Making the skeletons dance

Jan Doerr hospital bill
An offending hospital bill

In his 1930 novel Immaturity, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” Shaw had a point with that statement. While we can deny them, hide them, or ignore them, we can’t remove the family skeletons from their places in our family trees. Once they’re “out of the closet,” those dry bones will walk around; what we make of them is up to us.

Scott C. Steward’s recent reposting of his article Genealogical Complexities brought to my mind the dilemma of all family history: how much do we really want to know, and what responsibility do we have in dispensing that information? Whoever said “You can never know whether you want to know until you already do” must have found a really tall skeleton in the family history closet. Perhaps after some reflection, the wisdom of that sentence arrives couched in terms of “How do I tell the family?” Currently, finding mental illness in the family tree still seems to be considered a skeleton, but convicted seventeenth-century witches are something of a perk. And royalty, however nefarious, infamous, or criminal, is status. Are we then to accept that one man’s trash is another’s treasure, and one researcher’s skeleton is another’s proud prize?

In my own experience, most members of my family are interested and willing to hear and accept my research findings (and encourage my efforts to write about them, however much their eyes glaze over), but there is still some discomfort concerning certain issues. For instance, one very elderly paternal cousin had been corresponding with my mother before her death, correspondence I later continued. This cousin asked me to share all my research information on her family’s branch for her daughter’s benefit. Obligingly, I sent everything she asked for, including public record documentation as well as “the tree.”

Months had passed without any response when finally her letter arrived describing how upset she was at the news that her maternal grandmother did not in fact die young, as her parents had insisted, but had died in 1952 at age 97. The records describing the woman’s unfortunate decades-long institutionalization, divorce, and death were less upsetting to this cousin than the death record itself. Mental illness for her generation was a stigma to be hidden, concealed, and never discussed. While this cousin “wanted to know,” clearly she wasn’t prepared for the truth contained in that bit of family research. Unaware, unwitting, and unsuspecting, I had danced a skeleton out of her closet to her anguish.

The accused (but not convicted) Salem witches in my family are balanced by several ordained Baptist ministers . . . who are preceded by packs of Puritans . . . who are subsequently lightened by a purported relationship to the original Mother Goose . . . whose presence in my family tree is offset by an excommunicated farmer and a psychic-medium great-grandmother accompanied by her spirit guide. Sometimes our closet skeletons can be lots of fun if we remember to be as aware of the living family’s feelings as we are of the research involved.

However, not all skeletons are persons. Many people, fascinated when I tell them that an autopsy had been performed on a table in my kitchen in 1803, automatically look warily at my 1980s-era kitchen table as though it would sprout a body. Seating them for dinner thereafter is always a fun dance, something like musical chairs!

While my family tree has no “seriously skeletonized” persons (in my opinion), I love those I do have. The stories of those ancestors make a fine quadrille and provide the stories which make them better-rounded personalities. None of my ancestors’ actions and behaviors, good or bad, make me who I am, be they traitors or witches, delusional or boring. They create no obligation for action or regret, but provide me with so much fodder for stories, and their DNA gives me permission to blame them for the annoying physical attribute of the day. But be aware that tomorrow’s skeletons are today’s black sheep, stripped of all but their closets. We might as well make the skeletons dance to our piping, and put them in historical perspective. So, Mr. Shaw, would you care for a minuet, a polka, or a few bars of “The Stripper?”

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

26 thoughts on “Making the skeletons dance

  1. Hello Jan, well said. One question – what event/s would you categorize as “seriously skeletonized?” Afraid I may have one or two.

    1. Hi Beverley – I believe that family skeletons are a matter of personal perception: if you’re squeamish or uncomfortable with what an ancestor has done, that could be a “serious skeleton” for you, regardless of how society views it.

      That said, I would not want to be the researcher who has to tell the clients that they’re related to serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer!

  2. Uncovering the “skeletons” in one’s closet of ancestors, provides a more complete story of their lives and the times they lived in. I welcome them, including one woman who was the ex-wife of a GG uncle. The long 1904 newspaper report tells of her mental illness and living in a hospital, and being kept for a while with caring neighbors. Faced with being sent to the county home for the insane, she killed herself by drinking strychnine. There was more to this story which I found by diligent research, but all-in-all a sad tale.

    I have two more stories in which an ancestor was killed, one in 1843 the other in 1845. Both stories were covered in lawsuits and newspapers, providing more intriguing information to ponder.

    For me, uncovering these stories is far more interesting than trying to find remote ancestors who were kings or someone famous.

  3. What a fantastic article. Well said. Easy to see how this could be extrapolated to pretty much any historical research of any scale, too…

  4. A seriously good article. To me, part of the fun of exploring family history is uncovering the family skeletons. I look at it as part of good scholarly research. We all have closets full of skeletons, whether or not we want to admit it. I uncovered a book written by my grandfather’s sister explaining the reason for my great grandparent’s divorce. It tied into some of the oral legends that were passed down. One relative died in a mental institution and that was curious until I discovered that he suffered from what is now called Alzheimer’s. And that is nothing to be shut up in the closet.

    And on the title page of all my genealogical studies is a pair of dancing skeletons shuffling off to Buffalo.

    1. Jan, thanks so much for your timely article, which is so relevant for me this week. Just this past weekend, I learned that my gr grandmother had a daughter (“Helen”) that I believe no one in the family knew about. The especially sensitive part of this story is that she became pregnant with Helen – her 2nd child – while waiting to immigrate to the U.S. from Sweden in order to join her husband, my gr grandfather. And given the date that he immigrated, it’s not possible that he was the father of the child. When the day finally came that my gr grandmother was to leave Sweden, she left one-year-old Helen with a couple that I believe were her godparents and five days later boarded a ship to join her husband in the U.S. When Helen was 3, she moved in with her maternal grandmother with whom she lived as a “fosterdotter” until she was 22. She died at age 30, leaving a husband and 3 children. At the time Helen died, my gr grandmother was still alive and I believe may have known about her daughter’s death. I suspect, however, that neither my gr grandmother’s husband or later her grown children knew anything about Helen. I have been following my gr grandmother’s trail for awhile now because so little was known about her. And I’ve managed to find out quite a bit of information that I’m anxious to share with family members in my family history blog. I find myself feeling somewhat uneasy to share the information about Helen, however – not because I find it “scandalous” – but because I can only imagine the pain this must have caused my great grandmother. Like so many others have commented, I believe these are the stories that help us all to relate to the “old folks” in the family photos that seem so one dimensional. Nonetheless, there’s a part of me that feels like I would betray my great grandmother now by revealing her precious and carefully guarded secret. Sorry for the long post but I wanted to give enough information for anyone who might like to weigh in. Thank you.

      1. I understand what you are going through. I have a situation in my family, while not the same, isn’t for public knowledge because of the emotional pain it may cause living relatives. So I have two versions of that family history, one for family consumption and one that contains notes of “sensitive facts” that I have uncovered in my research. I will leave the later study in the care of my kids when I die. I figure that we should let three or four generations lapse before we bring this stuff out. But that’s a decision for my grandkids to make.

      2. I agree that this kind of a story can actually bring generations together, making us feel more connected to those who came before. To me, it’s almost like a kind of therapy – you always feel better when you know that there are others out there (past or present) who have gone through similar experiences, including those (ancestors… or even “Founding Fathers”) whom you’ve always respected.

  5. I have been researching my family for 50 years. Back before the internet I ordered many death certificates for my ancestors. I was on a limited budget and did not order the one for a 2nd great grandfather. “Everyone knew” he died of kidney disease. Once the certificate appeared online I made a copy for my file. He died of “luetic infection”. I thought “oh, a type of kidney disease” Wrong! This is an old name for syphilis. According to the death certificate he had it for seven years. Family lore always described him as “a bit of a bounder”. I guess he was.

  6. Uncovering old scandals in my family has become a sub-genre of basic genealogy. My paternal grandmother sued her mother-in-law (grandfather’s mother) for ‘alienation of affection’ during a very public divorce case. She sued her husband for ‘attempted adultery’. She dislocated one child’s shoulder, and the doctor’s visit was detailed in the paper. She accidentally let another child bounce out a 3rd story window when he was ‘jumping on a sofa’. She refused to allow husband #1 the divorce he requested, until suddenly she petitioned for a divorce, got it, married husband #2 three days later, then gave birth five weeks after that. Fun times!

  7. My rule of thumb, based on totally non-scientifically-structured observations: if your father was a horse thief, that’s a terrible thing; if your grandfather was a horse thief, it’s embarrassing; if you great-grandfather was a horse-thief, it makes him an interesting character. I was the one to discover my great-grandfather had fought for the Union, and when I told my very Southern uncle (his grandson), his response was definitely on the embarrassed side. And apparently he never passed the information on to his children. When I told them, they found it interesting.

    1. I think I’ve found an event on my tree that isn’t a skelton in the closet..it’s an entire houseful. it seems that my ancestors were careful to live only in areas where all the records would be destroyed in fires or floods! So much for documentation. ..my Grandmother was born in 1879 in Southern Missouri. I know from a letter written in 1863 by her mother that my Great grandparents farm was beset with visits from Union and Confederate Soldier as well as bands of gorillas. I didn’t know that as a child. Grandma would tell us stories about when she was a girl but never anything worse than the fact that they didn’t have color crayons when she was little, just chalk. When I was about 10 or 11..mid 1960’s , we were studying the War Between the States in history class. I asked Grandma If we were Rebels or Yankees? She became extremely upset and answered sharply “What’s gone is gone and best left buried and alone! MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS AND DONT EVER TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN. Whoa! I never did ask again, I was afraid to .

      She was born about 15 years after the end of the Civil War and when I spoke with her she was about 84 years old….I had always wondered what had happened that would affect her so deeply that a hundred years later she would still be unwilling to discuss it, I mean the war was long over when she was born so why was she so angry with me? I just asked a simple question.

      Very recently I ran across some random information in a old “county biography ” book. By then I knew that my ancestors had proudly represented both the Blue and the Gray. I ‘ve always heard the “brother againest brother” line regarding the Civil War but it never was anything but a phrase out of old war movies to me. Well that has changed…from what I can gather from patching together mention of the incident in various articles I’ve found online my Great Grandfather’s family contained a particular pair cousins who had previously been closer than brothers yet were now on opposing sides. I’m pretty sure this is the same family, the places and surnames all match up. One of the men who was on a scouting trip swung by his family’s farm. It was on the outskirts away from the most traveled areas and should be safe . He just wanted to check on his wife and children, maybe get a little rest ; he didn’t know his cousin was near by, they lived in an area which was constantly being raided by both sides and skirmishes were not unusual, so it was not an impossibility that they might both be in the general area at the same time. Long story short they crossed paths , there was a confrontation and it ended up with one soldier leading his group to hunt down the ‘tratior “and teach him a lesson. When it was all over both of the cousins were dead and so was everyone who had been trying to hide in the house: the wife, her parents and all the children.

      Thankfully I can only imagine what devastion a tragedy like lthat would inflict upon a person, to be living in a Nation not even one generation removed from war and to have to grow up in the shadow of such an event within your own family must have been unspeakable. Like one of the other commenters I have decided that this is not something everyone in this current generation needs to know or try to understand. If they someday actually go to the trouble to investigate what their parent has been so involved with over the years they can piece the story together for them selves. i certainly am not going to take the chance of my Grandmother getting after me even now for snooping into something she told me to let alone. I’m not sure which would shake me the most, the skelton falling out of the closet or my Granny’s ghost!

      1. Wonderful story – and so well told. Good job! – (I think your Granny would be proud of you too) – I have to believe that these truths our ancestors could never speak about – well, that they are relieved that now, or someday, someone has been able to tell the truths of which they dare not spoke.

  8. What an excellent writer you are Jan Doerr! Both Cony and I read it and were blown away by your eloquence! Fantastic article…..can’t wait for the next one!

  9. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. My father and his brother corresponded during the build-up of WWII. In one letter, his brother was clearly an isolationist. Both these men have died, but the letters live on. In transcribing them to share with family members, I realized my cousin (the daughter of my dad’s brother) might be concerned about presenting her father in this light. I asked her what she thought and sure enough, she asked that I not include that one letter. Personally, it didn’t change my view of her dad as I knew him, but she didn’t see it that way . . . a reminder that what may be interesting to us might be seen differently by someone else.

  10. Sometimes an embarrassing ancestor can be a stimulus in itself to research. As a child my father told me with amusement about an older cousin who claimed to be a French count. Of course that was my incentive to begin researching this family line!

  11. Important considerations. I never get a reply from “cousins” when I post a story online. Only once. I went gaily through a story about a distant cousin and my discovery in lengthy military records that his family, who lived down the road from the James family in Missouri, had been the prototype for The James Gang. Jesse James must have been so inspired by this neighbor/ancestor he recreated their crimes ten years later with his now infamous exploits. I got a very angry reply from the distantly related descendant. Evidently, in the family’s local Historical Society, the man was written up as a citizen of some standing – as a Condfederate hero. What had been fascinating to me, was inadvertently horrific libel, to a proud family of Missourians. Sometimes you don’t really have the option of withholding information if you are fond of sharing stories online (as I obviously am). Perhaps I should rethink how detailed I make such revelations, however!

  12. My sister wants to re-write our family history. My father’s biological father is supposed to disappear. My father’s mother turned into the saint she never was. I told her no.

  13. Sometimes people have their identity tied up in a certain way of framing the past, and feel very threatened by any version of the story that seems to challenge that view. I find it often when dealing with a particular branch of my family, in how stories are told about the crossing of the plains, even when there is clear proof of the actual circumstances. There is also a tendency to simply ignore uncomfortable facts, along with out and out denial. It often makes my own research difficult, because of withholding of documents and family artifacts, and often reluctance to communicate at all.

    This history has been rewritten for so long that many people have no sense that it might have been another way: the story is simply repeated as fact. For now, the only way I can deal with it is to verify the passage of my own lines through that period, and pick it up at the other end. It makes me sad, because the story of entire families is being distorted and truncated. The stories, what I can get of them, are often of brave and determined people who were well-intentioned, but who got caught up in a dynamic they didn’t see coming, and often couldn’t get out of once committed. This is true particularly of the women.

  14. Love this article, Jan, as I do all your articles. There are a host of skeletons in my family closet, but it’s much more fun reading about yours.

  15. My 3x g-uncle murdered his sister’s father-in-law and her 14 year old brother in 1862. The f-i-l was said to be getting a little too close to the women who were left behind during the Civil War, and he was called to a meeting, bringing his 14-year-old son with him. When the 14-year-old begged his uncle for his life, uncle responded by saying, “Nits make lice,” and shot him dead. He eventually fled to Texas (from Georgia) and no one was ever convicted of the crime. Recently I’ve found a descendant of the g-uncle in one of my Ancestry “circles” and I’m debating whether or not to attempt contact.

    Some of this stuff is hard!

    1. I understand your predicament. I had a great Uncle who was killed in a lover’s triangle — the wife was witness to her lover’s action in killing her husband as were some of the children. In the past year, I have been in touch with the children and grandchildren of my great Uncle. I was anxious about how they had fared from such a horrible event in their young lives. Luckily, the grandparents stepped in and all have turned out fine. Not as extreme as a family member doing the killing, but it is hard to know what is private for other family members and also if what you will learn is not what you want to hear. I would let them take the lead on this and accept how much they want to share.

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