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Skeletons in the Closet

 “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.

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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!

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?

15 thoughts on “Skeletons in the Closet”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

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