Genealogy: Black Sheep Ancestors

One kind of ancestor that genealogists may or not look forward to finding is a “black sheep” or “skeleton in the closet.” Researchers often chuckle about the so-called “horse thief” in the family. In some instances, there’s “that relative” that everyone knows about but nobody talks about. Black sheep ancestors are people who made bad or questionable choices, committed some kind of crime, or did something considered scandalous or roguish in their day.

Several factors can determine how much researchers choose to reveal about such ancestors, depending on the type of misdeed, how long ago it occurred, and the presence and feelings of living relatives. There is no “blanket” answer to this question; each instance should involve looking at the ramifications of sharing. Probably the most important consideration involves living descendants and how discoveries might affect them. Some descendants may be fine with public knowledge of what happened, while others might be hurt by it. At the very least, genealogists who want to keep a record of what happened can maintain it in their files without sharing it. Many genealogical software programs offer the option of marking certain things private so that potentially sensitive material will not be visible when the research is shared. Cyndi’s List has some helpful links on dealing with those “skeletons in the closet”:

All that being said, black sheep ancestors are like any other ancestors, and records exist that can be checked for information and documentation regarding their activities. Following are some resources genealogists can use to discover and learn more about those skeletons in the closet.

Prison Records

If an ancestor ended up in prison, chances are that records were created that can be genealogically valuable depending on the type and seriousness of the crime. There may be mention of the deed in newspaper articles. If a trial was involved, you may find more than one article documenting the trial process. If the person went to prison, prison records can reveal more than just details of the crime. They may include photos and physical descriptions. You may find letters received while your ancestor was incarcerated. What you find will depend on the kinds of recordkeeping performed by the institution., such as literacy, personality traits, and any special talents.

Prison records may be available in various locations. and FamilySearch contain prison indexes for various states. State archives or historical societies may have certain institutional records on microfilm that you can borrow through interlibrary loan or find on-line. For example, the Texas State Library has a wealth of information about contents and availability of the records of Huntsville Penitentiary (opened in 1849) and Rusk Penitentiary, which operated from 1883-1917 at

Cyndi’s List is a great source for online prison records:, and Thought Co. has links to state records that have been digitized:

You may also find information about ancestors who did time in the county jail, and not always because they committed a crime. Many were jailed for debt and other non-criminal reasons. These may be found in county court records or in published abstracts of these records.

Court Records

Court records may contain details about many different conflicts that ended up in front of a judge and/or jury. The court calendar, or docket, contains chronological lists of legal proceedings indexed by docket number. Indexes to these records may be in book, microfilm, or digital format. The free site FamilySearch has some digitized records ate:

Divorce Records

Details about divorces may be found in civil court dockets or in published abstracts of these records. Depending on the place, they may also be microfilmed and available through interlibrary loan. Case files can reveal “juicy” details about both spouses in records of testimony.

Census Records

U. S. census records can also reveal information about questionable activity, especially in terms of occupations. In some cases you might find a woman listed as keeping a boardinghouse that includes all female inhabitants, especially younger ones, with the same kind of job, such as “seamstress.” This could be a clue that the head of house is a madam and the household is actually a brothel. In some instances the census taker didn’t hide the fact and identified residents as prostitutes or some similar description. The 1880 census included special schedules for “defective, dependent, and delinquent” persons, which included those classified as insane, idiots, deaf-mutes, blind, paupers and indigent persons, homeless children, and prisoners in jail or prison. Those in institutions are also found in the population schedules. If you can identify the institution you may be able to check for existence and availability of records. has these schedules for several states. Actual schedules may be available at various state repositories; a list of these places is at the archived version of the following link on the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive:

Asylum Records

Several generations ago, a relative may have been committed to an asylum for actual or assumed mental illness, or even for less reputable reasons. If an ancestor shows up on a census as an asylum inmate, it may or may not be possible to locate records, depending on whether they survive and can be accessed. Records of commitment might also be found in probate court records. Depending on the time and place, the name of the asylum may be found on the death certificate of an inmate who died there.

Poorhouse Records

Poorhouses or county farms tended to house those incapable or unable, for one reason or another, to care for themselves. Such records can be very difficult to locate, if they exist at all. Cyndi’s List provides many links to good resources:

Coroner Records

The coroner was usually called in when a death could not be explained, regardless of cause, especially one that is regarded as untimely. A death certificate may indicate when a death was referred to the coroner for investigation, and records of inquiry may exist in the coroner’s office. Again, Cyndi’s List has some helpful links: as does The Ancestor Hunt: FamilySearch has some records on microfilm, but they must be viewed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT.

FBI Files

If you discover that a relative was investigate by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it may be possible to request those files from the Bureau. The web site contains information on requesting files, as does the book

Unlocking the Files of the FBI by Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart. The subscription web site Fold3 also contains some digitized FBI files.

Here are some books at Grapevine Library that can help you research those “black sheep” and “skeletons in the closet”:

Ron Arons, Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records: Sources & Research Methodology

Gerald K. Haines and David A. Langbart, Unlocking the Files of the FBI: A Guide to Its Records and Classification System

Freya Ottem Hanson, Family Archaeology: Discovering the Family Skeleton and Making it Dance

Rhonda R. McClure, Finding your Famous (& Infamous) Ancestors: Uncover the Celebrities, Rogues, and Royals in Your Family Tree

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