Friday, July 20, 2012

Skeletons in the Family Closet

Tonight at 8 o’clock will mark the 125th anniversary of the evening my great – great – great - great grandfather, Peter Burkhart killed his wife of 43 years and then turned the gun on himself.  The reason given for the murder – suicide?  The newspaper called it a moment of insanity, a crime of passion.

I've Got a Secret...
If you’ve been involved in genealogy for very long, you’ve probably uncovered a family secret or two.  With the continuing popularity of the hobby, some sociologists are warning that if you dig too deep, you may get more than you bargained for.

Family Secrets
Family secrets can run the gamut from the relatively tame taboos (in today’s world) of cousins marrying cousins, illegitimate children, interracial or interfaith marriages, to criminals, bigamy, mental illness, even into the darker depths of incest, suicide or murder.

We all begin our genealogy journey wanting to discover who our people were, (especially in relation to who we are,) but when we discover a family secret, we need to be prepared handle the information. 

It’s important to remember that every family has a story – some of it good, some not.  And there are skeletons in every family’s closet.  Think about what you will do when you open Pandora’s Box.  What to do will depend on several factors, the most important - Who will it affect NOW?  

Most genealogists abide by the standard rule - do not publish anything about a living person. If someone is still alive that the secret involves directly, or who will be devastated by it, it’s best to keep the status quo, for now.  That does not mean that you are altering your family story or rewriting history. It simply means that you have decided to respect someone’s right to privacy.  But, that also does not mean hiding it forever.

Family secrets and skeletons in the closet are not the same as information that you just were not aware of before.  Secrets are kept hidden, on purpose.  They are an attempt to withhold information about an event or person because family feels shame and/or fears what others will think.

Peter Burkhart
Farming in the 1800's
According to the biographical sketch in the History of Pike County, Indiana, my ancestor, Peter Burkhart was a model citizen.  He had the reputation of being “the greatest hunter and of always keeping the largest number and best bred hounds of any man in the county…. He succeeded well as a farmer.”

The book went on to describe his family - “Elizabeth Snyder became his wife April 1, 1844. They became the parents of nine children, eight of whom are married and living within three miles of their father.  They all have families but none of their children have died.  The family history presents remarkable instances of longevity.”

The sketch refers to Peter as having “always been a Democrat in politics and served as township trustee six terms…. He has been one of the most successful office holders and prominent pioneer citizens in the county.”

Summer Wheat
Pike County, Indiana
Everything in the biography fits with what I know – My family was a pioneer family in Indiana, settling in Pike County near the town of Petersburg because the land was rich and farmable.  Raising dogs for work and companionship goes back through the generations. Longevity has always been a strong suit – with some members making it just short of 100.  Even the prominence of leadership qualities has followed through. 

But newspaper headline that read “Died By Own Hand – Peter Burkhart Kills His Aged and Faithful Wife and Then Kills Himselfsuddenly presented me with information that had not been discussed in the family.  A story I want to know more about.

A Pike County Homestead
The Pike County Democrat newspaper declared this “The most startling case of _____ and suicide which has ever taken place in Pike County.  Peter Burkhart shot his wife, Elizabeth with a shotgun.  She ran out on the porch, followed by Burkhart.  He placed her on a chair where she soon died.  He then took the same gun and emptied a load into his own body.”

The newspaper goes on to report, “It seems however, that without cause he had become jealous of his wife and crazed of the ‘green-eyed monster,’ committed the awful crime which human conscience refuses to commute.  Mr. Burkhart left a piece of writing in which he accuses his aged and faithful wife of marriage infidelity.  This must have been the result of a crazed brain from some accountable cause….”

Peter and Elizabeth Burkhart
Close Up of Their Stone
I know the family had many reasons for letting this family secret pass quickly and quietly into history. But unfortunately, with all of the main family gone, even my grandparents, who would have known parts of the real story, I must now figure out a way to contact cousins to find out more.  And even in this day and age some will want to ‘protect the family secret’ of a murder – suicide that happened well over 100 years ago.

Family Tree
Gathering Storm
But this is what genealogy is all about, researching and discovering facts about your ancestors. That includes the hardships and decisions they made, what circumstances they endured that made them who they were.  I don’t know the end story of Peter Burkhart or why he decided to act as he did that fateful July night in 1887, but I intend to find out all that I can to help me understand it. And who knows what other family secrets I may uncover...

Key in Lock
Remember that if we continue to keep those family secrets, key components of family history will never get fully revealed or stand a chance of being explained.  That could leave us with a large gap in the understanding of who our ancestors were, and the real information that could help us make sense of them could end up lost forever.

As George Bernard Shaw said, If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

~ Joy


  1. I love this. Your introduction about cemeteries is wonderful. I feel the same way but you expressed it so well. I also found your opinion on skeletons in the closet very informative. I have a lot of skeletons and debating what to reveal and when.

    1. Thank You!! It's always interesting to tell someone that I wander cemeteries, shoot stones, and write about it. Some people think its great, and some just don't understand...

      And on those skeletons, trust your instincts!

  2. Yes, exactly! I have always thought of the study of genealogy as being similar to shopping in a second-hand store. If you go in looking for something very specific (a relationship to a famous person, descent from the Mayflower group--whatever), you are bound to be disappointed. If you go in open to whatever interesting tidbits you may find, you are bound to find remarkable reports, just like the newspaper article you found. I have found similar things in my family research. Contrary to causing shame, these are the stories that keep the quest vital--IMHO.


    1. Kristy,
      I love the second-hand store comparison! That really does make sense. What a great way to approach it!!

  3. Apparently there's a murder buried in my grandmother's family's past only no one can remember any detail about it. Or maybe they do.

    Great post!

    Beneath Thy Feet

  4. Some people still feel shame at what an ancestor did and refuse to face the facts.

    Get over it people!

    1. It might help to remember, whatever your ancestors did, it wasn't YOU. And, like it or not - agree with it or not - it is a part of the family history, and that's what genealogy is all about.

  5. My mother was very happy to have me researching the family until I told her there was absolutely no evidence that the person my paternal grandmother claimed was her husband ever existed. My father had no birth certificate, only an "affidavit of birth" when he was 17. There was no marriage license, and no divorce prior to her second marriage. Mom would never listen to a single bit of evidence after that. Dad was gone, his mother was gone, her only remaining sibling had Alzheimer's... So we still don't know positively, but my generation has accepted the probable fact that Dad was a "bastard". We are also not in the least ashamed of it - he made a hell of a man, and a hell of a good life for himself, Mom, and four kids. We're pretty proud of our skeleton!

    1. Thanks for sharing that!! It just proves that in the end, the only person you're responsible for is you....

  6. I was just introduced to your blog. I am enthralled!

    My mother is the one that is doing the genealogy on Pop's side. Mom's side she can trace back to the 11th century.

    Pop's side is cool. Related to famous people, a couple presidents by marriage or blood. A murderess or two. Horse thief. One family was in the 2nd Oklahoma land rush and their soddie (sp?) house still stands. Great great grandfather disowned for marrying an Indian. It is so cool to know these things about my family!

    Wish mom's side was just as interesting. lol.

    She found one cousin, on Thanksgiving day. They contacted each other, since both were looking for that branch of family, and another branch grew.

    Thank you so much for your blog, you made my night!

  7. Thanks, Stormie!! I appreciate knowing that!