Evil in the family tree

Genealogists are accustomed to uncovering secrets and sometimes unpleasant facts when they research their family history.  A couple of years ago I wrote a column about ancestors who were scamps and how we all secretly favor the rogues in the tree because they are human and often fun.    But what if the ancestor or relative wasn’t merely a colorful character but someone who was evil or did something you can’t morally accept?

I’m not talking about the ancestor who got drunk and smashed all the downtown windows.  I’m talking real evil. Not all of us will find this in our trees, but many will, since ancestors are not saints but human with all the faults and foibles.

For example, how would you wrap your mind around a person who murdered a child?  Could you cope with a brutal slave owner or someone who knowingly accused a person of a crime they didn’t commit?   Imagine finding an SS officer in your tree who helped murder Jews at a concentration camp. These may seem far-fetched examples, but many genealogists will admit that there are some unsavory ancestors back there or relatives that were guilty of acts that are unspeakable.  I

t’s not unusual to find a bigot or a racist in almost everyone’s family tree.  As a historian I can attest that we cannot judge people outside of their time. For example, Egyptian royals married their own siblings and it was accepted. Today, we’d look at such an act in horror.   Or, we’d cringe to find we had a noted Indian fighter in the tree, or a murderer.

Sometimes it’s hard to accept that our ancestors weren’t nice people at times.  I’m reminded of the story of the woman who fled the State Archives sobbing because she finally learned why her grandmother wouldn’t discuss her great-grandfather.  She found him in the Thomaston State Prison records serving time for incest with his daughter, the very grandmother who wouldn’t speak of her father. It was devastating for the researcher.  Others will take these revelations in stride. I know one woman who tells of incest in her family and a marriage of two relatives far too close to have legally married. It didn’t bother her, and she joked about it.

If you unearth a relative who’s done something you find morally repugnant, I urge you not to bury the information and pretend it never happened.  The truth can hurt, but a true genealogist accepts that sooner or later something unpleasant and someone you wouldn’t care to have to dinner will pop up in the tree.  It’s best to just acknowledge it, enter them in your software, and move on.

We can’t always understand what motivated people to do what they did and trying to analyze someone from 200 years ago is impossible.  Sometimes it helps to just be thankful we are who we are and not what we came from. And remember that 200 years from now, our descendants will be judging us.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com. Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Caribou Library at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.

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