By Chris Little
When I began researching my great-grandmother’s life, I kept running into a wall when it came to her father. She scarcely mentioned him in her journals, and the newspaper column announcing her wedding in 1908 noted that he was too ill to attend the ceremony. And then in 1909, when his wife and unmarried daughters moved from the Boston suburbs to live near his son in Seattle, he did not join them. For a long time I thought he had died that year, but I recently uncovered records indicating that he had been committed to a state mental hospital in 1909, and that he had lived there until his death in 1919. There is much I still don’t know about that situation, but I’ve applied to receive his medical records and they should be arriving shortly—I look forward to learning more about those last ten years of his life …. sort of. It’s bound to be a sad story, one I’ll have to read between the lines of an attending physician’s report.
Mine is a rather tame example, but it raises the question: We may love to think of our ancestors as paragons of fortitude, resilience, and unimpeachable character, but what do we do when our family research uncovers a tragic story, or a deep family secret, even an criminal character?
Most of the time it’s not a big deal. I mean, it’s too bad that my great-great-grandfather died in a mental institution, it really is, but to be honest his tale feels pretty remote to me—I don’t expect the story I piece together from his medical records to knock me off balance too much. I think it’ll be kind of interesting, actually.
But sometimes these old stories can unexpectedly uncover darker stories—tales of shady characters who may lurk in our family tree. These stories can be a bit unsettling. “Experts say reactions can range from detached bemusement to identity confusion and soul-searching as the researcher tries to understand—and rethink—his or her lineage,” writes Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal. Our ability to accept the bad apples in our family tree depends in part on how bad they were—and how far from us they hang among the branches. It’s important to maintain some perspective—they are not us, after all, and their deeds are not ours.
Still, in some cases our history can shed light on our present, and knowing even the darkest sides of our family histories can be healing. “Becoming aware of patterns of alcoholism, divorce, abuse or other misbehavior can make it easier for people living today to understand and change them,” writes Shellenbarger.
While sometimes we may stumble across these uncomfortable family stories without intentionally seeking them out, some researchers go looking for the black sheep in their family, their curiosity piqued, say, by a raised eyebrow or a loaded silence at last summer’s family reunion. Maybe you’ve picked up on some reticence on the part of your older relatives when someone mentions your wild distant uncle, for example, or maybe it’s always hush-hush when the topic of your great-grandfather comes up. In my own case, the marked lack of information about my great-great-grandfather, especially in a family so dedicated to preserving its history, is what initially made me suspect that something had happened to him that the others didn’t want to discuss. Suffice it to say that most families harbor some kind of secret, and sometimes those secrets beckon intriguingly to the intrepid researcher.
But be prepared: “Before you go digging for the truth, know what you’re getting into,” writes Lisa A. Alzo in Family Tree Magazine. “We’re tempted to look at our family histories through rose-colored glasses, but that’s not realistic.” Alzo provides helpful strategies for fleshing out your research, but she includes a proviso from Ohio genealogist Chris Staats: “As genealogists, we are most interested in the truth. Sometimes the truth is not what we would like it to be and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable.”
What’s more, learning the truth behind an uncomfortable family secret brings with it a moral—and in some cases, legal—responsibility toward those involved and their descendants, especially if you intend to share your story publicly. You’ll want to think through the consequences of sharing your knowledge, whether with your family or the public at large, and resolve that if you choose to go public with the skeletons in your family closet, you do so with sensitivity and respect.
So, once you’re ready, here are a couple interesting resources for tracking down those ne’er-do-wells in your family tree:
And in addition to her article quoted above, genealogist Lisa Alzo provides suggestions for tracking down your ancestors through the tragedies in their lives in this article for Archives.com.