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Diggin' Up Bones

Dealing with the skeletons in the family closet? How do you find them? How do you record the information? How much should be recorded for public consumption?


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Regardless of what you've been told, or what you believe—every family has skeletons! They may not rattle, but they certainly do make themselves known when you begin researching your family's genealogy. Don't bury them! Take them out and examine them in the light of today's standards. Finding out that Uncle Joe was arrested may be shocking news—until you learn that his offense was gambling on a Sunday.

The younger guardians of the family pedigree are faced with a dilemma not considered so by their elder counterparts—whether to report facts and dates which might reflect negatively on the character of their ancestors. Much discussion and a variety of opinions have been offered on determining "how much is too much?" as it applies to genealogy research. Ones' primary goal is, of course, locating the origin of their ancestral roots. The thought that one might stumble over skeletons in their quest is furthermost from their minds.

For some, the discovery of a long sought after ancestor is exciting, regardless of whether they are in a mental institution, the poor house, or the local jail! After all, you have verified that they were alive on a particular date; you have ascertained something of their personal, if not medical condition, and you have an interesting story to pass along. Or, do you?

There are a number of factors to consider. For ancestors who were institutionalized, you must consider the medical conditions that were once thought to be cases of insanity and idiocy. Many times, a family member who was blind was placed in an institution because the family felt they would be better cared for. Afflictions such as epilepsy, physical deformities, speech impediments, and diabetic comas would cause a person to be listed as an idiot. Alzheimer's and depression (including post-partum depression), were common reasons for being listed insane. If you find an ancestor in an asylum, check previous censuses for any medical conditions listed. If this is a female, look at the date of birth of her youngest child and determine if she could be suffering from post-partum depression, commonly called the blues. Epilepsy (referred to as "fits") is often a genetic condition. You may be aware of members of your family who are epileptic, and can now document the inherent ancestry of the condition. Following this line of research, an otherwise embarrassing piece of information may be stated in a positive and informative way in your genealogy notes.

If your ancestor is listed in a poor house, this could simply mean that they have fallen upon hard times. They may spend only a few months there. Look at the individual circumstances. The elderly may have no living relatives to care for them, and be incapable of supporting themselves due to the fragility of their health. You may find a young widow and her children living in the poor house because there was no land left to them for support, and no grown children to head the household. Finding one's ancestors in the poor house elicits more sympathy than embarrassment and should be recorded in detail without reservation or apology.

Recording and sharing the information that Uncle Joe spent some time in the calaboose might be a bit tricky. First, check court records to find out for what crime he was arrested and/or convicted. Depending on the era, he may be guilty of something as simple as gambling on a Sunday or selling his homemade brew! If this is not the case, and the crime is more serious in nature, you have some decisions to make about how to record the information. Ask yourself how this information may be perceived by other descendants. Is this ancestor far enough removed in time that the information would fall into the category of "interesting", rather than "embarrassing"? Is this incident openly discussed within the family? If so, you can add validity and substance to the story by documenting the source and adding the details. On the other hand, if this is new information, you need to be more tactful. You may simply record the court order book and page that verifies he was living on a specific date. Leave it to others to look at the record and discover the information for themselves. If the court record verifies a relationship to others, your note could read "John Jones is identified as Joe's brother-in-law in court order book . . . " Be creative with your notes, but be honest.

Do not sacrifice documentation of newly discovered evidence for fear of finding a skeleton or two. When you can not find your ancestor through research of traditional documents, check the 1880 Special Schedules for institutions. Search prison records, and the pardon applications found in the Governor's Papers. The discovery of a skeleton rattling in your family closet may cause a stir, but when you pick those bones clean, you may just break through a brick wall.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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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