Dealing with Criminals in the Family Tree

Dealing with Criminals in the Family Tree

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Since I’ve been working with newspapers over the last two years, I’ve been noticing something.  More relatives than I ever dreamed of have been involved in crime.  It creates a dilemma for the genealogist.  How much should you record about a relatives criminal past?  How much should be shared?  What would be better left unsaid?

I’ve found criminal trails going back to the 1890s:

In the 1890s, my own Great Great Grandfather got into a dispute with a man over money.  He shot him in the back and hit him over the head with a bucket.  He was never charged because it was determined the guy deserved it.

The Father of one Great Great Uncle was arrested and indicted for smuggling opium in San Francisco.

In 1905, a relative of my Great Great Grandfather was accused of murdering her husband out of mercy (he had been ill a long time.)

After the 1906 earthquake, a cousin of my Great Grandmother, was part of gang harassing the victims of the earthquake and fire.  Everyone in his gang was eventually arrested after they tangled with a police officer and one of them shot him.

Around 1910, a distant relative was shot by his on over business dealings.  His son then committed suicide.

In the 1920s, one relative was killed in a hunting accident.  Though it was deemed an accident, some in the family felt it was murder.

In the 1950s, one relative was cheating on his wife and he got caught in a prostitution sting.

During the same period, a cousin of my Mom was accused of smuggling cocaine.

And, a little bit later one of my Grandma’s cousins who was a police officer was accused of drug dealing from his post.  He was tried and convicted.

The more that online databases give us the ability to keyword search newspapers, the more that we learn about our relatives every day lives–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

But, uncovering these crimes committed by relatives presents a dilemma for the genealogist.  How much should you make known to the public?  Sure, these facts have been found in a public source: newspapers.  But, does that mean that everyone is aware of them?  If you reveal that someone’s Grandfather smuggled opium, how will that affect them?  What harm might you do to someone to reveal that their Father was caught in a prostitution sting or spent time in prison?

It’s great fun to find these interesting tidbits.  It adds color to an otherwise mundane family history.  But, once you learn that a relative has committed a crime, there is a certain responsibility that comes with the revelation.  One has to weigh whether revealing such information might cause undue emotional distress to living family members, especially older family members who might not be ready to cope with the fact that their Grandfather, who they have mythologized, was a drug smuggler.  Is it worth it to tell the world about your findings if it might hurt someone who was close to the invidual?  These are things I think about whenever I uncover something unsavory that may not be known by family members.  It may even be something they known, but would rather not have anyone else know.

As I delve into the more personal details of the lives of my relatives, I have to keep in mind the responsibility this carries.  I may be thrilled to death to learn that my Great Aunt shot her neighbor because I’ve learned something about her life beyond name, date, and place.  But, I have a moral obligation to weigh this information against the feelings of my Great Aunt’s children.  Springing information on someone who was completely oblivious to it can put a genealogist in a tough spot.  And, what if that person disputes your findings?  What if you really have the wrong person?  This could get awfully messy!

Have you thought of these things?  Have you revealed details about relatives that you’ve decided are better kept in your folders but not in your publicly shared family tree?  Have you gone ahead and revealed things knowing it might be damaging but feel obligation to let the truth stand on it’s own?

Each of the crimes listed above really happened and each one has to be weighed on it’s own.  Revealing that my Great Great Grandfather shot someone isn’t a big deal today.  Telling a cousin that her Grandfather got arrest for drug dealing might be a different matter.  With every detail I learn about my relatives, I realize that there is a burden to knowing so much about them.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with Criminals in the Family Tree

  1. Recently I discovered my grandmother’s 2nd cousin was a bank robber with Dillinger. Reading about his exploits and ultimate execution has been fascinating. In talking about it, I discovered that my great-aunt did mention it briefly to my aunts & uncles, but I don’t think anyone believed the stories. Newspaper articles have proven quite interesting. As long as you have your facts documented, you should be on firm ground. I’m hoping the revelation will get more family members interesting in knowing about their genealogy.

  2. I’ve discovered numerous secrets in my family tree – things that might be considered crimes today, and some that were then.

    The most damaging of the secrets are the ones that prevent people from knowing who they really are – we’ve had two of those of which I am aware and there are at least three separate families who are unsure of their origins.

    And yes, I blogged them. I don’t think people who are today trying to determine if they are really Smiths, or instead are Joneses (just an example) because people three generations ago *could* keep the secret, ought to be kept in the dark if you’ve got the information.

  3. I agree that the further back the crime was committed the more likely I would share it. Of course, an ancestor from 1800 who committed a crime really isn’t going to have much affect on people today. I am more concerned about when I uncover something about people’s parents and grandparents or about someone who is still living.

    There are times when I weigh whether a secret is mine to tell. I have a distant elderly cousin who died a couple of years ago in her 80s. Her family had a story about her father being smuggled from the Azores to Hawaii. She loved this story and told it with passion. The problem is when I researched her line I found out that her father was not smuggled aboard a ship to Hawaii. In fact, he wasn’t even an immigrant. His father was the immigrant and he arrived in the usual legal manner.

    She was suffering from cancer when I learned the truth. I decided not to tell her. I figured that she had gone her whole life with this fairy tale. It made her happy and there was no reason to burst her bubble–especially when she was so ill. If her children or grandchildren ever contact me, I will pass on what I know. I just didn’t see any value in upsetting her.

  4. I’ve recently found out that a great uncle of mine died in a Texas Prison in 1969. I have no idea what crime he commited. All I have found is a death record. How can I get more info on this?

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