Family Skeletons: Don’t get spooked!


Are there any skeletons in your family’s closet?

If you dig back far enough into your family tree, you are likely to uncover something scandalous. This Halloween, we thought we’d share two of our blog’s most frightful tales:

Imagine the horror of discovering that your great-grandfather was married to two women at the same time! Read how genealogist W. Scott Fisher coped with a less-than-favorable newspaper headline about his great-grandfather.

And what if the secret involves murder? If you dare, read the blood-curdling tale of Jane Maria Clouson who was murdered by her ex-lover and son of her employer, Edmund Walter Pook. Find out how John Hancock of London embarked on a journey to uncover the full story behind his ancestor’s murder.

What may be a ghastly story for some, may be just the thing to spark an interest in family history and genealogy for others. If these tales have piqued your interest in investigating your own family’s scandals, we’ve got a few helpful tips to keep in mind as you go over to the dark side.

Tips for Researching Family Secrets

1. Go to the source. First, you’ll want to interview family members who may have more information. Perhaps you remember hearing bits and pieces from a great-aunt or a third cousin in hushed tones. Prepare your questions in a way that is both respectful, but also investigative.

2. Don’t believe everything you hear. When it comes to family secrets, you’ll want to make sure that the story hasn’t been embellished by each generation. Sometimes people may present a version of the truth that may not be based on all the facts.

3. Get the facts straight. Look up birth, death, marriage and, if necessary, court records of the persons involved. These may provide the evidence you need to confirm or debunk the long-standing family gossip. Make sure to look at our historical collections in SuperSearch™.

4. Be patient. Genealogy is a never-ending process. Don’t become frustrated if you don’t find what you’re looking for in a particular set of records or if you haven’t made a breakthrough for a while. You never know where the next lead will come from. Even the smallest detail may lead to exciting new directions.

5. Don’t judge your ancestors too harshly. Times were different, and they must have had reasons for living the lives they did.

6. Take time to adjust to what you find. Sometimes the family secret may seem overwhelming even if it happened many generations ago. Allow yourself space and time to accept that the past does not determine your family’s future.

If you do discover any family skeletons that you dare to share, please let us know in the comments below!

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  • Cathy Walters

    October 31, 2018

    I am the skeleton that DNA brought out of the closet : )

    • Talya

      November 1, 2018

      Hi Cathy, we’d love to hear about your story!

  • June

    March 15, 2019

    While searching by the surname of my 2nd cousin twice removed’s husband, I came across the story of the trial and sentencing of her husband’s brother (Matt Baldes) for murder of his wife Mary. He might have gotten away with it but the wife’s brother-in-law became suspicious, knowing of Matt’s temper. That brother-in-law interrupted the rushed funeral with a demand that the cause of death be investigated. Matt & Mary’s youngest children (age about 10 & 12) witnessed the beating, choking, and her final fall. The lengthy descriptive account is as brutal as our worst cases of abuse: history of attempt to send him to alcohol treatment which he got out of by promising to do better, wife refusing to move out and stay with friends…. Carroll (Iowa) Herald October 25, 1905, p 6, col 3. Mention of the income Matt received from sale of his possessions which “ought to buy him a pretty good defense” in Alton Democrat November 18, 1905 p 1,col 5. Article on trial & sentencing for life in Ireton Weekly Ledger [Sioux County, IA], Dec 15, 1905, p.1 col 1, and results of a Supreme Court appeal in Carroll Herald February 13, 1907. p1 col 7. County notice of fees paid for transporting prisoners, witnesses, subpoenas, boarding prisoners, mentioning more family members in Hawarden Independent, January 18, 1906. Finally, 1920 US Census, Fairview twp, Jones, IA, ED 67, sheet 1A shows him still in the Men’s State Reformatory.