Friday, February 3, 2012

What's "ancient history" in genealogy?

Earlier this week, I was on the verge of issuing a research challenge. I was curious about the story behind a 1940s newspaper mention of a collateral family line, but didn't have the slightest idea how to go about researching it. I didn't know exactly what had happened or where it had happened. How could I even begin looking? So I started writing a post to put it out to the genealogy community. I was going to ask for advice, and hey, if anyone wanted to do the research themselves, I wouldn't say no. But as I began to describe the research I had done thus far, I realized I wasn't quite sure. I had searched Fulton History, but had I searched only the Brooklyn Eagle, or I had I searched the entire site?

I don't know whether I had failed to search the entire database when I first investigated, or whether I had done so, but the Long Island Star-Journal hadn't yet been added. One way or another, I found the article I was looking for after mere moments of searching. It answered some questions, but raised some more. And it provided enough information that I no longer feel comfortable "putting it out there." As of the when the article I found went to print, "police were investigating," and though the article doesn't say it, the likely conclusions seem to be tragic accident or murder-suicide.

The incident in question took place in 1947, and although the deceased did not, to my knowledge leave any direct descendants, they had younger siblings who could still be alive. I imagine that every genealogist with a blog, or a book, or any platform on which to publicize his research at some point has to struggle with drawing the line that separates "ancient history" from "the not-so-distant past." Is it when the people involved are still living? (Among the letters written to my husband's great-grandfather throughout his life are some from the 1950s whose author, we have recently learned, is still living. That obviously very much impacts a decision on whether or not to post them.) What about when the people who knew the people involved are still living? While sensitivity is necessary here, it's really a rather stringent requirement. Should I not write about my great-great-grandmother (1868-1941) because her grandchildren remember her well? My great-uncles wouldn't demand that, and I've based my decisions off of their wishes . . . but she has other descendants I'm not in contact with.

There's no one alive today who remembers, for example, my great-great-great-grandfather, Mathew Madigan (1840-1892). I can write anything I want about him (anything true, that is). But when I posted about his grandson's death a few years ago, I quickly had second thoughts, and took down all specifics.

Where do you draw the line?

No comments: