Just about everyone has a horse thief, bootlegger, con artist, philanderer or some other inconvenient ancestor hanging on a branch of their family tree. But don't prune away these gnarls and leave only the blossoms. A touch of the tawdry adds a bit of mystery and intrigue to a family history. Besides, rooters are supposed to be recorders of history, not judges.
You never know when you might uncover a skeleton in the family closet. I happened upon one when I randomly entered a surname into the search box of a library computer 1,200 miles from home. A newspaper article in the library's online archives detailed the trial of my great aunt, who was convicted of selling booze during Prohibition.
It's also possible to spy one between the covers of a scandal book. One such tome can be found at the Largo Public Library _ Runaways, Rascals & Rogues: Abstracts from Lancaster County, PA 1794-1810, edited by Gary Hawbaker. The book is a compendium of excerpts from newspapers published in that area. A favorite topic was wives and indentured servants who went on the lam. The book is indexed so you can quickly check to see if one of your ancestors made the cut. Here are some selections from Hawbaker's book in the format he used.
May 8, 1802
Wife of William Church (hatter) in the village of Strasburg, near Lancaster, escaped from her friends on the night of the 5th inst. in a deranged state of mind; she had on a man's hat, blue petticoat and a short gray cloak. Whoever will give information of her, to her husband, and uses her well until he can obtain her, will receive the thanks of her friends, and be handsomely rewarded.
_ William Church
Ten Dollars Reward
December 7, 1804
Ran away on Monday the 26th of November last, a German lad, named John Peter Hunius, who arrived in the ship Fortune, Captain Morse, from Embden; he is about 19 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches high, short dark visage, small hollow eyes and slender frame. Had on when he went away a brown cloth round about jacket, pantaloons of the same, new shoes, a very good round hat. The above reward will be paid for securing him in any jail in this state.
_ Philip Wager
April 12, 1805
Whereas my wife Catherine has absconded from my bed and board contrary to my wishes and without any just cause, this is to forewarn all persons not to trust her; the said Catherine, on my account, as I am determined to pay no debts of hers contracted from this date.
_ Abraham Kling
Quickly skimming through old issues of local newspapers can also yield a juicy tidbit. This item was published in the May 7, 1912, edition of the Hagerstown Morning Herald:
J.O. Grinsley, who threw a pool ball at Charles E. Jackson in the YMCA building Saturday evening, hitting him on the head, appeared before Justice Doub yesterday morning. The father of Jackson testified that his son's condition was such that he could not appear at Police Station yesterday. Grinsley was committed in $300 bail for a hearing Wednesday.
Further south comes the Georgia Black Book, which the state legislature reportedly once tried to ban. I first saw this delightful little read at the Valdosta State University library, but you can find copies at the public libraries in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Officially titled the Georgia Black Book: Morbid, Macabre and Disgusting Records of Genealogical Value, it was published by Robert Scott Davis in 1982. Chapter titles include "Horse Thieves and Other Charming People (1724-1823)" and "Convict Records: Murders and Murder Victims (1823-1969)." Davis was evidently so pleased with the results that he produced a sequel in 1987 in which he gives advice on researching insane asylum and prison records and provides the name changes of illegitimate and adopted children as recorded by the state legislature from 1800-1856.
Read past Donna Murray Allen columns online at www.sptimes.com. Type "Donna Murray Allen" in the search box. You can write to Allen c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at rootscolumnyahoo.com. Her Web site: www.rootsdetective.com includes information on classes and lectures. Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns.