Posted by Kelly Kautz on December 4, 2015 in Website

My friend and I were chatting about genealogy when I mentioned that my one of my ancestors might have belonged to a Satanic cult.Gnarled Tree

“Wow,” she gushed. “Everyone hopes to find an interesting story in their family tree, but you really hit the jackpot!”

Well, yes and no. The rumor came from a family interview about an abusive childhood, something no one wants to find in her family’s past. But once I heard about the cult, I became determined to learn more. The tools on Ancestry helped me piece together the story. I’m now writing a book-length version of that story, and the ripple effect it’s had on four generations of women.

Climbing the Gnarled Branches of Your Own Family Tree

In talking with others about my book, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. Most families have a strange secret or two: a ghost story, a mysterious death or a dark rumor that’s been passed down through generations. These secrets contain some of genealogy’s most compelling tales. They can also be nearly impossible to verify. Exploring them can be fun, but it can also strain your sanity.

Hopefully you don’t have a Satanic cult in your family tree. But when researching your own genealogical legends, you can use these five tips to simplify the process.

  1. Set expectations. Are you trying to solve a murder or just document a story?

It might be rewarding to bring a centuries-old crime to justice. But it’s far from easy. Unless you’re an experienced investigator or willing to pay for those services, you’ll probably end up frustrated. Don’t assume that researching your family mystery means you have to crack the case. The evidence you find might never be admissible in court. But if it helps you shape a meaningful narrative, it still has value.

I started my journey with high hopes of cracking cold cases and exposing crime rings. But I had neither the expertise nor the evidence necessary. I eventually refocused my efforts on documenting the story. When I did, the work became much more satisfying.

  1. Get first-person accounts.

Since the only real “proof” I had of my ancestor’s cult involvement lived in anecdotes, I conducted family interviews. I wrote questions beforehand, then used the built-in voice recording app on my iPhone to record the interviews. Finally, I transcribed each interview and uploaded the text file to Ancestry’s media gallery.

You can also do this with the new StoryCorps app, which contains sample questions, recording functionality and even the option to upload your interview to the U.S. Library of Congress. If you do, be sure to save a text file for your Ancestry family tree. You can then use it as a source for relevant names, dates, and other details.

  1. Use Ancestry to collect relevant names, dates and locations.

I started my cult research with a single surname. My family member knew the cult had been led by a distant relative of my great-grandmother. She could only vaguely recall his last name. With this clue, I explored the more obscure branches of my family tree: second marriages, step-siblings and second cousins. Eventually I found a branch with the remembered surname, and then a college yearbook photo of a man who fit the description. From there, I combed through newspaper archives to learn about his career, hobbies and community involvement.

  1. Connect with others.

Ancestry has a large collection of message boards with topics such as Crime and Folklore, Legends & Family Stories. Members on these and other boards gave me helpful tips and suggestions. One person said she’d researched a similar cult rumor that turned out to reference the KKK. Another helped me understand how the occult played a role in my ancestors’ religious background. I came away from the message boards with a much broader understanding of the story.

  1. Dig deeper.

If you do end up with a murder mystery or unsolved crime that deserves closer investigation, you have lots of resources available to you. I found the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook, by Brand Houston, helpful for tracking down police and court records. (Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. also has several free resources for non-members looking to learn more.)

You can also hire a professional researcher. AncestryProGenealogists can help you set goals and track down records. They’ll even provide a research package at the end of your project, with a binder of documents, suggestions for future research and a flash drive of digital files.

Whether you do end up cracking the case or just gaining a better understanding of your lineage, you’ll likely have a good time and find lots of interesting stories along the way.

What secrets and mysteries have you uncovered in your family tree?

Kelly Kautz is writing a memoir about her genealogical research into a Satanic cult. Read more on her blog at TheSkeletonClub.com.

Kelly Kautz

Kelly Kautz is writing "The Skeleton Club," a memoir about family secrets. She lives with her husband and two young sons in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Twitter @KellyKautz.

25 Comments

  1. LOIS

    I heard many stories of multiple murders by an ancestor in my family, The conflicting stories intrigued me. After doing some research I found the microfilm of the actual trial in the Connecticut Archives in Hartford. I found a descendant of the victim’s family on Ancestry and sent an apology for that awful day in the 1600’s. It was an interesting journey to find the truth.

  2. Janice

    A great-grandfather who disappeared in 1885. I found he wound up in prison for stealing a horse and buggy but I believe he had been set up for a fall. And as to why he left wife and family in 1885 – never to be seen by them again – I don’t know for sure. Another great-grandfather who wound up in a poor house with his wife saying he was deceased when he was still alive. Plenty of mysteries!

  3. My grandfather, Taylor L. Mills, seems to have disappeared around 1923. He and his brother Francis had gone to Florida to speculate on land to raise tomatoes, so the story goes. His brother owned a provisions store in Boston. The story is the brother came back to Boston but Taylor stayed and later just walked away, leaving his wallet, watch and ring on the bureau of his rented place. I found an article on the fultonhistory.com about his other brother taking a “…motor trip..” to Fl. and coming home by way of White Plains, N.Y. (visit cousins); then Amsterdam, N.Y (more relatives) and back home to Boston. I wonder if this 1923 trip had sometime to do with his disappearance? I have never found a death certificate or anything else to give me a clue.

  4. Lois

    Thanks Kelly Kautz for your response. I am still trying to prove the story. No secrets unearth yet to the tale, although, I am hoping that the story is not true. Although their experience of being enslaved might have been unbearable, the thought of murder I do not wish on anyone. Hoping to find another ending. Thanks again.

  5. Nice to be visiting your blog again, it has been months for me. Well this article that i’ve been waited for so long. I need this article to complete my assignment in the college, and it has same topic with your article. Thanks, great share.

  6. Hey what a brilliant post I have come across and believe me I have been searching out for this similar kind of post for past a week and hardly came across this. Thank you very much and will look for more postings from you.

  7. Very interesting blog. Alot of blogs I see these days don’t really provide anything that I’m interested in, but I’m most definately interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.

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  9. Matthew Costello

    I knew from family stories my great grandfather Thomas Long murdered a land agent in Tipperary, but I found out 2 brothers (Cormack Brothers) were hung for the murder

  10. joyce L.

    I’ve not been a full time researcher for several years. I no longer work and the expense is too much. I’ve always enjoyed Ancestry.com and wish it was still a part of my life. Now to my question about the Taylor families that I do subscribe to on Ancestry.com: My connection to Taylor kin is through my grandmother, who married my direct family of McClure’s in Arkansas. Her father, and mother were from the Tennessee area. Their names were Samuel Taylor and Mary Coxey, Taylor. They died in Crawford County, AR in the early 1900’s. I often thought it was strange that they both should die in that particular location since they were both born and raised in Tennessee. I now have the story of “why” and will be glad to share it with any who are interested in hearing it. It’s a bit too lengthy to try and send it this way. Oh yes, my reason for writing this is to touch base with known ancestors and to date I do not recognize anybody who is being sent to me as kin. Please let me know if you are my relatives and how we are related. Samuel H. Taylor, is a positive and was my great-grand father, as was Mary Coxey, Taylor. Lula, their only child was born in Crawford County, AR. I never met any of them as they were all gone before I was born. I knew nothing about any of these names except through my grandfather, who was a son-in-law of Samuel and Mary Taylor. He introduced me to them on the day my grandmother, Lula Taylor McClure was buried. I was a teen at the time and he took me by the hand and led me to the older section of the Gill Cemetery where they were all buried. I have photos of their stones. It appears that Samuel was in the service with the Union soldiers at this time. I thought this was very strange until I went to a family gathering, (my first) of the Berry, Lillard family memembers. I was loaded down with family proofs and stories. They were delighted to meet me as none of them (like myself) were familiar with the other. They called Samuel “Uncle Sam”. Most of those that I was introduced to have passed on. But many of the children are still living and keeping the old family home in good condition. One who does most of the work is a retired AT&T and his sister is a medical doctor living in Chattanooga, TN. Thanks for your response and again, I need to know exactly how you are related to me. Joyce McClure, Georgia.

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