The Darker Side of Genealogy

I wasn't sure I wanted to write this post. But I feel I should, not only as a cautionary tale but also as a way of remembering someone whose life was far from easy.

Beginning genealogists get a lot of advice;  don't take others' research as fact, check multiple sources, document everything, and so on.  Sometimes, though, people also mention what I have to think of as the "darker side of genealogy" -- what happens when you find something out that is unsettling or even shocking?

A number of people have written about this issue, to mention just a few:   Sue Shellenbarger wrote in the Wall Street Journal about how people are affected when they find something disturbing in their history.   hayden in Daily Kos has written about one of the ultimate shocks:  How do you feel when you find out one of your ancestors owned slaves?   And Lisa Alzo gives us advice on how to document troubling things we find out through our research.

I'm not talking about when you find out your great-grandmother was illegitimate (which I did), or your grandmother was married to someone else before your grandfather (which I also did) -- these things don't shock or upset me; rather, they spark intense curiosity to know the whole story, a curiosity that will probably never be satisfied.  I have no concerns about the family's reputation or status (we sure as heck didn't come over on the Mayflower); I know that those that came before were flawed human beings, as we are, and that their troubles are no different than those we face today.

Still.  Twice now, I've been not only shocked but horrified, once about my great-grandfather and just yesterday about another relative whose privacy I would like to honor, since I don't yet know for sure whether she has living descendants.

I summarized the situation with my great-grandfather, Maximilian Langer, here.  I was shocked to learn that he died in a "lunatic asylum," and spent a very dark day thinking about what that must have been like, imagining a kind of Bedlam place, a house of horrors, in the 1890s.  I was very relieved to discover that the head of the hospital he was committed to, Dr. Ludwig Meyer, was extremely forward-thinking, wanted to create a home-like atmosphere, and so on.  He treated patients in an extremely humane way, and my mind was settled when I learned that.

I'm still reeling, though, from what I discovered yesterday -- that an ancestor spent the last 27 years of her life in an institution that was notorious for its inhumane treatment of patients, a place that carried out what look now like insane treatments on poor, sick people, that was terribly overcrowded (some people slept in chairs, not beds), a place where horrible drug trials were carried out -- learning this, thinking about what the poor woman must have endured, I felt sick, and I still do.

I don't know the story, and again, as in other situations I've discovered, I probably never will.  What upsets me is not that an ancestor was "insane" and the effect that has on the family history but that there's nothing I can do or could have done to help her, to mitigate the horrible suffering she must have endured.  Perhaps she was very ill -- the large majority of people in this institution were schizophrenic -- but we also know that in "olden days," women were institutionalized for any number of reasons, some of which appear shameful from this 21st century vantage point.  I just don't know.

I'll repeat what I wrote in the post about my great-grandfather:  my friend who also writes a genealogy blog says that when we discover the history of our ancestors and write about it, we are not only honoring them but helping them to rest more easily.   Because I believe that this woman's only son never married or had children, I may be the only person left to honor her and -- I dearly hope -- to help her rest more easily.

So, be careful what you look for -- you may be terribly saddened by what you find.  You'll get over it, as I'm sure I will, in time.  But I won't forget this ancestor and the sufferings she endured, and I will send up my heartfelt wishes that she is now resting in peace.


  1. Beautifully written - and I couldn't agree more. Their stories need to be told; their memories honored ... and if we don't do it, who will?

  2. I, too, recently uncovered a relative (a sibling of an ancestor) who lived in an asylum. Hers was a result of a beating by her husband to her head. At this point I don't know what kind of place she was in, but I can imagine your pain on learning of what type of place this lady lived. How very sad!

  3. About a year ago I discovered that an unmarried great grand aunt who had what living relatives have described as a profound intellectual disability was pregnant when she died. She died at home in the late 1950s around age 55 (off the top of my head). My father and older aunts and uncles who knew her were not aware of this fact and have zero idea who the father of the baby could be. I certainly won't write about it on my blog. We start in genealogy looking at census records and headstones, but the deeper we look, the more we see the buried secrets.

  4. How to write these stories is a challenge. Thank you for sharing yours. This post will be on my list of Recommended Reads tomorrow at

  5. Thank you Jenny, Dana, Joe and Linda -- I appreciate your sharing your thoughts on this difficult subject.

  6. Elise,

    I also discovered a relative in my family tree (1st cousin 4x removed) who had spent about half of her life in an asylum. She was married to my 2nd great-granduncle. They were cousins. Anyway, I haven't written about her in my blog yet. I feel so sorry for her.

    I want to let you know that your wonderful post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  7. I discovered my gr gr grandfather's brother died in a asylum and you are right that it is such a sensitive subject. He never married and so he has no direct descendants, so I did share his story and the journey to find it was a sweet and tender experience for me.

  8. Thanks, Jana and Michelle -- I've now found out that she also was in an orphanage from the ages of 5 until 14 -- another awful thing. What a sad life.


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