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From Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 1/5/2005

How are you Handling the Skeleton?

We all have them. Some of us have more than our share, but rare is the ancestral chart without a skeleton or two. The event may range from a minor blemish to a major scandal. When dealing with these situations, the family historian is well-advised to remember the time in which the event took place and the emotions of any living family members who were directly impacted by the event. Our reactions to something our great-great-grandfather did may say more about us than about him. This week, to start with, we look at a few "scandals" I have uncovered.

Censured by the House
In 1742 John Rucker was accused of betting on an election, bringing liquor to a polling place, threatening election officials, and causing general mayhem at the courthouse. The Virginia House censured he and a few other men for their actions. In the ruckus that ensued, John even grabbed the blade of a sword with his bare hands. Interestingly enough, he died within a year of the incident, but probably not due to embarrassment. This situation is tame by many standards, and I have included all extant documents I could find in my files.

Hard Times
Regular readers have heard of Barbara Siefert before. This German immigrant married Peter Bieger in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1849. By November of 1850 the young couple was living in Illinois. By November of 1855, they have two young children and Peter accidentally shoots himself and dies almost instantly. By May of 1856, Barbara has married George Fennan. By June of 1856 George has abandoned Barbara and her two daughters. Barbara continues to run Peter's tavern and makes no hesitation in pulling a gun on a patron who gets a little bit unruly. In 1859, Barbara marries Conrad Haase, and the couple leave the river town and begin farm life. Four children and more than a decade later, the couple divorce, with Barbara returning to the home she bought with her first husband. Twelve years later Barbara and Conrad remarry, but the marriage only lasts a few weeks.

I'm not certain Barbara's behavior qualifies as scandalous. It could be easy to question some of her choices, but it's not really my place to pass judgment on her. However, thinking about why she might have made some of her decisions may lead to additional records and an enlightened perspective. I record everything about Barbara in my files and personally think there is a great deal one can learn about life and history in a relative such as this. I always remind myself that Barbara was a twenty-something nearly destitute widow with two small children, living in a small nineteenth-century town where she did not speak the language and did not have any extended family.

Our decisions are often determined by our background, our education, and our limited options. Our ancestors were no different.

In the following two situations, I have changed the names and a few minor details either because the actual situations are not that recent or because my wife (and not myself) is the actual descendant.

Keeping Marriage in the Family
Thomas Jones was married to Sally Smith in the early 1860s in a small Mississippi River town. Approximately five years after his marriage to Sally, he began a relationship with Sally's sister Susan. He had children with Sally and with her sister Susan. In fact, Thomas Jones, Sally Jones, and Susan Smith, and the entire passel of children are enumerated in one household in the 1870 census. The entire family (except for Thomas) is entered into the county poor farm in the 1870s, where Susan gives birth a few months later. Susan's children and some of Sally's are adopted out to different families over a two-year period. Sally and the non-adopted children return to live with Thomas in the summer of 1870. This story has been shared only with those family members who have expressed an interest in the family's genealogy.

Oversight or Not?
The story: “The river flooded. The husband and the two children escaped on a boat. The husband left the wife screaming on the roof of the house. He did not go back to get her.” The gentleman who shared this story with me has wondered if the abandonment of the wife was accidental or intentional for additional reasons not mentioned here. The descendants of this family who know about the husband and the wife have been very reluctant to say anything at all about them. I have included this story in my notes but have not shared it or discussed it with any person other that the man who shared it with me. My concern is that the relative or two who may eventually “talk” may “clam up permanently” if I make what details I know common knowledge.

Where Are You Getting the Facts?
The last story differs from the first three. The cases of election antics, multiple husbands, and multiple wives have all been consistently documented from numerous public documents that leave little doubt as the major details. Sharing these stories is not really telling any story that is not already available to anyone who wants to go digging for it. The last situation is different, to date no public record of the flood story has been found. It is these undocumented stories that can cause even more problems than ones available to those willing to search. This is especially true when living family members are involved.

How Bad Is It?
While our first ancestor was censured by the Virginia House, none of the scandals mentioned today resulted in criminal prosecution or jail time. Stories of a more heinous nature are more likely to create modern-day friction, especially if children or grandchildren of the perpetrators are still alive. Use caution and good judgment when sharing. Is it necessary to mention that your uncle was in prison for a bank robbery he committed when he was nineteen if he lived a respectable life after his incarceration? If jail time of the head of household caused the family to splinter and spread amongst several households, then it probably should be included in the family history (explaining the father's absence may be difficult otherwise). Keep in mind that we all have details of our life we would probably rather not have shared with the world. The difference is that not everyone leaves a paper trail of colorful activity!

And Again, Is It Necessary?
There is a first cousin of one of my ancestors who was in all likelihood developmentally disabled. A court case over his inheritance reached the state supreme court in the state where he lived. The testimony also indicated the mother became senile in her mid-thirties and died and that the father “knew two things: how to aquire [sic] land and drink whiskey.” The local doctor testified that the home was the filthiest residence he had ever seen in his practice. Specifics of the cousin's behavior were also included. I have been very judicious about including these details in the family history (including several facts that would probably cause this newsletter to be caught in most reader's spam filters).

Just the Facts
Keep your genealogical reporting to the facts and perhaps to any reasonable implications the events may have had on the lives of other family members involved. Leave any judgments about their behavior to judges, juries, and higher powers that exist beyond the grave.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the “Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly.” He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Used by the author on his website with permission
More genealogy articles by Michael John Neill