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Exploring the Black Sheep in Your Family

Does your family have a few skeletons in the closet? The following information will help you research those infamous ancestors or join a heritage society and celebrate them.


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Too often we believe that our ancestors, because they were born long ago, were upstanding, law abiding citizens. The truth be told, quite a few of us have ancestors that may not have upheld the law or did as society dictated. While it may provide us some pride to talk up our Revolutionary War ancestor's war record, researching the black sheep of the family can be just as much fun and remind us that people long ago weren't that different from people today.

A first stop in researching your black sheep ancestor is the web site, Blacksheep Ancestors. This web site, developed and maintained by Tyler Schulze the son of the founder of The Olive Tree Genealogy, is a collection of prison, insane asylum records, and biographies of famous n'er do wells, including outlaws and famous criminals. This site includes records from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Some international records are also available. Once you choose the category you are interested in and click on the link, the site will provide you with a list of states. In the case of American records, you can then select the state you are interested in and see what records are available on this site. A search of Arizona records includes registers of Arizona inmates from 1872-1972, inmates from Yuma Territorial Prison and a listing of those convicts who died in the prison, and executions in Arizona from 1865-1963. This web site's databases are free.

Do your family legends hint at an FBI file opened on one of your ancestors? Maybe your ancestor had a background check as part of their government employment. Through the Freedom of Information Act, you can request information from the file of a deceased family member. The Federal Bureau of Invesitgation (FBI) web site has instructions and forms for accessing that information. Despite the beliefs of some, requesting a file from the FBI does not mean a file will be started on you. Besides requesting the file of an ancestor, you can look at the digitized file of someone famous. The FBI's web site includes an alphabetical listing of historical figures, famous people and criminals whose FBI file you can look at online. Celebrities including Gracie Allen, Desi Arnez, Gene Autry, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and the Beatles to just name a few are part of the online FBI file digitized images.

Don't forget to continue researching your black sheep as you would any other ancestor. Those that are in jails, prison and mental health facilities will still be enumerated in the U.S. Federal Census. Also, men who were eligible for the World War I draft and were in prison were still registered for the draft. According to John J. Newman's book, Uncle, We are Ready: Registering America's Men 1917-1918, the following referred to men who were imprisoned during the World War I draft registration. "While felons will be considered morally unfit for military service and will not be drafted, those of the designated age, will, in every case, be registered" (p. 30). State archives and university libraries may also contain records of prisoners, clemency petitions, and criminal court cases. For example, the Georgia State Archives online databases includes the clemency file for Leo Frank, a pencil company employee who was accused in the murder of Mary Phagen, another employee in 1913. The DePaul University Libraries, includes a research subject guide on Chicago crime. Included in this Guide are online exhibits like the one on the infamous murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The exhibit includes pictures from their trial, the confession, and information about the trial, biographies and resources.

If you feel like showing your pride in your black sheep ancestor, you may want to join a specialized hereditary society. The Descendents of Wayward Ancestors, a society started by genealogists Sharon DeBartolo Carmack and James W. Warren was "formed to help research, document, and enjoy the stories of these characters, often the most interesting part of a family history." This society is for those of us with ancestors who were "criminals, misfits, mysteries, or just plain odd." Membership in this Society provides you with a quarterly newsletter, a yearbook and a membership certificate. For more information visit the The Descendents of Wayward Ancestors website.

The Order of Descendents of Pirates and Privateers is a hereditary society "created to honor the memory and deeds of pirate and privateer ancestors." Membership in the Society involves proving your lineal descent from any of the following: officers and crew of pirate ships who were engaged of the American Colonies or Nation; Officers and crew of American Privateers, including those of the Confederacy; Coastal Raiders; Shore based parties engaged in the diversion and scuttling of vessels; and those who supported the above. Membership forms are available online on the web site listed above. For more information about the benefits of membership, email the Society from their web site.

The International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists is a mailing list for those who want to chat with other descendents of black sheep. Anyone can join in on the discussions; however to be a "real" member one has to submit information on their descent from an ancestor who has committed an act including: murder, kidnapping, robbery, treason, convicted felons, member of the FBI's most wanted list, theft, political assassin, and other assorted crimes. An associate member is one that has not found an ancestor who fits the "black sheep" criteria but can still join in on the message boards. Membership in this society is free. The web site includes information useful to more than just black sheep descendents. Links include acronyms found on grave markers and their meanings, recipes and genealogical scams.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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