One of the folks on this week’s “Genealogy Roadshow“—the last one of the season, filmed in Austin, Texas—had a Civil War ancestor who, perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, shot and killed his wife years after the war. A very sad story.
Such family tree discoveries can be unsettling, even when family rumors hint that something bad happened (as they did for this Genealogy Roadshow guest). On the other hand, genealogists often relish having ancestors who committed less heinous crimes—maybe horse thievery or bootlegging—because that means records to discover.
“Black sheep” are more common than you might think: Investigating our family stories of my great-grandfather’s time in prison for bootlegging led me to the unexpected discovery that his wife had filed for divorce and claimed cruel treatment (the case was dismissed).
On the other side of the family, I was completely surprised to discover that my third-great-grandparents were divorced in a sensational case, and a few years later, my third-great-grandfather was stabbed in a knife fight over a woman he’d become obsessed with (I still need to blog about this).
Here are a few clues that you may have a black sheep ancestor on your hands:
- Family stories. They aren’t always true, as we’ve seen on “Genealogy Roadshow,” but there’s often a grain of truth behind the stories.
- An unexplained disappearance from the family. It could indicate an unrecorded death or migration for work, or it could mean the person deserted the family.
- Your ancestor is listed in prison on a census. You’ll usually see the institution listed at the top of the form, and he may be listed as an “inmate” or a “prisoner.” (Not all inmates were in prisons, though: In 1920, my bootlegger’s son was an “inmate” in an orphanage. It was just a term for someone who lived in an institution.)
If you know or suspect your ancestor was imprisoned, you can find some records or indexes online. For federal institutions, check the National Archives’ Online Public Access search. For state prisons, check the state archives’ website. Also look for prison records you can borrow on microfilm through interlibrary loan.
- You find newspaper articles about a divorce filing, desertion (wives would sometimes post newspaper ads for missing husbands), arrest, or a court action. I’ve been unable to find the court records for my great-grandfather’s bootlegging trial, so newspaper mentions of it are all I have (so far).
- You find court records. When I was checking a court index in search of the bootlegging case, I came across an entry showing my great-grandparents as plaintiff and defendant: their divorce case.
Our Research Strategies: Criminal Records download helps you track down court, prison and other records of ancestors who strayed to the wrong side of the law.
The Using Criminal Court Records on-demand webinar with Judy G. Russell delves even deeper into the trial process, what court records it might have generated about your ancestor, and how to find those records.
Watch this week’s “Genealogy Roadshow” online here.