Saturday, September 29, 2012

Reserving Judgement in Genealogy

When I write up the information I have about my ancestors or other relatives I try to reserve judgement of their actions. After all, I don't know these people. I don't even know that much about the world they lived in. I am always trying to learn more to help put them in context, but that only helps so much. After finding out how often some women in my family tree divorced it is easy to snicker. But, then I stop and remind myself that I have no idea what was really going on in their lives and what their options were.

Here's a case in point. I wrote about Ada (Wallace) Hoard Alger Miner Nelson Carr (1885-1972) in my post Husband, Schmusband. After Ada's first marriage dissolved she married again about a month after her divorce was finalized. I concluded that she truly married her second husband in good faith. Why do I believe that? In the divorce record (and yes, I understand that everything in these records is not necessarily the absolute truth) Ada described how she used $150 she had saved to buy her husband-to-be a new suit to get married in and a cheap team of horses to use on the farm. These don't seem like the actions of someone who was entering into marriage for frivolous reasons. If you also consider that it was more difficult to obtain a divorce in the early part of the 20th century, something Ada certainly knew by then, I wonder if anyone entered marriage lightly.

Of course, there are times when I find it impossible to reserve judgement. Here are three instances. 1) I can't excuse the behavior of a distant uncle, Solon Lane (1841-1915) who married four women without obtaining a divorce from any of them. It is even worse that he left two of them with children to raise alone. 2) I also can think of no mitigating factors in the case of my great-grandmother's brother who at seventeen raped a teenage girl. 3) I must admit that I haven't even tried to reserve judgement of Joseph Salpatrick who murdered my grandma's sister in cold blood while she was wrapping Christmas presents for her children. To find out how he wiggled his way out of a jury trial read Christmas Morning Murderer Gets Off Easy.

OK, I've admitted my three cases in which I simply can't remain impartial. That said, I do try not to judge people when doing genealogy. There is another case in which while I can't condone her behavior I won't excoriate her since I have not lived her life. Leona “Nettie” (Taylor) Allion Snyder Fabing Schafer (1871-1958) married four times. That, I can withhold judgement on. But, then I read in the Kalamazoo papers that Nettie was arrested for stealing things from department stores on multiple occasions (a half bushel of handkerchiefs, stockings, hair pins and other items). I also read that Nettie ran off and took her pre-schooler with her. Nettie's mother posted an ad in the paper telling Nettie she had better return the girl because she was not competent to care for her. I guess it's no wonder that Nettie moved to Ohio shortly thereafter to obtain a divorce. Maybe Nettie was just flaky and in my opinion, you just can't fix flaky. I will say that a couple of decades later, Nettie let her parents live with her for the last few years of their lives when they had health problems. I admit that I don't know what motivated Nettie, but maybe it just took her a while to grow up.

Sometimes I just don't understand some of my relatives' behavior, which makes it difficult for me to see things from their perspective. Nettie is a case in point. Part of this is a personality thing so I try not to be critical of people who seem very different from myself. While I don't always succeed, and frankly, with people like Joe Salpatrick I will unapologetically judge him, I do try to give my ancestors and other relatives the benefit of the doubt. When I catch myself starting to judge I try to take a step back to the facts to see if they can shed light on the behavior I find puzzling. Sometimes it works and sometimes it makes me glad I don't actually know these person and have to deal with them. But, that's the way it is with family, sometimes.


  1. At first I thought since you reserve judgment for the females, but not the males that you were being partial. But now I think it's cultural. That the women were in untenable situations most likely, and that the men had more control over their own situations. Maybe?

  2. I hadn't thought about there being a gender gap before. That's an interesting point. I was merely thinking about the deeds themselves. Rape and murder feel categorically different to me than theft. I will say that Wilbur (the rapist) seems to have led a quiet life after he left prison. Nettie is a hard one for me. She brought back the little girl, but a couple of years later both of her daughters were placed in the Kalamazoo Children's Home while Nettie obtained her divorce and went on to marry again. The girls went to live with their father.