Law and Order: Special Cousins Unit

Law and Order: Special Cousins Unit

by Kerry Scott on 12 August 2013

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You know that one ancestor who is just complete time suck? The one who you spend dozens of hours on, even though she’s a collateral ancestor of a collateral ancestor, because she’s just that interesting?

That’s my Emma. She’s the step-child of my great-great-grandfather’s brother, so she’s not exactly the best use of my time…but I can’t quit her. She brings the drama, and the drama brings the records.

Emma’s first husband appears to have walked out on her shortly after the birth of their first child. When he died somewhere en route to Europe a few years later, his industry newspaper published an obituary that basically said he was a huge jerk. Her second husband wasn’t much of an improvement, and her dad’s probate file includes a ton of documents attesting to the fact that she needed money because he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) support her. Her third husband seems to have been better, but her son (from the first marriage) continued his father’s tradition of being such a weenie that there are actual records attesting to his weenie-dom.

You’ve gotta love an ancestor like this. The file on this woman is the fattest in my entire file cabinet. I feel so bad for her, because her life was tough from start to finish. But the characters in her story are fascinating, and I have spent a ridiculous amount of time on them. She’s also led me to some living cousins, who are among my favorites of all of the genealogy cousins I’ve collected.

And then there’s the convicted murderer.

It turns out that Emma’s second husband’s family has a rather easy-to-trace naming pattern. That pattern combined with the fact that Texas has great online records led me to an unusual descendant name—one that would be easy to trace. When I searched for that name, I found records of a trial for murder. To make a long story short, this cousin beat someone to death. He’s serving life sentence for murder.

Now, this is kind of a no-brainer. This guy is the great-grandson of the second husband of the step-daughter of the brother of my great-great-grandfather. That’s not a close enough relationship that I’d be super compelled to contact him even if he weren’t up the river. My goal in searching for this line was to try and find more information (and maybe a photo) of Emma and/or her second husband, but clearly this guy’s not in a position to help with that.

But I’m curious. Do you contact every cousin you find? Do you check people out first to see if they’re someone you want to be in touch with? Have there been circumstances where you’ve found a living cousin, but decided not to get in touch?

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Rox August 12, 2013 at 11:38 am

I have no trouble/qualms about contacting people who are on genealogy sites. I consistently feel weird about contacting people who I know are cousins, but don’t have a presence online, that I can see. It wigs me out sometimes to so easily find out information about people I know and/or am related to. I worry that people who aren’t as familiar with online stalk–uh, research–might be a little creeped out if I contacted them.

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Kerry Scott August 12, 2013 at 12:41 pm

I can completely identify with this. Many of my friends are genealogists, and many of my older friends from my previous life are recruiters. In both jobs, you find people online on the regular. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that most people don’t actually do that.

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Gen X Alogy August 14, 2013 at 2:20 am

Haha! So true! I am currently helping a class with some family history work. The other day I found a living relative of one student, and would have been able to inform her (but didn’t) of her cousin’s employer, qualifications, civic involvement, religion, place of worship, health issues and favourite tv show. I DID feel like a creepy stalker, but this woman had a large cyber footprint and an uncommon name.
I only contact people who list themselves on genealogy sites, unless it’s someone I’m convinced may help me with something I can’t find out through other means. I’m a bit selective even with the listed relatives, truth be told, if only because there’s only so many hours in the day! 95% of the people I have contacted have been tremendous people, and I have about half a dozen I continue to collaborate with on research which is terrific.

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Andrea Kelleher August 12, 2013 at 1:35 pm

You are too funny! I really enjoyed this post. I sometimes get nervous contacting a new cousin, but I just try to push myself through it. Once a conversation develops it gets much easier.The husband of the sister of my 2nd great grandmother is like that for me. I have a ton of information on him because he was such a character.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 10:38 am

It’s kind of fun to share about these character-types. It’s great to be able to say, “Hey, I have a TON of stuff for you!”

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Celia Lewis August 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm

I love the convoluted relationship described here … sometimes, you just have to know!! I’ve been in touch with any cousin who contacts me or answers one of my surname message board posts, or … All contact is great! Heck, I can be friendly to strangers who might be family, right?? Lovely people, those, and well worth trying to contact them. I follow cousins and collateral relationships at least one generation into the past, and several generations into the present, in order to see naming patterns, possible inter-marrying, migrations, and more.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 10:37 am

All of my contacts have been lovely people as well. In fact, the people connected to the surname of this particular guy have been amazing. Southern hospitality seems to extend to genealogical research, because they’ve been among the most generous and friendly folks I’ve ever worked with.

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Susan Clark August 12, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Unless I am hunting DNA victims/donors I don’t seek out distant cousins. To paraphrase my lovely husband, we have enough drama and chaos with the family we know. Why go looking for more? He, obviously, is NOT a genealogist. But he has a point there.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 10:35 am

He certainly does!

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Valerie August 12, 2013 at 3:33 pm

There is one particular ancestor whose identity has been impossible to nail down absolutely, so I have found myself reaching out to cousins who share this common ancestor. If I can find an online presence (e.g. they’re on Ancestry), I’ll contact them through the site. With others, I’ve looked them up in public directories and written letters. Even if I can obtain a phone number online, I prefer to write to them and give them the opportunity to either contact me in return or just ignore me. It also gives me a chance to better explain who I am, what I’m doing and how I determined that we’re related. In one case, I received a voice mail message, but I’ve been too chicken to call back. Between my writing the letter and her phone call, I learned that her brother had been murdered twenty years earlier. Even though that information is public knowledge (it was in a newspaper article), it bothers me that I already know it, without ever speaking to her. Perhaps some day I’ll be more comfortable with the situation. I doubt she has any additional information that will shed light on our common ancestor’s identity, though, so I just haven’t pushed it.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 10:32 am

I totally know what you mean about knowing stuff and feeling uncomfortable about it. I feel like non-genealogists can really be creeped out by how much we already know about them, before we even “meet” online. Sometimes even I’m creeped out by how much I know.

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Mary Beth Marion August 13, 2013 at 9:32 am

LOVE this question ! I was researching to find the family of a very severe-looking woman in an old photograph I purchased at an antique store. On the back of the photo, there were the names of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren — easy-peasy, right ?? Well… kind of … as I began to research three of the great-great-grandchildren, I found mug shots for two of them, and a story about the third who had been arrested in a barroom brawl. I’m still contemplating that woman’s face, and wondering if she knew how these durn kids would turn out, which would explain her expression. I haven’t reached out to any of the current generation … yet … But I giggle every time I think about it.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 10:30 am

I have a great-great-grandmother with a face like that. 20 years after I started doing genealogical research, I discovered that one of her sons ended up in prison. The newspaper article that led me to this says that his mother showed up and convinced them that she would straighten the kid out. They believed her. Looking at her face, I can see why. (And she DID straighten him out…so rock on, Grandma.)

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Ann August 13, 2013 at 9:35 am

I’ve followed up and contacted many cousins and even in-laws of cousins, when I can contact them in a way that allows them to remain anonymous, if they prefer – through a message board or PM service. I’ve also been contacted by many, and I always reply – even when the family they are looking for is a double in-law connection and I have little or no information, I let them know that.

I have a 2nd cousin who will pick up the phone and call anybody – I’m not that brave or brazen.

I love your picture for this post – it could do double-duty, for a brick wall post:-)

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 10:28 am

I am in awe of the people who will contact cousins by phone. I am all email, all the time.

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Ann August 13, 2013 at 10:41 am

I’ve lately been researching a family of first cousins to my great grandmother. One of them was relatively famous/infamous – depending on your point of view. He was an ardent Fenian, living in Philadelphia and supporting the civil war in Ireland. His papers are on the Villanova University site, so have been very helpful in researching my own line. Learning about him has also helped me understand why my great aunts supported the IRA even into the 1960s and 1970s.

I’ve found a death in a knife fight in the Philly branch, among other transgressions.

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Sheri Fenley August 13, 2013 at 10:06 am

OMG I can so relate with this. Mine however is a “Madam” who used her profits to purchase prime pieces of real estate in downtown Boise, Idaho around the state capitol area to the tune of over $350,000 at the turn of the century who went by 2 different names and was married but said she was a widow.

She is like my 4th cousin a couple of hundred times removed, but I will not stop the search and I will contact anyone who I think might have a photo or information.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 10:28 am

I don’t blame you. I would research the crap out of that lady. Women who wrote their own ticket in those days are worth the time and effort.

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Lori Pilla August 13, 2013 at 11:05 am

My husband’s ancestor is not removed from him at all (third great grandfather) but what intrigues me about him is his name. His first name to be exact. After. Yup. That’s it. After. After Hoag. I would have researched him anyway but this really got my curiosity up. There are no other Afters before or since. Come to think of it, there are no Befores, Sinces, or Durings either. Just After. But he has lead a pretty busy life and has left a good long paper trail too. Finding unusual names makes me even more curious.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 11:10 am

I don’t think I’ve ever seen that name before. I wonder what the story is there?

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Lori Pilla August 13, 2013 at 11:13 am

Maybe his parents had a sense of humor :)

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Ann August 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Maybe an afterthought – last baby – what we would call a menopause baby in the 20th century. Or after some major event in the life of the family.

Unusual names are so much fun to research. I’m a nut for finding old newspaper clippings, and the simple names are the toughest. I don’t mean Smith or Jones, but more the names that can also be used as a word. I was helping a good friend research an ancestor named Luke Flood. Found way too many articles about natural disasters and way too few about the man.

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Lynne August 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Try researching a line with the last name Farmer! It’s always “so and so”, a farmer, ect. :)

JL August 13, 2013 at 11:33 am

One of my earliest contacts was a 7th cousin because our common 8th great-grandparents were a definitive couple. And because I had no perspective.

Consequently, I entered way too many distant relatives into my database. Recently I felt compelled to look up gravestone photos for all of them, no reason except that they’re already there, which led to even more way too distant relatives. However, I will not go as far as contacting their living relatives because THAT just seems snoopy.

I know of very many cousins I have not contacted because I’d have no time for anything else in my life, ever, but I do wish I had the time. The one most recently contacted sent me an additional 3,000-5,000 (all very interesting and closely related) relatives to add to my database and I figure that’s going to take me at least two years to straighten out. His research is good; his data entry is not.

One of these days I really should write to some of my first cousins and ask what they’re up to.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 11:46 am

That last line made me choke on my panzanella.

I can’t even wrap my brain around a seventh cousin. So the common ancestor is born in, what, the early 1700s? Or late 1600s? That far back, my eyes glaze over. I get twitchy once we’re far enough back that there’s no chance of pictures.

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JL August 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Not THAT far back. Just the other side of American Revolution. Well, just after Ireland, late 1600′s.

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Crista Cowan August 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Facebook has ruined me. I don’t really have anything to add to the conversation but I find myself wanting to “like” so many of these comments. I can so relate.

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Kerry Scott August 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm

I am similarly afflicted. It’s all Zuckerberg’s fault.

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Norah September 10, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Gosh that just had me searching for the ‘like’ link. ;-)

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Rondina Muncy August 13, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I don’t look for or normally contact cousins. But I also have never published a tree on Ancestry (this does not rule out editing someone else’s tree), so that cuts down considerably on cousin contact. However, a first-cousin in Delaware “sent” me a cousin that contacted her because we live in the same state. That was in 2005. Although we live hours apart, he is my best friend and I am his.

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Rondina Muncy August 13, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I don’t look for or normally contact cousins. But I also have never published a tree on Ancestry (this does not rule out editing someone else’s tree), so that cuts down considerably on cousin contact. However, a first-cousin in Delaware “sent” me a cousin that contacted her because we live in the same state. That was in 2005. Although we live hours apart, he is my best friend and I am his.

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Jana Last August 16, 2013 at 8:14 am

Kerry,

I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/08/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-august-16.html

Have a wonderful weekend!

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Kerry Scott August 16, 2013 at 8:32 am

Thanks Jana!

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Diana Ritchie August 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm

So very glad to hear that you follow barely-connected,almost-not-related people down the rabbit hole just because they are interesting. I do that WAY too often. I am usually more leery about contacting the living however…which is odd because the contacts I HAVE made have been totally great.

My mother’s step-mother’s family has such characters – the step-grandfather who was euphemistically referred to as “quite the ladies man” and the step-great aunt who road in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

I did have to stop myself though when I found myself, late one night on Ancestry trying to track down the step-grandmother’s mother’s third husband….seriously!

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Barbara August 18, 2013 at 4:54 am

I contact some cousins found, some I hold back on. Not sure why. I have even sent snail mail letters to cousins not found online. I include a family tree showing our connection. One did not choose to connect with me, just sent me a picture of my 3rd great grandfather. What a prize! I just sent a thank you card and left it at that.

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Lynne August 20, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Does it count as collateral when you’re up a 2 in the AM researching your chiropractor’s family for fun?

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