Controversial Life Events
- This was an article written by Judith Florian and she has it posted at
I thought that everyone here would really like this article and that
it would fit right into one of our topics. I asked her permission to
post it our club.
Genealogy_101 Controversial Life Events
Will be posted on my "genealogy" website.
I mention my grandmother a lot when writing about genealogy research
subjects. Born 1912, she followed a strict moral compass, believed in the
preservation of the family, and maintained a respect and honor toward all
persons within families, whether "ours" or members of other families. She
pointedly realized the effect genealogy research might have on
Uncovering family "secrets", bad acts, or potentially embarrassing
situations could hurt someone, something she never wanted to do.
I carefully listened when she cautioned me about hurting others' feelings.
Sometimes, she gave me "the true story" or dates, but only with my promise
to not publish them. In some circumstances, I wondered why it mattered;
often, her concern seemed silly. For example, in her generation, a baby
without marriage was scandalous, but is ever-more accepted since the
And other times, her concerns seemed----well--- contradictory to her other
stated beliefs about collecting "family history." For example, she also
quite explicitedly told me that whatever is in "public records" is public
information. These two beliefs don't always square with each other in
family research. What may be "public", the individuals (or
still wish to keep private or wish they could make private again.
For example, one of my first "be cautious" lessons concerned our Harry
a cousin to my direct line. It seems in the 1880s, Harry disappeared!
horse, hat, and *supposedly* his blood were found on the road to Scenery
Hill (Rt. 40 East). He had been headed home to his parents' in South
Strabane where he lived. He had been last seen in Washington, flashing a
large sum of money. Accounts say a huge search party was formed, but
Harry's physical body was not found. Grandma clued me in that one of our
branches of the family, of another name, had been publicly "accused"
of harming the young man because of possible business rivalry; Harry and
members of the other family were prominent and successful hucksters,
their wagons through neighborhoods in summers to sell vegetables, new
gadgets, and ice blocks, and to sell coal in the winters. The informal
accusation of murder against the other family was enough to cause a rift
between the Lanes and the other family for many decades...possibly even
now. Grandma wanted the facts, but did not want to stir old wounds.
I found the tale of Harry Lane's "murder" in the local newspapers, and it
certainly caused local uproar and buzz for many weeks at the time. The
paper recounted every move, every suspcion, every effort made to find this
"nice, young man." They even assembled a Grand Jury to review the "facts"
of the caseand see if charges should be made.
However, Harry's "murder" was not quite a murder after all ! From Harry's
own pen, he reported (proudly) his mischief to the local paper,
tale from the State of California! It seems Harry wanted to leave
cousins had already moved to mid-northern CA and he wished to join
family accomplice killed a chicken and left its blood on Harry's hat and
saddle. Then, his cohort staged the scene more, leaving Harry's horse
to graze next to the road while Harry caught the first train west,
from Zediker Station Railroad stop (Zediker Station Road) or from nearby
Baker's Railroad stop. He wrote that he thought his "murder" was greatly
exaggerated, and seemed to enjoy his lark.
Unfortunately, like many persons in their youth, Harry seemed blatantly
unaware of the consequences he caused and the turmoil he left behind. His
parents, of course, were devastated and worried beyond fear--I felt great
sadness for this middle-aged conservative set of parents, imagining
walking the floors at night worrying about her boy. Gratefully, his
grandpap, Rev. Daniel Lane, was deceased (or Harry might have gotten a
from a very conservative preacher!). Members of the other family were,
understandly, very hurt and angry---at one point, a search party even dug
the other family's land looking for a "burial" location! And, as I've
the rift caused between the two families was painful to many at the time.
It's been 120+ years but I still leave the other family unnamed. I don't
have to do that; I doubt anyone would care now, and I could just as
ethically include the name. But, I find myself weighing these life
stories....trying to decide what is *necessary* to include in *my*
writing....and decide what is just sensationalism. If anyone wanted
the identity of the "other family," anyone can certainly find the same
headlines I found. Yet, for me, naming the other family is not
my genealogical writing. Even Harry's "disappearance" is unimportant. I
have the important facts, where he was born, when he left
he went to California, and the rest of his life details from there. I can
note the newspaper sources and dates without making my own headline in my
research book. Interested generations can either look it up, as I did, or
find the articles in my files.
Researchers often disagree with how to handle the "bad" (or what might
bad or immoral) acts of ancestors. Even today, out-of-wedlock births
reservation for some researchers; others include all "facts" of births and
who the "real father" is, regardless of the effect. Some divorcees or
persons with multiple marriages prefer to not mention these "facts" (which
makes it difficult to explain additional children).
Many researchers include murders and murder-suicides--after all, the
obituary or newspaper articles "prove" the date of death or the family
connection. When the accused or convicted criminal is a stranger, it's
easier to include murder facts about an ancestor. However, when one
member kills another family member (and maybe kill themselves too), more
ethical thought must be given about including every fact, name, and detail
in the researcher's public write-up. Is it necesary to include *all*--or
will dates suffice? Is it simply okay to use articles because the notices
are public? These are questions every researcher must decide. In
make my own decisions, I try to "do no harm". Yet, can I really know
might harm, to know which individuals alive now might take offense, or to
know which families I might mistakenly embarrass? For ME, the only
is to use "public information" as responsibly as I can.
Issues also come up about living persons and alternately, living
make news and so are in public records like newspapers and court records.
Certainly, someone related--if not the person involved--might be upset
the public record is copied or "made public"--again. Ethical journalists
every day must approach each story they write and publish armed with facts
rather than pure speculation. Otherwise, they could be sued for slander.
When juries and courts convict a person of a crime, newspapers and the
public presume the story is accurate. Of course, with DNA now, some
convictions even from the 1980s get a second court date or are overturned
outright. How then can researchers responsibly use "public records"?
Well, no genealogy researcher is a mind-reader, jury member, or judge
unless your profession is as a Judge ;-). We cannot know if a person is /
is not (*really*) guilty or innocent of crimes. We can only see and know
what we read. Yet, researchers sometimes find rich sources of information
about family and family relationships within newspapers. Should these
be ignored? Should they remain un-copied or un-noted? Should no
post these items? Should webmasters refuse to post items about crimes or
should he/she include them? Or, should these articles only appear on the
crime & death sensational websites, as many already do?
One solution is to bar all mention of crimes or deaths from questionable
circumstances. That seems almost akin to Pennsylvania's refusal to
public records online. It also would mean that researchers who
solution should personally refrain from looking online for current news
articles (from any newspaper).
Another solution is to post items "as is" without any other information if
any is available.
A third solution to the issue is to include crimes in posted newspaper
collections, but to also post additional information if anything comes to
With a combination of my grandmother's moral guidance and my personal
in futhering genealogy research through public sources, I will include
articles on my websites. I realize some researchers may disagree with my
decision. Others will applaud finding these items posted in a
non-judgemental and non-sensational area. I hope web visitors will
the careful consideration I've given this decision.
I also hope this writing encourages each researcher to think about
genealogy practices. I can't say there is a "right or wrong"
the issue. Hopefully, each of us will weigh every side and come to
FYI Note: The publishers / owners of the newspaper items I mention here
have already given prior authorization that any/all articles (to a certain
date) can be posted on my websites.
Washington County PA Websites, start here--
PAGenWeb is here: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pawashin/