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Finding the Wayward and the Wanton: Ancestors Who Flew Too Close to the Sun

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Written by Jeanne Rollberg

The Brockport Republic reported in November, 1899, “John Bruton was drunk Saturday night and while thus unaccountable started away with another’s horse and buggy. …. When someone is sent up for six or eight years for horse stealing, this malicious mischief may stop.”

Do you have an ancestor who sometimes flew too close to the sun? That could mean that he or she fell from grace at the peak of power because of excessive risk taking, or was simply wayward and wanton in other ways. Perhaps your ancestors were not wicked or wanton, but simply in bad circumstances through no fault of their own. Criminal, rebellious, careless, or mentally challenged ancestors possessed their own special magic and offer critical life lessons for us, but they are difficult to fully research, understand, and contextualize. 

Finding the Wayward and the Wanton in America and Beyond

Initial discovery about wayward ancestors begins with the typical database or paper record searches for birth, marriage, military, land/voting and death records. That’s sometimes the easy part. Gather what you can from extended family members. Information archived by them often provides helpful details about ancestors who got in trouble, but the embarrassment of having legendary ancestors sometimes means there’s little trail within family records. There may be a good deal of family lore, and that’s at least a place to start to learn about the standouts in our trees.

The good news about a wayward ancestor is that he/she often made the papers! Using databases like the Library of Congress’ (free) Chronicling America, Genealogybank.com, Newspapers.com, and other free and subscription newspaper databases can open up a treasure trove of information that helps us document ancestors in America. (Some German-American and Swedish-American newspapers are included at Chronicling America.) Try using an ancestor’s name plus an additional key word like “robbery” to narrow a search. This database is from 1789-1922.

Immigrant ancestors often made the newspapers in their countries of origin. Increasing numbers of online international newspaper databases allow us to read, and see translations of, articles about their illegal or destructive activities. http://www.europeana-newspapers.eu

Like other ancestors, these often had predictable patterns of behavior that were repeated from location to location where they lived. Many ancestors who came to America were fleeing military service in Europe. In America, their mischievous, independent, and sometimes illegal ways continued. 

Helpful Collections and Databases Showcase the Wanton Ancestors 

Significant collections about notorious ancestors in many countries have become available online in the last 15 years. These vary by time period. (We must remember that archives, historical societies and municipalities still house many collections that are not online, so checking there is crucial.) Not only are there registers for prisoners, but there are also descriptions of the prisoners, photos, and sometimes court case information that allows us to capture the flavor of the era. For non-criminal but troubled ancestors, check databases for hospitals, almshouses, and orphanages, especially in large cities like New York.

A search of “Criminal” in the Ancestry.com Card Catalog brings up 14 collections in England/Wales, Scotland, Australia, and America. US circuit criminal court case files are also available, as are registers from notorious prisons like Sing Sing in New York.  FamilySearch.org  has a wiki that explains about United States Court Records: https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Court_Records.

Did you have slave ancestors? Slave rebel/hero Nat Turner’s Bible is being displayed at this month’s opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture even as a film about his life is about to be distributed. Check museums, archives, and historical societies for slave ancestor records as well as online databases.

Findmypast.com recently added more than 2 million new records in its “England & Wales Crime, Prisons, and Punishment” collection. And if you’re looking for female scofflaws in particular, there’s a blog post about wayward women in crime records at blog.findmypast.co.uk

Here’s a helpful and often overlooked tip: When looking for criminal or “troubled” ancestor records in a particular country/location, join a Facebook page dedicated to that area’s genealogy. Researchers there will often graciously point you to the right resources for the time period.


Quelle Horreur! Embracing an ancestor’s story

There are often fascinating or humorous aspects to the lives of our wayward ancestors, but they can also bring a certain heaviness that leaves family members with weighty emotional baggage. These ancestors’ antics and hardships can drain us, and can also make us wonder whether their genetic make up and troublemaking tendencies “means” something about us. Inevitably, we will have to deal with how much information to share with other family members about our discovery. Some people are reluctant to acknowledge that any member of the family tree wasn’t perfect, or at least respectable. Every ancestor’s life has lessons for us. Sometimes a lesson can be to not behave as the ancestor did. Sometimes we are forced to consider the context in which the activities took place historically and to learn that our ancestor’s behavior, if not good, actually wasn’t that unusual. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”


Want to find other expert researchers just like Jeanne for your research gaps? Post a request to our community today!

Picture at top by Jessie Eastland (uploaded by Pocketthis) and used under Creative Commons License.

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