Skeletons in the Closet

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Skeletons in the Closet


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 “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton,
you may as well make it dance.”
—George Bernard Shaw

Whenever I research someone’s family history, whether it’s for fun or for profit, I try to find out how they feel about “skeletons in the closet” before I start.  Everyone thinks they want me to find a few—but perhaps that’s one of those things that sounds better in theory than it turns out to be in practice.

For example: “La Corriveau,” the infamous Canadian murderess who is my husband’s second cousin six times removed…  Canada in the 1700s…  No problems there.  She is far enough away in time to be harmless, and only a cousin.

But what about a criminal a little closer to home?  What about a great-grandfather?  How was I to tell a nice older lady that her husband’s great-grandfather, who “died suddenly” in his thirties, was actually shot to death by a prostitute?  Apparently he had been harassing her repeatedly and had a habit of kicking in her door when he got drunk on a Saturday night.  (All this was in a newspaper article about his death that I found online.)

How about another kind of death—by taking one’s own life?  That hits close to home also.  One client had an ancestor whom she was told was a Civil War hero.  And indeed, he was, and he survived that terrible war in one piece—only to commit suicide years later (according to his death certificate, which I found online) by putting his head in an oven and turning on the gas.

How about marriages? One of my clients knew that his father had been married once before—there were three children from the first marriage and two from the second marriage. What he didn’t know (until I found a marriage record online) was that between the two, his father had been married a third and fourth time—before he married my client’s mother—to a woman named “Ida” and another one named “Margaret.”  My client may have half-brothers and sisters out there that he doesn’t know about!

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One client knew that his mother had borne a baby out of wedlock before she married his father—a baby who didn’t survive.  What he didn’t know was that his mother abandoned the baby at an orphanage to die.  (For a dollar apiece, I got a copy of the birth and death certificates.)  The birth father’s name was listed on both documents, and I found out more about him quite easily on ancestry.com.   He wasn’t anyone my client knew—but what if he had been?  And I wonder if the birth father’s relatives and/or descendants know about this baby?

“Insane asylums”—that’s what they called them back in the day.  I’ve had more than one client who was surprised to find out that he had family members who spent time in one.  One client said, “So that’s why my great-uncle wasn’t in World War I”…  How did I find this out?  On the man’s 1917 WWI draft card, under occupational information, authorities had stamped “Insane Patient—Gowanda State Hospital.”

I recently discovered, after ordering a copy of her death certificate, that one of my great-aunts died of dysentery at Elgin State Mental Hospital—an infamous ‘asylum’ located near where I grew up.  That’s not the way I heard her story when I was young!

Skeletons in the closet…  Perhaps they’re highly entertaining when you find them in other people’s closets, but less so when they’re found in your own.  What do you think?

About Susan Wallin Mosey

Susan Wallin Mosey is the administrator at an elder law firm in Aurora, Illinois. When she’s not at work she likes to do genealogy for fun and profit. Storytelling is one of her favorite aspects of genealogy, as can be seen on her blog, Pages from the Ancestry Binders. Another special interest is Amish genealogy. Sue has been doing genealogy as a hobby for about 20 years and has been putting together ancestry binders for others since 2011. She is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists and the National Genealogical Society. Sue lives in Yorkville, Illinois with her husband Gary. Her website can be found at www.ancestrybinders.com and she can be reached at swmosey@comcast.net.

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15 Comments
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  • D. Goodboe
    February 2, 2015 at 7:27 am

    I researched my grandfather’s family and found a cousin halfway across the country who was willing to help by providing stories and photographs. She was the grandchild of my grandfather’s brother. Using historical newspaper databases I learned her grandfather, my grand-uncle, had been quite a young man about town, had gotten a job at 19 as a deputy city clerk, and had been convicted in his early twenties for embezzlement. The circumstances were a little murky – the city’s bookkeeping was sloppy and the accusations against him may have been fallout from a pretty vicious mayoral election that had recently concluded. But he ended up serving 2 yrs. in a state reformatory.

    I had no problem with any of this and my cousin accepted it pretty well. She had lived in her grandfather’s home for some years as a child and knew him to be a solid citizen, long employed and trusted to handle funds by both his employer and his church. But it was a huge family secret that even her mother, the grandfather’s only child, knew nothing about. We handled it by rounding up every bit of information we could find, including trial transcripts, but she includes it only for her personal file and I’ve left the details out of my public postings about this branch of the family tree. Too many people still living who are affected.

    But really, nothing surprises me and in general I think it’s healthy for people to know the truth about their ancestors. The bottom line is, we are not chained to them by anything they chose to do in their life. There’s no such thing as “bad blood” or any of the other social superstitions that ruled people’s lives for so long.

  • Margaret Rutledge
    January 30, 2015 at 10:59 am

    No one in my mother’s family would talk about her maternal grandfather. For fifty years they’d change the subject or walk out of the room when she asked questions. We found out why when I was in high school, when Mom and I read through the microfilmed newspapers in Centralia, Illinois.
    Even after Mom and I found out, the family wouldn’t discuss it. After Mom died all her notes disappeared from her genealogy files. Her sister visited my Dad often after Mom was gone, and always stayed in the room Mom kept them. I have no doubt she took them. Ten years ago I visited my aunt and cousins, and told them all the family secret. My aunt acted like she’d never heard any of it though I was with Mom when she told her.
    And what was so horrible no one would talk about him?
    My great-grandfather was repeatedly accused, indicted but never tried, for the murder of his father and brother. In 1893 skeletons were found at the bottom of a pond his family had owned but sold. They hadn’t been seen in a dozen years and had supposedly “gone west.” From what I’ve found the father was a wastrel and scoundrel and his children weren’t sorry to see the last of him. They didn’t save any letters he sent them, unfortunately, because they had nothing to back up their story. The dead brother had signed a deed several years after he supposedly died, but the Coroner insisted it was a forgery and the notary whose signature was on it couldn’t remember enough to clear my ancestor. The story made every paper in the country, as near as I can tell, and reporters from all over swarmed Centralia. Theodore Dreiser wrote about it for the St. Louis Republic. He even interviewed my ancestor.
    Suspicion destroyed my great-grandfather and a brother. Both ended up committing suicide. Their extended family always supported my family though, posting bail for greatgrandfather and keeping in touch with his widow and children. One of his nieces did all the research so they could all join the DAR.
    I’m proud of my ancestor. It’s clear from all my research that he and his siblings did everything they could to prove the skeletons weren’t their kin, but in those days it was impossible to prove or disprove. The state dropped the case like a hot potato once the coroner died. But a dropped case doesn’t clear the indicted person, and my great-grandfather died a destroyed man. The case destroyed his family as well since the oldest children had to drop out of school and go to work. The children all stayed close to their mother and she was my mother’s favorite relative. I have many things she owned. I’m only sorry none of them would talk to Mom. There was so much she wanted to know.

  • Pat W
    January 28, 2015 at 6:25 am

    I prefer to think of skeletons as history. They were who they were, and are no reflection on who we are. I was lucky enough to solve a family mystery of what became of my great grandfather. He did not disappear out west seeking his fortune as I was told. He went east and started a new family – without benefit of a divorce! As recently as the 1940s, my husband’s mother was committed to an “asylum” because she was epileptic. There was nothing wrong with her mentally, just a short circuit in her brain that caused her to shake. But to them at that time, it was an embarrassment to the family, so they put her away. Thank goodness we’ve have moved beyond that today.

  • Steve Hanken
    January 26, 2015 at 4:41 am

    Growing up, there were the old maids and busy bodies with to much time on their hands and not enough gossip who often kept track of wedding dates and births just to have something to titter about. So much of the neighborhood was from a very poor place in Germany called Ostfriesland,. When I went to visit distant cousins it was pleasing to hear a little old lady there say, “We often don’t know when the first baby comes, but the second usually comes after the marriage.” A much more healthy way of understanding people are just human!

  • Barbc
    January 25, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    I must be different than most. I find the scandalous bits to be far more interesting. They were human. My dad’s parents had their first 8 months after they married! horrors
    People are not different. We just have to hide what is thought to be shameful We did not do the deed so why are we so ashamed of what so many were doing.
    The Victorian era was full of ‘ shhhhhh . Really we keep doing what they did soooo I am not going to have the vapors.
    The only time I won’t mention something is if would cause grief to someone currently alive. Otherwise it is fair game.

  • Lori Samuelson
    January 25, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Sometimes people were placed into asylums just to get rid of them. I did a tree for one of my Black friends. After the Civil War her white ggggrandfather married one of his former slaves. After 30 years he must have gotten tired of her so he bought property in Florida and had her committed while he remained living in Georgia. After she died he married a white woman and moved to a different part of Florida, I guess to start fresh. He didn’t abandon his children from the first wife, though. He continued to visit them and provided them with property in his will. My friend took the info well as there was speculation in the family for years. I prefaced it in telling her you have to remember that what was normal in the past was different and in the present, hopefully things will improve in the future.

  • toni
    January 24, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Women got committed during menopause. We all know how crazy we get then! One of my 2nd great grandaunts was in an asylum in some census. Various reasons given. Idiotic and crippled, also melancholia. A 2nd granduncle died in the poor house. Plenty of other tidbits but those come to mind easiest.

    • January 25, 2015 at 8:29 am

      “Melancholia.” I can relate to that, menopause-wise… I’m trying to imagine a husband so frustrated with his wife’s “Big M” behavior that he has her committed! Wow.

  • January 23, 2015 at 10:08 am

    Susan,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2015/01/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-january-23.html

    Have a great weekend!

  • Deb Lindsley
    January 22, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    I have read that in the old days, being in an insane asylum didn’t necessarily mean the person had mental health issues. Sometimes asylums were used for those who had life threatening illnesses whose family was unable to provide nursing care. Apparently the cost of hospital care, like today, was prohibitive.

  • January 22, 2015 at 3:12 am

    I know what you mean. I was very interested when I found out that my father’s great-grandfather had served time for fraud but my dad didn’t really want to know about it. I’m not sure if he was embarrassed or disappointed. He was also quite shocked when he realised that his mother must have already been pregnant when she married his father.

    • Susan Mosey
      January 22, 2015 at 10:37 am

      Oh, yeah… There are plenty of those, the less-than-9-months-after-the-wedding babies, and people can get really sensitive about that! My grandma firmly believed that a woman’s first baby took TEN months to be born – so when my aunt had a baby 9 1/2 months after her wedding, her mother never forgave her!

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