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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill   3/23/1999

I'm a Genealogist—I Don't Need to Watch Soap Operas

At some point in time, there's a good chance you will unearth something a little unsavory about your ancestors. If this is going to upset you or cause emotional instability, you may with to consider another way to spend your time. It's going to happen; it happens to all of us. Trace your family back far enough and while you might not have ancestors coming back from the dead (although it would be nice), you probably will find stories to rival most soap operas.

Despite what some people may believe, life was not one of peaceful repose one hundred years ago. It was filled with hard work, sacrifice, and tragedy. What's more, it was filled with humans, whose flaws are the same as people of today. The details and the circumstances may change, but personal tragedy, bad decisions, and plain old-fashioned stupidity have been with us for generations. Realizing your ancestors were human may cause you to learn something about yourself in the process.

Most importantly, do not judge your ancestors. They lived in a different time and frequently in a different place. Their early life might have been far different than ours today. Their intellectual capacity could have been hindered by a poor education. They might have moved far from their birthplace to a location where they did not understand the language, the culture or the social mores. They might have been unimaginably homesick. They might have seen no other way out. And they might possibly have been human (if they weren't and you have proof, I'd contact an agent, a publicist, and an accountant). Lastly, ask yourself this question: "Would I want my descendants knowing everything about me?" Enough said.

My third-great-grandmother Barbara Siphery Bieger Fenna Haase Haase (we'll just call her Barbara) was born in the 1820s in Darmstadt, Germany. She emigrated to Ohio in the late 1840s, possibly with her parents. The first thing that is definitely known about Barbara is that she and her husband Peter Bieger were living in Warsaw, Illinois, in late 1850 when he purchased a small piece of property there. Peter was also of German birth and the couple soon had two children, the oldest born in 1851.

In November of 1855, Peter died. Not by drowning. as relatives later claimed, but by accidentally shooting himself. He did not trip while hunting or crossing a fence. He was beating a cow with the butt of his loaded gun when it fired and shot a bullet into his chest. Barbara was left with two small children and no marketable skills.

Except for running Peter's tavern. There's no actual proof that Peter Bieger ran a tavern, but an estate inventory filed shortly after his death includes copious amounts of alcohol, over fifty gallons. A little more than the average person would have on hand.

Barbara did not last long as a widow. Guardianship records for her children and estate records for her husband indicate that within six months of Peter's death she was married to George Fennan. George became guardian for Barbara's children less than six months after Peter's death. Apparently married life and two children did not settle well with George. Less than a month the court appointed him guardian of the Bieger children, George wrote a letter to the judge asking to be relieved of his duties. He was planning on leaving the state and no longer wanted to be guardian for the children. A Dear John letter, written to the judge!

Barbara took back her married name of Bieger. At least that's what newspaper and court records say. Approximately one year after George left, there was a murder at Mrs. Bieger's. A local newspaper referred to her establishment as a "house of ill repute." Barbara kicked a drunk man out of her bar and refused to let him back in when he tried to come in and pay his tab. She either pulled a gun on him or took his gun from him (it's not clear which) and an altercation with a neighbor resulted. The neighbor eventually shot the patron. Barbara was never called to testify at the trial, most likely because she was a woman.

There's more to Barbara's story, including two marriages and two divorces (to the same man) and four more children. Before her death in 1903, she lead quite an interesting life.

Is there a moral to Barbara's story? Maybe. She was left with two small children to support and no real job skills. Not a good situation for a woman in the 1850s (personal tragedy). It's also not a good idea to marry the first guy that comes walking along (George-—bad decision) At least today, there are more opportunities. I learned that I should not hit a cow with the butt of a loaded gun (careless at best…stupid at worst).

Barbara's daughter Frances was my great-great-grandmother. Only five when her father died, she later saw her mother marry three more times, with each marriage ending in desertion or divorce. I have no picture of Frances and for some reason I have always pictured her as five years old, looking in horror as her father shoots himself. And I wonder how her life would have turned out if her father had not hit the cow with the gun. At seventeen, she married a man twelve years her senior. (It turns out they never divorced, and despite Frances' death nineteen years later, her husband never remarried).

Another family from the late 1800s resulted in more soap opera tales. I'll summarize here without names. It turns out that a certain gentleman had a wife and a long-standing "relationship" with his wife's sister. He had children with both of these ladies and they apparently lived in the same household together. The husband and the sister (the one to whom he was not married) were brought up on charges of adultery and fornication in the 1870s. The packet of court papers could not be found, which was highly disappointing. There are no birth records in the area these people lived in during the time the events took place. Figuring out which child was of which mother was not going to be an easy task.

And on one hand, did it make any real difference? I mean, after all, the children all had the same grandparents, just different mothers. That's apparently what the judge thought when the estate of the father of the two sisters was settled up. The sisters and the husband were all deceased at the time of the settlement. The papers list all the children of the son-in-law as being children of him and his wife. The unmarried sister is not mentioned.

You might wonder how I even knew that the sister had any children at all. Well, marriage records for some of the children of this Mr. "Smith" indicated that his children had different mothers with the same maiden name. Vital records for these children were also analyzed to determine which sister was the mother of which children. But these records were all secondary sources and given the likely confusion regarding the parents, had the potential to contain errors.

The husband apparently was not able to support one family, let alone two. In the early 1880s, both women and all their children entered the county poorhouse. It is here that the best clue as to the parentage of the children was located. The wife was listed first and then six children under her in order of age. The sister was then listed, with different children listed under her name, again in order of age. It was not hard proof, but I now felt I had a fairly good idea of which woman was the mother of which children. The sister was pregnant upon entering the poorhouse and gave birth to her baby there. Sadly enough, the sister died in the poorhouse a few years later and most of her children were adopted out. Not the most heartwarming tale I've ever uncovered.

Not all stories are bad. There are the colorful ancestors, whose exploits are interesting even if they did not end up in jail or in the morgue. I have an ancestor who brought booze to an eighteenth century election, wagered on the election (and won a pistol, I might add), and was eventually censured by the Virginia House of Burgesses. And I have the English convict who robbed a minister's house in 1764 and was sent the Maryland for seven years of indentured servitude (he married within six months of his release—I can only imagine his father-in-law's reaction!). There's the ancestor who sold his inheritance before his parents died (with their permission). There's the ancestor on the colonial Maryland manor who nearly lost his farm because it was confiscated after the American Revolution. And there's the ancestor who borrowed money from his grandmother, signed a mortgage as security for the money and before she died destroyed the mortgage (he never did pay the estate back).

How do you find such stories?
It does not happen overnight and requires more than the click of your mouse. Lots of tedious courthouse research, poring over census records, and an analysis of other primary sources were involved. Microfilm reading, correspondence with far away libraries and archives, and more searching than I care to remember. However, the work is frequently forgotten when the discovery has been made. During the entire process, information was analyzed in light of new facts that had been obtained. Assumptions were thrown away or altered, depending upon what had been discovered. New leads were followed.

How Do You Handle Such Stories?
In part it's dependent upon how bad the story is and how long ago it happened. Social mores change and what was forbidden to discuss in 1900 may be pretty much mundane conversation today. It's really up to you just how much to blab. Generally, I record everything as I find it, whether it is good or not. My files are as accurate as I can make them, and reflect the records I find as closely as possible. However, that does not mean that I necessarily publish everything I find out, especially if there are living children or grandchildren of the individuals involved.

While researching, I discovered the truth about the parents of an adopted first cousin of my great-grandmother. The story was extremely interesting, especially when coupled with the records that were used. However, the adopted individual had only been dead for twenty years and still has a child living. While I consider the research story interesting and educational, I would not mention any details from it in a speech that I might give. The true information is contained in my files. It is not published on a Web site. My records indicate the individual was adopted and that my great-grandmother's aunt and uncle were the adoptive parents. The biological mother is included in my files, but has not been researched as she is not a relative of mine, nor am I descended from her.

Your files should contain the truth. When you publish your genealogy, how much you want to reveal is actually up to you. Whatever your decision, don't lie. An omission is one thing, a blatant deception is another.

And before we get all bent out of shape about great-great-grandfather's lifestyle remember what our great-great-grandchildren might think of us?

Good Luck.

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 and Genealogical Computing. You can visit his website at

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