Wednesday, October 5, 2016

We All Have 'Em

Black Sheep*

We all have 'em. The ne'er-do-wells. The rascals. The "not mentioned in polite company". And the criminal. (read to the end to learn about my family's many "Black Sheep") Many families never do mention their black sheep relatives. And then there are those who celebrate them: Black Sheep Ancestors.

Question is, what do we do with them when we are documenting the family history?

First of all, we do document them. We document them just like any other ancestor or relative. And luckily, they turn up in the written records more often than their tamer cousins. You will find them listed in the newspaper accounts and in the court systems. You might even find these ne'er-do-wells in the history books.

And we interview our living relatives about these characters. And this is where it can get a little sticky, because not everyone will see these individuals in the same light as a genealogist looking to flesh out the lives of ALL of the relatives. Some people would really rather NOT talk about them. Or they might try to gloss over the perceived shortcomings of the eccentric members of the family. And just how hard to you push your living relatives about these "oddballs"?

Recently, I read an article from a respected genealogist who said that you pressure the reluctant relative to reveal all they know about their more infamous ancestors because "you will find it out one way or another". And by answering your questions they at least have a chance to give their side of the story.

I do not agree with this tactic. To begin with, by pressuring someone to reveal family history that they are not comfortable revealing pretty well guarantees that you will never be invited back for more interviews. You could cause real grief and possibly a rift in the family. Also, that person will never want to talk to anyone else about the family either, thereby closing off an avenue of discovery.

Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, recently posted about this topic on her blog:
The Legal Genealogist and she re-posted from another blog hosted by her friend and Certified Genealogist, Debbie Parker Wayne, Deb's Delvings in Genealogy. Deb says that these sensitive situations should be dealt with using Context. Empathy. Time. 

Basically, you want to treat ALL your relatives, the living and the dead, with respect. (EMPATHY) You don't pressure them into revelations that they will regret later and you don't broadcast all of their misdoings for the entertainment or edification of others.

TIME. If an incident happened 100 or 200 years ago and everyone immediately involved is long since dead, the effects of revealing an indiscretion are going to be minimal.

So you will want to "shield" some of your family information and not publicly broadcast it while the interested people are still alive. This is just a common courtesy. You don't lie about it. And you can share the information in a respectful manner.

And while I have a number of "black sheep" stories about my living relatives, the following events all relate to individuals who have long been dead:
Not just for sinners

  • One of my great grandfathers was often quoted as saying "Stop Signs are for sinners." It was always said to indicate that he never heeded stop signs.  A newspaper article about his traffic violations seems to confirm this little tidbit. (But as we are all "sinners" wouldn't this indicate that stop signs were for everyone?)
  • Another grandfather went to prison for 5-10 years for attempted manslaughter. He told the judge that he was just trying to scare the victim into telling him where his wife was. As he was an avid hunter and only wounded the victim, I suspect the he was "under the influence" at the time of the incident. He was also wounded during the exchange and was found walking up and down the street in front of his house by the sheriff. When asked what he was doing, he replied that he was afraid to go into the house by himself because he believed he would bleed to death. I would like to nominate this relative for an episode of America's Dumbest Criminals.
  • This same grandfather was arrested as a young man for "disturbing the peace on the Sabbath" as he raced his horse past a church during service, whooping and hollering at the congregants.
  • And in yet another example of bad decision making, this man left his wife and 3 young children for his sister-in-law, eventually having a fourth child by her. His wife, not to be out-done by her errant husband, also took up with another man and had his child before finally filing for divorce some 9 years later.
  • One of my 2 X great grandfathers was arrested for not showing up when was drafted
    Battle Flag of the 76th OVI
    for the second time during the Civil War. In his defense, he did show up the first time and was part of the Bloody 76th OVI. He had a medical discharge from that unit due to a "head injury received in camp, but not related to any battle injury". When he was later called up for the Ohio 43rd, he just did not show up. So they came and got him. Thirty years after the Civil War ended, his wife had him committed to an Insane Asylum for locking her out of the house. His commitment papers sound a lot like he was suffering from Alzheimer's which has been passed down on that side of the family.
  • Another, more distant, relative was sentenced for horse theft in 1820's Delaware. The Governor commuted his sentence, but the commutation arrived too late. The "corporal punishment" had already been administered. I am still researching to find out what that corporal punishment was.
I could go on, and on, and on... Yep, we all got 'em.

*Wikipedia definition of Black Sheep.


Anonymous said...

great article, Kathy!

Lisa said...

Loved it!