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  • Thinking Genealogically #2: Subtle Hints and Euphemisms

    Lora Pallatto

    You know that nagging feeling. Maybe it’s intuition; maybe it’s indigestion.

    But when it isn’t a case of lunchtime gone badly, it’s time to look more closely at the data you’ve assembled. You know you’ve gotten good information, but there’s an unsettling sensation . . . something is not . . . quite . . . right.

    As they say in psychology class, listen to your gut feelings.

    Shame is a powerful emotion. It lingers long after painful events and can raise any number of stumbling blocks for a family researcher. To avoid an unpleasant memory (or clean one up) a source may be surprisingly silent on facts you are relatively sure they ought to know. Or they may tell “white lies” and use euphemisms when you ask for information.

    There are subtle hints that can help you become aware of when a source is being purposefully vague or downright misleading. One way to pick up on a reluctant informant is to listen for what you don’t hear in the conversation when you are conducting an interview. If your subject is stonewalling in an area where you think they reasonably should know some answers, there may be a sensitive situation behind the silent treatment you’re getting.

    Not Much To Go On

    When I first began researching my family, one relative gave me lots of information. But she was not particularly forthcoming about her husband. He had been considerably older than she and had died many years ago. Yet whenever I asked about him, the best I could get was a comment that “he was good with the children . . . and he liked dogs.” Hmmmm. What was it W.C. Fields said about dogs and children – “Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.” What did that say about my relative?

    I was left with an unsatisfied feeling of not knowing why there was so little to go on. Sure enough, years later when I wondered aloud why my relative had been so reluctant to talk about her husband, her daughter looked me in the eye and said, “Well, you knew he had a nervous breakdown, didn’t you?”

    Nope, I had no idea.

    Forty years later my relative still felt the sting of shame from that memory and could not bring herself to tell me anything more about her husband. Fortunately the daughter was willing to describe the tough times of the influenza epidemic in 1918, the dustbowl Oklahoma days in the 1920s, and the family’s move to a large Midwestern city where they were able to keep themselves together in the face of hard times.

    Euphemisms In Family Research

    A euphemism is an acceptable term for an embarrassing or unpalatable truth. Watch for euphemisms when the information you are receiving doesn’t quite add up.

    Some euphemisms are used by researchers. A “natural” child was almost certainly born on the “wrong side of the blanket.” The mother and father had not been married at the time.

    Other ambiguous or even misleading terms may find their way into your research. Some ancestors “went west” or were “lost at sea” or went “on the road.” Many of them actually did go hunting for gold in California and Alaska or fell ill and died on an ocean voyage, or traveled extensively in their work. But some of them didn’t.

    A person who is said to have gone “west” may actually have left the family high and dry and may be found a few towns or counties away living as a boarder or even starting an entirely new family, just a few short years later.

    Salesmen who “traveled” or went “on the road” may have kept several families as they made their way around a regular sales circuit. Occasionally, the various family members met for the first time at the salesman’s funeral when more than one widow tried to claim her rights.

    When people give you information, listen to what you hear and what you don’t hear. A traveler who disappears or whose burial place is vague and mysterious deserves a second or third glance.

    Lost At Sea

    I found the burial place and death certificate of one man because I had been doing research in the probate records at a county courthouse. His granddaughter was among those listed in the record because her father had died when she was an infant and her mother needed to petition the court for custody.

    In talking with the granddaughter, I was told that her grandfather had been “lost at sea.” He had lived in a New England whaling port city, so being lost at sea seemed a reasonable end for a man whose census record listed him as a “mariner.”

    I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I should have known there was too little information. Nobody knew the name of the ship or when or where the man had died. They didn’t seem to want to look for the ship or a death record. I had a feeling of their discomfort, but I wasn’t sure why.

    For a long time I just supposed that the man had jumped ship in some exotic place like Tahiti or Pago Pago, never to be heard from again.

    Years later, as I looked up the granddaughter’s name in the probate card file, I discovered that the cards were somewhat out of order. So I set to alphabetizing them, and that was when I discovered her grandfather’s card hiding out of sequence. I was surprised by what the card described.

    The grandfather had been committed to the regional insane asylum a few towns away by the City Council because he was ill. When I went to the appropriate town records, I found the man’s death certificate. The shame of the diagnosis had persisted for nearly one hundred years. He had certainly been lost when he died, but not at sea.

    Colorful Myths

    Euphemisms and white lies turn into family myths and legends, unproven but tantalizing. Most myths have some kernel of truth, but the “whole story” may be quite different from the myth.

    One of my ancestors came to America in 1827. The family story was that this Yorkshire woman eloped with a Scottish carpenter to America to avoid marrying a preacher that her father, an Anglican priest, had chosen for her to wed.

    Much of what I have discovered in the record has disproved various elements of the legend. The woman’s father was an Anglican priest, but he died eleven years before she came to America. Her brother was also an Anglican priest, so maybe he was the one that disapproved of her marriage.

    The trip to America included two children of the marriage both born in England, so it would seem they didn’t “elope to America” exactly. And the “Scottish” carpenter turned out to be a native of Ireland. How did that get so confused?

    I can see that the story had some basis in fact. The question is, though, what were the taboos, the unpalatable truths, that made the tale necessary – and how did it change with the telling to turn into the story that I finally heard?

    Follow family legends and listen carefully when your gut feeling tells you that something isn’t quite right. Then use your common sense to puzzle it out when you compare the legend to the historic record.

    Reporting Sensitive Information

    No one wants to publish or distribute genealogical information that will hurt or shame family members. Family disputes, mental illness, or criminal behavior have the power to cause harm even many years after the events themselves.

    Family history is not about forcing people to face unpleasant truths in a public forum.

    Be aware when interviewing a source that they may have trouble with some memories about people and events. Don’t pressure a person to provide information that they find troubling or just seem reluctant to talk about.

    Document the evidence for your files and list resources for future researchers to follow up, but it is not necessary to go into incredibly fine detail about sensitive situations in narrative reports.

    Keep to the basics. For example, rather than saying, “He was found living on the street raving mad and taken to the county jail and then committed to the County Home For The Incurably Insane,” it might be wiser to limit yourself to “Records in the county courthouse show that he was taken ill and sent for treatment to a medical facility in 1913.”

    Thinking Genealogically

    When you are working to document the events in the lives of your ancestors, you may come upon unpleasant truths. People are people and they make mistakes. No family tree is free of illness, poor choices, or even criminal behavior. Listen to your resources, follow up the information and try to be aware when you have a gut feeling that you don’t have the whole story. Be patient, persistent, and above all, be kind when embarrassing situations appear in the record or when sensitive information is involved.


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