#52Ancestors: The bad death of Hardy Cole [Tweet this]
Genealogy is a hobby for many and a profession for some, and most of us pursuing the details of our ancestors’ lives do so out of a sense of passion, curiosity and enjoyment. So what should a researcher do when genealogy research uncovers something terrible?
Hardy Cole wasn’t high on my research priority list, perhaps because I found him in almost every census taken during his life span (see 1855, 1860, 1860, 1865, 1870, 1875, 1880, 1892) without identifying anything unique about him. The basic facts were there, but what I found just wasn’t particularly interesting.
When Ancestry released the collection of Pennsylvania Death Certificates, that changed in the most unfortunate way.
If you would prefer not to read the gruesome details, please skip the text box and scroll to the next heading.
Some questions to consider
When genealogy research turns up a sad story, or an embarrassing one, or a horrific one, it leaves the researcher with certain decisions to make. I’m not suggesting alterations or omissions, but I do advocate sensitivity, kindness, and good sense. Some questions to consider in weighing the pros and cons of sharing a terrible story:
- How did I feel when I discovered this information? Is it a burden? Would I want to protect others from feeling the same way?
- Would I share this story if it was about the person I care most about? Why or why not?
- If the information is sensitive, do I have a means of limiting the audience or allowing them to self-select?
- Is the information instructive or useful for the current generations of my family? Does it suggest a pattern of behavior, attitudes or health issues that would inform my family today?
- Do I believe that people have a right to privacy? What about after they have passed away? If the person were living, would this information amount to more than gossip?
- Does the difference in information accessibility between now and the time the information was first published have a bearing in my decision? (To put it another way, does it matter if a public record that used to be accessed only by a special trip to the courthouse is now instantly available via the Internet?)
- What is my responsibility here?
If the story must be told
In my case, I decided to share Hardy Cole’s story in a public way—but with a content warning, allowing readers the choice to opt-out. Here are some options and tips for sensitive sharing.
- Offer a warning or disclaimer in advance of sharing the story. Consider an action that requires the reader to actively decide to pursue the information (such as a “Read more” link).
- In Family Tree Maker, record the information, but mark it as “Private.” (And since FTM is going away—users of other genealogy programs, let us know in the comments if your favorite software has a tool to hide private stories and details.)
- Consider offline sharing methods, such as a CD-ROM or a bound book. (See my post of ideas for writing your family history.)
- Make an overt statement regarding the value you see in sharing the story so that your intentions are clear.
I wrote a post asking Should every story be told? a while back, and I believe that the issue of when and how to share stories is an important one for every family historian. Here are some other perspectives on the topic:
- Family History Episode 44: Family Secrets in Genealogy via Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems (post + podcast)
- When a Genealogy Hobby Digs Up Unwanted Secrets by Sue Shellenbarger via The Wall Street Journal
- THE JOY OF GENEALOGY: When you unearth a family secret, be careful what you do with it by Joy Neighbors via InsideToronto.com
What about you?
If you’ve ever discovered something you wished you hadn’t, how did you handle it? Let me know in the comments.
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Whew, already one month into my #52Ancestors! I’m learning lots and I hope you are, too!
If you’re new to my blog, welcome! The posts in this series don’t have to be read in any special order, so feel free to bounce around. Curious what’s ahead? Here’s the line-up for February:
- Feb 1: Evaluating the quality of sources in genealogy research
- Feb 8: Did my ancestor come from a prominent family?
- Feb 15: Facts, Legends, Contradictions and Errors
- Feb 22: Unorthodox census data
- Feb 29: The courage to grow old
One last thing! I’m guest posting on Heroes, Heroines, and History today. Follow the link to read my post about the birth of the American Legion!