Call me odd, but I find nothing more interesting than finding a black sheep or two in a family tree. Black sheep, those shady characters that lurk in the shadows, add depth and drama to our personal stories. We usually don’t spend a lot of time addressing their crimes, but perhaps we should. Our infamous relatives offer us a unique opportunity to exercise our humanity by trying to understand their motivation. Did they intend to do what they did or were they driven there by circumstances beyond their control?
When writing about these “bad eggs”, keep in mind two things. First, if you have a black sheep that’s still living – and some of us do – don’t publicize your narrative. The First Amendment notwithstanding, we must remain compassionate and understand that harsh words or speculation can destroy people’s lives. This is something we should never do and could lead to legal action (which we don’t want). Second, when talking about historical black sheep, do your homework and study the time period in which they lived. It’s unfair to judge the actions of your seventeenth century cousin using a twenty-first century perspective – and vice versa – unless that’s your intent (like a compare and contrast essay).
The intent of any family history is to write a story that is factual. Nevertheless, you have the freedom to speculate. It’s your story and you have the right to develop your own conclusions.
My family tree is fraught with black sheep.
Lizzie Andrew Borden is my 7th cousin, 5 times removed. She was the daughter of Andrew Borden and Sarah Morse. Born July 19, 1860 in Fall River, Massachusetts, Lizzie was acquitted of the August 4, 1892 murder of her father and stepmother Abby (Gray) Borden with an axe. To this day no one knows the real story.
Reverend George Burroughs is the father-in-law of my 8th great granduncle Jabez Fox who married Hannah Burroughs. The good Reverend was accused of witchcraft and hanged at Gallows Hill in Salem, Massachusetts on August 19, 1692.
Welthean Loring, the wife of Thomas Richards and my 11th great grandmother, was accused of witchcraft in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1653, she “was threatened with the charge of witchcraft, having in the heat of passion threatened terrible things would happen to those she was angered at, they later falling victim to various unpleasant fates.” Nothing became of the accusation – most likely because she was rich.
William Hinton, my 2nd great grandfather, left his wife and son in England and sailed to America, presumably to establish a home for he and his family. He never retrieved them, instead starting a second family in Philadelphia (who doesn’t like a bigamist in the family tree?). According to his death certificate, he died of “mania”. Family tradition, on the other hand, holds that William died from exposure after running naked through the streets of Philadelphia on what must have been a very cold evening.
John Warnock Hinckley, Jr., currently serving time in prison for the attempted assignation of President Ronald Reagan, is my 9th cousin, two times removed. He was enamored with actress Jodie Foster. Coincidentally, Ms. Foster is my 11th cousin, one time removed.
Family histories become richer by including our black sheep. I encourage each of you to keep digging through your family history closets to dig up those skeletons. It definitely adds spice!