Did Your Ancestors Reboot?

Did Your Ancestors Reboot?

by Kerry Scott on 29 April 2013

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About a year ago, I found an old newspaper article about a guy with the same name as one of my collateral ancestors. The article said that he was being sent to prison for forgery and fraud.

Now, this name is somewhat uncommon…but I wondered. Was it really the same guy? Could my guy be a crook?

Then I found more articles, and a list of prisoners. He was on it. I still couldn’t prove that it was my guy, but the name, age, and state of birth were a match. Still, I wondered. I knew about my guy’s later life, and he was an upstanding citizen. There was nothing about the last 40 years of his life that would have ever indicated any sort of criminal past.

Then I discovered that the Minnesota Historical Society has mug shots from St. Paul. I ordered this guy’s mug shot, and then hit “refresh” on my email every four seconds for the next couple of weeks. It finally arrived, and I held my breath while the photo was downloading.

It was totally my guy. I recognized him immediately. It even had descriptions of his scars (from gunshot wounds! My guy had gunshot wound scars!). I was shocked.

Like I said, though…whatever this guy did in his younger years, he clearly pulled it together after his prison stint. He moved west, got married, and got a job. He raised a son who grew up to be a well-respected judge. He made his mistakes, and then he rebooted his life and did better. 100 years ago that was doable.

I wonder how a guy like that would have fared today. In 2013, those newspaper articles would have come up every single time he applied for a job. That wife would have googled and found his history before the first date. That son who was a judge would have had his opponents digging up this dirt every time he ran for office. America is full of stories of people reinventing themselves, but nowadays, I wonder if that’s even possible. Your old high school friends post photos of you on Facebook. People you knew 15 years ago post old inside jokes you don’t even remember on your timeline. Your speeding tickets, ¬†your divorce, the roommate you had for six months a couple of decades ago…it’s all online. Hiding from your past is increasingly hard to do, even if your past doesn’t involve prison time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Apparently other people have too, because the New York Times just ran an article about the concept of erasing the past, so that people can start over. On the one hand, the record is the record, and I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we just delete things at will. Accountability is generally a good thing. On the other hand, some people will take that second chance and actually make something of it.

Do you have ancestors who had shady pasts, but overcame them? What do you think we should do for people like this today?

Photo from the Library of Congress

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Dunn April 29, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Gotta admit, at first I thought you were going to say that he’d forged your ancestor’s info and stole his identity. Where is MY mind?

As a digital marketing consultant in my day job, I deal with this all the time. Interestingly, I was talking with a political consultant awhile back. I made the joke that I could never run for office because of my checkered past. She said EVERYBODY has a checkered past these days so now we all just have to deal with it. …So maybe this new era of openness will allow us to all realize that we all live in glass houses? I guess we’ll have to wait and find out.


Kerry Scott April 29, 2013 at 2:55 pm

An identity theft story from 1910 would definitely merit a blog post.

I hope you’re right about people realizing that we all live in glass houses. I’m not super optimistic, but I hope that we get to that point eventually.


Jennifer Dunn April 29, 2013 at 3:01 pm

It’s up to all of us to be ourselves so that folks see there isn’t just one standard to live by – we’re all fallible humans. (Sorry -this took a turn for the dark side really fast. Just wanted to pop by and say I just discovered your blog and truly enjoy it!)


Kerry Scott April 29, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Thank you! And I totally agree with you. We could all stand to be less judgy.


Jacqi Stevens April 29, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Kerry, when your headline came up on my screen the first thing that popped into my head was pretty much the opposite of what you described. What came to my mind was those victims–or in some cases, witnesses to high profile court cases–who have had to have their identities disguised or reinvented to escape from criminal retaliation. We had a well-known local car dealership whose owner ended up being a prime witness for the FBI (this is years ago), and one of the things that needed to be done was to “give him a new identity.” After whatever he did for this big deal mystery case, he literally disappeared, as well as his family and business.

What happens to his poor descendants, three or four generations down the line, who try to research this guy in their roots?!


Kerry Scott April 29, 2013 at 5:50 pm

I agree–that would be a nightmare. People who agree to serve as witnesses in those cases give up a great deal, both for themselves and for their descendants. It’s a huge sacrifice to make.


Madaleine J Laird April 29, 2013 at 6:00 pm

There’s a scholarly article subtitled “The Social Benefits of Forgetfulness” that addresses this very subject: http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/blanchette/papers/is.pdf

@Jacqui – Maybe the US Federal Witness Protection Program will release its records after the people who needed protection (and those from whom they needed protection) are all deceased. Journalists can investigate the program by making FOIA requests.


Jacqi Stevens April 29, 2013 at 6:16 pm

Thanks, Madaleine. Good point regarding the FOIA. There is always that option, not only for journalists but for any future researchers.


Sierra Pope April 29, 2013 at 10:48 pm

My husband’s great-grandfather spent about ten years in San Quentin as the get away driver in a murder in the early 1930′s. He rebooted his life in Alaska after getting out. He became a respected citizen and newspaper man. He also remarried and adopted her two children. I have been in contact with the adopted son and he tells stories of the American dream family. My husband’s grandmother remained in contact with her father but was never close with his new family. I guess a reboot cannot fix some things.


Israel P. April 30, 2013 at 3:10 am

“That wife would have googled and found his history before the first date.”

Don’t count on that. There are plenty of women out there who fall for jerks. (Just saw an article about that a few days ago.)


Ann April 30, 2013 at 9:21 am

I’m not sure if my GGF counts as a total reboot. I have a newspaper article about him and his first wife (NOT my GGM) in trouble with the law in New York City in 1877. Typical newspaper writing of the era, the details are probably embroidered more than a bit. He is supposed to have tried to kill someone with his enormous butcher knife, and his wife swore a blue streak at the complainant who came with the officer to arrest him. GGF spent a few weeks in jail since he could not pay the bond.

First wife died in 1890, GGF married my GGM in 1892, and they had at least 6 children. Family and neighborhood stories say that all the relatives and neighbors always had meat on the table, even during the Great Depression, because GGF the butcher shared with everyone. I guess he put the butcher knife to better use later in life.


Kerry Scott April 30, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Was he actually convicted of the attempted murder?


Ann April 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm

The complainant only asked, according to the newspaper article, that GGF be “bound over to keep the peace – nothing more…”

In addition to the newspaper article, I have copies of the court dockets from Jefferson Market Police Court.

GGF was told “that if he did not manage in some way to restrain the outrageous religious enthusiasm of his wife something terrible would be done to her.” In other words, he sounds as if he was in more trouble for HER words than for HIS own deeds.

You can read the newspaper article in the NYTimes archives:


Kerry Scott April 30, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Oh my goodness. Everyone go click through and read that article right now. It’s worth it. 1877-esque journalism at its finest!

I would definitely judge that couple on the total evidence of their lives, and not on that article. That article seems straight out of a cartoon or something. That cannot possibly be how things really happened.


Ann April 30, 2013 at 4:07 pm


My cousins and I have had a good chuckle over that article. My 1st cousin the fiction writer is disappointed that the wife in the article is NOT his GGM:).

Since the article has the residence address, I have been able to confirm that the William Donnelly in the article is my GGF. He died 16 years before I was born, so I can’t comment on what he was really like.

GGF was born in Ireland about 1852 and arrived in 1872. He never gave the same year of birth or year of arrival in the census, so I wondered what he was hiding from, long before I found that article.


Debi Austen April 30, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Interesting timing for this post since we just had this discussion over the weekend as we visited the grave of my great grandfather’s brother in Reno.

In the late 1800′s-early 1900′s, he was known as Gustave George (or Gus) and seemed to have a happy life in San Francisco with his wife, Minnie. I stumbled across his obituary and, ultimately, his grave in Reno after his death in 1939. After a little research I determined that he was buried with his new wife, Katherine, and the name George is engraved on the tombstone.

Long story short – he seems to have divorced Minnie sometime between 1920-1923, she changed her name back to her maiden name, he married Katherine in 1923, and lived out his life in Reno as George. What’s perplexing is that he was a very prominent attorney in San Francisco which leads me to believe there was some sort of scandal that led him to Reno and, apparently, somewhat ostracized from his family. Not one family member was involved as a pallbearer and for a man with three brothers, I find this telling.

Not identify theft, murder, or in a witness-protection program, but a “reboot” nonetheless.


Kerry Scott April 30, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Yiiiikes. There’s definitely more to that story, I’ll bet. The bar for “scandal” was lower then than it is now, so maybe it was just his divorce that did it.


Suzanne Lucas May 1, 2013 at 8:18 am

I thought you made an excellent point here. So excellent, that I quoted you here: http://www.inc.com/suzanne-lucas/is-your-use-of-social-media-in-recruiting-punishing-good-candidates.html

I think, especially in hiring, that we’re so afraid of making a mistake that we don’t give anyone a chance. And we expect people to be the same today as they were 10 years ago.


Kerry Scott May 1, 2013 at 11:34 am

Amen, sister! Don’t get me started on the whole movement to make hiring this robotic function that requires no human judgment. I hate that. I will be glad when the pendulum swings back the other way.


Jana Last May 3, 2013 at 11:38 am

Hi Kerry,

I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/05/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-may-3-2013.html

Have a great weekend!


Kerry Scott May 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Thank you so much, Jana!


Jade May 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm

One of my ancestors took the opposite path. He served 6 years in the Revolutionary War, married, had kids. Wife died and he moved with at least 4 kids, dropped them off with a family and for a long time all I know was that he had disappeared. In none of the several interviews with two sons and the oldest grandson that were published in newspapers and County Histories was his name mentioned. No grandchild was named for him.

Then I visited the County Recorder where he’d previously lived. He had returned there. Reason for the return unknown: did he leave belongings, or an uncollected debt? But he was convicted in the Court of Oyer and Terminer of theft of something valued over $25, and sentenced to 4 years at hard labor and was sent to Sing-Sing. The prison record is not specific about his fate — whether released or died. He just disappeared from this, too.

All of our relatives may have unsuspected pasts and unanticipated futures.


Kerry Scott May 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Wow. That’s a really tough one. I wonder if the things he experienced during the war led to some mental illness issues. That aspect of war certainly hasn’t changed over time; it does bad things to good people.


Charles Moore May 13, 2013 at 8:35 am

Enjoy your post very much. It has given me much to think over, as I have had relatives in my tree who have “rebooted”.


Susan Partlan May 20, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Really interesting post and comments. I enjoyed the NY Times article as well. Having written about my family past online, I’m very conscious of these issues and will never know for sure whether I did the right thing writing online. Part of me hopes future descendents will find the story and that it will fill in some blanks. The book you told me about, After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey, also explore these ambiguities. That book will haunt me forever, because of the questions it raises, and because the book’s subject, Bob Hainey, frequented bars around the same time and in the same neighborhood as my Dad during his hard drinking and bar fighting days.


Kerry Scott May 21, 2013 at 3:55 pm

I have that book on my reading list for this summer. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer as to whether this sort of thing is a good idea. In fact, I think if you asked one person that question at different points in her life, you’d get different answers each time. It’s a tough one.

I do think future descendants will appreciate it. Being able to put your ancestors in context is useful for pretty much everyone.


Ann May 21, 2013 at 4:09 pm

As the direct descendant of the focus of that NYTimes article, I have a perspective on your comment.

I just “finished” (put in the mail – research is never done) a Family History Album for my niece. One of the stories in the album was a direct quote from a letter from my grand aunt, about her elopement. Her granddaughter, my 2nd cousin, wanted me to edit the story, to put her grandfather in a better light. I have a publishing background, in addition to being a dedicated amateur genealogist, so putting different words into the mouth of my grand aunt made me very uncomfortable. I also did not want to offend the cousin, who has shared many photos that brought the family album to life.

I slept on it, then screwed up my courage and called my cousin, explaining that I would prefer to leave the story “as told.” I told her I did not want to offend her, as she had been so generous, but I was very uncomfortable about changing the story.

BTW – the issue was that my great grandparents disapproved of Uncle Roy because he drank a bit – Deep South just before and during Prohibition. Cousin wanted me to add that he traded in his white lightnin’ for chewing tobacco. UGH!


Kerry Scott May 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

It’s so interesting to see the sorts of things people feel are worth covering up. I married into a Wisconsin family. In Wisconsin, your Uncle Roy would have been look upon as a weirdo if he DIDN’T drink a bit.


Ann May 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm

I suppose I am fortunate to come from a “mixed” background, so almost nothing fazes me. My opening gambit for the family albums is Opposites Attract, because my parents could not have been more different. Catholic, Yankee City boy of recent Irish immigrants meets Protestant Southern country girl descended from Revolutionary and Civil War vets, with a dash of Native American, just for flavor.

Sally June 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm

This is something I’ve been really wondering about lately. There are certain “things” that my 2 families are known for yet are not talked about openly. I’ve already had contact with one cousin on my Mother’s side that didn’t know that what they had was genetic as it’s also caused by other factors. I just don’t know. I know I’m always facinated to get a glimpse into the real person, warts and all. I think I’ll go ahead and write the things down and then see what I do with them.


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