Keeping family skeletons in the closet

7 years ago

Genealogists have an unwritten code of ethics.  While we should seek the truth about our family lines without flinching, we also have an implicit obligation to respect others’ privacy and not cause deliberate hurt needlessly by revealing secrets.  We also have an understanding we should alert another genealogist if he/she is on the wrong path in their research and we can help them avoid months of needless research.  

Sometimes the search for truth and the need not to betray a confidence will collide head on. How then does a genealogist reconcile these two sometimes disparate goals and maintain ethics while not allowing someone to continue research when you know they are on the wrong path?

Let me pose a problem I had to deal with which touches on this issue.  “Adam” was the child of two teenage first cousins.  The two cousins didn’t marry, though later each married and had families of their own.  Adam moved away and married where the circumstances of his birth were not known.   Adam’s wife, Jane, was religious and extremely self-conscious about the fact that her husband’s parents weren’t married and were closely related.  She once tried to get me to name another man as Adam’s father and was dismayed when I wouldn’t.  I didn’t want to tell a needless lie and Adam knew full well the story of his birth.  Adam died first and Jane kept the names of his parents out of his obituary and was left to guard the secret for several more years.  

This may sound extreme in a world where people let “it all hang out,” but there are still people who are terrified to let the world know of human frailty in their family and care desperately about what other people think.

What involved me was a request from “Paul” who was researching Adam’s family.  He had stumbled onto an online tree which was totally wrong.  What would you do?  Would you keep quiet out of respect or warn Paul about his error?  My own solution was to tell him the tree was wrong and share what was on the official record about Adam’s birth.  Later, after Jane’s death, I gave him the entire story and he was puzzled that I had withheld anything since he felt it was all innocuous and doubted anyone would really care one way or the other.  But Paul was wrong, Jane cared.  

Sometimes in genealogy we come across these types of secrets.  How we handle them defines how we balance the need to respect private facts from public facts and our desire to maintain the truth.  There’s no easy solution and I suspect each genealogist deals with this kind of thing in his/her own way.  A good guide is the Golden Rule – if it were your information, what would you want done?  

In my next column, I’ll go into more about genealogical ethics and my own “thou shalt nots”.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society. Reader emails are welcome at Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Caribou Library at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.