the compilers of this history: “He was a splendid specimen of physical manhood, tall and commanding, and in this respect resembling his ancestor Malcolm Purcell I.” And, in this same volume is another comment about John Purcell (c 1773-1850), son of the above referenced Malcolm Purcell I. “John Purcell grew into a fine type of manhood but in stature did not resemble his father.” Exactly what these statements mean is hard to discern, especially when contrasted with the description of Malcolm Purcell I (c 1748-c1776).


As a young boy reading Lumber River Scots, I was captivated by the description of my fourth great-grandfather, Malcolm Purcell I. He was described as “…a splendid type of physical manhood, tall and straight with broad shoulders and a mighty chest. He was called “The Giant” by his friends and neighbors.” For this family history, Malcolm Purcell seemed to be the standard for which many of his male descendants were measured. As an example, his grandson Malcolm Purcell II (1799-1878) was depicted as “…tall, and in that respect resembled his grandfather.” Alexander Torrey Purcell (1808-1882), son of Malcolm Purcell II, was described as “…tall, well proportioned, erect in carriage, and handsome in appearance.” [See adjacent photo] And, finally, Charles Alexander Purcell (1840-1914), son of Alexander Torrey Purcell was characterized as “…a man of fine physique, being six feet two inches in height and weighing two hundred pounds.”


Malcolm Purcell I is an interesting figure in my family for which little information is available other than through property deeds and the oral history information in Lumber River Scots. I am currently finishing a major research project on him which has consumed more than 20 years of my research time. So deductive reasoning has played a large part in the conclusions that I have made about his life. “Giant”, as a descriptive word to describe his height, has interested me greatly because I am not aware of any real “giants” in our family—other than through lifetime accomplishments.


Since Malcolm Purcell lived in the eighteenth century, I did a little digging and found that the average height of men during that century was about 5 feet 5 ½ inches. From the ninth to the eleventh centuries, the average height was about 5 feet 8 inches so there had been a decline over the following seven centuries. An article that I recently read, on a Civil War personality, noted that the average male during this era was about 5 feet 7 inches tall.


My assumption, about Malcolm Purcell I, was that he was probably tall by eighteenth century standards but not by today’s benchmarks. I am 6 feet 1 inches tall and my father was about the same height. If Malcolm Purcell I was 6 feet or 6 feet one inch tall, he would have been considered a giant by his friends and family as his height would have exceeded his average fellow man by 5 ½ to 6 ½ inches.


To put this theory to the test, I examined six World War I draft registration cards and twelve World War II draft registration cards that contained height information on direct descendants of Malcolm Purcell I. I also had a Civil War muster roll for Malcolm Purcell II which provided a detailed physical description. World War I draft registration cards only contained general height information as expressed in short, medium or tall descriptions. Five of the Purcell men evaluated showed “medium” height descriptions while the sixth was listed as “tall”. Of course, this type of description is highly subjective depending on the individual who estimated the height of the person being registered.


The World War II draft registration cards showed an average height (for twelve men) of 70.875 inches or about 5 feet 11 inches. Heights ranged from 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet 2 inches. Malcolm Purcell’s Civil War muster roll record showed his height as 6 feet 2 inches. And it also indicated he had blue eyes, light hair and a fair complexion.


As a bonus, the World War I and World War II draft registration cards had information on the eye color, weight, hair color and complexion of my Purcell kinsmen. Average weight was 161 pounds (this was before the days of fast food) and the predominant eye color was blue. The dominate hair colors listed were blonde or brown and seven of the twelve men had light complexions. Malcolm Purcell’s Civil War muster roll information had all this information except for his weight.


Studying physical characteristics, like height, can be part of your family medical history. Dr. Richard Steckel, a professor of economics at Ohio State University, notes that when evaluating a specific population over an extended period of time “Height is an indicator of overall health and economic well-being...” So by researching the physical attributes of your ancestors, you can not only form an opinion about their appearance but can pick up valuable health related information which could have a bearing on your life. Check draft registration records and military records for information on your male ancestors. There are also other sources which can be consulted to help you visualize that third great-grandfather or another family member of interest. I have found it to be an engaging part of my family research that helps put flesh on the bones of my long departed ancestors.


Doug Purcell

December 16, 2013



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