Tuesday, November 12, 2013

When Bad Ancestors Happen to Good People

Recently I subscribed to a new genealogy database. I tested its effectiveness by entering some of my more unique surnames and places. Immediately this database returned dozens of Prohibition-era newspaper articles about my great grandfather. All of them between 1921-1926, and all of them tied him to the wrong side of the law. He was mentioned in so many articles that reporters were casually referring to him by his alias or nicknames they had given him. Illegal liquor, drugs, theft, forgery, reckless driving, fights, shooting, federal jail time, local jail time, corruption, and enough swagger to remain one step ahead of the law. The story read like a Hollywood blockbuster. Except it wasn't a movie, it was the real life of my great-grandfather.

Rabid genealogists drool over black-sheep ancestors. They make the historical hunt more interesting. They provide good stories and allow us to access interesting records. My great-grandfather was accused of and charged with many crimes in several counties. Between courthouses, newspapers and local archives, the record trail would be extensive.

I mentioned my discovery on Facebook. Family history friends openly admitted their envy. This is the genealogical equivalent of hitting the lottery. My ancestor wasn't just a black sheep, he was a one-man crime wave in spectacular fashion and it was all over the headlines. However, some of my Facebook acquaintances outside of genealogy were more shocked than excited. My family member was a criminal...and I was happy about it? I understand that reaction, too.

Here's my take on the black-sheep ancestor: I don't care to judge. I separate the actions from the person like the doctor hones in on the medical problem of the patient. The complex criminal activity is a puzzle I want to solve. I don't feel compelled to own the actions of my great-grandfather and don't feel his situation reflects poorly on me.

Everyone is different though, which is why I've treaded carefully in introducing the topic on my blog. You see, six of my great-grandfather's seven children are still alive. They range in age from 77 to 93. I feel some generational distance from my great-grandfather, but this is their dad. Furthermore, those seven children collectively gave their father dozens of grandchildren with good memories of their grandfather. The bootlegging, the shooting and minor drug use are not secrets in the family, but I have no idea who knows what about the depth of the criminal activity as it happened before they were born. How would they handle the news? Would they want to learn about it on a blog? Probably not.

There was never any doubt I would discuss this black-sheep ancestor here, but I've been thinking carefully about how to do it while considering the feelings of other descendants. Here is my intended approach:

1. This is my great-grandfather. I've written about him just like all my other ancestors and I will continue to do so.

2. I'm not revealing secrets here. All of this information has been previously published in newspapers, many with front-page headlines.

3. There are two parts to this story and I intend to research both. Almost everything I've been told about my great-grandfather was positive. My mom thought he was a very fun grandpa. I want to document that because it's just as important as the early criminal years.

4. I'm not implying my great-grandfather was a "bad ancestor." It's just a catchy blog title. Actually, I'm quite fascinated by his life story, the early choices he made all the way to his golden years. It's very important to me that the "good" parts be told because of the obvious contrast.

So now you know of my intention and plan to discuss my black sheep ancestor. Hopefully it doesn't upset anyone. From what I've gathered so far about my great-grandfather, I think he'd be thrilled to garner so much attention on my blog...

...so that's how I shall proceed.

How do you discuss black-sheep ancestors on your blog?


24 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I am jealous that you have such an interesting ancestor to research! I do have some Black Sheep in my tree but they are collateral lines-at least so far. One is from my Step Grandfather's line. Since she isn't a direct line ancestor I am not sure how to proceed in writing about her. She owned a brothel and was murdered by a lover! Great stuff but I don't want to offend!

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    1. Cheri, thanks for sharing your situation. I don't want to offend either, but I'm not revealing any secrets. All this stuff was published in the 1920's. Someone might be upset that I'm digging it back up again, but I'm going to continue despite the risk.

      You can research your collateral black sheep without advertising it so freely. My intent is to focus more on the events and not mention my ancestor's name so much as there are living people with the same name. Luckily my guy had an alias, so I may refer to that.

      There has to be a way to do this. That's why I brought it up for discussion. :)

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  2. Amy, I have a similar situation with the subject of the book I am writing (see posts on my blog, Mississippi Memories, and on a Facebook page I have set up for the book, Tillman Branch, King of the Mississippi Bootleggers.) Although the individual about whom I am writing is a distant cousin, rather than a direct line ancestor, I share your concerns and wholeheartedly agree with your plan. The one thing that I have learned about the subject of my book is that he was perceived by his family, particularly his children and his close friends, as quite different from his public (and infamous) persona. As far as telling my relative's story is concerned, I decided in the beginning that presenting the facts and telling the truth is the best way to proceed. And my editor agrees.....after all, this is history, not fiction. So my plan is to present the information I have discovered, from both public and private sources, in a fair and balanced manner. If you would like to discuss this further, please message me. And I am already excited about reading about your great-grandfather!

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    1. Janice, thanks for sharing your experience. Right now my plan is to fully research the 5 years' worth of articles and everyone mentioned in them then write up my findings. If the final product is book-sized then I'll explore my options, but my intent is to just gather all the facts and organize them in an order that tells the story. I may message you if I get stuck on how to proceed.

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    1. Josiah, thanks for sharing your experience here. You ask what I would do if chastised by a relative? I'd soldier on. I don't discuss everything on my blog, but in this instance this is *my* ancestor, too, and I'm going to explore the facts. I've been told to stop before, but now I just share less with those folks.

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  4. I feel the way you do. I tell the stories of my ancestors, the shocking, the boring, and the absurd. They are ancestors, but they don't influence the living. Just like the many ministers in my tree don't make me an angel, or the Harvard graduates don't make me a smarter person. The black sheep ancestors are just interesting stories, and don't make the descendants an less honorable.

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  5. Amy, we can't judge people from the past according to the mores of contemporary times. Thanks for your thoughtful post; I look forward to reading what you write about your black sheep.

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  6. Fascinating--I've dealt with a similar (although lower-key) situation on my blog here a couple years ago: http://www.familytreerings.org/2011/06/happy-127th-birthday-henry-perkes.html
    I feel that the stories need to be told, because my sister-in-law named her son after this guy without knowing much about him except that it was a name on the family tree she liked, and I worry that someday my nephew will find the truth out about his namesake ancestor and be a bit disappointed that he wasn't a wonderful example...

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  7. My grandfather's story has bootlegging, murders (committed by his brother), trials, escapes from jail, a hanging, a prison escape, a name change that lead to a new life, wife and family (even though there was already a wife & child) and more. It was news to the entire family when it all came together a few years ago. I've agreed not to blog about it because one of his children (my aunt) is still living. It will really take a book to tell the story anyway. So I'm working on getting all the documentation in order and have a rough book outline.

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    1. Do we have an ancestor in common? Laura Ann McCauley Bailey Holycross b. 1801 was married to William Scott Bailey and after he died to Spencer Holycross. Ohio. Moody.

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  8. Tread carefully, there are distant relatives out there who really don't want the truth, they want every ancestor to be 'saintly'. Recently, I made mention that a person in my family tree who is also in another person's family tree was illegitimate, and he obviously was, and this person became very angry over it. He was bound out as a child, and on his marriage license, his parents had different surnames and he went by his mother's surname. It was called an assumption.

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  9. Great post. Those black sheep ancestors are usually more interesting and often a vivid sign of the times. Thank you for sharing.

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  10. Amy, great post. I understand your dilemma but also thank you for sharing such an interesting story.

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  11. When I was a child my parents told only good things about my grandparents. Over the years, however, they let slip thinks about both my grandmothers that fully explains why on both sides the youngest siblings regarded one of their eldest siblings more as a mother than their own mother.
    My point is that they may have known about the bad behavior of their father, but they didn't want to talk about it, were ashamed, or wanted to spare you the details.

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    1. So what indeed, anonymous commenter who doesn't have the guts to use your real name. So what indeed. Thanks for reading!

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  13. I think the handling of these stories depends on the nature of the crime, and on the dynamics of your (living) family. Bootlegging is easier to swallow (or even get excited about) than rape, child molestation, and other crimes with human victims (who may still be living).

    I have living family members who violently object to any sort of genealogical research (let alone revelations of bad behavior). It definitely limits my blogging range; I rarely mention specific ancestors, and when I do, they aren't necessarily my own ancestors. It's a bummer.

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  14. Hi Amy,

    Thank you for taking the plunge and tackling this subject! My 'black sheep' are grandparents, grand nieces and uncles, and great grandparents with mental illnesses and suicides. I'm trying to figure out how to present it, if it should be presented. All the living descendents from that side of the family, didn't know most of these ancestors, so I don't have the issues who had to deal with.

    Any suggestions? :)

    Laura in WV

    Anyway, you've given me a lot to think about..

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  15. I discovered that my 3rd gr-grandmother was born of wedlock. The elderly woman who gave me this info - with proof - went out of her way to tell me that both birth families were upstanding, etc. When I shared this info with the living relative who had been instrumental in starting me on my maternal side, she informed me that this was impossible and she should know as she took care of the graves!? So they spoke? She has absolutely refused to acknowledge my existence!

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  16. I found a great-uncle (who had never been mentioned...I was told all of the males in the family died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic) had murdered his wife with an ax in 1934. My uncle was not please that I found out this information, and it was obvious he was aware of the crime. My father was also aware, but was told a very different story than I have since uncovered in the many newspaper, court, and prison documents. The point of this story is that my relatives have all reacted differently. I was excited for the find, my uncle was angry that I found this out and told the other relatives, others relatives were indifferent. My aunt said it best...keeping secrets is what allows bad people to get way with crimes (she is a staunch Catholic, and was referring to sexual abuse done by Catholic some priests).

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