Spilling your guts is an inherently personal matter. So is broadcasting your family's faults for the world to hear. Some relatives may think a family historian's goal is to "tell all." Handling the occasionally unsavory family history fact is not always easy. Sometimes revealing secrets about dead relatives may leave you not speaking to any of the living ones.
In most cases it's the fairly recent things that can be the most problematic. I had one distant relative whose second wife was terribly put out that the first wife had to be mentioned in the family history. But there was a problem: He and the first wife had reproduced. In fact, they reproduced to the extent of ten descendants. The fact remained that the second wife was not the mother of his children (in fact, they had married well after his children had grown), so the first wife had to be listed. An entry for the second marriage was included, as was genealogical information on his second wife.
Including step-children can be another dilemma. Sometimes the difficulty is not in deciding to list them, but in getting the computer software to list them correctly.
Keeping the Peace
In one family, the father of one person is omitted from the reunion booklet. Most family members believe strongly that person A is the father of the individual. No extant records indicate that person A is the father of the individual, and in fact all records point to person B. More research is underway to determine the parentage as best as possible given available records. However, I'm left with a dilemma. The person with a debatable father is not a distant ancestor. This person was born in the early 1900s, and all the children are living. My choice is to remain on speaking terms with family members. Everything I print omits all father references. I'm omitting everything on the paternal side of the family. It is not the ideal situation. But sometimes our ancestors' lives are not always neat and clean.
When the event is recent, emotions run higher, and one must tread lightly. Sometimes what relatives think is an onerous scandal turned out to be nothing more than the early death of one parent and the subsequent marriage of the other to someone else. However, sometimes it is definitely more than that. My omission is significantly impacted by the fact that in this family I'm an in-law. I might be more inclined to gently tell the truth in my own family. However, the relatively recent nature of the event and the intensity of the feelings significantly influenced my decision.
How Much Do I Tell?
One should weigh carefully how much of the truth one reveals. There are times when all the details of the truth are not absolutely necessary. One relative's death certificate indicated that cancer was the secondary cause of death. The immediate cause of death was the fact that the deceased took a razor to her lower abdomen and cut out her intestines. Do I need that much detail in the published family history? I'm not certain. Would you like it if I included that fact about your mother or grandmother in the family history? I keep this information in my notes, but choose not to print it out. However, my sources for her death indicate that I've used her death certificate. The research indicates that I have used this document. Leaving the death certificate out completely would indicate the research was incomplete.
But "My Software Prints Out Everything I Have"
Then you must choose:
1) To learn how to selectively print items.
2) To learn how to print a report as a text file and edit that text using a word processor.
3) To get a different software package.
Do I Tell the Youngsters How "Bad" Their Forebears Were?
I was once asked how much of a certain ancestor's exploits I would tell my children. When I've determined they are old enough, I'll probably tell them just about everything. Sure the ancestor was married four times (No. 1 died on her, No. 2 abandoned her, No. 3 she divorced, No. 4 divorced herand 3 and 4 were the same man). She also owned a tavern that was considered by a local paper as a place of ill-repute. She was an active witness to a murder. But I'll also point out that some of this ancestor's choices, while poor by today's standards, were impacted by her economic status, the general socioeconomic status of women during this time, and her lack of local family support. It is important that we not pass judgment on the dead. After all, this ancestor didn't really commit any crimes, and she's not around to defend herself. When her first husband died and left her with two small children, she had to find a means to support them.
Some Things to Consider Before Telling Your Ancestor's Tale
How long has it been? Generally, the longer it has been since the incident took place or since the scandalous ancestor died, the less likely family members are to get upset. There are exceptions (speaking from personal experience). Some families place a great deal of pride in their early ancestors, and negative details may be ignored or vehemently denied. In some families, events that took place 100 years ago may still be viewed as shameful and not fit for conversation. I have at least two of these situations in my own family.
I've heard the following statement told several different ways, and I have summarized and paraphrased it here: "Some consider 3rd great-grandmother romantic for running off with the traveling minister in 1823. They reserve a less polite word for Grandma, who did the same thing in 1959."
Are the parties directly involved deceased? Broadcasting sins of living family members should only be done in extreme cases (usually when lawyers or police are involved). If the individual is deceased and his or her children are deceased, I'm more inclined to include some of the information in my family history. It is important to remember the sensitivities of those who may have been impacted negatively by the event. However, it's also important to remember that we have no control over the actions of our ancestors, especially those who died before we were born. Printing information about living individuals could get you in trouble, especially if the material is not accurate.
Is it already generally known? Were you just the last one to know about it? In one family, I located a divorce of a great-uncle and found out that all his children already knew about it. While they didn't introduce themselves by saying, "Hi, I'm your grandfather's cousin, and my father was divorced," it was known by most family members and not denied by any either.
Do you have any substantiation? Is the scandal scuttlebutt that has been passed down, or is there some documentation to support the theory? Sensational claims without any substantiation should be shared very judiciously (if at all). Sharing or printing unsubstantiated stories of a scandalous nature should be done very rarely, if at all.
The Nature of the Scandal
There are minor scandals and there are front-page headlines. Most situations fall somewhere in between. What was considered scandalous 150 years ago may be considered tame today. Many times when we research, the truth is less scandalous than the story we are originally told. But there are times when the truth is heinous. You can keep some of it to yourself or mention portions of it. One ancestor of mine died in a mental hospital after escaping from another one and being involved in some other interesting activities. My information on him lists his death date and place of death, but not all the other details.
Aren't You Going to Blab That?
No probably not. I may tell others the dates of birth, marriage, and death, but there's nothing that says I have to share every other detail with the world. I have one family where the "secret" is a serious impediment to my research. If I knew the secret, I might be able to work on earlier generations of the family. In my case, that is the real reason for wanting to know the secret. I'm not overly concerned with the morbid details; I'm just looking for clues to extend my lineage.
They Were Human, Weren't They?
To the best of my knowledge, all my ancestors were human. (It would make for some interesting DNA tests otherwise!) As such, it's best to remember that they made mistakes, like we all do. I don't have time to pass judgment on my ancestors; there's barely enough time to research as it is!
What's the Rule?
There's not really a set of rules, and each situation brings its own unique specifics. Use prudence and caution, and don't spread tales without documenting your story and giving yourself time to consider the ramifications of telling. Once you spill your guts, it's generally permanent.
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.
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