December 2011 Everything’s Relative

December 2011 Everything’s Relative

Readers share their tales of the lighter side of family history.

September Winners: Bad Deeds

Discovering an ancestor did something despicable can be tough to swallow. These readers’ stories show that any family can have skeletons on its tree, and all you can do is live your own life better. Each reader will receive The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising.
Law and Disorder
My husband’s great-grandfather August “Black Gus” Amend stole items from his neighbor’s house in 1889. In 1891, The Daily Independent Wisconsin newspaper says, “he beat his wife within an inch of her life.” She crawled half naked into town for help. Gus killed his neighbor in a knife fight in 1901. He tried to poison his second wife by putting strychnine in her sugar. He committed suicide by taking strychnine and died in a saloon.
Margaret Amend, Pardeeville, Wis.
Murderous Mother
My ancestor’s brother, Henric Johan Fock, died June 10, 1802, poisoned by his wife, Metta Charlotta Ridderbjelke. She also poisoned and killed two of their children, Claes Abraham, age 13, on June 6, and Charlotta Lovisa, age 3, on June 20. She hoped to marry her already-married lover, but was sentenced to lose her right hand, be beheaded, and burned on a fire, Nov 7, 1810, in Västergötland, Sweden.
Helene Leaf, Moline, Ill.
Grave Robber
Jean Baptiste, my great-great-grandfather, was a gravedigger by trade. In 1863, when a naked body was exhumed, the police realized that Baptiste was also a grave robber. Baptiste was arrested, though no record exists of a trial. Records indicate he was branded on his forehead as “grave robber” and banished to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. He was never heard from or seen again. No body was found.
Marianne Taylor Hansen, Meridian, Idaho
Jail Break
In 1909, my great-grandfather Samuel Codney was convicted of third degree robbery.  He was sentenced to 2-3 years hard labor at the prison in Dannemora, NY and held in the local jail to await transportation.  While there he acquired a pistol, picked the lock of his cell, filed through a one-inch steel bar and escaped out of a 9″x15″ window, leaving behind a wife and 3 young sons, never to be seen again.
Beth Montanye, Fultonville, NY
Axe Murderer
My third great-grandfather William Dow Gatlin was arrested and tried for murder in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1874. William’s young son found Samuel Haslam, a boarder in their home, lying in a pool of blood, dying from blows inflicted by an ax. Haslam and William’s wife, who said she was abused by her husband, may have had an affair, and Haslam was going to help her get a divorce. William was acquitted due to insufficient evidence.
Beth Gatlin, Lincoln Park, NJ
Love Triangle
A 1917 WWI draft registration source said my great uncle Joe—a family member no one ever mentioned—worked at the Auburn, NY prison.  The 1910 census showed him in solitary confinement on “death row.”   On August 19, 1909, Uncle Joe shot and killed Rosso Polomino in Black Rock, NY, fighting over a woman. He was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death.  He was released in 1921 and disappeared (so far!).
Tom Skill, Dayton, Ohio

Your Story

Beads of Memory

“Dear Lorraine, Here are Grandma’s rosary beads. Enjoy them. Love, Eileen.”

I hadn’t seen these beads since 1974, when I was a 16-year-old high school junior. That’s when my 86-year-old grandmother Lucia, whom I lived with, started to become forgetful. She’d also do things on impulse, like give or throw away belongings. One day when one of my older married cousins visited, she left with the beads 12-year-old Lucia made from olive pits in Naples, Italy.
Marie passed away last year. Her sister Eileen went through her possessions and found the beads in a plastic sandwich bag with a note that said, “Please give to Cousin Lorraine.”
When they showed up in the mail, I immediately put the now 118-year-old rosary around my neck. I admired the craftsmanship of a girl who was as old as my daughter is now; and I remembered the woman who used the beads to pray for me.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl, New York, NY
Volcanic Impact
Little do we know what bizarre incidents affect how and what and where we are today—why we have brown eyes and blond hair; why we live on one coast or the other.
Nor do we realize what effect an earthquake or volcanic eruption may have had on our ancestry. In April of 1815, Mt. Tambora in the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia erupted. It could be heard 1,615 miles away. Pyroclastic flows buried the village of Tambora. About 71,000 people were killed locally and 117,000 worldwide.
The 140,000-foot ash plume traveled around the world and hung in the upper atmosphere. Temperatures cooled over the Northern Hemisphere, creating the “Year Without a Summer.”
When I first heard that phrase, I was researching my Robinson-Roberts line in Maine. An old county history referenced my ancestors’ move to Indiana in 1817:

The years 1815, 1816, 1817, were years with no summer.

In 1817, fifteen families, ten wagons, twenty-four horses, and seventy-eight people left Cumberland Co, Maine for Dearborn Co, Indiana, in a ‘Land Caravan’. The families of: Israel Noyes, Rev Daniel Plummer, Gilbert Platt, Job Sylvester, Joseph Roberts, Stephen Robinson, David Roberts, Sr., William Barton, Luther Plummer, David Ellis, Joseph Sylvester, George Rufus Rice, and Benjamin Tibbetts, and a Sawyer family were in this group.

 The Sawyer family is also mine, and goes back via Martha Roberts to John Howland of the Mayflower. Ice froze in their water buckets in July. Their crops failed, and they couldn’t feed their livestock or themselves.
I don’t know why they chose Indiana. They may have received newspapers from the area or had relatives there. But if those two families hadn’t been in Manchester, Dearborn County, Ind., my great-grandparents never would have met.
I’m one of 12 cousins, and if Mt. Tambora had remained cool in 1815, none of us would be as we are today. Or going a bit further back, if the Mayflower passengers hadn’t pulled John Howland back into the boat when it was caught by that ferocious Atlantic storm in 1620, millions of people living today would be different.
So, as you work on your family tree, give some thought to what one hiccup somewhere along the line could have done to your family, and revel in those old, odd, fascinating facts that fall into your lap.
Jayne Kennedy Sweger, Great Falls, Mont.

December Challenge: Ancestral Look-alikes

Do you or a relative share an unmistakable likeness with an ancestor? Show us the family resemblance. Send us a photo of each familiar face (make sure any living relatives are OK with appearing in Family Tree Magazine), along with a brief description of your relation. If we include your submission in Family Tree Magazine, we’ll send you a copy of Remember That? A Year-By-Year Journal of Fun Facts and Family Milestones by the editors of Family Tree Magazine.
  • To Enter: Email us copies of the look-alikes’ photos and descriptions with the subject Everything’s Relative/December 2011 to
  • Deadline: Nov. 30, 2011
  • Remember: You must include your mailing address to win. We can’t acknowledge entries. By submitting, you affirm you’re the copyright holder of the image and you give Family Tree Magazine permission to feature your contribution in all print and electronic media.

From the December 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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