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