Friday, October 8, 2010

Intentional Acts of Genealogical Terrorism

My friend and colleague, Ruth Himan, just completed three weeks of family history traveling with her father to Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee.  They had a wonderful time doing genealogical research, visiting friends and family  and sightseeing. 

Ruth commented on one of my posts on Facebook yesterday that:

"Hee hee Cousin Vandy. Helped me "doctor" great grandfather's death certificate. We justified it as TMI. That did not alter the intent of the document."

My response was:

"huh - lost me here. Who's cousin Vandy? Where did you perform this intentional act of genealogical terrorism?"

And Ruth's answer was:

" lol Vandy, cousin I stayed with in KANSAS. Do you not keep notes on the 100s of people that share their genealogy with you? Doctor put in a contributing cause of death that made some living relatives uncomfortable so we just kind of a...ltered ( by deletion) the additional unverified data from the certificate. Our reasoning? the doctor could have been wrong. lol I used the certificate to introduce myself to historians of his hometown and did not want to give "confusing" data. BUT I am including my deception in all my writings and correspondences so everyone is aware of what, how and why this was done. Needless to say I could have not expected much cooperation from my dad if I was showing the document with the offending data as is."

Sometimes the social networks don't permit more than a terse comment about an issue that needs to be fully explained.  Ruth's first comment seemed to say that she and her cousin had changed an official record.  My response to Ruth was serious, because my view is that genealogists should NOT be altering original records in a repository or official documents that are going to be used by researchers to prove names, relationships, dates, places, etc.  Ruth's clarification was very helpful, and now I understand why she did what she did, and that the record in her collection is complete.

Ruth also wrote a blog post titled Intentional Act of Genealogical Terrorism with an Accomplice today on the Hayley blog to admit to her act, and to explain her reasons for doing it.  Taking it all as a whole, I understand Ruth's reasoning and act, but I have this visceral reaction that it should not have been done.  However, I wasn't walking in Ruth's shoes, trying to deal with her elderly father and also pursue useful genealogical research avenues.  I am glad that Ruth wrote her blog post because it explains how and why she did what she did.

I think that we all have skeletons in our ancestral closets - criminal acts, family cruelty, adultery, out-of-wedlock births, desertion, etc.  Some of our family members react adversely when informed of these skeletons, and others accept them and embrace them.  Our ancestors were human beings that easily fall short of perfection, just like I am.

I appreciate Ruth's honesty in writing her blog post and telling the world about her IAOGT.  She didn't have to respond to my comment and it would have been something between she and I to discuss at CVGS Table Talk.  But it raises these questions that the genealogical community needs to deal with:

*  Have you ever done something like an IAOGT (Intentional Act of Genealogical Terrorism)?  If so, why? 

*  Was anybody intellectually, physically or emotionally hurt by this act? 

*  What should Ruth do with the copy of the record that she modified?  

*  When should we "hide" family history information that might harm a relative's mental or physical state?


Kathleen said...

I actually have done this. On my Great Uncle's death certificate it puts contributing cause of death as "shot by son". The son in question is still living and I didn't want to possibly bring up old memories. All I did was photo shop a black bar over the part I wanted to censor. The original paper copy was never altered, just what I put online.

I figure the censoring of this particular record is doing more good than harm. Especially since anyone wanting to seek out the original can contact me or get it for themselves from the archives. We don't exactly hide the fact that it happened, but I don't think it needs to be on my website, which my family visits.

John said...

My research may have corrected an IAOGT. My mother grew up thinking her uncle had died in a flu epidemic.

The uncle died 7 years before she was born, and her mother died when she was 13 -- so it's unclear whether she would ultimately have told her the truth, that he died of liver damage brought on through alcoholism.

I've recently learned that my grandmother may have been the only one of three siblings that made it to their brother's funeral, so she may have been the only one to know the truth, depending upon what she told her sisters.

As far as I am aware, everything is far enough in the past, no one is bothered by the truth, or the cover-up. But these cover-ups have been going on for a long time in families, orally. Computers and photoshop are just adding documentation to the mix.

Joan Miller (Luxegen) said...

Hi Randy,
I agree with you. I have the same visceral reaction. I do feel the truth needs to be in the family tree records (and not hidden by omission or deletion). I also think one needs to be sensitive to family feelings and play each case by ear as to what is shared verbally (or on the web) with the world. (but bottom line - the family tree archives that are passed to the next generation need to have the correct information!)

Susan Clark said...

My grandfather altered his birth certificate, but told his children what he had done and that it was incorrect. It never occurred to me to "fix" it. I simply note what I've been told.

However, I certainly don't post everything online and have been careful sharing information about suicides, alcoholism and mental illness with people. I don't change records, but I do warn family members that they contain information they might find troubling. Some of the family do not want to deal with it and I respect their choice. I might well censor digital images posted online of recent records, though to date I've simply not posted them online.

Linda McCauley said...

I haven't altered an actual document but did crop the handcuffs out of a photo that I use on my website for a relative who was convicted of murder and then hanged (over 100 years ago). The picture was made by a professional photographer shortly before the hanging. I have withheld the story of the murder and hanging from anything I've published online out of respect for some older family members who don't want the story told publicly but the whole story is in my personal files (along with the unaltered photo).

Mel said...

Randy, This is a dilemma all genealogists will face at one time or another. I've blogged a response to your questions about how I've handled things.