Web Site Turns Genealogy on Its Head, Proudly Catalogs Black Sheep
Ax-murderers, ruthless Vikings, traitors or other notorious villains lurking in your family tree? Take heart. You may qualify for the International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists.
Jeff Scism of San Bernardino formed the Internet group a year ago and launched its Web site in January. Starting with two dozen members, the society now numbers 125.
The rules are simple: You must have someone in the family, preferably in your direct lines, who’s “a dastardly, infamous individual of public knowledge and ill repute.”
Stuffed shirts with claims of pure and noble roots need not apply. But you’re automatically in if you can link to kidnappers, armed robbers, assassins, thieves who stole “any item of fame,” members of infamous gangs, witches, and anyone among the FBI’s “most wanted.”
“Weirdness counts,” says Scism. He even has a catchall category for ancestors causing “extreme public embarrassment,” such as Lady Godiva.
In his day job, Scism is maintenance chief at a mobile home park. Off hours, he’s a cyber-sleuth, using the Internet and help from society members to pursue genealogy that fascinates him.
Now 42, Scism speaks from a decade of digging. “If you’re doing genealogical research, and you find nothing but [normal] people, it’s really boring and you’re going to quit,” he says. But “if you do this long enough, you will find you have a black sheep in your family that nobody talks about.”
Why talk at all? Because it’s the icing on the cake, Scism says, “instead of eating bread all day.”
Some folks won’t swallow that. And perhaps, just perhaps, Scism speaks from experience here. Some people, he says, get resentful “even if you put the facts right out in front of them.” Those he dismisses as “basically in denial.”
But he’s willing to help. “There is nothing you can do to change the past,” he says. “There is no need to be worried about your ancestors’ misdeeds. It’s just history.”
Members also assist each other with research and support--especially, Scism says, for newcomers “with a problem, something really tragic in their family.”
Despite the passage of time, centuries in some cases, a few members don’t want their fullnames linked to scoundrel relatives. So only their first names are listed on the Web site.
Others are cavalier about their rogues, joking and making puns about their “baaaaaaaaaaad” ancestors and how they must sheepishly acknowledge them.
Ready for this one? Why are “black sheep” lawyers buried 30 feet down? Because, down deep, they’re really nice people.
So who are these horrible ancestors?
Researching back to the 10th century, Janni Belgum of Calgary, Canada, found a Norwegian earl nicknamed “Skull Splitter.” A rather bloody Viking, she figures.
Fast-forwarding several centuries, Dianna Fisher of Corvallis, Ore., acknowledges John Billington, whom she places on the Mayflower in 1620 as well as on the blacklist: the first colonist hanged for murder.
Also in the 1600s, there was Nicholas Knapp of Massachusetts, described by a descendant as a con man fined for selling a cure for scurvy that was nothing more than bottled water. Paula, the modern-day relative, is more modest, identifying herself on the group’s Web site only with a first name.
Carol, another first-name-only member, claims Hannah Martin, stepdaughter of “Goody” Martin, who was executed for witchcraft in Salem, Mass., in 1692. And Julie Hesson of North Little Rock, Ark., claims Nathaniel Putnam, a judge at those very trials.
Then there’s Thomas Hickey, who fought under George Washington but turned traitor and helped the British. He was, says descendant Bill Ward of Pottsboro, Texas, the first American soldier to be executed after a court-martial in 1776.
But Ward also claims John Pass, who helped recast the Liberty Bell when it cracked in 1753. “So,” he says, “I guess we deserve Thomas Hickey to balance out the scales.”
In the late 1700s, Alexander Macomb was targeted by Congress for treason and jailed for a questionable bond deal that caused bank failures. The Treasury secretary intervened, and Macomb walked.
But his descendant, Murray McCombs of Toronto, also claims what might be called a counterweight. Alexander Macomb’s son helped save sites in New York from falling into British hands and became a hero in the War of 1812.
McCombs and Ward ought to watch what they say. Mentioning the family’s “white sheep” might get them disqualified.
A better example would be James Durham. He was a preacher in Wells, Texas, in the late 1800s who tried to re-create Jesus’ walk on water. Claimed by a member listed only as Gayla, he lands in the society’s “extreme public embarrassment” category.
To pull off a “miracle,” Durham slipped a board just below the surface of a pond and left. While he was gone, two boys sawed it almost in half. When Durham took his first step before a big crowd, the board broke and he got dunked.
Now, try to untangle this. Member Mollie Haag of Proctor, Minn., cites a married ancestor who had an affair and then married his mistress who had his child. But they split up, and he married the mistress’ mother and later, after she died, her sister.
In Scism’s case, an ancestor living in Panama had his daughter’s marriage annulled and sent her back to the United States. A child from that short marriage was reportedly adopted, but the grandfather, a tugboat pilot, secretly reared him. Because of all the secrecy, the boy knew nothing about his mother until years after she died.
“He was not famous,” Scism says of the furtive grandfather, “but his activities will show he was different.”
Remember, weirdness counts.
The Web address is homepages.rootsweb.com/~blksheep/index.html.