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May 13, 2012

GENEALOGY: Genealogy isn’t for the easily embarrassed

The saying goes, if you’re easily embarrassed or afraid of what you’ll find, don’t start doing genealogy. Because eventually we will find all manner of relatives — heroes, villains, successes, failures, role models, and scoundrels.

Although the black sheep of a family might be embarrassing, especially to the generation who knew him, other relatives removed by time and distance often find these characters to be among the most interesting of relatives.

The website blacksheepancestors.com is devoted to helping genealogists locate their family misfits and scoundrels. The site has sections for research in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and across international boundaries (which includes pirates and buccaneers). Most of the links are to convict and prisoner lists, court records, insane asylums and public executions. The databases are by no means complete. The site also contains biographies of notorious criminals.

The website points out that insane asylums were sometimes used in the past by a husband to get rid of a troublesome wife. Wives or daughters who did not obey the men in their lives, who were perhaps menopausal, depressed, or just went against the norms of society, could be put away in an institution by their husband or father. So if you have a missing woman in your family tree, don’t forget to check out the local and state mental hospitals.

There are links to several prison databases in Indiana and Illinois, including the state prisons at Michigan City; Alton, Ill.; and Joliet, Ill. Also included are the Southern Illinois Penitentiary and the Illinois State Reformatory as well as indexes for several city and county jails in 1930.

One link leads to a website called “Before the Needle.” This site is devoted to the subject of capital punishment from pre-colonial times to about 1972, when the U.S. had a hiatus of the death penalty for several years. The user can click on a state to get a list of all of the people executed in that state, their charges, some personal information like age, sex, race, and occupation, and the date and method of their execution.

Indiana has executed a total of 132 men (no women) from 1814 to 1981. Of those, 72 were hanged and 61 were electrocuted. All were convicted of murder. The first known execution was of a Knox County man named Slaughter who was hanged for murder in 1814.

The first Vigo County man to be executed was Henry Dyas on July 5, 1844. Other Vigo County executions were Oliver Morgan, a 26-year-old white blacksmith, hanged in 1869; Matthew Alexander, a 28-year-old black shoeshiner hanged in 1903; Benjamin Springs, a 34-year-old black laborer, and Jerry Duggins, a 28-year-old white butcher, both hanged in 1904. Harry Raisco, a 35-year-old white laborer from Vigo County was the first person in the state to be electrocuted — on Feb. 20, 1914.

The information for Illinois shows that the state executed 348 people between 1779 and 1962. Two were women. 249 were hanged, 89 were electrocuted, and one was burned at the stake. The burning was actually the first Illinois execution, which took place on June 5, 1779, before statehood. Manuel, a slave, was convicted of witchcraft and burned to death in Randolph County. The first female to be executed by Illinois was Elizabeth Reed, a 40-year-old white housewife who was hanged for murder in 1845 in Lawrence County. The other woman executed by Illinois was Marie Porter, a 38-year-old white boarding house owner who was electrocuted in 1938 in St. Clair County for conspiracy to murder.

Go to these websites at your own peril — you may find a scoundrel relative you didn’t even know you had.

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