Genealogy Ethics: What and Who Do You Tell the Things You Learn?


question (Photo credit: cristinacosta)

This past Sunday the New York Times ran an article about a reporter who learned that his great-great-grandfather, a New York City police officer, had killed a man under questionable circumstances, but had never gone to trial.  The reporter tracked down the descendant of the victim and told him the story.  That descendant had never known that his great-grandfather had been killed.  I found this story interesting, but it also raised a number of questions about the ethics of uncovering a family secret.  What lines should I draw when I learn something that might be upsetting to a descendant?

It doesn’t even have to be something involving criminal conduct.  It could be learning about financial troubles, medical issues, family issues—all of which can be discovered in public sources like newspapers, census reports, vital records, wills, court documents, and other records that anyone, whether related or not, can find.  Does the fact that these are publicly available facts make a difference in terms of disclosure and privacy?

Is there some point in time when revealing that information is clearly appropriate?  Is there some point in time when those events are not remote enough in time?  Does it matter whether the family involved never even asked you to do the research versus a situation where they asked but had no knowledge of the troubling information? Are there times you definitely should reveal information? Are there times that you definitely should not?  What about putting things on a publicly accessible source such as a blog? What are the proper lines in that context?

I am seriously interested in these questions and what others think about them.  Whether you are a genealogy person or not, I would really like to know what you think.  Please leave your thoughts here.  I really think this issue merits serious discussion.


31 thoughts on “Genealogy Ethics: What and Who Do You Tell the Things You Learn?

  1. These ARE important questions.

    Great is Peace for for the sake of Peace God altered the truth (Yebamot) is the Ur statement about Lying

    Telushkin’s code of Jewish Ethics might be instructive. One must always realize that traditional sentiments deserve a vote but not a veto. There is also some truth to the notion that when a statement is helpful so its opposite might be helpful.

    For example, There is also a statement in the tradition :Keep far from falsehood. (It would take some time to “square” that with God’s distortion of the truth in the matter of Abraham and Sarah at the announcement of her pregnancy./

    Another example:: according to almost all Jewish sources it is permissible, some say obligatory, to lie to a person with a serious, perhaps terminal illness, and to tell a person s/he is less sick than s/he is.(This is no longer in fashion today. As you might expect we want to be able to rely upon people in the future. We also believe it is incumbent upon individuals to make their own plans when they can.

    Worthy of a serious Geneologist. LU

    One can lie to prevent unnecessary hurt, to avoid humiliating someone,


    • Thank you, Herb, for your rabbinic insights. I will need to study and think about what you are saying. It seems that tradition suggests no bright lines, but that discretion and compassion should be weighed with the value of telling the truth. Is that right?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting post Amy. I think that in uncovering any misdeeds of our ancestors, we should remember that people are people and are apt to make mistakes, go down the wrong path etc. Especially if you think about how different many laws were in the past. It doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t still feel shocked or upset by them. I think we have to deal with the information delicately and thoughtfully if it could potentially upset another family member if it is something particularly shocking. For example, many years ago I found a catalogue reference to a criminal case file relating to an ex partners uncle. It was pretty harrowing to uncover and I was asked not to tell my sister in law. But as she was interested in genealogy too, I had to explain that she could just as easily find the details if she searched his rather unique name. Surely it would be better to tell her than for her to find out about it that way? I don’t know if they ever did, but I know that it would be a very shocking and upsetting revelation either way. It is harder when the events have occurred more recently as we have less separation from it. But everyone is different, so while some people may be shocked to uncover a convict in their tree for example, others may be more interested and intrigued. Certainly people of older generations are more keen to not talk about certain subjects and are possibly more likely to want to keep secrets hidden away.


    • Thanks, Alex, for your helpful response. These are particularly tough issues when I am blogging about someone whose direct descendants I have not located or contacted. And what if it is not a crime, but something nevertheless possibly embarrassing or upsetting—a suicide, a mental illness, a bankruptcy, an adoption? Would you blog about it if you did not know the direct descendants knew? Things that are 200 years old are not as difficult, but what if the person involved had a grandchild or even a great-grandchild still alive? Would you post it on your blog? Those are the situations that seem more troubling. I, for one, would want to know, but others I know say that they would prefer not knowing.


      • It is tough. You can’t please everyone all of the time. What offends or upsets one person may not bother several people. I think if some things really bother some people then perhaps they ought to not do things like research their tree as you never know what you might find out. There is one element of my tree that I am purposefully not blogging about as it is too recent in that it affects several living people still. Out of respect for them I am not splashing it about the Internet, but at the same time it happened and information is available to be found and I can’t do anything to change that. If people don’t document and talk about certain issues then they will continue to remain a skeleton in the cupboard, a taboo that is never discussed. I do prefer being open about things, facts are facts but I will censor only for things more recent that have an effect on the living still. Going further back? I prefer to tell the full story.


      • Thanks, Alex. I tend to agree with you. That has been my approach up to this point. Then I started worrying about hurting others. It’s a tough balance the IAJGS has a guideline of 75 years, saying information that old is generally appropriate to disclose.


  3. I have been thinking about this a lot since watching “The Flat.” I think this is where I currently stand on at least some of the issues:

    1. Never seek someone out to cause harm or hurt, including just to give them information imputing ignominy of one of their ancestors.

    2. But, at the same time, I would not work to hide or conceal the information. For example, in the type of blog posts you write, which you carefully research, I would not hide or leave out information that was important to the story. But, I would also not e-mail the post to the descendant. However, when we start out on the search for our family history, surely we do it knowing that we will find happiness and sorrow, nobility and shamefulness. If someone searches out a story and, in that search by their own efforts, finds your post, or that of another, they were acting of their own accord, searching for that information, presumably with the awareness that we are a complex human family.

    3. As far as tragedy, if you know someone is actively working on genealogy, then it is a judgment call as to whether you think they would want you to alert them to a story of victimization or other trauma. My mother recently e-mailed me a story about the Oil Creek Flood and Explosions in Pennsylvania in 1892 that, very painfully, took the lives of three people in our line. She knows I research this, like her. She knows I feel a lot of empathy. But, she knows me well enough to know that I would want to read this story, even with its accompanying sorrow. I think it depends on a lot of factors.

    That’s as far as I have gotten in developing my personal ethical guidelines. I think it would be a fascinating seminar/speaker/series subject!

    And, you basically said all of this, much more succinctly, in your reply to the first comment!

    Kate @ BJJ, Law, and Living


    • Thanks, Kate, for your thoughtful response. What you said is both sensible and comforting to me. I worry that a descendant I have not found will find the blog and be upset by something I found. But as you said, if they were looking, like me, they also would have found the information.

      What I do when I am in touch with a direct descendant is send them a draft first so that they can add OR delete information. So far no one has asked for information to be deleted; they just have additional information to add. I feel really comfortable doing that. If they really did want something deleted, then I would do so to avoid embarrassing them, but for most people, the truth is the truth and nothing to be ashamed about.

      I am more troubled when I can’t find a descendant to do that. But as I said, I find your insights very helpful.



  4. If we have to decide whether to acknowledge criminal activity (even if not criminal by historical standards), sorrows and tragedy, various skeletons in the closet, hidden ancestry, and all that, we risk making a happily-ever-after story where there should be reality. Would I publish it in a blog with full names? Probably not. Would I inform another family member who is working on the same lines – yes, but compassionately. Some people will get bent out of shape to discover an out-of-wedlock child or Indian-black-Jewish-whatever “blood” even several generations ago. Should we whitewash our genealogies to please them – even if we don’t know whether they even exist?


    • Gaye, this is precisely the dilemma I struggle with. I am trying to write as honest a history of my family as I can, so leaving out the dark side is a distortion. But if I hurt someone by talking about their great-grandparent or deceased grandparent, is it worth it? These were not public figures; they were private individuals. I go back and forth between truth and discretion, never content with the lines I draw. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.


  5. I also think that if you deal with the issues you uncover with empathy and compassion rather than grandstanding purely for the drama of it like some may do, then you are being respectful to not only any descendants but also to the individuals concerned.

    Genealogy research can provide you with the information but there are always aspects we don’t know, circumstances surrounding peoples life choices, what lead them to go down a particular route. It is good to be able to provide information with potential reasoning alongside it from our own views and opinions. And I agree with Gaye in that it can’t all be a one sided happy story, life just isn’t like that.

    The more recent issue in my tree goes back to the Second World War and was something that was only partially uncovered in the late 80s and I then managed to find out further information which, while some of it was sensitive and a little upsetting, it has answered many questions that have been in many of my relatives hearts and minds for decades. It has helped them understand their lives a little better and given more of a peace of mind to them. It doesn’t mean I am going to post about it any time soon though. But if it was something that had happened say more than 100 years ago and the direct next of kin were deceased, then I would feel less concerned about telling the story as if someone is researching the same people then they are just as likely to come across the same information. Not everyone searches using Google or other search engines for potential information held on sites like WordPress where common relatives have written about shared ancestry, but I would be pleased to discover a family member blogging about our ancestors, especially so if they talk about potentially tough subjects with decency and respect.

    I don’t think you need to worry about what you have written about so far, it has been written well and thoughtfully and with care. Anyone who reads your posts should know that you do care about the people you write about and feel that you have their descendants in your thoughts.


    • Thanks again, Alex. Like I said, I agree. Overall, the truth is the best approach. I did decide to make one post private after much thought and concern about some grandchild accidentally finding it and being upset. I am still not sure that I did the right thing. Sigh…


  6. It’s so hard to make hard and fast rules about this kind of thing.

    I had an instance a few years ago here in Israel where I found a citizenship record pertaining to the late brother of a fourth cousin of mine, in which someone unexpected appears as the man’s father.

    I debated with myself calling the sister and eventually called her husband. He had a good laugh. It seems the brother’s father was whom we knew him to be, but his citizenship papers listed someone else because of the illegal British limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 1930s.


    • I am glad your story had a happy ending! Thank you for sharing it, Israel. But what if it had been a different man who was her father and she was upset by the revelation? Would being truthful have been justified? I think so, but I am not sure. In that case it seems knowing your biological parent is important, for genetic and medical reasons at a minimum.


      • I figured that. But I would feel badly leaving it to him to carry that secret and then having him have to decide whether to keep it from his wife. I’d rather keep it myself than shift the responsibility to another, but that’s just me. I am sure you knew the people well enough to decide that that was the best approach.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I had a grandfather who beat his children and his wife, was a bully and a know-it-all. Handled all the household money very poorly – sent most of his money to a religious group to buy Bibles for the heathens while his family went without. (no indoor plumbing into the early 1980s!) Last fall, while going through family photos with an elderly aunt, I find a letter, written to him in the 1950s, from a young woman who was having his second baby. He would have been in his early 60s by then. My aunt said he had numerous affairs while she was growing up, bringing women home. I am still angry about this – I loved my grandfather, but wish I had never learned about this side of him.


    • I am sorry for your pain. It is what I worry about inflicting on others. So do you think that your aunt was wrong for telling you? Or do you think she should have destroyed the letter and never said anything?


      • She actually had destroyed 99% of the letters – this one was folded up inside a box of photographs. I just said, “Oh, what’s this?” and by the time she realized what it was, I had opened it and was skimming it. She said when my grandfather died, he left a bundle of these letters tied up with a string for his family to find. My grandma had died about 10 years earlier. My aunt thought she had gotten rid of them all and was very apologetic that I had read this one (she is in her late 80s and doesn’t see really well.) It has really changed how I feel about my grandfather – when my dad died, he still had marks on his legs and back from being whipped by this man. I wish I could dig granddad up just so I could smack him into left field. (mixed metaphors there!)


      • Lucy, your experience will be one that I keep in mind every time I have to decide whether to reveal or not reveal something. It also reminds me that most people do have strong feelings about grandparents, and so while they might not be upset about a revelation of a great-great grandparent, it’s more likely they will be if it is a grandparent. I am truly sorry that your grandfather turned out to be someone so different from the person you knew. Thank you again for sharing your experience. It is an important lesson to us all.


  8. Amy, I’m glad that you brought up this topic because I’ve been struggling with this type of dilemma.

    After recently uncovering rather colorful and interesting information about a dry, boring branch on my family tree I wondered whether or not to blog about it. The family tree for this branch was sent to me years ago. It’s the type of information that you might pull out of your drawer if you have insomnia. The document is filled with BMD dates and overly extensive discussions about higher education, college degrees, and doctorates that members of this family earned. It’s ad nauseum and there’s no “personality” to it.

    The information that I found is connected to the history at the time. Most of the information is not terrible but still would be considered “dirt”. My difficulty lies in whether or not to publicly discuss the transgressions of a deceased person. The people involved in various stories are no longer able to defend themselves and I’m not sure reporting these crimes is ethical. If I was in their shoes, would I want my great great niece doing this to me long in the future after I’m gone? I don’t know. Right now they are remembered in a good way. I don’t know if I feel comfortable changing that.


    • This sounds very similar to one of my dilemmas except that I don’t know any of the descendants or what they know about their ancestor, my great grand uncle. I did blog about him, then felt badly, and turned the page private. Now I am considering reposting it without any of the names of his children so that the great greats and those even later born would really have to search hard to find this information here. If they are searching that hard, they also will find the same newspaper stories I found. What is your feeling about that approach? What will you do?


  9. It seems to me that you had a gut feeling that the information should not be publicized and that’s why you made it private. We must ask ourselves how important it is to reveal our new findings. In my case, it’s not important because it’s not an integral part of my family. In your case, it might be very important.


    • No, I wouldn’t call it very important or even important, given how old it is and also how relatively minor the crimes were—just theft, not violence of any kind. It’s just that it happened. Do I paint a distorted picture of my family as all law-abiding saints or do I reveal the fact that not everyone was perfect? The fact that it was over 100 years ago and not something inherently evil or violent makes it both less important and also less damaging to any descendants.


      • Right, that’s what I was thinking too. Why paint a distorted picture. Mine was about illegal gambling and bootlegging. I guess not such a big deal but it was still considered a crime.


      • Of course, today those aren’t even really crimes! We have legalized gambling, and the end of Prohibition made most bootlegging irrelevant!


  10. Pingback: To Reveal or Not: More Thoughts on the Ethics of Genealogy « Brotmanblog: A Family Journey

  11. Great topic! I, for one, love hearing of these stories from the past whether 100 years ago or last year. I don’t use them for hurting anyone else. Last year I found out that my cousin’s mother was 3 months pregnant before getting married to the babies father. No one ever knew this and I did share the information. It may have been taken more seriously back in the early 1900s, but now-a-days it’s quite common and I did share this information with her and the father. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes, and having a pregnancy before marriage is not a big deal in my book. With that said my late Mom told me about her uncle selling bootleg liquor and my grandfather, his brother-in-law took the blame for him and was arrested. I LOVE this stuff and it makes for a real family, not one of fiction and lies.


    • Thank you, Mark! Yes, these stories, both the good and the bad, are what keep our ancestors alive. Otherwise they are just the cold hard facts of birth, marriage, death. I am just trying to strike a balance, especially with what I put on the blog. Thanks again for your thoughts!!


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