Banned in Boston

As genealogists, we can become quite proprietary about our research – there can be a sense that our work on the far-flung branches of our family trees gives us a kind of ownership of the past. Recently, I’ve experienced another sort of ownership, that claimed by the family being studied. I should add that this dynamic – I own the past, not you – is not a new one, but it never fails to surprise me.

I was scheduled to speak in Boston on the topic of one of my books. Upon announcement of the talk, members of the family expressed concern that the talk had been scheduled without their approval. Their wishes swayed the venue, and the talk was cancelled.

At this point, I heard second-hand of someone who, hearing that the talk was considered controversial, opined that the speaker should certainly check in with family representatives about the subject matter of the presentation. The book, mind you, has been published, and will reach many more people than the talk I won’t be giving – but for the family in question, the venue, and the bystander, it was vitally important that I respect the wishes of those who “own” the family story.

To be clear, it isn’t my style, and it would not be appropriate, to deliver a lecture premised on the titillating content of the book. In any case, such a lecture presupposes that the book is actually filled with salacious content. But … it’s a genealogy, focused for the most part on getting birth, marriage, and death information on the page. Some historic family members are famous, some present-day ones are prominent, but does that mean that no one may speak about them in public, for fear that they – or some members of the audience – won’t like what they hear?

“Well, I did it – I married them – and I’ve got no one to blame but myself.”

Years ago, when I was working on my first full-scale genealogy, one of my cousins expressed strong reservations about her entry in the book. She had been married (and divorced) four times, and her first reaction was to push back on what I had written down. We talked on the phone about it, though, and at the end of the call she said, ruefully, “Well, I did it – I married them – and I’ve got no one to blame but myself.” I think (and hope) she realized that there was nothing malicious in my presentation – that I was simply presenting to future readers the fullest possible account of this aspect of her life, as I was doing for her siblings and all our other cousins.

Getting that part right – and not the scandalous nature of this or that person’s biography – is the measure of the book’s success. The lecture is transitory, but the emotions around its cancellation are telling.

Genealogies are difficult to write: the research process can be tedious (as well as thrilling), while the work required to turn rough notes into book pages can be challenging. Lest we think that our work is all in vain, though, remember the incantatory power in just talking about one’s family in public – and go ahead and do it.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

30 thoughts on “Banned in Boston

  1. What is the title of the book? I would like to purchase a copy. The content does not matter. This business of caving to everyone and anyone who might take offense to facts is obnoxious and it can come to no good end. Really, where does it stop? How far out on the extended family tree must permission be sought? Third or fourth cousins, more? After reading it I will donate it to our local library to ensure it receives further exposure to the public.

  2. My late mother was a big fan of Historical Romance novels – particularly Anya Seton’s “The Winthrop Woman”…She had no idea that Elizabeth was a director maternal ancestor and would have been thrilled – rather than embarrassed…It’s been years since I read it, but I ‘think’ that Ms Seton mentioned that in her research she found entries in records about Elizabeth that had been ‘blacked out’….apparently to keep someone’s family tree unblemished?

    1. Vandalising and censoring old historical documents? Such an outrage against truth.

      Well, if you’re remembering correctly, maybe the members of the family who objected to Scott’s talk were worried that he’d bring up or focus on “The Winthrop Woman.” Maybe the same sort of impulse that (presuming you’re remembering correctly) led someone to vandalise the records about Elizabeth. . . . In any case, it was very wrong of them to interfere and get Scott’s talk cancelled.

      My own approach to these things is to try to be sensitive to the living regarding the way I present their own lives or the lives of their immediate family, but I don’t like to leave anything out — and certainly if it’s information about someone who is long since dead there’s no way I’ll omit anything, whether good or bad. Many people understandably don’t want much or anything publicised about themselves or their parents, but many others are eager to get the whole story out. One of my relatives has led a, shall we say, very interesting and complicated life — as did his mother — and he doesn’t object at all to that aspect of their story being published: but it’s a mere recounting of vital data, and by no means something written in the style of a checkout lane gossip rag or a moral denunciation in the style of a biblical prophet. In another case, I deduced through birth/baptismal and marriage records that a long deceased great-uncle was “involved” with his soon-to-be second wife while his first wife was literally on her deathbed (dying of a serious respiratory infection — probably the flu or pneumonia). I’ve presented all of the dates and vital facts that establish what happened, but I haven’t drawn any attention to it: anyone who looks at the dates of marriage and the date when the first child by his second wife was born (and therefore when the baby was conceived) will be able to figure it out. I don’t record our families’ histories to embarrass or shame anyone, but just to ensure that the facts and the stories are preserved for the sake of posterity, so they’ll know who we are/were and where we and they came from.

  3. What is the name of your book? Can we buy it from NEHGS? I think we all been through our families not wanting fallen leaves heading for compost retilled. But I am a Genealogist and have great stories about my ancestors that people will learn a lot from it and enjoy reading. Thank you for sharing your story. Alicia O’Neal

  4. I agree with what Carol said. Oh boy – things are nuts now. You have the right to talk about your book and I’m appalled by the types of people who want to shut down all dialogue about anything.

  5. I’ve (obviously) never had an experience quite like what you’ve described here, but I did have someone dispute a newspaper clipping that I’d posted on a public genealogy website. It was an account of the 1889 divorce hearing for our mutual great-great-great-grandfather from his third wife. The objector claimed that he could not have been married to that woman because his second wife (her ancestress) was still alive, and no priest would have married him again. Since the third wife wasn’t Spanish (and therefore probably not Catholic), it’s likely they were married by a Justice of the Peace.

    I was sure it was the right guy because he was the only man by that name in Southern California of the correct age to match the marriage record (77!), and the divorce coverage mentioned where the family lived, which perfectly corresponded with his location in the city directory of the time. However, out of respect for my distant cousin, I removed the offending article from the public gaze (though it’s still in my family history, for certain!), and she was very helpful to me in establishing some other family details. All the points of a good compromise, right?

    As you point out, we often have attachments to our ancestors…but I’m not particularly proud of this guy, so I find it hard that anyone else could be. His first marriage (to my ancestress) took place when he was 28 and his bride was 16. His second marriage took place when he was 54 and his bride was…get this…14! His third wife was a 45-year-old widow, so not quite so creepy, even if she was younger than his oldest daughter (my great-great-grandmother).

    Ironically, when I started researching the family of the distant cousin who’d expressed such strong objections, I found that she had another great-great-grandfather who had three living wives at one time…two of them with the same first name, and two of them actually married to him and having children with him at the same time (and not LDS)! So…maybe my distant cousin was just needing to have an ancestor who wasn’t a heel.

    1. Such an odd impulse: to cavil about a contemporary (1889) news clipping. If nothing else, that newspaper clipping is a data point, one that might be in conflict with other data points — so far, so good. But to then say that a source contemporary to the event is wrong, and must be rejected in favor of a modern understanding of the event … seems strange to me!

  6. Hello, It’s funny. I’ve had people (not family) with just the opposite reactions. At least twice, in general conversation, while explaining and recounting some of my family characters and the interesting lives they led, I have had total strangers strongly point out that I am covering up my unsavory ancestors. That all families have “horse thieves” or some such less than desirable members, and I should just admit it rather than bragging about my more desirable family members. Not that any of them were famous.
    Honestly, I have found no one who has gone to prison, committed bigamy, or even a hint of unwed motherhood in my family. Those things just we’re not talked about and recorded if they could help it. Not that they did not exist, but family did not want that mark on the family name to go down in history. For many decades, it was ” just not done” to even reveal a lady’s age. Revealing multiple marriages was not “done” either. The social mores of the time can be investigated before forming an opinion.
    Shielding family by not publishing negative facts in a family history is similar to why the census does not release census records for seventy years…so the chance anyone is still living is reduced to almost zero. It is the expectation of privacy that is being protected by federal statute.
    I have said this before. I would not put anything in a permanent record of a questionable nature, until that person was deceased, or gave permission.
    Judy Ford

    1. Thanks, Judy. I think the problem is that your reading of what is “questionable” is probably different from mine, and perhaps from (some of) the commenters on this story. Who, then, is to judge? My rule is that, if I can find something in a public record (or in the case of a modern genealogy, someone has corresponded with me about his or her entry), into the book it goes. (If it is germane, obviously — related to the genealogical structure of the work.) It is a difficult line to toe, but if we (as genealogists) accept bowdlerizing of our work, to await a time when no living person is alive to be embarrassed (or delighted) about a fact’s appearance in print, then I suggest we should find something else to do with our time.

  7. You can’t leave us hanging like that by not telling us at least which book is in question, if not the ancestor! Inquiring minds want to know! I can’t believe the organization/venue caved. Yes, I can, just disappointed.

  8. My experience with this phenomenon was slightly different. My great-aunt, a spinster Phi Beta Kappa who lived with her granparents and mother forever and the. Spent her .ife visiting relatives, wrote histories of several of our families during her years in a senior center, using her family Bible and some 70 years of letters, scrapbooks, etc. After annotating& finding citations for her facts in one of these, I sent a copy to living distant cousins, both for their input and review. Sadly, my great-aunt had included what she felt was a prominent cousin’s opinion about the man’s son…not MY opinion -but they were livid and all communication stopped. This was not a fact, but an opinion; what is the responsibility of the researcher here: bend to the current pressure and “bowderlize” the original manuscript, or leave it as is?? I vote for the latter.

    1. I would agree: do not bowdlerize (if possible!). That said, my approach — in another genealogy, where a family member objected about listing all of her marriages and the fathers of all of her children — has also been to bow enough to pressure to get in as much genealogical content as possible. In the case I mention, I included a note in that chapter of the book about how a cousin had objected (to the publication of facts readily available elsewhere), and did not distinguish her marriages by (1), (2), or (3) — a diversion from the book’s style. Now, all these years later, I am thinking about updating that particular book, so we will see what happens this time!

  9. I agree: Bravo! Public records are just that: public. I believe even private material when published with permission becomes part of that public record, and the family’s objections are wrong.

  10. Scott – you are a very nice person! The opposition would have caused me to brandish proofs with abandoned enthusiasm and glee! Loud, too! From the pulpit, or even at a DAR meeting! The need to perpetuate false human perfection is a denial of humanity and/or fallibility.

  11. I gave a talk last year that included the discussion of a mysterious death that required a coroner’s hearing. Friends of the deceased thought the individual had been poisoned. I suggested that the wife may have done it. Little did I know that a great grand daughter was in the audience and was quite perturbed that I had suggested her great grandmother was a murderer.

  12. I don’t know….I’ not a genealogist and don’t pretend to be one. I am just putting together fascinating family history for my children and grandchildren. It will never be made ” public” or published. And, as I said I personally have found no official records of bastard children, or mysterious accidents, but if I did and the people are still living,I will shield them to my demise. And thengreat Aunt Ma no one will know anyway because I will have been the only one who came upon the information. If the records are not explicit, and you just sort of figure, in your opinion, that Great Aunt Matilda may have done away with Great Uncle Harry, and you publish it, then I would say there could be a legal issue….maybe. Or at least an ethical dilemma.

    Actually, I do have an interesting ancestor. Great Uncle Dr David Fales of Thomaston, Maine was town clerk for years and years from the time of its settlement. He had three wives, all legal, no divorce, and about fourteen children. But. When I was copying his children’s names from his own very distinctive handwriting, I came upon one child “born a bastard.” Named publicly by his own father who was a highly respected and much needed physician, teacher, and town father. That’s kind of what I mean. If I had found the child listed under his mother’ name I still would have listed them, but that was two hundred
    years ago!

    Bowdlerize is not, in my opinion, the word. It means to expurgate something, in a written work, that is vulgar or offensive. More like porn or foul language. I’m sure you don’t equate the ordinary foibles of humanity as being offensive to people. More like having a sensitivity to people who may be connected to the work as being hurt. We do not always blurt out everything we know in general conversation. Mmmmmm, maybe we do nowadays. However that was not what I learned when making the transition from childhood into adulthood.

  13. I still laugh on remembering the reaction of my mother’s next younger (and VERY stuffy) sister to my announcement that her maternal great-grandmother (my gggm), born in 1805 in Cumbria, England, was illegitimate. Despite being shown a copy of the original baptismal record which clearly stated “illegitimate”, as well as that the mother and (named) father were NOT married, Auntie exclaimed: “That’s not possible!”.

    In Auntie’s world, of course, no ancestress of hers could possibly have been created outside the bonds of marriage, but in Regency (and Victorian) England, where poor village girls were servants in the homes of the landed gentry and therefore subject to the advances of the heir or spare, this was not uncommon. I’ve always applauded the British legal system for ignoring the biological father’s status and naming him not only in baptismal records, but if necessary in legal proceedings to ensure financial support for the child. Alas, in our Ruth Dodd’s case, knowing for 30+ years that her father was a Bell has been no help in determining *which* family in the area “her” James Bell belonged to.

  14. As a genetic genealogist, I think a marriage that did not produce children is extraneous information – too much information. I realize most people would not disagree.

    1. No doubt that information wouldn’t be pertinent for genetic genealogy, but it’s important when compiling a family history — especially because even a childless marriage forged a family relationship that will result in the childless brother-in-law or sister-in-law or aunt or uncle showing up in other family records and memoirs. In fact, a childless couple, or the ex-spouse of in a failed, childless marriage, may be the ones who hand on a lot of precious family history and tradition that needs to go into the written family history. It wouldn’t do to leave such a marriage out of the family history.

  15. I have said to relatives more than once, “they’re all dead now and it doesn’t matter”, when thay have become upset by the most ordinary facts. The fact that someone born 200 years ago was a different religeon than you thought or was of a different race or had a baby 3 months after getting married is history. Getting upset about it seems rdiculous to me and I refuse to whitewash well established truth.

  16. I followed the link and discovered your book is about one of the Winthrop lines. I was somewhat amused as our line also goes back to the Winthrop governors. This line might be considered somewhat scandalous itself. It descends from Joseph Corwin whose great-grandmother was Margaret Winthrop, daughter of John Winthrop, Jr. and wife of Capt. John Corwin. Joseph Corwin was a Loyalist and thus our family ended up in Canada. Your talk would not bother me at all – we may be a part of history but we do not “own” it. I have discovered all manner of things in the research process that show our ancestors had any number of human frailties.

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