Scandal! Dealing With Skeletons In Your Family Tree

Scandal! Dealing With Skeletons In Your Family Tree

This is a guest post by W. Scott Fisher, the creator and host of Extreme Genes, America’s Family History Show, heard on dozens of radio stations in the US and as a podcast. A broadcaster by career, Scott has been a devoted genealogist since 1981. He was featured in People in 2015 for using his skills to locate the family of a murder victim, who had been missing for 32 years.

I still remember my verbal response to the very first family scandal I ran across in my research. “WHAAAAT?!!!” The 1893 newspaper article was lit up inside a banged-up old microfilm reader and began answering a long list of questions I had had for years concerning my great grandfather, Andrew J. Fisher, and his wife, Jane.

Where was their New York City marriage record? Who was this “Sarah Fisher” that appeared cryptically in the court file concerning a challenge to his will? Why did that record note “the said Andrew J. Fisher left no widow him surviving”? Of course, he did! It was Jane. She was right there in the will, and lived another six years!

One salacious headline told me all my genealogical conundrums were about to be resolved: “ANDREW FISHER’S RIVAL WIDOWS / One was Recognized by His Will, Which the Other Now Seeks to Break.”

It turned out that “Sarah Fisher” was Andrew’s other, other woman. Three decades younger than he, she had a child by him when he was 58. She claimed common law rights because, said she, Jane, though named in the will, couldn’t be a common-law wife because she was still married to someone else. Hence… no marriage record.

The truth is, if you haven’t found a scandal in your family yet, you haven’t been researching long enough. Just as we all descend from kings and paupers, we also all descend from saints and sinners.

As a writer of over a dozen books for my family, specifically on the ancestral families of both my wife and me, the 1893 story presented a challenge. How do I present this rather… ahem… interesting tale? And, yes, Andrew Fisher has been dead for well over a century, but what of his reputation?

After a lot of thought, I recognized that Andrew’s story was shared among countless people who knew him, and didn’t, during his lifetime. It was a widely spread story in its day. Needless to say, none of those people were still around, including children, to risk causing personal embarrassment to anyone.

I determined that I would have to include this chapter of his life story without embellishment, simply sticking to the facts. Further, I recognized there were many good things he did in his life… he was a volunteer fireman, for instance, who no doubt saved many lives. A comment from my friend, Janet Hovorka, stuck in my mind: “Every scoundrel has some hero in them. Every hero has some scoundrel in them.”

Further, through this final chapter of Andrew’s life, I was able to illustrate that the way people react to damaging family experiences can affect generations. Andrew’s oldest son, John, followed in his father’s footsteps. He drank heavily, was kicked out of the family by his wife, and led a life of despair. His brother, my grandfather, made a conscious effort not to repeat the past. He married and stayed devoted to his teenage sweetheart who died at 49 of tuberculosis. He never married again. He raised his own two sons as his number one priority. Both, including my father, became very successful.

A study at Emory University from the 1990s shows how building a strong family narrative among children, including how ancestors overcame adversity, developed in them greater emotional maturity and inner strength. Indeed, it was beneficial for them to know about the foibles of their ancestors as well as their moments of greatness.

Dealing with more recent family situations can, of course, be more difficult. Here’s a somewhat minor issue. In transcribing a stack of letters written by my grandmother more than a half-century ago, I made the decision to eliminate an unkind comment she made about a cousin of mine who was, at the time, just a pre-schooler. Grandmother is revered in our family, and I’m certain she would never have imagined her thoughtless scribble could have survived for decades and possibly come back to the ears or eyes of this (now) very successful business and family man.

My personal rule is, the feelings of the living, even if the individual in question is dead, must be taken into account. A record that causes pain or embarrassment is contrary to the purpose of family history research and the strengthening of future generations.

When I wrote the first volume of my father’s story, I talked about his first marriage and the challenges it created for the family when he and his wife divorced. I noted something he once told me. “I walked out of the courtroom with eight dollars in my pocket.” I never imagined his first wife, then in her 90s, would ever read it, yet alone take offense. She did. I removed that quote from the next revision.

Yes, it’s true. As the family historian, you get to tell the story the way you see it. (I warned my mother before she died!) But with the privilege of that opportunity also comes responsibility. Privacy is due to the living as well as living people who were close to those who may now be dead. The law may grant protections and maybe even penalties to living family members over what you make public about them. In the end, if you err on the side of sensitivity and ask permission where needed, you’ll avoid painful family trouble. Even as a historian, there are times where we don’t have to share everything we know… or believe we are aware.





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  • Mae

    May 22, 2017

    Interesting article. I found out two sections of my family, going back to great, great grandparents were part of the new world marry or not with children. And the wives, sometimes several after the preceding one died, were baby factories. The dit (dite) names are the best for finding out who was what where and when. I am still trying to find out when one of my great great grandfathers came over the Canadian Border and how many Mary Shortsleeves, Marie Jeanne Courtermanche, Mary Jimmo he actually escorted over the Border.

  • Peter Francis

    May 23, 2017

    I know about as much as I will ever find about my fathers family , but have no idea where to begin to find my mothers family tree

  • Kyle

    May 23, 2017

    I agree with the part about emotional maturity and inner strength. To see the struggles they endured 150-200 years ago and how many children died before they were old enough to go on their own. Makes being laid off from work not seem so bad. On the plus side, I sure learn quite a bit about geography in the Old World.

  • LaNell Barrett

    May 23, 2017

    This has me finally ordering a DNA test. Though can give only my, and no direct male sample. Hoping to find and dreaming to meet a ‘lost’ half brother, by my father’s first marriage.

  • Jace

    May 23, 2017

    Our first “scandal” was that we were direct cousins with John Wilkes Booth (an aunt discovered that it was a totally different “Booth” family we were related to).

    My paternal grandfather emigrated from Italy around 1918 & married my grandmother in 1929 (her parents were from Italy). When he died in 1961, letters continued to come from Italy. Nobody in the family could read Italian so they took the letters to one of his friends who could. Found out that Grandpa had another wife & family in Italy that he’d been sending money to & was supposed to bring across to the U.S. (obviously, he didn’t).

    On other research, I found a 2nd cousin 3x removed was married to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (Araminta Durfee was also an actress & was in “An Affair to Remember” with Cary Grant & Deborah Kerr; she was on the cruise where they meet & is uncredited).

  • Sheryl Titone

    May 23, 2017

    I have come across some things that would make other family members unhappy to know. If the information has no direct bearing on my tree, I do not attach the offensive information to the person or to the tree. I don’t want to hurt the people around me whom I love or am starting to have a relationship with. Sometimes, the information raises more questions than answers & what’s not known, doesn’t hurt.

  • Janet Holzgrafe

    May 23, 2017

    Checking my heritage

  • Reed

    May 24, 2017

    I could not disagree more with the author. If you are writing a family history, the history needs to be unvarnished. Otherwise the history being told is only a fairy tale. A history is not useful if it is less than truthful. Don’t be a snowflake and don’t look for a participation trophy. Cheers!

  • Lorie Hammon

    May 24, 2017

    Interesting love to find out information in the family history

  • Beryl

    May 24, 2017

    Interesting. My gt-gt grandfather was always looked up to as coming from a wealthy family who made carriages for the English Royal family…..until I found that he had actually been born illegitimate in 1830 in a workhouse and in his early 20’s migrated to Australia to start a new life. His ‘background’ was a total fabrication. If we remember that at that time in England, an illegitimate workhouse-born person was the scum of society, we can but admire his initiative. But loyal descendants can be hard to convince that his past wasn’t actually wealthy at all.

  • Susan P

    May 24, 2017

    There are many ways to include ancestors who might not be shining stars. I am reminded of a conversation In my teen years with a woman from a prominent family in my small rural town. She had assisted someone in research on a family history. The author of the family history to be written wanted to document her illustrious ancestry. During the research, a man was found who had been hung as a horse thief. Wanting to forget that blot on the family history, it was first decided to simply leave the man out of the book. But, subsequent research showed his grandson had been a prominent and well respected judge. It was not possible to include the judge without also including his infamous grandfather. So, in the book, little was said about the grandfather beyond birth and death dates, parents, wife and children. To account for what appeared an untimely, early death the author simply said, “he died when falling through a platform at a public gathering” and left it at that.

  • Beverley Maund

    May 24, 2017

    I’m looking for someone to find my family history on my fathers side , any recommendations

  • Danny Henderson

    May 24, 2017

    The truth of the matter is that everybody, and every family, has a skeleton or two hiding out in a closet somewhere back alone their family’s linage, because no person, or family is perfect. But, that shouldn’t worry, or be a problem, to most people and family’s because…… (1) Unlike Mother-In-Law’s, skeletons don’t back-talk, and/or try to throw their two-cents worth in, and/or try to run you, and your family’s daily lives. (2) Skeleton’s don’t require any extra money for years of live-in room and board. (3) Unlike most house-guests, skeletons don’t eat you out of house and home at meal-times. (4) Skeletons make great door greeters and conversation pieces during Halloween. – But, once again, the truth of the matter is that everybody, and every family, has a skeleton or two hiding out in a closet somewhere back alone their family’s linage. Those that try to deny this are only deluding themselves.

  • Edna Latterly

    May 25, 2017

    I disagree regarding hiding family secrets. If the record is there, reveal it. No-one is responsible for their ancestors’ actions and more harm than good can result by hiding facts. In my family, my cousin still at the age of 79 does not know the identity of her biological father due to her aunts holding that secret until they died, whereas they could have relieved her of a lot of anguish by telling the truth – a truth they believed was to protect her mother, long dead!


    May 26, 2017

    This article, as well as suggestions in this blog are very helpful and thoughtful.
    In retirement, I have chosen to take on the challenge of putting together family histories of my Grand-parent’s generation. I have distributed one history to date. The first tree was relatively easy. The people were good, solid citizens of their times and not without talent or fame. There was little to criticize beyond saying that our shared great-great grandfather was a farmer with little talent. He may also have been the best Hardanger Fiddler of his generation in Norway, with a resume to show his accomplishments and connections. Some relatives still judged it with suspicion.
    A second tree I hope to tackle is a much more complicated family. These people were very independent. They were talented but saw rules as guidelines more than laws (thank you Jack Sparrow). The achievements of our shared great-great grandfather bordered on legendary. I’m thinking this history will need to be as much a study of ‘choices’ as heritage.
    When dealing with controversial topics, such as potential family rogues, one must make choices. If you choose to glorify, state it up front. The same for a thoughtful or scientific examination of the facts as you know them.
    Either way, know that no good deed will go unpunished!

  • Mary

    June 15, 2017

    Loved reading this article regarding family “skeletons”. While my family (paternal & maternal) ancestry had its share of “everyday” scoundrels, I recently found the answers to “what-ever-happened” to one of my maternal great-grandfathers. Circa 1895 he was Bishop of St. Andrew’s in Droitwich, England. A known family fact whereby his North American descents portrayed him in “saintly light”. With the information of his vocation as a clergy member, I thought tracing him would be very easy, not so. While perusing local period newspapers, I found that he was “disrobed” and all future living allowances removed from him due to a “serious offence”. The offence being, that he was very drunk for one day were he was the celebrant at 2 funerals, a marriage and a baptism. The seriousness of the matter involved court proceedings, which the newspapers recorded, (including his behaviour during those proceedings). While over 100 years has since passed, I am mindful of how I write and relay this information among his family descendants. I always point out (and provide) copies of the found newspaper articles. But I also provide my own questions as too what may have caused him to act on this ONE occasion; “was it medical”, like a stroke, or the stresses of the day (he was father to 18 children). In any case, he’s my “Saint” AND my “Sinner” and having found this information has TRULY rounded out his character. I also proves that the truth will usually prevail and that “secrets” can sometimes be “uncovered”.

  • Margret Brady

    June 15, 2017

    Often old ideas about what is good or bad and other heritage matters can cause problems in future generations. For example epilepsy was considered an inherited condition and therefore it became illegal for someone with epilepsy to marry, while the actual cause of the disease being passed on was the marriage of cousins, which was not illegal. Letting this fact be understood can reassure future generations that their children are not doomed. In other cases they can carry deay genes and pass them on without knowing it.

  • Mike Schmidt

    June 16, 2017

    The opinions here are interesting.

  • Adam

    June 17, 2017

    A fact is a fact. If you are preparing an authentic family history, is the author to decide to hide it. Strange reasoning to me.

  • Barbara Riddle

    July 7, 2017

    looking for the Riddle family, William Riddle in about 1800 from Scotland. Staff Sergent James Harold Riddle
    Ida & Ada Whitney Aitchison from USA Father William Whitney Mother Agnes Aitchison

  • Pauline Mitchell Pierce-Via

    March 1, 2019

    Some years ago I published a book on my Mother’s family. I hit a brick wall on two of the families and could go no farther than 1807 with them. So there were very few skeletons to dig up. I only found that some of them had stills and drank most of it. Rather than go jail for it they moved from TN to AR and stopped making it.

    Now I am trying to finish up one on my fathers side. His is a lot more interesting. My father’s grand father was tried for murder. After three years he was finely tried and found not guilty but, by then he had lost just about all of his land that he had acquired by marriage with his wife. How do you write this up? The man he killed was engaged to one of his daughters and he did not approve of the man. The documents I was able to get from the courthouse show that the man made threats against his life and he simple armed himself before going out and was faster on the draw than his opponent.

    Now in the same family only a little farther back I have a good one. My father’s g.g.g.grandfather who served as a Capt, Maj, and Col. in the Rev. War, was a state senator in NC and was running for reelection. He was well known, prosperous and an esquire. His opponent was declared the winner, there was some disagreement between the two and the opponent hit him over the head and shot him. In 1791 his obituary was written up in the newspapers all over the country. After having this obit for some 20 years or more I have found another newspaper clipping that gives an altogether different story. This man writes to the paper after the trial is over and the governor has given a full pardon to this man who claims (not to have seen it) that it was all the senator’s fault. He writes a long letter blaming the dead man for his own death. Then does not sign the letter. The man writing the letter sounds like a good upstanding citizen.

  • Cheryl

    January 17, 2020

    Came across your blog. We may be related. Did your Andrew live in fort Ann ny?