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The Daily Genealogist: Black Sheep Ancestors

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Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

Genealogists and non-genealogists alike are often fascinated by their "black sheep" ancestors. Of course, this interest doesn't stem from approval of crimes and misdeeds. Instead, researching black sheep ancestors can often be more exciting than investigating more virtuous forebears. Ancestors who were scoundrels can capture the imagination and bring color and pathos to a family history. I doubt many people muse about why ancestors stayed on the straight and narrow path throughout their lives. Considering those forebears who didn't follow the rules--and why they did not--is a lot more thought-provoking. In addition, black sheep ancestors--particularly those who were actual criminals--may have generated additional records, such as court documents and newspaper accounts. Generally, no extra records are created when a person is a good and upstanding citizen (with the exception, perhaps, of good citizenship awards). The often rich and detailed records about black sheep ancestors might not only give information about transgressions but also provide insight into family circumstances not likely to be found anywhere else.       

In the early 2000s, we regularly featured readers' black sheep ancestor stories in both New England Ancestors magazine (the predecessor to American Ancestors) and the e-newsletter. In fact, the black sheep stories (along with "my favorite ancestor" stories) were so popular that we ran at least one in the e-news almost every week for about two-and-a-half years, from March 2003 to October 2005. I recently read through the stories in our e-newsletter archive and found a host of reasons why someone might be pegged as a black sheep ancestor: adultery, bigamy, child abandonment, counterfeiting, desertion from the military, murder, and theft. The results of this week's survey, which asks whether readers have black sheep ancestors, should produce interesting results. Unfortunately, the survey can't answer the question of how many readers have black sheep ancestors and don't know it!    

Below is a selection of related resources:
•    Blacksheep Ancestors offers links to prison records, insane asylum records, historical court records, execution records, and biographies of notorious criminals.
•    International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists is an association of genealogists who have found "blacksheep ancestors" in their direct family lines.
•    Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records by Ron Arons is a reference book with information about sources for criminal records and listings of relevant archives, libraries, courts, and online sites.
•    The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913 is a fully searchable edition containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.
•    Least Wanted: A Century of American Mug Shots by Mark Michaelson is described in evocative detail in this 2006 New York Times article.  

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