Should Skeletons Stay in the Closet???

So you want to find out about your family history, huh?  Where did your grandparents, great grandparents, etc. come from?  What was life like?  Most genealogists will tell you to start with yourself and work backward.  You write down what you know and then start to ask other family members to help fill in the blanks.


Now what?  You’ve opened the proverbial closet and found a skeleton.  You now need to decide – do you close the door and leave the skeleton in there or do you let it out?  What?  You didn’t plan for this?  You didn’t want this much responsibility, you say?  Well, it’s too late for that.  Genealogy is not just dates and places, it is the story of people.  How do you decide what to tell and what’s best left alone?

Here are some things that I take into consideration:

  1. Will anyone be truly hurt by the information?
  2. Is there anyone still living that is connected to this person or event?  How would they feel if you shared?
  3. Would spreading the word really be worth it?  What is the ultimate goal?

Many families have found unwed mothers that had children raised as siblings.  While that may not be a huge issue in today’s society, if those descendants have no idea, that could be hurtful.  I would not share this information because I don’t feel it would be beneficial.

My Great Uncle had a life of crime.  His first sentence was when he was 16.  He was sentenced to 20 years for burglary (must have been some robbery!) .  He served 7 years, was out for a year or two, got caught again – served more time, etc.  My father remembers him when he was very young and says he was nice to him.  Everyone that was immediately connected to my Great Uncle is gone now and he had no children.

There was  a controversy surrounding his death in 1944.  Family members have told me that he was ‘friendly’ with one of the neighborhood ladies and one night her husband came home and shot my great uncle as he was leaving (fleeing?)  the house.  The man left him in the backyard to bleed to death.  The newspaper articles state that the man said he shot at a burglar, but didn’t know that he had actually shot him.  I have no problem sharing pieces of his life as I think it was a rather tragic ending for a man who got in with the wrong crowd and stayed with them…

If you noticed, however, I still haven’t given a ton of details to you.  Although I have shared various details with family members, I’m still not sure that item 3 – would it really be worth it? – is worth publicizing the entire situation.  I’d much rather explain to you how I was able to uncover all that information in order to better paint the picture of his life, rather than the what.

What types of moral decisions have you had to make?  Did you ever regret a decision to share?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

About Our Lineage

I invite you to join me as I share my journey of successes, surprises, and of course, disappointments. All belong to my passion called Genealogy.
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18 Responses to Should Skeletons Stay in the Closet???

  1. I find it very hard to judge my ancestors based on what I find doing my genealogy.
    I can only imagine the circumstances of their lives, as played out in pictures, stories, official documents and blurbs in history books (or Wikipedia, of all things).
    My ancestors killed people, had slaves, _were_ slaves, escaped poverty, disappeared on hunting trips, were killed as witches, had babies without being married, ran away to a new life in an undeveloped country. all sorts of things. I don’t find these to be skeletons but rather to use the phrase Mom used above: “colorful” — the golden tapestry of dysfunctional, painful and fun life. I do wish that when one of these situations that were kept on the downlow in the past, such as the death of an ancestor in a sanitarium in Colombus, Ohio, didn’t stop the trail of sources in it’s tracks. Makes it hard to find out about the moments that in their time were shameful.

  2. I wrote a book based upon the letters I discovered after my grandmother died in 1987. Her diary and vivid letters written from the new state of Arizona told of the adventures of a young single teacher in the Wild West. There was a love story and a tragedy. I knew there was no one living who would be sorry the story was told. I am thrilled that “Elsie- Arizona Teacher 1913-16” was voted #1 on Goodreads list “The Old West in 1st person.”

  3. I uncovered a couple of “black sheep” ancestors. In one case I discovered that after my g-grandmother’s husband committed suicide at the age of 33 leaving her destitute with five children, the children were placed in an orphanage and she supported herself as a prostitute. I ended up publishing an article in a genealogical journal about my g-grandmother and want to write an article about her husband. There’s a lot to this story. The bottom line is that I called the one person I thought might be hurt by this information. This all happened in the 1880s so I think the length of time was on my side. There have been no negative outcomes so far.

    • Hi Kathleen,

      What a tragic story! I’m very sorry to hear about this. With regards to sharing your story, you definitely had time on your side and I believe it is also on how you deliver the story, once you decide to share, that matters.

      Thanks for sharing and stopping by. I appreciate the time you took to read and then comment on my post!


  4. Another blogging friend and I have been having this very conversation. Your approach to use the story for instruction is a good compromise. I have over 200 pages of a 2G aunt and uncle’s divorce file that is available ONLINE (the county has all its old chancery causes online), but should I BLOG about all those love letters sent to his various mistresses? I confess I have mentioned them and a few other details such as his threatening my aunt and their daughter with a gun. But I have just recently found a poem he wrote in his later years (again, online at Ancestry) that has forced me to think about him in a different, more sympathetic way. I’d really like to write about how a marriage falls apart under a shared tragedy, but I’m not sure I have the ability since I’m not a psychologist, nor do I play one on TV. Your blog is very helpful as I consider how to handle this information.

    • Hi Wendy –

      Yes, it can certainly be a delicate subject. I am still working through a few skeletons myself. I think trying to see both sides of the story, as you have in your example, is helpful.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment! I really appreciate it very much.


  5. Helen Tovey says:

    I’m really heartened to read everyone’s comments about this matter of should I?/shouldn’t I? publish things – glad I’m not alone in the quandry! Thanks for airing this Wendy – you’re a genius!

    • {Blush} Thanks. I wouldn’t go that far! 🙂
      I think I found my first skeleton a few months researching, so I know it’s always been a dilemma. I guess a lot of us have encountered this situation. Like you said – Should I? Shouldn’t I?

      I was a bit surprised at first – as a new blogger, I didn’t think I had that many people reading my stuff!


  6. Mom says:

    I have a lot of “colorful” family members. Some are quite recent. Some of the tales I come across are a bit like “misery loves company.” I feel a bit better knowing that these mis-steps and uh-ohs are nothing new in the history of my life. Some of the things though…are written up and kept under lock and key. I will have to do a lot of discernment before I can decide who I will pass them on to, I thi nk all of the stories are important, but I wouldn’t want to pain anyone by telling them too soon or while they are too fresh. There’s a certain affair in my family line that still needs a couple more generations before it leaves the closet

    • Time can certainly help with some events. You bring up a good point about discernment. I have two versions of a few things. One for me, one for everyone else.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and read my posts! I really appreciate it!


      • Mom says:

        Wendy, take a look at my post about “As Told By ” and see if it helps with any of your “sticky” situations…
        Once I finally unleash a couple of my real hair-curlers, I will definatly be reporting most of them posthumously “As told by”
        Whew! Families 🙂

      • I definitely will! Thanks!

  7. Helen Tovey says:

    This is such a good point. You’re right that all our families and family histories have things that they may not want public. But I think that with time we just get curious, rather than judgmental about the generations before us, and any mistakes they may have made. For instance, anything that my great-grandparents, or the generations before, had done wouldn’t upset me, and I’d feel quite compassionate about any difficulties they had, troubles they caused – rather than blaming. I think it’s really valuable to know all the memories good and bad, as it makes you feel as though your ancestors have ‘been there’ too, living life’s ups and downs..

    • Helen,

      Very well put! I couldn’t agree more. I, too, always try to understand what it may have been like rather than to judge.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment!


  8. Answers to the questions above are key to knowing if it’s “safe” to open that closet door and let those skeletons out. I guess we could be like the medical profession: “First, do no harm.” If there’s no one to get hurt by these revelations, then maybe there’s something to be learned or gained by those who are left behind–even if it’s only a cautionary tale. Great post!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Pat. I think you hit the nail on the head regarding the medical profession. While it might seem ‘juicy’ at the time, you have to consider the consequences.

  9. Great evaluation of what’s involved in this stuff. I’ve had to do this myself.

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