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Controversial Life Events

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  • Tina Stedman
    This was an article written by Judith Florian and she has it posted at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~florian/ I thought that everyone here
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 8, 2008
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      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.

      Tina Stedman

      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
      descendants) may
      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"
      by many
      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,
      writing his
      tale from the State of California! It seems Harry wanted to leave
      town; his
      cousins had already moved to mid-northern CA and he wished to join
      them. A
      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
      the mom
      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
      to know
      the identity of the "other family," anyone can certainly find the same
      headlines I found. Yet, for me, naming the other family is not
      important to
      my genealogical writing. Even Harry's "disappearance" is unimportant. I
      have the important facts, where he was born, when he left
      Pennsylvania, that
      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
      trying to
      make my own decisions, I try to "do no harm". Yet, can I really know
      whom I
      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
      persons who
      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
      put more
      public records online. It also would mean that researchers who
      support this
      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
      their own
      genealogy practices. I can't say there is a "right or wrong"
      conclusion to
      the issue. Hopefully, each of us will weigh every side and come to

      Judy Florian
      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/
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