One of the main starting points for any family historian and researcher is to begin with what you already know.
But tales we’ve heard may not stand up to scrutiny. Formal research may reveal that something we always ‘knew’ turns out to be misleading or, if not actually a lie, a misunderstanding or a simple human error. And what about the puzzling gaps older relatives won’t fill in? The truth can be something that might have once been shocking, but today becomes a fascinating example of changed social expectations.
My own example comes from my husband Derek’s family. He can’t quite remember when he first heard the story of the small child killed by his mother, but a few years ago he asked his elderly aunt for details. Auntie Mary recalls hearing it herself as a child in the 1930s, and being sternly hushed if she ever asked again. She told us yes, there was a boy whose mother was English (Mary’s great aunt Annie), married to the child’s father, who was German. At the start of World War One, her husband said he was going back to Germany to fight&hellip and he planned on taking their son. To punish him, went the story, Annie killed the boy. She was tried for murder, was jailed, and was then released years later, to work in a Gateshead pub where her niece Minnie was the landlady.
Dramatic and sad as this story was, it needed documentation to make it plausible. The pub, called the Deptford, existed – Derek remembers visiting it, still in the family’s hands, in the 1950s. Annie herself was easily found and slotted into the family tree along with her many siblings; born in Newcastle upon Tyne 1873, she did indeed die in Gateshead, in 1930.
But the supposed murder in 1914? There was no evidence, but once we traced what happened to Annie there was no need to look further. Knowing her maiden name, Richardson, we looked for a Richardson marriage to someone with a German name. We found Johann Rath, married to Annie in Newcastle in 1895. He was a pork butcher (one of many in the North East at this time). There she was, under her married name, in the criminal records.
Yes, Annie had killed her only child, Charles Edward Rath, aged not quite two, in June 1898, in the small Northumberland village where the family lived. The newspapers called it ‘the shocking tragedy at Choppington’ and it filled many column inches over the next few days. Clearly, the murder was unconnected with World War One, and the inquest into Charles’s death – beautifully handwritten and stored in the Northumberland county archives – mentions nothing about any plans Johann had to return to Germany (he turns up in Newcastle in the 1911 census, anyway).
Doctors at the assizes testified Annie was not fit to plead. Her sudden attack on Charles – a brutal bludgeoning across the head with a poker – was, they said, the result of an episode of rheumatic fever which had led to her becoming ‘mentally afflicted’. The jury found her ‘insane’ and she was committed to Broadmoor hospital in Berkshire, England’s first ‘criminal lunatic’ asylum, open since the 1860s.
Tales of shame and deceit
Professional genealogist Kirsty Gray, who runs the Family Wise service in Calne, Wiltshire, is familiar with the digging that clarifies a secret. Her own personal research led her to discover something her grandmother had hidden, all through her life.
‘My grandmother had never offered any information about her own family background,’ she says. ‘It was clear to me she just didn’t want to talk about it, so I went ahead and researched it on my own.’ Kirsty found her grandmother’s mother, was born ‘out of wedlock’, in 1883. Hardly an unusual event, but one which many Victorian families regarded as deeply shameful, right through the next generation or two. Sometimes facts may be deliberately covered up, with grandparents pretending to be the parents of their teenage daughter’s child.
I can’t be sure why, when and how our family story of Annie Rath and her son Charles was changed – could it have been an attempt by the Richardson family, when she came out of Broadmoor, to somehow explain the killing as a twisted form of patriotic, anti-German rage? As if that was ‘better’ than the official truth of madness brought on by illness?
Publisher Tricia Borlenghi, who has Italian ancestors, found hidden secrets when she started the process of owning a house in the Apennine village where her mother’s family originated. Tricia grew up knowing very little about her father Mario’s family, and her father’s mother Filomena was not forthcoming. Tricia was told Mario’s father, Romeo, was in the Italian army during World War One, went missing in Albania 1916, and was never heard of again.
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Mario had been born in 1912, and a younger brother Silvio came along in 1914. A third son, Giuseppe, was born in 1927, and even as a child Tricia realised the permanently missing Romeo could not have fathered her youngest uncle. ‘I never received a satisfactory answer from either of my parents when I asked them about this,’ she says.
Italian bureaucracy demanded Romeo’s birth certificate for her to apply for residency and then house ownership. She duly got that from his birthplace, Busseto, in Emilia-Romagna, and then realised the birth certificate came along with his death and a marriage certificate, too.
‘I read how Romeo Antonio Leandro Maria Borlenghi had died in 1952, in Piacenza. Not only that, he’d married a Giovanna Scaglioni in 1902. No mention of Filomena at all.’ Yet Mario’s birth certificate has Romeo’s and Filomena’s names on it – both Borlenghi.
Tricia concludes that Romeo was almost certainly a bigamist. Piacenza town hall furnished her with details of the seven children he’d had with Giovanna, and further researches brought her into contact with descendants of this family. Yes, it was known Romeo had left Giovanna. He’d told her he was going to a carpenters’ guild meeting – one which lasted seven years.
‘He arrived back one day while Giovanna was ironing, and she threw the heavy iron at him, telling him never to darken her door again,’ says Tricia.
Tricia adds, ‘my father had already died by the time we knew all this, and my brother didn’t think we should question my mother about it. She died in 2000, without me discussing it. We still don’t know how much my father really knew, or whether Filomena kept in touch with Romeo after he deserted her.’ The father of Giuseppe is still unknown – is it possible it was Romeo after all?
Best kept secret?
Families, as we see, can be skilled in keeping secrets, when they want to. Kirsty Gray recalls a recent client who wanted to present his wife with her family tree, as a gift.
‘We noticed his wife’s paternal great-grandparents had died on the same day,’ says Kirsty. When she investigated further, she discovered they had both been murdered, by their son, when he was aged 17. He was sentenced to prison, and after a long sentence, was released and got married. Who knew about this? Did the client’s wife know her grandfather was a double murderer? Almost certainly not. Did her own mother know the story of what her father had done? Who knows?
‘In the end I presented our client with the tree and the offer of further information if he wanted it,’ says Kirsty. ‘The dates were there and that was it – they never came back to ask more.’ Kirsty says anyone involved in family research, professionally or otherwise, needs tact, and to know when to keep sensitive information under wraps if it might be upsetting.
The half-true but still misleading information in family stories – like Romeo Borlenghi going ‘missing’ – can be seen in written records, too. Just because something’s in writing, is no guarantee.
Even that old stalwart, the family bible, can throw up anomalies.
Ken Moore, originally from the USA, now in Newcastle, has a Moore family bible. ‘I noticed the spelling of a number of my father’s siblings was different from the way they were spelled in later life. My Aunt Vera’s name was recorded as Annievier, but then became Anna Vera, for example.’ Poor spellers, or a later decision to make things look less unusual?
Ken also found the bible acted as a correction to some mistaken official documents. His Uncle Delbert told the US marines he was18 instead of just 16 in order to enlist – the bible has the right date, the military records are wrong. Ken says the family bible of his British wife, Ros, née Brown, is accurate so far – but he’s still seeking backup. ‘I’ve noticed a lot of false family history in online trees – one person gets it wrong, and too many others copy without checking.’
This is almost the 21st century version of family secrets, myths and misunderstandings – if we don’t take care.
The author wishes to thank Kirsty Gray, www.family-wise.co.uk.
For more advice on researching family myths, see Kim Fleet’s article in our latest print edition, available in WHSmith and at our website, discoveryourancestors.co.uk