Sunday, June 1, 2014

Skeletons in the Closet: A Criminal in the Family

This is the third in an occasional series of posts about subjects often not discussed when you ask family members for information.  A page listing other posts in the series is here.

Treason.  Robbery.  Bigamy.  Even murder.  Sometimes when we research family history we may be surprised to learn that family members committed crimes of various types.  What do you do with this type of information when you discover it?  Here are some examples I've come across in my own work and that of others, and what happened when the information was shared.

When I was researching a friend's family, I found the death certificate of a cousin.  The cause of death was listed as "shock, traumatic" due to "hemorrhage and concussion of brain" and "multiple injuries of head", with a finding of homicide.  That definitely caught my attention!  I did some quick additional searching and found two newspaper articles about the case, from which I learned that the woman's nephew was the person who had killed her.  This appeared to be quite a bombshell to lay on family members, but then I had another surprise — almost everyone already knew about it and talked about it quite matter-of-factly.  I'm sure that the fact that it had happened decades ago contributed to the calm discussions on the subject, but I was still surprised at how little the discussions seemed to bother anyone.

Twice I've uncovered bigamy without any warning, by finding that a second marriage occurred before the divorce for the first marriage.  What made these particularly interesting is that the research in each case was for an inheritance, and in both cases the person who was thought to be the heir was the unknowing spouse in the second, bigamous marriage.  Under these circumstances, the disappointment over losing out on a large estate might have overshadowed the shock of learning that the marriage was invalid.  Either way, I'm glad I wasn't the person who had to break the bad news.  The actual bigamists had passed away in both cases and apparently never paid any price for their crimes.  Of course, if you discover bigamy when the person is still alive, you're going to have a very different situation on your hands.

Once someone asked me for help in trying to determine which of two men was her friend's ancestor in the 1870 census:  the one in Ohio, or the one in jail in Pennsylvania.  I found a newspaper article (hooray for newspapers again!) that made it very clear that the man in Pennsylvania was the right individual — the town, the wife's name, and other details were absolutely correct.  But even though this had happened almost 150 years previously, all the friend's living relatives were mortified at the possibility and flatly denied that the man in jail was their ancestor.

An interesting story developed when a friend was researching his own family.  He had always been told that the family had had a very successful business that had failed during the Great Depression.  He discovered, however, that one of the family partners had embezzled money, before the Depression, and that's why the business failed.  He learned this through extensive use of court records, not available online.  The embezzlement apparently had also (understandably) caused a rift in the family at the time.  When he contacted cousins on the embezzler's side of the family, they were happy to hear from him and to learn what had actually happened.  The embezzlement had been covered up in their branch of the family also, and they had had no knowledge of it.

In my own family, I learned that the brother of my Revolutionary War patriot ancestor was not only a Loyalist, he did not go to Canada but stayed in the new United States and became a thief and poacher, and was eventually hung for treason.  Everyone in the family I have shared this information with has thought it interesting and even cool, but of course those events happened more than 200 years ago.

Just look at the range of crimes and reactions in this short list!  The most serious crime, murder, which was also the most recent, had the least reaction, because everyone already knew about it.  Information about the embezzlement was actually welcomed by the cousins, because it explained a lot that had been covered up over the years.  The relatively minor jail time from 150 years ago actually caused the most distress and was hotly denied.  And the story about my treasonous relative has been enjoyed by my siblings, not least because it makes us eligible for the International Black Sheep Society.

As with all skeletons, though, tread carefully and be discrete!  Generally speaking, the more recent the event, even if it's relatively minor, the more likely that people will be sensitive about the subject, because the events will have often occurred within living memory.  The more serious the crime, the more sensitive you should be.  And make sure your documentation stands up to scrutiny — you certainly don't want to risk upsetting everyone and not be able to back it up.


  1. International Black Sheep society? How fun! I wonder if larger groups (like the DAR) have Black Sheep subgroups - something like: "I'm proud of my ancestor because he fought in the Revolution...but he was also convicted of cattle rustling."

    1. Definitely an amusing idea, but I've never seen anything like that on the USDAR Web site. It doesn't quite seem to fit with the image they cultivate of fine, upstanding American patriots, now does it? Maybe you can suggest it to their marketing department?


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