Reader Question: To Air Dirty Laundry or Not?

I received the following from one of our readers. It’s an interesting question so I thought I’d throw it up on the blog so that you could weigh in.

I have been searching for my family history  for 36 years.  When ever I am interviewing someone there always comes a time when the person says, “Put down your pencil, this is a “family secret.”  After that all the “good stuff” comes spilling out. It usually involves some sort of scandal.  I have heard about abandoned children, peoples’ ashes being thrown in the ditch, “under-the-counter” liquor sales, a questionable death, and a whole lot of unexpected pregnancies, which are not reflected in census  records.

Many of these people are still alive, or it was their parent, brother, etc. they are talking about.  My dilemma, and I imagine some other genealogists too, is what do I do with this information?  Some of it is too sensitive to print, but I also think it needs to be saved.  Does anyone have any good ideas?  What do you do with the families “dirty laundry?”

M.Jo Werling

What do you think? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

60 thoughts on “Reader Question: To Air Dirty Laundry or Not?

  1. What I have done with my family is put that kind of info separate. I leave it in paper form, not enter it into my software. However, I do talk about it. That way, the stories can get passed on and the research continues again hopefully with my own children or grandchildren. It’s a very thin line…what was once scandulous isn’t considered that any more.
    My great great grandmother had 11 sets of twins (yes, 11). Plus single births. Mind you this was late 1890’s thru 1900’s in very rural Maine. As you can imagine, not all of her pregnancies made it to term…….Me personally, I understand. But my grandmother while she agress with me, doesnt want that bit of info floating around.

  2. I think a good idea, since it’s your family, is to write it down but not publisih till the next generation. Perhaps you can will it to someone responsible who will do that, if you can not, as a “volume 2” if you publish a family history book. I wouldn’t risk offending those who gave you the information but obviously didn’t want you to proclaim it to all. Chances are, if they know it someone else does too, but that’s besides the point. Or alternatively, you could ask for their permission to print it but leave out the name of the source.

    In my own ancestry there was a questionable death. Although all in that imediate family, save one is gone, I still try and find the answer to that question. No one would talk about it while alive and the one that remains was too young to know the whole story at the time. There was a coronors inquest and the autopsy report says accidental, but when you read the particulars of the injury it sounds more like a homicide. All those who would feel shame or embarrassment by that incident are no longer living so if I ever find the real reason you can bet I’ll write it down and even publish for my decendants. In any history, you take the good with the bad and it usually makes for more interesting reading!

  3. For me it depends on the generation, how far back the secret is. If there are still people living that it would effect, you could put it in your computer database marked as private. That way the information is there but it won’t print on any reports. Make sure you note where the information came from. The “dirty laundry” could just be one person’s point of view.

    My grandfather’s youngest sister died of an abortion. It was talked about in detail in her death certificate. My mother had mentioned there was something about her death but couldn’t remember any details. When I told her what I had found, it tweaked her memory as something that was known and it didn’t bother her at all. When I mentioned it at a family reunion, most saw it as an interesting incident but another woman who was a little further removed from the incident than my mother but lived in the area was shocked. You never know how the “dirty laundry” will effect someone. Some will be shocked that their great-grandfather was in prison or did something wrong, but others will accept it easily.

  4. I always record the details, but try to keep them somewhat private. ie., I don’t publish them online, but I do add notes to my family tree. Today’s stories are tomorrow’s family legends.

  5. I agree with Mary’s remarks. It does depend on how far back the secret goes and who it may still affect now. The information should still be kept but shouldn’t be made public if it could hurt someone that is still alive. I’m sure we all have some “dirty laundry” that we wouldn’t really like aired while we were still around.

  6. I agree with Mary. But I’d go further in my “private notes” in my computer. ‘As told by _______ (give name) on (date) to me, (my full name). Record every detail. If there is anyone else in the family that might have knowledge about the incident, try to get a conversation with them quietly on the subject. This helps to build on the story to flesh out truth from gossip.

  7. I, too, record the details but keep them private. To me, these details help make the people human.

  8. I record all this type information but in a MS Word document and keep it in a separate file on my PC. I don’t enter it into my family tree software. I record the date, source and circumstance of the interview in this document. I reference the separate document in the proper part of the tree by adding a fact specifically for this type reference. I use the same fact for each bit of information no matter who it is for. My daughters, who do genealogy also, are aware of this document so the information in the doc will not be lost.

  9. I also agree that these stories should be recorded and saved with respect for those still living who may be affected and/or offended by such publicity. This information adds to the “reality” of each family, and may help you understand why people are the way are and perhaps why other events transpired. If you don’t feel the stories should be in a family tree, at least keep them recorded in a separate file.

  10. I have two rules I follow: 1. I am a genealogist, not a gossiper. I write down these stories and, if I can verify them somehow, I will add them to the family tree or add a note that begins with “Could be” or “Maybe”. But only if it’s in line with rule #2, which is: The dead have no privacy, except when it affects someone living. So if the Big Secret has to do with, say a cousin’s deceased parent, then it doesn’t go in. It’s nobody’s business but their family’s. If it’s a few generations back, then it’s just history.

  11. This has been a quandary for me. I agree with Mary, and I think I will adopt her 2 rules. Some things should remain private,until another generation comes along, and then it will be history.

  12. I do not think any one needs to hang their head over some matters people call secret. We have no secrets,! I have been doing this genelogy thing since 1957, do not think I know it all, but I know that I feel like this,( when someone in my circle of this family of Gods childern start to find their Roots I tell them If you are looking for fortune are fame you
    need to stop now, If it was there I have already found it!!)
    If you are looking to establish a line yoou came from I am the person in the family who can help you most because I lived through the murders, train robbers, Pregnant mothers , Shot Gun weddings, But The most fun I ever had was visiting an old cousin of mine, Named Luther Watson, I was told by one of these secret people to stay away from him, He was a woman chaser ( he caught a few!) he was a chicken fighter, but he was my cousin, and knew the answers to my questions of the early famlies, My Grandmothers sister was married to his Dad.They lived on the land they got after the Civil war.

  13. I discovered letters to my Grandfather from his Mother (Ana) who was still living in Europe. I had these letters translated and discovered there were intense personal problems between Ana and her two remaining sons still living in Europe.

    I did not include the letters in the Genealogy I prepared, but rather did a separate document with the letters and their translation, and provided them to my Mother and my Uncle.

    I felt it was not necessary to disseminate this information to anyone other than my Mother and my Uncle. They were appreciative as the letters gave them added insight into their Father’s family.

  14. I agree that a record of the conversation(s) should be maintained–perhaps in a separate file about the person(s), but never “on-line” available to everyone, unless later agreed to by the family. The reason I say this is that I have hit a brick wall in trying to search for ancestors 4 or 5 generations ago. If these stories had been written down–and passed down from generation to generation, then I wouldn’t be having such a hard time trying to verify what “may have occurred in the early 1800’s”. I can appreciate the desire to keep such secrets, but they are what made our families what they are today and, as stated before, they are now history.

  15. I’ve found lots of sinners–aren’t we all–and very few saints in my research: Alcoholics, unwed mothers, abandoned children, some who served jail time, suspicious deaths, mental illness. Some of these things run in families; most of it was not discussed, but it is part of who they were and we inherited more than just the genes.
    If the relative is deceased, then I think it is important to compile as complete a record as possible.
    If still living, well…having lived with destructive family secrets, I believe the truth is the important thing.

  16. I agree that there are some things that shouldn’t be published. I have an uncle that has been married twice. The first was such a bad ordeal for him that his children are unaware. We have to doctor the family history for them. There are incidents of abortions that I have learned of that I don’t publish.I feel these were too personal to be anyone’s elses concern. I don’t feel the decisions were made lightly and are no one elses business. Should you publish the speculation that family members killed other family members when no one ever was convicted of the crime and the survivors are still alive? That could lead to lawsuits. Seperate files, or restricted files maybe, but definetly not for the internet.

  17. As a family genealogist for the past 30+ years, I’ve seen my share of family skeletons, murders, illegitimate children, adultery, and so on and so forth. The vast majority of these are common knowledge in the family and are okay to publish since times have changed. In one case, though, family stories say that a great-aunt and uncle weren’t married until their second child was on the way. When I asked that aunt for her marriage date, I took her word for it that it was a year before the first child was born. We all know different but she was sensitive about it and I can respect that. She’s gone now, and her children are still looking for the actual marriage record, any date, any place. It’s not to be found.

  18. I have only been finding my family tree since June 2007. Last October I was contacted by a lady claiming to be the daughter of my sister-in-law. Turned out she was, though I was unaware of the facts, she had a baby in 1948 who had been adopted. I was able to bring them together and they have just spent a wonderful Christmas getting to know one another, I’m glad that I was able to help.

  19. Sometimes family “secrets” are the result of plain bloody-mindedness on the part of certain of our ancestors. A good friend of mine was for many years told by his father that no, his family were totally unrelated to the family in the next county who shared their highly unusual surname. My friend later learned that, as the result of a particularly bitter family squabble in the preceeding generation, his father’s line had effectively disowned their close cousins in the next county — even though as a child his own father had been quite close to those “no relation” Oberuntergemundenheimers who lived only a few miles away.

  20. When my father-in-law was living, I asked him several times about his ancestors and his answer was always, “You’re here and I’m here, so why worry about the past.” I asked his cousins about the family and realized I had more information than most of them had.
    And then it happened, I found the answer, a great-grandfather had a Negro slave and both of them liked their booze. Whichever had enough money to buy it, would do so, then both of them would imbibe. This one time they got into an argument and the slave killed his master. This black man was jailed, a mob overpowered the jailer and got the man out of his cell, took him to the country, tied him to a tree and burned him alive. Anything violet was always so very distasteful to my father-in-law, who was in law enforcement for 30 years, and I feel certain he never wanted me to know about the incident.
    Yes, it is recorded in my records, but it is not in my computer generated records. Yes, it occurred and is a part of that family’s history, but I don’t intend to be the one to hang any dirty laundry out on the line for all to see.
    There is an incident in my own paternal family, which my Dad knew about, but would never reveal it to me and I simply couldn’t find anything anywhere about this one man, and then I discovered the deep dark secret, when I was researching original records back in Ohio. That too is in my family notes, but not in the computer generated notes. After I’d found public records in Ohio, I asked my Dad if he knew about it, although I already knew hw sis by the way he would avoid my questions, and he told me he didn’t want to burden me with the secret. I was able to tell him the whole situation and how it had come about, which was more than he knew.
    Don’t think your family is the only one with deep, dark secrets, I’m sure all families have some, but make a note of them, but don’t be public about it.

  21. I have read all the comments and I can see that most are sensitive to the feelings of their relatives concerning “family secrets” and that is commendable,but, If for instance I have a sibling somewhere in this world that I don’t know about, I would want somebody to tell me. Knowing my family is more important to me than keeping secrets. I’ve heard said once that “If it happened 100 years ago, nobody cares; if it happend yesterday everybody knows”. I have first cousins whom I know have a half-sister and are unaware of it. I will not tell them until their mom passes away. For myself I believe as the scripture says: “Judge not that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7.2) and “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31).

  22. I found out why my grandfather’s sisters did not speak to him. In his father’s will,it was stated that my grandfather sued his dad’a estate for the money he spent on his dad’s care during the dad’s illness(cancer). My grandfather was a poor farmer but his sisters were rather “rich”. Apparently the sisters did not help out financially .I understand the hard feelings that must have been there. I never did tell my dad’s cousins why this happened. I think I will follow the suggestions of keeping this story in my paperwork but not make it public.
    Before my dad’s cousin died last year, he told me to “find the skeletons in our closet, as that will be the best stories”. He is right about that. But I also wanted to protet my grandfather’s memory to those people who are alive and would still remember him.

  23. Years ago, a woman with no means of support might, as in many cases, become a prostitute. One distant cousin, was reluctant to to revel his family tree. He agreeded to give information only, if his name and family would not be mentioned. His great grandmother was the mother of 13 children, all by different fathers. In looking in many old record the occupation was listed, prostitute. What would you have done to feed your children when your husband had died and you had no means of support? We cannot judge.

  24. I have run across this issue many, many times. I have an Aunt whose first name she has always refused to use, even as a little girl. As far as I know I am the only one living who is aware of it, which I came across by accident. Do I put that in the family tree? She is still living at this time and I would hate to upset her but isn’t genealogy about being precise with your family records? I have planned on putting together a family book and can’t quit decide on what to do with this issue. If I leave it out, then our children, grandchildren, etc. who might be interested in genealogy and want to do further research will not have accurate information if it isn’t included. When I am gone I am afraid her real name will be lost forever if I don’t include it. If just keep it on a separate file on my computer I doubt anyone will find it much less if they do I don’t think they will put out another book just to update her name. Another problem has been that many people who have had failed marriages don’t want them included especially if there are no children involved. Again I believe genealogy is about keeping accurate records, not doctoring them, but don’t want to cause anyone embarrassment. Genealogy is also about sharing info to help other researchers. I was recently contacted by someone who was descended from a great aunts first husband. My great aunt had died giving birth to her first child who also died 3 days later, so the person who contacted me wasn’t really related and my great aunt’s husband had remarried later. But he was searching for his grandfathers first wife, my great aunt. I was able to provide a picture of her and her family info and he was thrilled to be able to add this to his family records. So even though there were no living children this info was really important to this person. Had I left it out if would have affected many people and greatly hindered their research. One more incident I will share: I had an uncle, whom I was too young to remember, but the story was he drowned on the fourth of July one year. No one would ever tell who the family member was to tried to save him but wasn’t able to. This was a very well guarded family secret but again I did finally get the whole story. Do I include it? It’s not a date or fact but it is family history. Which is another part of genealogy. Personally, I think this uncle is a hero. But should I keep it out of the family book because it was a family secret? I have done other family histories with all the same dilemmas. I tend to believe if we start omitting or doctoring facts, events, and family history then we are in part just inventing genealogy. On one hand I believe we should report all findings that our research uncovers that can be documented but still don’t want anyone to be embarrassed ,etc. All the above instances were about people who didn’t want something include but their have been many with the opposite view. One example is of a brother who, like a few of his siblings had some failed marriages, while a quite embarrassed about them, he insisted to me that the truth is what was needed, that our family genealogy would not be accurate if these failed marriages, even though they included no children, were not included.
    I guess the question is: As genealogists do we or should we decide on our own what we should include or not, or should we accurately include ALL documented information that we have discovered?

  25. History is lost by not being kept in either paper (highly risky due to fire, flood and the whims of the person or persons who may decide it is not important to keep.)or electronic form. Therefor I think it should be put into the software. Case in point is a person, for whom I’ve been doing research, that there was a questionable death of their father and they would benefit greatly (emotionally, etc.) from knowing what there was to know about this death. No one who knew at the time would talk to them, since they were only 7 at the time. Now that more than 50 years have passed there are only scant newspaper reports to read.

  26. I agree with many of the other comments. In researching my family & my husband’s family, I’ve come across many stories that are truly tragic and could cause grief to living family members. I always include those stories in my research notes, including the usual source information, but I don’t include it in anything that I print to give to other family members or any information on the internet. I will include the sensitive stories in printed family history that I will pass on to my children (with notation that it is not for public knowledge. Yes, these things are part of our history and should be available in some format for future generations.

  27. While helping a friend research her father, who left the family in the early 1950’s, we discovered that he had another family in another state, had never divorced that women and apparently had never married my friend’s mother. Her mother claimed that the two had eloped to Arkansas but no marriage license can be found. Her father was a traveling salesman (LOL)and now we wonder how many “families” there might be. My friend’s sister in law who also does genealogy has never made note of this fact. Now that we all know I think that should be noted in the research. But can understand why she has not.

  28. I, too, have uncovered a couple family secrets, but they are not earth shaking to the current living members, just surprising! They will be published within the family since those connected are deceased. One good thing that comes from uncovering family history is the death certificates that discloses cause of death. In my family background there is a high incidence of miscarriages and/or difficult pregnancies. I have uncovered the possibility it is DNA related through some death certificates I have found.

  29. I have been researching my families for over 30 years. My paternal grandmother gave me information showing her husband was the father of my Dad and my mother always stated to me the fact that she only had the three daughters. My mother knew the circumstances of my father’s birth from what my paternal grandmother had told her and shortly before my mother died my maternal grandmother revealed the fact that there was a fourth daughter born to my mother. These are the two most important facts I have uncovered. Both these facts greatly changed the way I saw my parents as these facts explained many things. Family facts should be known and recorded in your personal files at the very least. You can choose to withhold that information to the general public and those family members who do not “understand”. I can share what I find with one of my full sisters, but the two of us are convinced our middle sister had a different mother as her memories and views of our mother are so different from ours. Gather the information, confirm the facts if possible and record the information in personal or private files – not for distribution. This will preserve the actual facts. No family is composed of perfect people. Just think how boring the world would be if everyone were perfect!!

  30. I found out that my grand uncle (my father’s uncle) died in the electric chair at Sing-Sing for a murder he was associated with in 1950. I also found that he was acquitted for a murder in 1931 (though he probably did it). It’s an exciting story to tell, and I tell lots of people, but I won’t tell my cousins because I don’t know if their parents (my father’s siblings, who are still alive) told them about it. I have all the paperwork, including newspaper articles and an article in Time magazine, but don’t have them in my computer files. I think that’s safest for now, unbil my aunts and uncles are no longer around.

  31. My grandmothers and great grandmothers insisted I take over the duty of maintaining family history. I was the first to write much of it in a journal. I was often told, “Do not write this down.”
    My great grandmother told me not to worry about it. A lot of funerals would remove the “don’t write it down” restriction.
    Now I keep the family tree and I have a special journal of family tales and legends. When I can find prove of the truth in one of the tales, I add the documentation. My research will go to my daughter.

    Jo Franklin

  32. If Only… We had a brother born in an Inverness (Scotland) Nurses Home in 1943 to our Mother Charlotte Elizabeth Henderson Grant. He died within 3 hours. Our mother died in 2004 on the same date..we think her choice. The Burial Authorities in Inverness have on their computer screen some sort of note prohibiting release of the burial site. Can you imagine our grief of not being able to say ‘good-bye’ with the placement of a memorial..indeed a fond acknowledgement from our Mother and Father?
    Our Mother’s sister died on Christmas Eve 2007..steadfastly refusing to offer help…whatever next…so think of those left behind please..give when appropriate before each of the greiving family pass on…no excuse …selfish (?)

  33. What do to about marriages that resulted in divorces after children were born from those unions? My sisters-in-laws have requested me not to make them public. These marriages/divorces occurred within the past 35 years…..these marriages and divorces are already out there for others to see. I’ve been researching since August 2007 and I have enough people to put the family tree online, but out of respect I have refrained. Any advice from how others handle this situation would be appreciated.

  34. I have many stories obtained thru interviews with living descendents as well as articles form newspapers,etc.
    For me, I am the family histoian, I collect facts to record history. I feel I have an obligation to protect privacy in respect to those that are still living.
    I have several family stories that were considered embarassing or humiliating, I wrote them down and keep them in a seperate folder. I will NEVER publish them in anyway shape for form. I am not a judge and jury and therefore have no right to make the decision to “put the info out there” and emabarass any living descendent.
    I have one story I have written from an interview with an immediate family member. I have written it down, it is in a sealed envelope only to be opened after my death and 2 other family members.It is sotred with my will and funeral arrangements.
    I will always respect the privacy and requests of family that give me info and in regards to info I find.

  35. If nothing else I have learned that people are the same only the times have changed. Not one family exists without a skeleton or two in their closet. Kind of makes us all human and puts us on even ground. LOL. I uncovered a few family secrets. One story is that my grandmothers parents married six weeks before she was born. Grandma is deceased. The family just laughed when they found out. What more can you do. We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Like I said, We are all human. However, I agree,use discretion and lets not hurt anyone.

  36. In my research I have found several family secrets. I had a deceased great-uncle spend most of his adult life in prison. He was in prison for at least four times for: theft, car theft, murder and rape. That part of the prison records I may include in the genealogy. I am not sure yet. However, the person my great-uncle raped was my father’s sister. My parents told me about it just a few years ago. I sent for his prison records and the court files are not included. This rape is never talked about. My aunt is still alive and I doubt if her children know anything about it. That part of the information will never by in type. When researching another family line I questioned an older distant cousin about an ancestor of ours. She said no on had worked on this particular ancestors information because the story was told that the person was illegitimate. That was enough information to make me want to find the truth and sources to prove it. I have put that proof and explanation in the notes. I have a 2nd great grandfather who married three times and never divorced the first, my 2nd great grandmother. She is the one who received his Civil War pension. That is in his pension notes and is public information. So not so secret. A question one could ask themself, “is this information important enough to establish a family line?” If its dirty laundry and the information will hurt someone and is not needed to prove a line, then leave it out of the story.

  37. I agree with the majority here that some things should be left out of the mainstream of the history but recorded somewhere. In my case a bachelor uncle whom I never met, died a few months from the end of WWll in Germany. I sent away for his military record and included with it was the medical done prior to going overseas. It revealed something that I’m sure no one else in the family knew about or ever needs to know about. But it is in the medical record and it will remain there until someone else request the documents. His secret died with him, almost.

  38. Re: family gossip/ family secrets.
    I personally prefer not to include any of this information for publication. In many cases, it is just that–gossip–,and I don’t feel that it is fair to those involved—both living and deceased— to release such details in public.
    Clark Gable is reputed to have used the phrase, “And did you hold the light?” when he heard gossip. I think that he was correct. How do you know that some gossip is true unless you witnessed it, and even if documentation exists, what useful purpose does it serve to pass it on? It may very well prove to be an embarassment to someone in the family who is still living even if it refers to someone long gone.
    Moreover, we don’t know the circumstances under which something happened. Mankind has always been fraught with many frailties, but has also been endowed with many strengths,as well. I prefer to focus on the positives.

  39. I am so relieved to see this very real problem aired in public. My father was the one with an adventuresome soul. I find that I admire some of these people who did adventure from the reality of their lives into something more exciting and have no remorse that they did not follow that straight and narrow path. One of my sons married a girl whose family is very interested in appearances. They know by now that his mother and father have not followed the dictates of today’s society in regards to religion but nothing has been written about past generations. They keep their family secrets close to their vests. I have given them numerous semi-finished forms of their family tree to include in our genealogy but no one ever returns them, no one ever mentions they have even received them. So, although I have records of family back to Norway, there is no one in this generation that will speak of the family. I will have to end their tree with two generations! My family has interesting stories to write but I won’t hurt my son and his wife.

  40. Airing dirty laundry? If it isn’t your laundry then you shouldn’t publish it. Why is it that some people are so nosey that they feel it is alright to spill the beans on others but keep a tight lip on their own indiscretions? I too have found family secrets but I refuse to write any of this info down or key it in to my records because I know the day will come when someone will find these writings and will also find a way to look into my computer and find it. I truly believe in the Golden Rule and I think geneologists should believe the same or are they just trying to make themselves look perfect?

  41. Depending on software used information could be kept on computer but separately from main records. If you find out the sordid details do not reveal them unless everyone affected is dead but in the end these are all parts of life’s rich tapestry.

  42. We knew one of my dad’s cousins was a bootlegger during prohibition, but knew very little about him, even after talking with his sister. It was pretty scandalous to mom’s family, and not to be talked about. Dad told us a little bit, and we wished we had asked him more before he died. I kept searching for information about this cousin on the Internet, and one day found the link to a very well-written book about him and the little town where he and my dad grew up. I found out a lot more about my family’s past, met some cousins I didn’t know, and learned more about how our family was involved in U.S. history.


  44. Noel (and others): nothing should be published, especially on the internet, about living people. Identity theft is a key concern (how many times have you been asked for your mother’s maiden name as a security screener?), but the other key concern is respect for other people’s privacy. Not everyone wants their information on the internet. If you publish on paper, understand that it may not stay on paper. Ben Franklin observed that ‘three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.’

  45. Ten years after his death in 1957, I learned that my grandfather had been divorced before his marriage to my grandmother in 1920. My mother had reason to believe that he had a son by this marriage, but we had no idea of how to verify this. Whether Granddaddy’s other possible decendants are saints or sinners matters not to me-they are my blood, and I desperately want to find them. Three years of searching for clues at Ancestry have turned up other interesting facts, but have met a brick wall as to the name of the first wife and the existence of a child. This family secret has left me with feelings of emptiness and longing.

  46. For my husband all of the “dirty laundty” was aired after his dad died a few years ago. In his case it had to do with marriages that happened during Jim Crow laws. How would you even go about finding info about that time in our history? if anyone could help me in this I’d appreciate it.


  48. I find I agree with the idea of privately recording the ‘secrets’. Some in my family have things they do not talk about, and fear others who know will tell. We now know about the grgrandfather who was tried for murder by a vigilante jury (and found innocent as no one liked the victim) and released as it was ‘self defense’. Fun story now, but not then. Who tells someone that the ‘father’ in the family is not the biological father? Who wants to hear about ‘my grandfather murdered my grandmother?’ OK to include after the 2 generations are gone that will feel diminished by the facts.

  49. A similar predicament: In 2007 I was contacted by a woman who thought her 91 year old mother was the daughter of my grandfather’s brother. The baby was conceived out-of-wedlock. The couple married 6 days after her birth but later divorced. The child never knew her father. I have confirmed the marriage and the birth through county records and have since found letters written by my grandmother promising to keep “the secret”. My grand uncle remarried and had three more children, two of whom are still alive at ages 76 and 80. I am fairly positive they are unaware of their father’s history before his marriage to their mother and do not know that their half-sister lives less than an hour’s drive away. How should one handle a situation such as this? Do I reveal the half-sister to her siblings so they have a chance to know each other in the few years they all have left, or keep my mouth shut and mind my own business? I have included these facts in my family tree because all facts – not just the ones which seem “acceptable” – should be documented.

  50. After browsing through all the posts to this blog, I see that my family secret is probably the only one like this. My maternal family, who always thought of themselves as white, have African-American ancestry. My grandfather was a man of color. He died in 1914, and after that the secret reigned for most of the 20t century. All pictures of him were destroyed. but the documents in the NYC Municipal Archives weren’t! and now we all know – the older generation has passed on, and their shame and embarrassment, and charade, now seems so pointless. I know it was the times – Jim Crow and discrimination, lynchings and segregation – but the younger generation is not bothered at all by this secret.
    The other major secrets appear to do with religion, and it appears that at least some of my Russian ancestors were converted Jews in the 1880’s to escape pogroms in Imperial Russia. Still working on that one.
    The truth should come out, and waiting a generation to reveal it is not such a bad idea.

  51. My family’s “dirty laundry” happened 116 years but affects me (and my immediate family) directly. My grandmother’s husband passed away sometime around 1885-1886 (I’ve never found a written record of the date), but she had a son out-of-wedlock in 1892. That son was my father. The family apparently “hid” this all away and never talked about it. It appears my grandmother moved away from where her husband’s family lived at the time to have the baby. I found all this out when I was 25 but didn’t start actually researching it for another 25 years. To this date, I’ve never found out for certain just who my grandfather was. I’ve pinpointed his family, but there were six boys in that family, any one of which could have been my grandfather although I’ve pretty much narrowed it down to three of them. DNA is not possible as the man I believe was the culprit died in 1898, having never married or having offspring. A cousin, who did my grandmother’s family genealogy, informed me in no uncertain terms that I was not to touch this subject; that I was to consider myself a descendant of my grandmother’s husband, and was to “let it rest.” Of course, I never let it rest! She was quite put out when I continued to hunt for my grandfather’s identity and refused to ever speak or write to me again. She covered up my father’s illegitimate birth in her records by changing the date of my grandmother’s husband’s demise to within roughly four months of my father’s birth. Most of the family I’ve contacted never knew about all this although a few apparently did and have confirmed the the man’s family name but claim not to know his actual given name. I’m sure my half-aunts knew, but they were gone before I started researching. My point in all this is that, since the information affected only me and my immediate family, why keep it all under wraps. Anyone that the information would have “hurt” was long since gone, and knowing would certainly have saved me lots of time, energy, research, and money. I am sure the cousin knew my grandfather’s name and I feel she should have told me! I’m still looking!! Just rambling on……..ccw

  52. Ruth:
    Your family should know about your African ancestor because color can skip a generation or two. Some parents need to know that their child could be born black and the mother did not cheat on her husband!

  53. Jim (Comment#38)
    My father, born 1889 in Maine, was a great story teller but would not tolerate gossip. As a youngster, if I started to gossip, he would say “Oh, and were you standing there with your candle?”. I’m sure he was older than Clark Gable, so out of curiousity, I wonder where the expression originated?. Needless to say, I have many great stories in my genealogy, but no gossip.

  54. 25. About 50 yrs ago two children, boy & girl, became orphans due to the wife’s brother deciding he wanted the estate they had willed him. Those children probably don’t even know they had loving wealthy relatives that cared because the state took them and placed them with no trail to find them. So stories of this are in our tree…but not in those of the kids affected by the murder who know little of what became of mom & dad. Found by a relative in the last few yrs, the son rejected any desire to know the family and believe it was tales told to him that affected his attitude. Some things can never be corrected in history of Secrets that are not told to orphans.

  55. My whole life seems to be a family secret! I was adopted at 3 wks old as a cure for infertility and infidelity and my adopted father’s alcoholism.

    It appears he really liked (and was liked) by the ladies. Adopted mother after 21 yrs of a loveless marriage, divorced him and married 3 months later to a man she had been seeing on the side for seven yrs.

    I was witness to their secret phone calls while dad was at work and heard them plot, for 5 yrs, how to make the most out of my dad. Finally at 13, and old enough not to fall for my mom’s manipulations that “what I heard, or saw was not what it seemed”, I blew the whistle on the sneaky pair.

    This so call “hero” of my mother, the one who helped her get rid of that “playboy” turned out to be a real control freak.

    After 35 yrs of purgatory, he controlled every penny and minute my mother had, even to the point of how much she ate! It was sad. Her sisters and brother thought he was some kind of saint, since he went to church on Sunday and was a deacon of their congregation.

    Since getting me out of her life as a way of keeping anyone else from knowing the true story behind her “fairytale ending” I had been handed over to my dad in the divorce and later “sent away” to Military school as I was a “problem child” I was left to basically raise myself.

    Mom died May 6, 2007 of “what he claimed as “Alzheimer’s” but in reality she had sunk into a deep depression and had just given up. Always a follower, never a leader, she had wanted a husband who was respectable and educated, but what she got was a dictator who to the day she died sucked the life right out of her.

    I plan to print this story in every family history collection I put out with the documents to prove every word. BTW.. Mom was his 3rd wife, the wife before he divorced to marry my Mom. He also relinquished a daughter from his first marriage because he didn’t want to pay the $50 a month child support for her.

    She’s now back in his life and will inherit my inheritance since he refused to allow Me to even say good bye my mother on her death bed or even allow me to go to her funeral, all with the help her Loving “Christian” siblings. Their excuse? He was her husband. What did that make me then? Just another one of her mistakes?

    It may embarrass some, it may shame, but by damn, I don’t care, it’s my family history and I have the documents to prove every word!

  56. I have been struggling over whether to put up a public tree that will reveal that my grandmother was the product of adultery. There is only one person living who is from that side of the family (my aunt) and she knows the story. But my grandmother and her father, who took her away from her mother and raised her, never told anyone the story. My grandmother was over 70 before she told her daughters that her mother had not died and that she had brothers and sisters (and that they had a whole slew of half cousins). I wonder what kind of karma comes from revealing such a closely guarded secret, even years later? I will probably go ahead and post the tree with apologies to Grandmother and Great-Grandfather. Reading all the previous stories has given me a better perspective on how to handle this.

  57. I too have come across some family secrets. I only include the info if it affects the outcome of the family tree. For instance, My Grandmother on my mothers side had 8 siblings. She was the first born. When I studied her baptism certificate I saw that she had a different mother then her sibllings and that she wrote over the original date and added a year. None of her siblings were aware of this and her children never new anything about it. It was a shock to all. No-one ever looked that closely at her baptism cert. After some more searching and comparing census records I realized that her step mother and her real father were married a few months after she was born and she was baptized 3 days after she was born. I am suspecting that either her mother died giving birth to her or they seperated or they were never were married in the first place. There is more info but I am trying to keep it short. I have been unable to find her real mother. Obviously for some reason she wanted to keep this a secret and never shared it with anyone. I have included this in my records because it directly affects our roots. If I ever find out any more info and it is dirty laundry then I would not go into details unless it is at least 3 generations back. I will keep a seperate file and plan to ask whoever will take over this task when I am gone to include it years down the road.

  58. The Adoption Secret: We on my mother’s side know, All the older people including my mother and her father have died. my sister’s siblings from a second marriage will not say whatever they know. Does my sister even know she was adopted? Does she know her birth name: Sondra Joyce Helfrich, B Dec 30 1949 Troy NY
    Placed: Sept 8 1950, Adopted: April 30 1951 to a school teacher
    Family, Albany Ny area. Possible adopted name: Linda Lee Decker. Does she know her family medical history? Is she ok? does she know she has siblings and nieces looking for her? Does her adopted family know we are looking? This is in my family tree, hoping she or her family may discover it some day.
    Secrets have a way of impacting people through out the rest of
    that family’s genealogy. So much better to have the light than the darkness.

  59. After a few years of finding a couin and still living Aunt, sister of my dad I stumbled across something that has been bothering me. My Great Grandfather’s parents were 1st cousins from South Carolina. I guess this just seems so “white trash” to me.

  60. I am researching the Dawson/Spence Family…trying to contact M Jo Werling but the email address will not go thru…if you read this please contact me.

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