Uncovering Family Secrets in Genealogy records
6/25/2013
What shocking secrets were your ancestors hiding? The answers may be waiting in one of these six sources.
The preacher held for seduction. The shoemaker who bludgeoned his bride to death. The older sister who was actually a mother.
 
You might expect to find these characters in a soap opera, in the pages of National Enquirer or on the gossip site TMZ <www.tmz.com>. But would you be surprised to learn that sordid tales of sex, lies, betrayal, infidelity and yes, even murder can be found in Grandma’s journal, a small-town newspaper, a dusty old court case docket in a basement storage room, or among the stacks of your local library?
 
Most genealogists need not look far to uncover the family events no one wanted to talk about. Maybe Dad’s silence or Grandma’s sidelong glance when a certain ancestor’s name comes up have set off your genealogy alarm, or maybe you’ve found records hinting that there’s more to a family story than anyone admits. If you suspect your ancestor was hiding a deep, dark secret, follow our tips to dig up the dirt in these six archival sources.
 
1. Court records
Your ancestor may have strayed to the wrong side of the law, or perhaps was a victim of circumstance. Maybe he or she was embroiled in a domestic dispute or other legal battle. If so, probe civil, criminal and probate court records for answers, as Family Tree Magazine contributor Chris Staats did when he came across a common pleas court docket: “The State of Ohio on Complaint of Edith Staats vs. Jesse Pickering: Court of Common Pleas May Term, A.D. 1838. Bastardy.” The child in question turned out to be Staats’ great-great-grandfather. “More than all the combined documents I’ve found, more than any county history I’ve read, this court case makes my ancestors human—with all their strengths and weaknesses,” Staats writes on his blog.  Read more at <www.staatsofohio.com/?p=2483>.
 
To track down court records, start with the local courts where your ancestor resided—but be aware that older municipal and county court records might have been transferred to the state archives or historical society, which is probably where you’ll also find state court records. Check FamilySearch.org <www.familysearch.org> for local, state or federal court records available either through the free online records collection, or on microfilm. You can rent film for viewing at your local FamilySearch Center <www.familysearch.org/locations>.
 
Most federal court records are at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) branch <archives.gov> nearest the court. For a guide to NARA’s holdings of federal district court records, including criminal courts, see the archives’ website. Some of these records also are on FamilySearch microfilm. If your ancestor tangled with the FBI, you can search case files on subscription site Fold3 <www.fold3.com>.
 
With sensational stories, don’t forget to look for après lawyer papers (lawyer notes), an unusual but interesting resource. Look for them (likely in a collection associated with the firm or attorney) at historical societies, university libraries or at the law firm. For more details on tracking down ne’er-do-well ancestors through court records, see the November 2009 Family Tree Magazine <shopfamilytree.com/digital-issue-family-tree-magazine-november-2009> and our video class <shopfamilytree.com/using-criminal-court-record-webinar>.
 
2. Diaries 
Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott once said, “What is a diary as a rule? A document useful to the person who keeps it. Dull to the contemporary who reads it and invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards, who treasures it.”
For you, that centuries-later student, an ancestor’s “Dear Diary” entries open a spectacular window into his or her life. If you’re fortunate enough to have these writings among your family treasures, they can provide genealogical details and great insight into ancestors’ lives.
 
Ohio genealogist Jana Sloan Broglin <www.janabroglin.com> was fortunate to inherit her great-grandmother Orentha (Cabisher) Lehman’s diary. Among the many daily notations of housework, canning and visitations, were clues regarding an infamous sister, Gertrude Mearl (Cabisher) Eagle Boring. “Trying to find the widowed Gertie, as Orentha called her, in 1930 was almost impossible. I checked various ways of spelling her given name as I couldn’t find Boring or Boering in the census,” Broglin says.
 
She then noticed Orentha’s Aug. 3, 1934, entry: “Received a letter from Gertie. Mr. Kilmer died last Wednesday leaving her all he had which was not very much. She seen to his burial at Lakeville, Conn.” Broglin searched for Mr. Kilmer in the 1930 census. “There he was, George Kilmer, living with Merlow Biering.” Gertrude stars in Broglin’s “Hookers, Crooks and Kooks” presentation at genealogy conferences.
 
Even unrelated folks’ journals and letters might mention your ancestor. Search for them in the local library, historical society or museum (see page 31 for more on finding these). Sadly, personal keepsakes also often end up at flea markets, estate sales and auction websites such as eBay <www.ebay.com>, so keep your eyes open. You’ll also find memoirs cataloged in American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals from 1845 to 1980 by Laura Arksey (Gale Group).
 
Keep in mind that a journal or diary entry might have thoughts and opinions that, while true to the writer, may or may not be factually correct. As with any ancestral writing, there’s a chance for embellishment or emotional overtones. Always follow up with genealogical research to investigate the diarist’s claims.
 
Be prepared for your own reaction to what you learn. Pennsylvania genealogist Marie Kozlowski Dallas, for example, has a yellow tablet filled with memories her babcia (grandmother) jotted down about her early childhood in Poland. One mentions unpleasant memories of an aunt (her mother’s brother’s wife) who lived with them. “She gives details about this aunt having a miscarriage when Babcia was four years old, about their 9-month-old son vomiting during the night and choking to death, and about how this aunt became ‘a liberated woman’ and had affairs,” says Dallas. Her grandmother didn’t name names, but Dallas used her genealogical skills to uncover the aunt’s identity.
 
 “When I first read these pages, I was about 20 years old. What she wrote about her aunt was disturbing to me,” Dallas says. But she wonders if her grandmother’s youthful memories were shaped by others’ viewpoints. “She would’ve been about 6 or 7 years old, a little too young to have really comprehended the situation.”
The aunt’s miscarriage also was deeply affecting. “She would have been in her teens at the time—younger than I was at the time of reading the story—and that resonated with me. I couldn’t imagine the loss she must’ve felt.”
 
3. Old newspapers
 
Local newspapers have been airing dirty laundry for hundreds of years. Look for your ancestors’ names to turn up in gossip and society columns, as well as notices of desertions, divorces, immigrations, bankruptcies, legal notices and unclaimed letters at the post office.
 
Desertion notices were mostly placed by husbands to tell everyone that not only had the wife left him, but that he would no longer be responsible for any debts she incurred. “And sometimes, the absent wife would counter with her own ad and plead her case, ‘Oh no she didn’t!’ Jerry Springer, 19th-century-style,” says GeneaBloggers founder Thomas MacEntee, who offers examples of such ads at <archives.com/experts/macentee-thomas/private-lives-of-our-ancestors.html>.
 
Historical newspapers are increasingly available online through subscription services such as GenealogyBank <www.genealogybank.com>, Newspaper Archive <newspaperarchive.com> and Newspapers.com <www.newspapers.com>. You can search newspapers free at Chronicling America <loc.gov/chroniclingamerica>, Google News Archive <news.google.com/newspapers> (still online, though it’s not being added to), the Wyoming Newspaper Project <wyonewspapers.org> and more. A Google search on the place and old newspapers can help you find free local collections, as can the in-progress directory at <sites.google.com/site/onlinenewspapersite>. Search for names of your ancestors and their family members, as well as the name of their street, school, church and other groups they belonged to.
 
You’ll likely have to do some microfilm scrolling as well. Run a place search of the newspaper directory at Chronicling America, which lists historical papers published in the United States and where you can find copies. The local library and state archives where your ancestor lived are likely to be good sources.
 
4. Genealogical and historical societies
 
Genealogists are often first to stumble upon a piece of family “dirt” that’s been hidden away for decades. Sometimes the dirt belongs to someone else. Diane Hassan, a research specialist at the Danbury (Conn.) Museum and Historical Society <www.danburymuseum.org>, was pulled into another family’s tragic tale when she came across the June 8, 1908 Danbury Evening News. A portrait of Ida Potter and her common-law husband, Ed Schirrman, appeared beneath the headline, “Ex-Convict Shoots Down Woman on Main Street.” Schirrman shot Potter and disappeared for nine days.
 
“I couldn’t let it go. It was as if Ida was asking me to tell her story. I was curious and compelled to find out more,” says Hassan, who discovered that the lives of Ida Potter and Edward Schirrman were far more than just a headline. Her research took her to the state archives in Connecticut and New York, and even to the National Archives <archives.gov>. Hassan located the couple’s great-granddaughter and addressed the family’s long-unanswered questions about the murder, and she’s now writing a book about the events.
 
My own affiliation with the Mifflin Township (Pa.) Historical Society <www.mifflintownship.org> led to the discovery that my paternal grandparents had a child nobody in our family—even my father—ever mentioned. A society member who was indexing obituaries told me about some Alzos she found. One was for a “Mary Alza,” an infant who died in 1916. She sent me the three-line notice, which read: “Mary, infant of John Alza, died Tuesday at the family home in Linden street, and interment was in St. Joseph’s cemetery.” Using the information, I ordered the Pennsylvania death certificate. Mary was just six months old when she died from bronchial pneumonia Nov. 7, 1916.
 
Local libraries and historical and genealogical societies might have surname files of news clippings and donated research material on local families. They’ll also have books, manuscripts and other collections on notable events in the area, and probably staff who could fill your ears with scandals they’ve uncovered. Find these societies through web searches and by using Cyndi’s List <cyndislist.com/societies.htm>, the Federation of Genealogical Societies member directory <www.fgs.org/cstm_memberLocList.php> and Library Spot <www.libraryspot.com/directories/museums.htm>.
 
5. Personal papers
 
Personal correspondence may turn up when you least expect it. Take, for example, the story of an unread letter that made its way into the hands of Daniel J. Burns, author of Pittsburgh’s Rivers and three other books from Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series <www.arcadiapublishing.com>. Burns’ cousin Ginny discovered, among her mother’s belongings, a WWI-era letter from her mother’s brother fighting in France to the siblings’ then 6-month-old sister (Burns’ grandmother Rose Marie). The letter is dated April 8, 1919:
 
Dear Little Sister,
Having not seen you yet but having heard so much about you I thought I would write you a few lines of course knowing that you will have to wait some time before you are able to read it, that you have a brother in France who is very anxious to see you and I am sure that you have another brother who is also over here that is anxious to see you, and we expect to be home and see our new sister soon. Hoping this finds you well and that I may soon be home with you I am your anxious brother, Bill.
 
Bill did return home to see his new sister, but sadly, died a few short months later from the effects of mustard gas. The other brother he wrote about, Peter, also survived the war only to die from chemical exposure. They’re buried with full military honors.
 
“As a writer and teacher of American history, I was thrilled to not only have a WWI document, but one that related to my own family’s history,” says Burns. “For over 90 years, [it] stayed hidden and seemingly never reached the addressee, my grandmother who passed away in 1972.” Burns shared the letter on his Pittsburgh History blog <pittsburghhistory.blogspot.com>.
 
6. Manuscripts and books
 
Often the juiciest tidbits are tucked away in rare manuscripts and special collections in public, college and university libraries. I’ve uncovered fascinating details about ancestors in coroner records and an index to court dockets of Allegheny County, both stored at the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives Service Center <www.library.pitt.edu/libraries/archives/archives.html>. Using documents in the rare manuscript collections at Cornell University <rmc.library.cornell.edu>, I investigated the story of Guy C. Clark of Ithaca, NY, who brutally murdered his wife, Fanny, in 1831, and was later hanged.
 
You can use WorldCat <www.worldcat.org>, which also gives you results from the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections <loc.gov/coll/nucmc>, to find items in manuscript collections in libraries around the world. Start with a last name search. Because WorldCat’s information won’t include every name that’s mentioned in a book, also search on the place your ancestor lived and any groups to which he belonged. Get more search help in our free tutorial for searching WorldCat <familytreemagazine.com/article/toolkit-tutorial-searching-worldcat>.
 
Once you find an item, check the website of the holding library for a finding aid or collections guide, such as those I use when researching at “Pitt” <digital.library.pitt.edu/ead/exhibit/findaid_exhibit.html> and Cornell <guides.library.cornell.edu>, <rmc.library.cornell.edu/collections/guides.html>. Don’t forget the Periodical Source Index (PERSI). Created by the staff of the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center <www.genealogycenter.org> in Fort Wayne, Ind., PERSI indexes genealogical and historical publications from the United States and Canada back to the 1700s. Search PERSI using HeritageQuest Online (available through many libraries), or use an older version on Ancestry.com <ancestry.com>. Request copies of articles from the Allen County library or see if a library near you carries the publication you need.
 
Whether your ancestor was successful in keeping his or her secrets under wraps or became front-page news because of them, another look through grandma’s trunk, a trip to the local library, and even a little serendipity just might provide a new window into your family’s past. •
 
Secrets to Success
 
Has a rumor of impropriety or a whisper of infidelity sent you chasing after family secrets? Follow these tips to help you discover the truth—and then deal with what you’ve learned.
 
1. Find an insider. Whether it’s a librarian, administrative assistant or clerk, knowing someone—or even knowing someone who knows someone—can get you further when seeking information in a repository or government office. Relationships I’ve cultivated with staff members at Pittsburgh-area repositories pay off when I need lookups or have questions. Years ago, when a colleague and I were seeking information on a 1930s murder case, his longtime friendship with the local clerk of courts helped us get key public records that were stored in a off-site facility.
 
2. Know how to ask. Bursting into the town clerk’s office, rattling off a list of ancestors’ names and asking for all the related records won’t make you any friends. Remember, these folks are the gatekeepers of the records you seek. Treat them with respect. Be polite. Call ahead when possible to schedule a research appointment or find out the best time to visit (hint: it’s not 4:30 on Friday afternoon). Search the repository’s website and indexes of the records you need so you know exactly what to ask for, and make your requests in small batches. If a donation is appropriate or small gifts (candy, fruit basket, flowers) allowed, they can help you to stand out in the crowd of researchers.
 
3. Brace yourself. Before you go digging for the truth, know what you’re getting into. We’re tempted to look at our family histories through rose-colored glasses, but that’s not realistic. “As genealogists, we are most interested in the truth. Sometimes the truth is not what we would like it to be and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable,” writes Ohio genealogist Chris Staats. Take care of yourself and talk to a trusted friend if you need to.
 
4. Handle with care. Secrets come with responsibility. Understand the legalities of publishing sensitive information and what’s considered public record vs. private information. Legal Genealogist blogger Judy G. Russell offers great advice on such topics <www.thelegalgenealogist.com>. Even more important are your moral obligations to your family: What are the ramifications of revealing the secret? Will the knowledge help or hurt the individual or family involved? If you decide to share a family secret, do so with good intentions, sensitivity and respect.
 
5. Get permission. Always get permission from an individual before sharing any personal or recorded information involving him. Also ask the submitter of information found online before reusing it. And don’t forget to cite sources—refer to Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian and Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, both by Elizabeth Shown Mills from Genealogical Publishing Co., available at <shopfamilytree.com>.

Tip: During family history interviews, acknowledge emotions that come with painful memories. Let your subject know it’s fine to move the conversation to another topic, but that you’re happy to listen if he or she wants to talk.
 
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