Family History Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone

Family History Daily would like to thank Thomas MacEntee, genealogy industry thought leader and respected blogger, for shedding some light on the dark side of researching our family history. Find more from Thomas on


Incest, theft, and kidnapping. Financial ruin, scams and deception. Love lost, love found and love unknown. Prostitutes, sexual predators, and perversion. The baseline themes in the latest Hollywood blockbuster or perhaps a New York Times best-selling novel? Wrong. You’ll find all of these and more when researching family history.

If you have ever been interested in finding out more about your ancestors, realize that what you learn and what you discover can’t be unseen or unheard and the stories you uncover may astound and even upset you.

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Not for the Squeamish, But Don’t Look Away

As genealogists our goal is finding the truth about our ancestors. And the whole truth no matter how ugly it may be. Don’t be tempted to skip researching certain persons or aspects of their life based on what you may have heard from a family member or read in an old newspaper.

If your goal, like most family historians, is to put all of your ancestors in historical context and to better understand their lives, you need to take a 3-D approach to research. This means going down those dark and narrow alleys. Looking under that bed despite being afraid of monsters. Pulling back the rug to find more than an ancestor’s dust.

What you will find is this: life. Our ancestors had the same hopes and dreams as well as successes and shortcomings as we do. This is what makes them human. And when we see them as real people – faults, warts and all – then we can bring them back to life, if only in our memories and on paper.

Where and How To Find The Dark Side of Your Ancestors

There is a myriad of television programs related to crime scene investigations and it seems to be a requirement to show a grisly crime scene or an autopsy. But present day depictions of wrong doing, victims and mayhem can’t even compare to the florid and sometimes horrifying prose used in books and newspaper accounts from the late 19th century, for example.

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Keep in mind that these were the days before television or radio and even decent photographs in a newspaper. The story could only be told in a manner that we today find very exaggerated and sensational. And like today, editors knew what sold newspapers . . . any story that was salacious yet still within the bounds of common decency of the time.

Beyond the written stories in the media, let’s say you have a black sheep ancestor (that’s what we call them) who committed a horrendous crime. Look to record sets for clues including:

  • Historical newspapers. The media accounts of a crime are the first stop in finding the whole story of your dark ancestor. Keep in mind that not all the facts may have been reported so create a list of research questions and try to “read between the lines” of each story. Also understand that the reporter, the newspaper or the local townsfolk may have had strong biases (racial, religious, ethnic) which colored the tone and tenor of the article. Go beyond what you read and seek to find all the facts and ultimately the truth of the story.
  • They even had multiple identities back then. The basic m.o. for many criminals was the proliferation of identities and it was much easier during certain time periods to just assume a new one. This is where your collateral search skills come in handy; make sure you take those suspicious names and trace them out to the end. Remember that name variations abound! Look for them on multiple marriage certificates for those bigamists and in other vital records.
  • Use death certificates and coroner’s inquests. If a person died accidentally or under suspicious circumstances, you’ll be able to get clues and pieces of the story from what the coroner says in the report. Look for the reports on the victims as well as the bad guy or girl.
  • Census sheets. Realize that ne’er-do-wells could easily change their name and take off to another town or city. There may not have been a formal or legal name change process in place at the time. But these folks often stuck with the familiar, meaning they boarded and bunked with the same family or friends who would take them in and put up with them. So look for boarders and lodgers and do a collateral search on those names as well.
  • Mug shots. Invented by the noted detective Allan Pinkerton, mug shots weren’t common until the 1870s and 1880s and only in the larger cities where the police could afford to have a photographer on staff.  Many historical societies, libraries and repositories have mug shot collections to peruse, some with online databases too.

How To Handle Bad News

The good news: you’ve made major progress on your research, perhaps even breaking down a “brick wall’ and taking your family tree back another generation. The bad news: you’ve done so by uncovering a family story that would even shock present-day readers. How do you proceed?

Every situation is different and what you decide to do with a story and the evidence behind it depends on your comfort level and those with whom you want to share the information. Here are some guidelines and ideas to help you make a decision on the best approach:

  • Make sure your research is solid. Ensure that your written narrative lines up with the facts you’ve found. If you aren’t certain that something is true, use “wiggle words” such as “allegedly he had robbed a bank in 1935” or “newspapers reported that she was suspected of swindling the insurance company out of $1,000.” Check and double-check your sources.
  • Publish or share privately? Perhaps you have a blog, a website or you want to tell this dark family tale on a platform where anyone can find it. Make sure you understand that once something is placed on the Internet, it is there forever. On the other hand, you might want to use the story in a private blog, a private group on Facebook, or simply print it and send it to specific family members. Keep in mind that there is nothing preventing someone from copying that information which is private and using it publicly on their own.
  • Respect the living. You’ve unearthed quite a story about a dead relative. And it’s said that you can’t libel the dead; however, the living can be libeled, slandered and defamed. If living people are mentioned in the story, even if by a nickname or first name only, think through how sharing it with others will impact your family. You might want to contact those people and share the story and tell them how you plan to use it.
  • Consider saving the story for later. Much later, like after you are dead and gone. One way to do this and ensure that the story does not die with the storyteller is to write it up, print it and place it in an envelope. Add a note explaining how and why you wrote the story as well as when and how it should be shared in the future. Then add the envelope to your other estate planning papers and important documents such as your will and insurance papers.

Discomfort Brings Pain and Has Energy

Consider the oyster and how it creates a pearl: an irritant is placed inside its body and the oyster creates a beautiful work of art to remove what makes it uncomfortable. Open up the oyster shell and you’re in for a surprise. The same can be said about a tragic tale of an ancestor.

Yes, the research may make you uncomfortable and the result may break your heart. But this shouldn’t stop you from making sure that the story is told for generations to come. There are many ways to ensure that even our black sheep ancestors have their stories told, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us or our family members.


Thomas MacEntee is a genealogy professional specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. He is the founder of, a community of over 3,000 bloggers documenting their passion for family stories and genealogy research.

© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee

9 thoughts on “Family History Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone”

  1. Pingback: Genealogy Update for Thursday, September 27, 2018 - Abundant Genealogy

  2. Both sides of my family (McNamara/Purcell) came out to Australia from Ireland – and there are some surprises among the records. Great stuff searching!

  3. I’ve heard that one of my great grandfathers, Hugh Roe O’Neill, was hung. Maybe I can find out why!

  4. Great idea Mr. MacEntee! I have been wondering what to do with our family secret – I have only told my sister but it is really tempting to ask my cousins if they have heard anything but I won’t – so I will write the story and put it with my will and estate papers. Thanks!

  5. The same is true for poverty and insanity. I’ve stumbled across a few of these in my research and it never ceases to surprise me. The poor can be especially hard to find. Great article!

  6. Dear Thomas, You offer many wise perspectives on this issue. Your exhortation to be brave in researching, and look everywhere, is exactly right. I like your sentence, “What you will find is this: life.” In researching my slaveholder ancestors (I consider that a criminal social institution, generating many actions that harm others), I’ve tried to step back and hear the truth of everything I find. It’s not easy, but it’s the very best approach.

    Much more difficult is deciding what to do about living people. Yes, once you post a story on the Internet, it is indeed there forever, and I try to keep that in mind. It’s out of bounds for the story to mention living people (except for oneself). I do like the idea of leaving stories in an envelope. Never thought of that! Might do that, for items told me in confidence that future generations would nevertheless benefit from knowing. Thanks for all the thought you have put into this post.

  7. Pingback: Family History Daily Debuts . . . And I Helped! | GeneaBloggers

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