Genealogy, Family Skeletons and Black Sheep
February 23, 2003 8:15 PM   Subscribe

There's One In Every Family: You know that uncle whose name can't be mentioned at table, without loud swallowing, dark looks and deathly silence ensuing? The shady New Orleans grandmother whose photographs have been hastily removed from the family album, though the red stain from one of her garters remains? Call them black sheep or family skeletons, the Internet keeps making it easier and easier to dig them up and out. Outing your forebears and close family members has become an up and coming thing. In other words: I'll show you my black sheep if you show me yours.
posted by MiguelCardoso (31 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Emily Dickinson, for one. Also, the guy who hoisted the first Confederate flag in battle.
posted by troutfishing at 8:27 PM on February 23, 2003

Check out the The International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists, a group specifically for genealogists (amateur and otherwise) with "Black Sheep" in their family tree.

I'm distantly related to a man (one of my grandmother's many first cousins) who (probably) killed his ex-wife in her home in the mid-1980's. He was tried and acquitted, but then was successfully sued in civil court by her parents. And no, it wasn't OJ, despite the similarities.

Thankfully, I've never met the guy.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:13 PM on February 23, 2003

"As the past president of the Chicago Genealogical Society, Craig Pfannkuche" ... Uh, that means 'Craig Pancake'. I'm willing to bet that no one ever actually had that name.

No matter what the reporter's bona fides, I'm willing to bet the underlying info of this story is phony ...
posted by Jos Bleau at 9:17 PM on February 23, 2003

Hey, thanks Asparagirl - talk about what should have been the main link! ;)

*still plucking up my courage*
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:19 PM on February 23, 2003

Jos Bleau - he seems legit.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:21 PM on February 23, 2003

Oh goodness, let's see...we have members who ran the port blockades during the American revolution to resupply the revolutionaries (I guess they're only black sheep to the British side of the family, really), we have a lady who owned bordellos in the deep South who catered to both sides of the conflict, we have a member who was reputed to be a bit of a pirate, but was actually a rum runner between Cuba and the States, we had bootleggers during Prohibition, we had robber barons, women chasers, and duelers...and that was just the American side of the family. ;)

I come by my rebellious streak honestly, if you'll excuse the pun.

Oh, and Jos, there seem to be a fair amount of Germans with the name Pfannkuche.
posted by dejah420 at 9:28 PM on February 23, 2003

MiguelCardoso - you have more than a good point - there are a lot of German language websites for people with the last name 'Pfannkuche', and Craig has a lot of Google citations if nothing else ...

I'm willing to admit that I'm wrong, but c'mon, the guy's last name means 'pancake' for cryin' out loud~!

BTW- my grandfather was kicked out of the third grade for stabbing his teacher, and my father was kicked out of he University of Missouri for being a pimp (arrested and convicted of same as well).
posted by Jos Bleau at 9:32 PM on February 23, 2003

I had an uncle that was a tail gunner on a beer truck who was a tail gunner on a beer truck during prohibition, and was later killed by police during a bank robbery in Omaha. My father still has the shotgun his brother carried on his last day.
posted by scottymac at 9:36 PM on February 23, 2003

Whatsamatta, Miguel- not ready to out your notorious relatives yet? :-)

One thing I find interesting is that the reasons for family members hiding/ignoring/shunning people from the family can change over time as the standards for "scandal" change. For instance, in researching my family tree, I've come across the following stories:

- My great-grandfather's first cousin Barney married his first cousin Fanny and ran away from their home in the Kiev area to the US together. Fanny's mom nearly sat shiva for her (that is, mourned her as dead in the Jewish tradition) because of the issue of first cousins marrying, but moreso because Fanny had an older unmarried sister, and so for Fanny to be married before the sister was considered a huge scandal! (Incidentally, the sister, being a good sort of person, helped the two of them escape Russia and run off together.) Fanny's mom later got over the shock and joined the family in America, moving in with the happy couple.

- One of Barney and Fanny's sons is gay (and still alive at 91!), and family stories edited out the fact that he had been in a same-sex marriage from 1945 until his husband's death in 1975. I found that out by actually talking to him when doing my genealogy research, rather than relying on stories from family members, who would probably have censored huge swaths of his life. Lesson: your family's story often depends on who is doing the telling of it.

- Another one of my relatives was mentioned to have married late in life, and that his wife wasn't Jewish and didn't convert, either--which is a big deal in my family. I found out in my research that she was actually an ex-nun (!) and dean of a Catholic college, so for the two of them to fall in love was a real Romeo and Juliet story. And the reason he didn't marry her until late in life because he was waiting for his mother to die first so she wouldn't, I guess, drop dead from the strain. Yikes.

So you see, "Black Sheep" is often a very relative term--no pun intended. :-)
posted by Asparagirl at 9:38 PM on February 23, 2003

I'm the lavender sheep of the family. I don't run guns, I run name brand clothing and accessories at low, low prices. Track lighting too, but you didn't hear that from me.
posted by WolfDaddy at 9:40 PM on February 23, 2003

I've got a cousin who we don't talk about much since he tried to kill his wife with a beer bottle a few years ago, a second cousin who had a rather large garden of pot back in the early 70's, and another relative who was in involved with the burning of the Gaspee in 1772.

Then again, if you ask my father's side of the family, I'm the black sheep.
posted by chickygrrl at 10:14 PM on February 23, 2003

There's one guy in my family who renounced his US citizenship and immigrated to Taiwan. He served two years in the Taiwanese army, and he's gay. Now he makes movies of questionable quality there. Talk about a black sheep. His siblings are ok with the whole scandalous story, but his parents still can't discuss it.

Ha ha, it's me of course.
posted by Poagao at 10:32 PM on February 23, 2003

Okay, I'll play. On the mad Irish side of the family, I have a great-uncle who ran off to America to become a clown in Buffalo Bill's circus, and another great-uncle who, the story goes, drowned his wife in a puddle on Hamstead Heath (the family covered up for him). The rest of my great-uncles returned from England (where the family fled during the Famine) to Ireland to fight for independence before WWI, except for one brother, my grandfather, who joined the British police force. I suppose he was the biggest black sheep of that branch of the family, especially as family lore has it that one of the brothers, Sean, was executed by the British after the Easter Uprising (I've never been able to substantiate this, though). On my mother's side, nothing but hard working, self improving, solid Victorian lower middle class folk. Or else they hid their black sheep more efficiently. [Great post, btw, Miguel]
posted by jokeefe at 11:54 PM on February 23, 2003

My grandfather was the result of a vague relationship between the farmer's son and the Native American girl who helped out on the farm. But since no one will talk about my grandfather, that's all I know.
posted by Katemonkey at 1:51 AM on February 24, 2003

My great uncle was the last recorded death from rabies in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:06 AM on February 24, 2003

My great grandmother was a bootlegger during prohibition, a serial marrier, and from all accounts at least two of her husbands (purported to be abusive) just "disappeared." Her third, and final husband, was a German immigrant she met as he came off the boats in Baltimore- he didn't speak a word of English, she didn't speak a word of German, and they were happily married for 40 some odd years.

The apparent moral of this story is: Don't talk to the women in my family if you value your life.
posted by headspace at 5:12 AM on February 24, 2003

On the Italian side of the family, everyone's pretty straight and narrow neurotically repressed catholics. Although I do have a gay cousin, which infuriates the grandparents. On the Irish side, I know that my grandfather liked to keep fast company and that his business partner was a professional gambler.

Among the living, I'm definitely the family black sheep. Hell, odd coincidence, the other day I was in the drugstore and I saw a keychain reading "Official Black Sheep," I almost bought it.
posted by jonmc at 5:27 AM on February 24, 2003

So, they put this garter in the family album, and it left a stain?
posted by Shane at 5:41 AM on February 24, 2003

I'm told that my fourth cousin three times removed by marriage (or something like that) was Victoria Woodhull, which is to say, rather, that I'm distantly related to the drunkard she married at the age of 14 and later divorced.
posted by mcwetboy at 6:08 AM on February 24, 2003

Both of my brothers look like Mongol bloodlords and both will do nearly anything for $200. I go visit 'em, we go out, it looks like two Hell's Angels are taking their accountant out for beers. Neither of them have every owned a tie, would gladly stomp anyone who has suggested they should, and only tolerate my tie-wearing ways due to shared lineage and a grudging respect for my capacity for treachery. So I guess I'm the black sheep.

Further back, I do have a German great-grandfather that flew a swastika over his shop in the late 30s. He reportedly believed young Adolph was just the thing to turn the old country around.
posted by UncleFes at 6:53 AM on February 24, 2003

My great-grandfather was rooming with my great-grandmothers family. The two (great-grandma and great-grandpa) took an interest in one another, and were soon found out by my great-great-grandmother, who forced the two to marry in secret, without telling the rest of the family.

My great-grandmother became pregnant and wasn't able to keep it secret from her brothers/father who promptly throw my great-grandfather out on his kiester. My great-grandfather went to DC and got a job and eventually alittle Irish girlfriend.

My great-grandma graduates from high-school as the class valedictorian, pregnant, without anyone but her family in the know. Family lore says that she didn't really look pregnant, she just got a little stockier. The family joke is my grandmother graduated from that school twice.

My great-grandmother sends a letter to my great-grandfather stating that she wants him to come back so they can have a proper family. He came back and they were together until they died. They were married 65 years.
posted by Wong Fei-hung at 7:19 AM on February 24, 2003

My Great Grandmother, who married several times and was known to have a thing for men in uniforms, particularly sailors, moved in next door to a man she was interested in. Not long after, his wife moved out and she moved in. Quite the homewrecker she was...
posted by SweetIceT at 7:28 AM on February 24, 2003

UncleFes - how can I get in touch with those brothers of yours? - see I've got a "little problem".......

Hey - give your German great-greandfather a break! Fascism was endemic in the 30's. Henry Ford was a raving fascist, too - while GM's, Ford's, IBM's, and Kodak's German subsidiaries (and many more, too!) turned a healthy profit working for Hitler. And the Eugenics movement was strongest in the US before it jumped continents and infected Hitler's brain.
posted by troutfishing at 8:16 AM on February 24, 2003

My boyfriend's great aunt and uncle were killed by Charlie Starkweather. For whatever reason, I'm not supposed to know about it. Like it's some sort of shameful secret or something.
posted by eilatan at 9:11 AM on February 24, 2003

How's this for a black-sheep story, folks:

My youngest brother, then about 36, attempted to murder my father and our oldest brother (on Dad's birthday, no less). Both survived their gunshot wounds, fortunately (although Dad, whose health was already poor and who'd lost Mom the previous summer, died later that year). Little brother gave himself up after fleeing through several states. He's in prison despite our oldest brother's (yep, him) attempts to get him adequate psychiatric care -- both before and after the incident. Incredibly, the publicly-appointed psych said "there was nothing wrong with him." We knew better; he'd been strange through adolescence and gotten downright impenetrable as an adult, but we didn't know he had this much rage in him.

I figure I'll be seeing him again in, oh, about another 35 years or so.
posted by alumshubby at 12:18 PM on February 24, 2003

Pancakes are held in much greater esteem in Europe, and are never an object of jocularity, nor ever of ridicule.
posted by shabrem at 2:24 PM on February 24, 2003

I found out a few years ago, almost as an aside, that my Uncle had molested my mother as a child. She doesn't think she should talk to a counselor about it. He was a cool uncle, too, and now I feel creeped out whenever I think about him. I just moved back to the home state, but there's no way I'll go visit his home.

My grandmother had quite a few "aunts" who were actually extra wives. This is long after the Mormons renounced polygamy.

My father has a secret stash of porn on his computer and several online girlfriends. We all act like we don't know. My mom is unhappy. He is 62. I still like him.

My younger brother is 21, works at a snowboard shop, and will probably never get his GED.

My other brother used to drop bowling balls on cars.

My little sister was adopted by the family she babysat for at the age of 21. We don't hear from her much. My mother was heartbroken.

I'm happy to say I've never killed anyone, but I regret every relationship mistake I've ever made. I am still married. My wife suggested that perhaps I should sleep somewhere other than our home tonight. Long story--no cheating involved.

There's some kind of a pattern emerging here...

Whoops--time for meds.
posted by mecran01 at 3:43 PM on February 24, 2003

My family is so boring.
posted by dg at 6:19 PM on February 24, 2003

I have an all-Mississippi family tree, so besides the requisite two full regiments of Confederates (not black sheeps in my book), I know of a few hardcore racists and segregationists in the old tree.

I met my parents in the Mississippi Delta a few years ago to see some of the Old Folks at Home, and the husband of one of my mom's cousins went along with us on a little tour. After pointing out the old abandoned homesteads and other points of interest, we drove over this bridge, which he referred to as the "Kill Nigger Bridge".

posted by groundhog at 8:27 PM on February 24, 2003

My great grandfather was an olympic medal winning boxer
who also taught boxing at edinburgh university in his later years.
Hello vito.
posted by sgt.serenity at 10:15 PM on February 24, 2003

My father has a secret stash of porn on his computer and several online girlfriends. We all act like we don't know. My mom is unhappy. He is 62. I still like him.

This is the funniest thread ever.

Dark family secrets? None really, except my WW2 veteran grandfather seems to think he was both in the D-Day landing, but also doing reconnaissance in the French heartland. We're not sure what to believe.

And he refuses to acknowledge my grandmother was actually in the Army for a whole lot longer than he was, and had more medals.

Unsurprisingly, they're divorced now.
posted by wackybrit at 8:32 PM on February 25, 2003

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