“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!
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?