The Darker Side Of Genealogy: Tracking Criminals, Rogues, Scoundrels & Black Sheep

by Lisa Alzo | Apr 22, 2011

How well do you really know your ancestors? Most of us want to believe our ancestors were hard-working, noble, or "salt-of-the-earth" types. We want to like them, and even brag about them. However, the reality is that if we go back far enough, we all can dig up a few proverbial "skeletons in the closet." The horse thief, the philanderer, the murderer! Oh my!

Genealogy is one of the most unpredictable activities you'll undertake. To borrow the analogy, "Life was like a box of chocolates," from the movie Forrest Gump--when you start digging into your family's past, "You never know what you're gonna get."

If you suspect a few black sheep lurking in your family tree, this article will discuss how to hunt them down and bust through the speculation to get to the real story.


Follow the Family Lore

During an interview with my mother more than 20 years ago, she told me about her uncle, Sam Figler (read more), a bachelor who was found dead alongside an Ohio road after drinking too much alcohol, and buried in a pauper's grave. She called him the "black sheep of the family." Intrigued by the story, I eventually tracked down his obituary, then his death certificate and burial information. My mother was correct in her recollections; however, I discovered additional details about the circumstances of Sam's demise that she had not known. Perhaps you have similar stories in your family. If so, listen to them, but don't just take them at face value. Spend time with your living relatives to learn more. Take notes, and whenever possible, record the conversations either on audiotape and videotape. Remember to ask for proof (documents or photographs) to back up the story. If everyone has passed away, see if you can find friends, neighbors, or others who may have known your family, or even the town historian, to confirm what happened.


Get the Proof

Be prepared to back up all family claims with relevant records: birth, marriage, and death records, censuses, immigration records, court dockets and wills, coroner's records, military pensions and draft registrations, etc. Look for the details (names, dates, places) to confirm the story or debunk the myths. Be sure to properly cite your sources.


Dig for the Dirt

If your ancestor got into trouble, chances are he made the news. Look for hints in letters, business ledgers, scrapbooks, and articles in old newspapers. A few years ago, a colleague sent me a small newspaper clipping about my paternal grandfather's cousin who was murdered in 1916. His body was taken to my grandfather's house so he could arrange the burial. While the article had few specific details, it provided enough clues for me to further investigate the circumstances behind the tragedy. I located death and burial records, and a detailed coroner's file that included a press report. The documents did not offer a particularly favorable impression of this cousin, but it certainly filled in many missing pieces of the story.


See the Bigger Picture

Scandals are not always identifiable in terms of pure black and white. Our ancestors did not live in a vacuum, and their choices were often influenced by their own personalities, cultural values, and their environment. As genealogists, it's important to understand the time period during which our ancestors lived, and explore town and local histories to get the social context. Every person experiences events differently, so it helps to gain as much perspective as possible.


Don't Dwell on the Past

If you discover something unsavory about your past, accept the reality, but don't dwell on it. Also, be sensitive when sharing information with others. Remember, the bad thing your ancestor did impacted those around him or her (sometimes for generations). Use caution, if you're planning to share the story in print, or online. If you aren't sure about potential legal issues, contact an attorney for advice. Of course, you'll also want to consider the impact of family dynamics. Will what you publish cause hard feelings or embarrassment? Is it worth risking a relationship to share the story? While writing my book, Three Slovak Women, I learned that there was an illegitimate birth in my grandmother's family. By the time I was ready to publish, the said person was deceased, but her children knew about the book coming out. I contacted them to ask if they would object to having the story in the book (they didn't) and they appreciated that I was willing to take their feelings into account. It's a personal decision--everyone's situation is different, but a general path of respect should be considered.


Conclusion

Let's face it--bad things happened to our ancestors. You can't deny it, but you may discover that the troublemakers are often more interesting than those who led a pristine life; not to mention they probably left more of a paper trail. Personally, for me, the sinners are much more fun.


Additional Resources

Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History by Katherine Scott Sturdevant (Betterway Books, Out of Print).

Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures by Christina Rose (CR Publications).

Family Secrets and Scandals by Nancy Ellen Carlberg (Creative Continuum).

Finding Your Famous (and Infamous) Ancestors by Rhonda McClure (Betterway Books, Out of Print)

Hookers, Crooks, and Kooks, two volumes by Jana Sloan Broglin (Heritage Books).

WANTED! U.S. Criminal Records: Sources & Research Methodology by Ron Arons (Criminal Research Press).


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