But what happens when what someone did, or who they were, really was a big deal? What if they did something so wrong that the ones involved never forget it, even when they want to?
That, my friends, is the definition of what we often refer to in genealogy as a black sheep.
One family member has a stigma against them, usually because of something they have done. It's a defense mechanism against public shame and familial embarrassment. In life, it is often accompanied by humiliation, ostracism, and broken family ties. In time what the person has done becomes a guarded family secret, which many try to take to their graves. Sometimes they succeed, which can create some significant challenges for us in doing genealogy.
Is it really important to uncover these secrets in genealogy? And if so, how do we go about do it?
I believe that there is something empowering in overcoming the stigmas in family secrets. I want to illustrate this through the example of one of my family members, Glenn E. Doyle.
Glenn Doyle was born in 1907 to Charles Miller Doyle and Birdie May Price. He was the oldest of 6 children. In his early life he appears on the census in both North Carolina and Virginia.
|Glenn E. Doyle on the 1910 Census for Surry County, North Carolina|
|Glenn E. Doyle on the 1920 Census for Grayson County, Virginia|
While he was still living in Grayson County, Virginia he met Pearl May Bartlett. I haven't found any marriage information for them yet, but they later moved to Cecil County, Maryland and had ten children. Among them was my grandfather, Raymond.
|Glenn E. Doyle on the 1930 Census for Cecil County, Maryland|
|Glenn E. Doyle on the 1940 Census for Cecil County, Maryland|
It would seem like an average family, as all of them do when you handle raw genealogical data. But it was only when I had my phone conversation with Mrs. T a couple weeks ago that I discovered the darker parts of Glenn Doyle's past.
|Copy of The Midland Journal, December 20, 1940.|
(Note the Christmas Message of good will towards men. That part is about to become really ironic)
I have lived in Cecil County all my life, and have never heard of this newspaper. I never would have known about it, except that Mrs. T mentioned that these events took place and I went searching on Google to find...
My ancestor was the last person in the state of Maryland to be sentenced to the whipping post--and Maryland and Delaware were the last two states to do away with that punishment. There is an error in the article because his daughter's name was Marie and his wife's name was Pearl. But Mrs. T informed me that Glenn received even more severe rejection from the community for what he had done to his wife and daughter. She mentioned that the Klan even retaliated against him, but I don't know how I would ever go about verifying something like that. I don't know that I would want to try.
As I read about whipping, I discovered what a gruesome punishment it was. It wasn't done with a plain whip with a single strand--like Zorro or Indiana Jones. They used something called the cat o' nine tails, which Wikipedia tells me looks something like this:
A punishment for whipping usually involved time in jail and up to 40 lashes. Glenn was sentenced to 60 days in prison and ten lashes. But if you think about how the whip in question has nine ends on it, it's more like 90 lashes. At the time this punishment was still viable, it was only affixed to incidences of domestic violence.
|from the New York Times, January 13, 1895|
It was a punishment which had not been seen in Cecil County for 40 years, and was never seen again after my great grandfather was sentenced. It was an infamous incident however, because news of it traveled far from the reachable limits of Maryland.
|The Spokesman Review, December 17, 1940|
Note that the above newspaper in Spokane, Washington was printed and distributed on the 17th of December--three days before the story appeared in Rising Sun, Maryland where my great grandparents were living. Sometimes I wonder if reporters think of the humiliation of the innocent before they spread such stories around. The Wire can be such an unforgiving scandalmonger.
For something as famous as this was, I never knew about it--but the emptiness it left behind was everywhere. The fact that my father and grandfather had no contact with the rest of their family meant we didn't either--no aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no family reunions, no holidays--nothing. It made my beginnings in genealogy challenging, but not impossible. What has been damaged more than anything else has been the family history.
Genealogy happens every times a census is taken, a probate is made, an estate is sold, any time something is written down for any reason. This continues uninterrupted, regardless of what we do. Family history is the culture and identity of a family--the teachings, the memories, the personal stories--all the things that come along with sharing time together as a family. Genealogy can never compensate for a lack of family history.
When someone is labelled as a black sheep, abandoned, and finally disgraced, many times the family is disbanded for the shame of it. Family members move away, refuse to come back, and time and distance make it nearly impossible to mend what was broken. Healing never happens, and the descendants are left without a history. Their history is lost--not because it wasn't written down, but because it never happened.
Because of this, I don't believe in labeling people as Black Sheep. To me it's a question of religious principle, because Christ didn't give me an option to choose who I would forgive and who I wouldn't. He didn't ask me to decide who was within His reach and who was too far gone. He will offer everyone a chance for redemption--a love He manifested for all mankind when he bore his own stripes. And God simply cannot use us to accomplish His purposes if too much of the problem is shrouded in secret.
As genealogists, we have the unique position to be able to mend these bonds because of what we know, and our willingness to know it. When it comes to dealing with family members who have a dark past, it is essential that we use what we discover to not only give our family an expanded past, but a brighter, triumphant future.