When Genealogy Research Uncovers Something Terrible

when genealogy research uncovers something terrible

#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?

Uncovering secrets in a brick wall.

Photo credit: © Everett Collection Inc. | Dreamstime.com

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, 18701875, 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.

The death certificate states that Hardy Cole died of shock due to an injury and following amputation at the thigh on January 8, 1909. His leg caught in a drag chain and was drawn into rollers at the tannery, and he died at 8:30 PM, about 10 hours after the accident. He was 58 years old according to details given by his mother, Elyda (Reece) Cole.
The newspaper’s account gives somewhat more detail, although one can infer that the reporter did not interview anyone close to Hardy Cole…
H. Cole, of Harrison Valley, Had Leg Torn Off and Was Internally Injured.
A shocking accident occurred at the Harrison Valley tannery Friday morning from the effects of which Hardey Cole lost his life. For some reason he went under the leach house where his clothing entangled in the drag chain which carries away bark from the leaches. He was quickly carried to the sproket wheel where his left leg was torn off at the knee.
Dr. Roe, of Harrison Valley, and Dr. Mastin, of Westfield, were called, who, as the only chance to save the man’s life, amputated the leg just below the hip, but owing to the shock and internal injuries he failed to rally and died at 8 o’clock Friday night.
Mr. Cole was a man between 60 and 65 years of age. He is survived by his wife and several adult children. He had been a resident of Harrison Valley and an employe at the tannery for 12 or 15 years. 
-The Wellsboro Agitator (Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, January 1909, page 1)

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

Sharing secrets can be dangerous...

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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.

Other views

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:

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!

6 Replies to “When Genealogy Research Uncovers Something Terrible”

  1. As a professional genealogist, I have always advised to “let it all hang out.” I discovered years ago that my great grandmother was eight months pregnant when she was married. A big deal? Not to me. I do believe in being sensitive when it comes to others. I have found many suicides, murders and even witch burnings while working for others. I always ask in advance how much a person wants to know. Personally, I feel all the warts help provide a truer picture of where we all come from.

    1. Hi, Allen! Yes, I see your point, paricularly in work for clients. I think the first suicide my mom and I discovered in our family influenced my thinking on this. The newspaper write-up came across as nothing short of gleeful about the ugly details–and worse yet, several other papers picked up the story because it was macabre and unusual. It made me desire to be more careful and respectful when it comes to the hard stuff. (Not that I’m immune to a good “black sheep” story, though…) Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your perspective.

  2. A very thought provoking and timely post. I discovered a difficult incident in my family history recently, and you’ve given me some very important things to think about as I write the story.

  3. I don’t know the details of the suicide of my great grandfather, but, the implications of this act had a profound impact on the three young children and wife he left behind. The children were all apprenticed and the wife became a servant and died many years later in a workhouse near London. My grandfather was an educated man and at the time of the marriage was a school master and later at the time of his death, was the recorder of births, marriages and deaths in that parish. The questions I have will never be answered, what happened to cause this act.

    1. How awful, Alice. Suicides are especially touchy, I think, because there are so often issues of guilt, blame, second-guessing and unanswered questions involved. How did you find out about this story? I had a great-grandfather who committed suicide as well, but in my case I didn’t discover it through genealogy. It wasn’t really talked about, but it was never really a secret, either.

      Thanks for stopping by–I appreciate it!

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