Tag Archive | genealogy

Bad apples and sad stories: When your family research uncovers dark secrets, tragic tales, or shady characters

Bad apples

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:

Kimberly Powell describes tactics for searching prison inmate databases in this About.com article. She writes here about tracking down infamous ancestors.

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.

Image: Some rights reserved by Public Domain Photos.

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Wrinkles in Time: When your life echoes the past — and why that’s really awesome

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By Chris Little

One of the most rewarding parts of researching and writing about my great-grandmother Ethel’s life is when my life seems to replay hers.  

A few months ago I spent an afternoon transcribing a stack of letters she had written to her youngest son. It was 1935, and Ethel and her husband were digging out of the Great Depression. They had moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Memphis, Tennessee, so that he could rebuild his landscape architecture practice in an area with a longer growing season. Things were looking up for Ethel, after the long years of uncertainty and real poverty, and she was immensely proud of her son, who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was working to gain admission to the U.S. Naval Academy.

I spent an autumn afternoon reading through her letters—which were mostly responses to his letters describing life at sea. She had sprinkled her replies with homey little details about her shopping trips to town and the progress of her flower garden. As I transcribed the letters, I wove them together with selections from her unpublished memoir, in which she described these same years of settling in to a new home in a new part of the country. In her memoir Ethel remembered warm days alone with her dog while her husband was off at work, and long walks down her driveway, past the cotton fields bordering her little house in the country to pick up the mail—and how each day she’d hope to receive a letter from her son.

All that reading and transcribing was fun, right? But eventually I needed a break, so I grabbed an apple and called the dog and took a walk down my long driveway to the mailbox—maybe there would be a letter from my son, who’s away at his first year of college.

Somewhere along the driveway it dawned on me that this is what Ethel did. Yeah I know, not a big deal, right? Lots of people walk down the driveway to pick up the mail. But somehow it meant something to me that my life was overlapping hers just a little—we were both missing our sons and hoping to hear from them at the end of a long walk on a warm afternoon—it was a kind of wrinkle in time.

It happened again this winter, as I was transcribing Ethel’s journals from her 1909 honeymoon trip to Europe. Last spring I was fortunate enough to go to Italy for a couple weeks to see the principal sights in Venice, Florence, and Rome, so it was really fun to read Ethel’s descriptions of being in those same cities—in many cases standing in the same churches I did, and before the same paintings. I was amused to find that she was as unimpressed by St. Peter’s Basilica as I was: “We did not seem a part of it, nor did it convey to me a sense of repose or reverence or sanctity, but only wonder at the prodigious achievement,” she wrote, while I had similarly, albeit much less poetically, compared St. Peter’s in my own journal to “a glorified train station.” That said, we were both utterly bowled over by the Pantheon. Neither of us cared much for the tourist shops in Venice but could have lived in Florence for a good long time.

I don’t know whether this is trite coincidence or something important. But what I think is that spending time learning about Ethel’s life—where she went and what she did and what she thought about it—lends a depth of meaning to my own life, especially when I go to the same places and do and think the same things. It both compresses and lengthens time, telescoping her past into my present and, as I write a record of her life, extending both her life and mine generations into the future.

I don’t farm land that’s been in my family for generations, and I don’t live in the same house my ancestors lived and gave birth and died in, but I can see how being connected with your family in those ways can make you feel anchored in place and time, rooted in a story that doesn’t belong only to you but also, in one direction, to your ancestors, and in the other, to your children’s children. Since many of us are disconnected from the geographic roots of our family, researching our family history may be a great way to develop a sense of connection that can be meaningful, not to mention build resiliency and purpose. So let’s call that Reason No. 253 (give or take) why it’s a fabulous idea to research your family history.

Image: Some rights reserved by karlenj5.

The Reluctant Family Historian

Ethel’s wedding portrait, c. 1908

By Chris Little

You know how sometimes you get an idea that won’t let go? That keeps you up at night and leaves you daydreaming at a green traffic light? Well, I’ve been trying to shake this one for awhile, with little success.

I hesitate even to write it down, but in the interest of courage and accountability, I’m going to tell you that I’ve been thinking for some time about writing a biography of my great-grandmother, Ethel. I’ve mentioned her here before: born in 1882, a portrait artist, mother of three, survivor of the Depression, she was also an occasional journal-keeper, a devoted letter-writer, and a scrapbook-constructing family historian in her own right. I’m fascinated by her, and part of me would love to gather all the yellowing bits of paper I have of hers and knit them together into her story.

But I have to admit another part of me is repelled by the idea—and I can get a little whiny about it: “You had your chance, Ethel,” I sometimes catch myself thinking. “You lived your life, you wrote your stories. Now it’s my turn. Why should I spend my life writing about yours?” That part of me really doesn’t want to spend hours and weeks and months in the basement sifting through dusty letters and journals, trying to decipher her atrocious handwriting and make a history out of what it says.

Still, the idea won’t let go, and my whining is increasingly drowned out by my interest. I’ve been transcribing her journals—like the one she kept as a 16-year-old schoolgirl in 1898. And the one she kept as a 25-year-old working artist in 1907, as she was being courted by my great-grandfather. And the one she kept on her honeymoon trip to Europe in 1909. In each of them she’s slightly different—sentimental and romantic in 1898, curt and businesslike in 1907, entranced by the colors of Italy and Switzerland in 1909. But her handwriting is such a mess even her relatives complain about it in letters to each other—I know: I’ve transcribed them too! Sometimes I have to retrace the track of her pencil with my finger on the table, over and over, to try to guess what she wrote. I’m getting a little better at it, the more of her writing I read, and it’s funny the sense of triumph I feel when I suddenly recognize just what it was she was writing.

With her children, c. 1920

I was thinking the other day that the deeper I get into this project, the more it seems to me that Ethel’s life, her joys and sorrows and pleasures and disappointments, are echoed in mine—not the same circumstances, to be sure, but the feelings animating them. Like when she walks back down her driveway after waving goodbye to her youngest son as he leaves for the Navy, and she remarks on how quiet and empty the house feels? Oh yes, I’ve been there! And when she comments about her daughter growing into a perfect companion, kind and tolerant and wise, I find myself nodding my head. Yes, I get that too. So I wonder if that’s part of the reason people like to look into their family histories, to find out that their ancestors were a lot like them—to connect with them somehow. This is as close as Ethel and I will get to sharing a pot of tea, and it’s pretty fun. Anyway, my whining is beginning to feel displaced—because in a way, learning and writing about Ethel’s story is a way of living, and understanding, my own. Does that make sense?

In her garden, c. 1950

Still, sometimes it gets to be too much, all that reading about the little things that were exciting or upsetting to people who’ve been dead for decades. When I start to feel weighed down by it all,  I take myself for a walk, or start dinner, or do some work on a freelance project. There’s only so much time I can put into this project in any given day, and that’s going to have to be okay.

Anyway, I’d like to revisit this topic from time to time as I slowly sink deeper into the Ethel Project, as I’ve come to call it. In the meantime I’d love to hear whether you’ve ever had any interest in learning more about your ancestors, or even just a relative a generation or two back. Why do you think you’ve wanted to do that? What do you think you’ve gained from it?