My Comments about Black Sheep Ancestors

I have always been interested in the less than perfect people in my family tree. These folks often may be found in various court records that have been preserved. At the RootsTech2017 conference, I was asked about such ancestors and my comments were videotaped by the RootsTech crew. You can view the video on Twitter at

In my computer, I found I had to click on the video image in order to hear the audio. Your computer may be different.

What black sheep did you find in your family tree?

Other videos from RootsTech2017 may be found at:


Black sheep ancestors are indeed fascinating! In my case, my grandmother concealed her father’s criminal doings to the point that her daughter had no idea of her grandfather’s rap sheet, or that he was even alive, until yours truly began researching the family history. He had a gift for forgery. I’ve also discovered that his uncle was in and out of prison for petty theft. Another uncle is nowhere to be found, I suspect for the same reason. One of the odder aspects of having a black sheep ancestor was the disapproval that a county clerk expressed over my interest in his criminal record, as though I was somehow a lesser person for his actions.


My great grandfather had an affair with his uncle’s wife ( his aunt) and was the biological father of her 6th child. Three months After the baby was born the aunt committed suicide. My grandmother, the legitimate child and the oldest child of this great grandfather, was born 3 months before her sister/cousin, so great grandpa was fooling around on his wife when they were newlyweds and she was pregnant with their first born. He was quite a character and the other stories about him are hilarious only because he’s long dead and we don’t ever have to spend Thanksgiving with him.


I hit the wrong button so not sure if my comment made it. I’ll try again.
I found an interesting file when I went looking for my grandmother’s uncle. He showed up on an inmate list at Leavenworth (he served five years from 1918-1923). I was able to get the prison record from NARA. It had two mugshots, a list of his work history in the prison, the materials he ordered while there, and a list of his correspondence. One niece kept in frequent touch with him. But his supplies were of the most interest to me. He ordered watercolors and thread for embroidery.
I have an embroidered tablecloth that I was told was given to my grandmother on her wedding by an uncle. At first we thought it was the other side of the family, but after seeing this uncle’s supplies in prison, I knew it was him. This uncle was born in Switzerland and his father had been a shoemaker there.
As far as his crime that sent him to prison, it was never completely spelled out. One item said “mailing unmailable material.” And one judge (I did not have the court record) said it was so obscene he couldn’t even describe what the material was! Maybe he drew explicit anatomy? Dunno.


My ancestor came home from the civil war and couldn’t adjust to home life. He was extremely jealous and constantly fighting with his wife. She finally got fed up, took the two little boys, and moved to her mother’s house. He showed up at the house and shot his wife through the kitchen window and then turned the gun on himself. They both died.
This was written up in newspapers across the country, listed as a “Jealous and Melancholy Affair.”


My GG Grand Father was in the Lambeth Court (England) in 1857 with his brother on an intriguing bigamous incestuous marriage case (incestuous part was marrying his brothers wife). A search in the historical papers of either of their names gives lots of information that was widely published world wide. It usually had “Extraordinary Double Marriage” in the headings! We had a Wills surname gathering a few years ago and I was contacted by one of the committee afterwards saying he hoped I wasn’t upset or offended but he had found this information – I advised him I already knew and actually thought it added a bit of colour to my family history. My ancestor failed to reappear in the court and his mother had to pay the £160 surety, an expensive escape from justice!


I have the photo of a female ancestor who apparently had at least on child out of wedlock. Have not been able to verify identity of the male associated with this child. They lived in an area of Upstate NY where the priest would come only in the Summer when he could legitimize marital unions and children born out of wedlock.


my gggg-grandfather was beheaded in Germany for involvement with the death of 4 people 1) he killed his father in-law made it look like a robbery 2) he strangled his wife because he wanted to mess around with the servant girl. took two tries. the first attempt was unsuccessful when his wife woke up in bed when he tried to strangle her 4) the servant girl was pregnant and he talked her into taking rat poison to kill the baby
Google Books has the 1814 German newspaper article about the beheading. Have made contact with the executioner’s descendants. The executioner’s first try didn’t take and my ancestor jumped up. I have a picture of the ax. My ancestor was called “der Spindler von Dirmal”, almost a boogey man status.


My great grandfather came to MN in 1891 from Norway to study at the Augsburg Lutheran Seminary. He left his wife and 7 children in Norway. He was 36 at that time. During his stay at Augsburg he had an affair with a 19 year old housekeeper, and an illegitimate male child was born in Dec 1893 (my grandfather). All this didn’t come out until he had already graduated from Augsburg in June 1893, and had been ordained, and was the pastor at Lutheran churches in Houston, MN, Looney Valley, MN, and La Crosse, Wisconsin. Scandal ensued when the details of his affair came out. His wife and children joined him in MN in July 1894. Eventually, he found himself without a church to minister to in late 1896. A year later, 1897, he attempted to extort $1,500 from a prosperous young widow by threating to reveal their “improper relationship.” She turned him into the cops, and he ended up pleading guilty of attempted extortion, and was fined $100. About one month after that, Feb 1898, he deserted his wife and 7 kids again. In July 1900, he was caught in MN, and sent back for trial. He ended up spending about 9 months in the county jail. When released in May 1901, he stayed in La Crosse for 2 years, then deserted his family a 3rd time. He went to Grafton, ND, and became a spotter for the State Enforcement League, turning in people who were violating the liquor laws for a $50 reward her head. He married for a 2nd time to a prosperous widow, eventually taking all her money, and losing all her property in sheriff sales to collect bad debts.

It’s taken me the last 6 years of some really tough investigations to find out all this info. I’m considering turning it into a book.


We had a real winner in our family, too. GG grandfather was a minister, fooled around on and abused his wife, and deserted her and the 6 kids in Dakota Territory when he headed back east.


While looking up information on one of my father’s brothers I found a Texas convict listing, from 1932, for not only that uncle, but, another uncle also. They had been charged with murdering their uncle…shot him in the chest. Apparently this happened over property on which all three of them were living. My uncles were sentenced to two years in prison but only served a few months before they were pardoned by Ma Ferguson, Governor of Texas at that time. In all my years that my father was alive, I NEVER even heard any hint of this happening. It was documented in the newspaper and when they were pardoned the news was carried in several newspapers across Texas and into a couple other states.


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