Should You Tell the Unpleasant Details?

The brother of an ancestor got drunk and belligerent with his mother. His brothers were unable to restrain him and the county sheriff came and arrested him. He served a month in the county jail.

An aunt’s husband attempted to murder her while she was pregnant. He never served jail time and, based upon their adjacent burial in a local cemetery, I’m concluding they never were divorced.

A relative passed him off in a town about ten miles from where his wife was still living. When his wife found out about the girlfriend, he ran off-with another woman.

A relative borrowed a substantial sum from his grandmother and was supposed to execute a mortgage to secure the payment. He never did and was unsuccessfully sued by her estate when she died.

I have an uncle who hung himself in his barn for his teenaged daughter to find him.

I have an aunt who disemboweled herself when her abdomen was apparently riddled with cancer.

And there is more.

There is solid evidence in every case as every situation generated one or more documents.

But how much do I share?

That can be a difficult question to answer.

Years ago, in an attempt to interest a relative in our ancestor, I told her everything about our common female ancestor. After reading the relative’s biography on the website of the university where she was employed, I thought she would be interested in a strong female ancestor who apparently lived life on her own terms. Apparently my storytelling was too much. After I spilled the beans about the ancestor, my relative stopped answering my emails. Maybe the murder, divorces, and accidental death were simply too much for her.

Do I tell a relative who may have old pictures  I don’t know how her great-grandfather ended his life? They may not share those pictures with me if I mention his cause of death.

How much can you omit without altering the story?


How soon do you spill the beans to that new found cousin?





26 thoughts on “Should You Tell the Unpleasant Details?

  1. My own approach is not to tell unless I’m asked a direct question. Then I ask if they really want to know what may be unpleasant. Another example: I have a beloved great uncle who once revealed himself in a letter as a cruel miser. No one knows about the letter, and I’m thinking of destroying it. He has no descendants, and I see no point in allowing it to be found by future generations. What right do I have to sully his memory?

    • What right do you have to re=write history ?

      My grandparents “edited” my great grandmother’s letters; destroying what they deemed “inappropriate”. I bitterly resent them destroying part of my heritage.
      ALL of her letters would have given me/us a total picture of our great grandparents. Some of the details were more than family history; my great grandfather was in McKinley’s administration.

      • Thank you for bringing up this topic.
        This great grandmother was born in 1875. Her immediate family had been through the Civil War/War of Aggression. Her mother’s family was from Dover,Tn/Ft Donelson;all but 3 buildings were burned in her small town. Her father was the Yank that came to town to establish the National Cemetery (after fighting in the Civil war). As a small child my great grandmother and I sat on the porch swing and she told me family stories. Unfortunately, I was too young to know enough to ask questions.

        Her father later was in The Mc Kinley administration stationed in the Philipines. Again, I was too young to ask questions. My grandfather destroyed 2g great grandfather’s letters to his wife after my great grandmother died; HE decided they were “inappropriate for the family to read”. “Inappropriate” for us to know our 2g grandfather loved his wife ??? He also wrote of his duties and activities serving there. That was OUR family history.
        After returning to the States this 2g grandfather became part of the Internal Revenue Service (every family has its dark side). He was an under cover agent for many years. I found this in several books about the “Whiskey Fraud”.
        As he moved up he and his wife were frequent guests at White House dinners and receptions. After my great grandmother’s death my grandfather BURNED a stack of invitations to these White House functions “because no one cares”. I CARED! I was livid with him (still am). I asked him why he hadn’t let me and my cousins have them; donate them to the local Historical Society ??? They weren’t important to HIM.

        This great grandmother married into great wealth. Her husband died when he was 30 from a heart problem ; she was 6 mos pregnant with my grandmother. (My husband had the same thing – open heart surgery/3 day hospital stay)they had two infants die from heart related ailments. It was a family secret to be “contaminated” with this stigma. My children and I had a right to know if heart problems are in our DNA.
        Her in-laws turned her out without a penny. WHY ??? Her sister-in-law & husband adopted one of her daughters. Why ???

        All of this makes my great grandmother who she was; it makes me who I am.
        As one other writer says ….if this stuff isn’t brought out into the daylight, it will continue down through more generations.

        I remember my great grandmother as a gentile, loving, lady who loved Detroit Tigers baseball.. But, I am sure she was just as human as the rest of us. I want to know ALL of her.

    • Don’t destroy it! Keep it all; you don’t have to share it, but others might be interested and the further away (in terms of years & generations), the less some of that will matter. For example, I have a great-great-grandfather so abusive their (Catholic) parish priest advised his wife to get divorced! It’s simply part of the family tapestry by now, although my grandmother knew both of her grandparents. Another couple relatives committed suicide, one possibly aided by her own husband. It goes into the record (although I am looking for proof on that one; the husband comes off really badly)

      Your idea of not volunteering is not a bad one. You can say that So-and-so had a bad side or whatever, and ask if they’re interested. If yes, share; if no, say nothing. But people thinking their ancestors were perfect isn’t really any good, either. All families have secrets and unpleasant stories somewhere. Keep the letter with the rest of the documents, please!

  2. I tend to ask the cousin if they want to know. I say I have an/some unpleasant account(s) regarding the target person’s birth/marriage/death, and (realizing there are at least 2 sides to every story) do they wish to hear some of the details? If not, we move right along. Maybe there will be a question in the future.

    When furnishing a written account to some relatives, I placed a large-type warning sheet in front of the material concerning our mutual ancestor who was murdered by a son. They could just move beyond that tab and never look at it, or open when ready to see it. In their community having been murdered was almost as derogatory-info as having been the killer. Social stigma in small communities can be very long-lasting.

  3. Isn’t it like raising children? You don’t explain everything you know about a subject until they want to know more than the basic outline. This applies to physics, sexuality, family history, faith, etc., etc. I will be 75 in a month — I understand relationships between categories of information that amaze me — but until someone asks, I’d rather be ignored than have their eyes glaze over.

  4. I’ve wrestled with this problem too. I don’t want to tarnish my family’s memories of grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins they knew personally. So yes, I keep somethings to myself. BUT I have shared on my blog the ”good and the bad’ of my distant ancestors and collateral lines.

  5. I found that my maternal grandfather was adopted. His biological father had murdered a man and left town. My aunt hasn’t spoken to me since I revealed the info. Too much I suppose!!!

  6. Susan Wallace Masse says:

    Our local historical society has been gifted with a 4″ notebook of personal notes by a lady who lived 1878–1950. She has a strong opinion about everyone she profiles, and that is most of her fellow citizens. Almost all the stories are unflattering! We are going to publish the notebook, but with a strong preface that explains the writer, her times and her prejudices. We are also doing research to substantiate or disprove her stories, and have solicited some family members to reply as well. People drink, take drugs, murder, beat their spouses, disown their children for trivial things, have children out of wedlock—in short they are simply people of their own time. Fortunately, she also records instances of stunning kindness, patience and philanthropy. It is all what it is. And if you don’t want to know that g-grandfather was the town drunk, don’t buy our book. My own g-grandfather was a bigamist who had 22+ children by 3 women. I wish he had lived in this town, because I would know a lot more about him!

  7. My Dad was sensitive about a couple of issues 1) He had been married before and had a daughter we knew nothing about. 2) His father killed himself. My mom took me aside when I started doing genealogy back in the 1970’s and told me what she knew about it and that Dad didn’t like to talk about it. So, I just let it lie while he was alive. Since he has passed I included the information in my tree and have begun communication with a niece, dtr of his dtr by his first wife. I don’t think the information should be erased, but shielding the current generation from the gory details if they are sensitive is just kind, IMO.

    Someone years ago gave me a cartoon of Blondie and Dagwood. Blondie says “But Dagwood, what if you shake your family tree and a lot of nuts fall out?” I have always appreciated the nuts I have found. They make us who we are.

  8. I’ve had this question too. I like the idea of the “warning” page. I don’t think it’s fair to spring it on an unsuspecting relative who may have another opinion of that person. I’ve kept some secrets myself. But I don’t think it’s right to edit history for convenience. Write it down with a warning heading and leave it for posterity.

  9. I don’t see any reason to hide most unpleasant stories. Every family has them. (Except perhaps if your ancestor was a nazi or such.) My gg grandmother was distraught that she and my gg grandfather faced financial ruin (for reasons I cannot find). She cut her throat with a razor blade and bled to death in front of my great grandmother. This was in 1885. It was on the entire front page of the newspaper, which I am glad to have found from the local library. My father had heard rumors of this when he was young. Turns out my gg grandfather was so upset about his wife he too killed himself 2 months later.

    My 4th great grandparents married in 1801 when she was 6 months pregnant with their first son Jonathan. Jonathan was married at least 3 times and I know divorced twice. He and my ggg grandma Laura abandoned their sons when they divorced, and they were raised by neighbors. Laura remarried and had other children. As far as I know, she never spoke to her sons again. They were 5 and 7 when she left!
    Stories like these show that our ancestors also struggled with depression, anger, alcoholism, etc. Not everyone was perfect, and their morals were sometimes no different from what we see today.
    From what I have read in the other comments, I am saddened that relatives would shun their own family members for telling the truth. As researchers I feel it is our duty to find the facts and preserve the truth. There is no family out there that does not have at least one black sheep ancestor, somewhere along the line.

  10. Marinell Johnson Reeves says:

    Michael, I found your paragraph about trying to interest a relative in your ancestors and genealogy by sharing information you learned about another relative. Instead of her becoming interested, she stopped answering your e-mails, etc. Did you ever thing that maybe the reason she “dropped” you was because there were skeletons in her closet that she was afraid you would find and tell others about them?

    • It might have been too much. It could also be that such behaviors are more interesting to see in other people instead of seeing them in our own family.

  11. Marinell Johnson Reeves says:

    Michael, My previous post says February 22, 2016 at 5:53 am. Here in PA it is 12:53 am. For you in IL it’s 11:53 pm. I think your clock needs to be reset.

  12. We recently found out some “gossip” about dear old mom.
    I am intrigued and would like to find out more. However it appears “mum’s the word”. and her generation either doesn’t know about it or if they do are not acknowledging it. we are not responsible for the character or actions of our ancestors. I think it makes their life more interesting and “real”.DJayAnderson

  13. I feel very strongly about this topic. My mother’s family has a code of silence stronger that the Mafia’s Omerta. I often say that the family motto should be, “If we don’t acknowledge it, it didn’t happen.” Wrong! If you don’t acknowledge it and discuss it, it might keep happening over and over. Kids always know more than adults think they do and by telling them a fictional version of an event they may have observed or have direct knowledge of, you either undermine their belief in their own sanity or make them think you’re crazy. My family has a history of telling people who call a spade a space that they have “an overactive imagination.” I believe secrets of any kind are toxic. My willingness to blow it all up have made me an unpopular family member, but I don’t care. If you call out your brother-in-law for hitting on you and your other sisters, his wife (your sister) might get mad at you and say she doesn’t believe you, but I’ll bet he’ll stop that s**t. If you report your aunt’s husband for molesting your young male cousin, that marriage might fail, but that child and many others might survive, emotionally intact. If you tell your cousin that his Uncle Bob is really his father, he might finally understand why the father who raised him beat him and hated him. My great-great-great Aunt killed four of her husbands and buried them in her yard. Damn right, I posted the newspaper clipping and incurred the wrath of her direct descendants. Secrets can make many generations of a family emotionally stunted and unhappy. Tell it all and be as defiant as you need to be.

    • The code of silence is far reaching, even seeping into the younger generations. Funny you mentioned the Mafia, as that is exactly what my father was terrified I would reveal about my mother’s family. Though many degrees away from my mother’s immediate family, her ancestors were literally “founding families” back in Palermo. Her maiden name was attached to countless Mafioso.

      My father was petrified that he would wake to find a huge “black X” painted on the front of his home. (Like some latter generation family member would fly to the U.S. to hunt us down). I included the information in the note section of the research I shared with family members…to date, no one’s car has blow up when they sparked up the ignition in the morning.

  14. What about the genealogy that includes a man who committed fraud to gain his brother’s birthright (Jacob), a man who attempted to murder and then sold his brother into slavery (Judah), a woman who seduced her father-in-law (Tamar) and a prostitute (Rahab)? As shown in Matthew 1:1–17 no one is immune from unsavory ancestors.

  15. Gail Alexander says:

    My husband’s grandmother “white-washed” their family tree, my mother’s family hid a sister who was a tramp and my father had a brother that would have nothing to do with the family after he was the only one of the boys drafted into WWII. All families have issues and as a genealogist, I resent not being told “the rest of the story.”

    • While I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, some good things to remember:

      1) write only about the dead
      2) stick to things you have located in publicly available records–newspapers, court records, land records, probate records, etc.

  16. Mary Hammond says:

    Through several historical newspaper databases, I have discovered dozens of articles detailing the “escapades” of my paternal great-grandfather, an Irish Catholic immigrant who, according to my dad, “was not a family man.” I don’t know how much my dad actually knew, but I suspect his family kept it hush-hush. Turns out this g-grandfather abandoned his wife and 6 kids as he moved from Denver to Salt Lake City to Pasadena, Portland, Seattle, Victoria …marrying and duping one woman after another. Apparently he was impressed by the bigamy that he encountered as he moved west, and used wooing women with lies as a source of income.

    My older brother is upset that I have spent so much time and energy exploring this skeleton in our closet, and wishes I would instead spend time on our more respectable Mayflower ancestors. Not a whole lot new to be discovered there, and I live on the wrong coast to pursue that side in person. I’m much more interested in finding out what my great-grandmother had to endure before she asked the judge for a “silent divorce” in 1892. How did she ever manage to raise 6 surviving children alone? What was her source of income? From 1881 until her death in 1921, she lived within 5 miles of where I live now. How could I not want to research this part of our family?

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