Ethical issues in genealogy

The other weekend, I binged a bit on old episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and I suddenly came across an episode I had completely forgotten about, which actually ties in quite nicely with ethical issues in genealogy.

For those who have never seen CSI, it basically centres around a fictional Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigation unit and the cases they, and the Las Vegas police, solve.

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happens in this episode, then stop reading here.

This particular episode concerns a dead genealogist, who was found in the house of one of the principal characters, Dr. Al Robins. Al’s wife is initially suspected because the genealogist is found in her bed, with only her in the house. Long story short, the killer turned out to be related to one of the other cases that the genealogist had been working on. The killer had followed the genealogist to his meeting with Mrs. Robins and killed him, when Mrs. Robins was on the phone outside.

The motive for killing the genealogist is the bit which relates to ethics in genealogy. The genealogist had a client who wanted to find living male relatives on her mother’s side of the family and this actually uncovered a difficult family secret. The killer (who initially had no knowledge of his birth family) found out that his father was actually his own brother and his mother was also his grandmother (meaning that incest had been committed between a mother and her son)! Incidentally, the genealogist’s client would have been the killer’s niece and cousin!

Aside from the mind-boggling family relationships, the main issue here is one of privacy and ethics. Now, the genealogist in this story had no idea about the incest; he had followed the paper records back to the killer and had asked whether the killer wanted to be contacted by the genealogists’ client. It just so happens that the killer found his mother/grandmother on his own and got a decidedly negative response which led him to kill the genealogist. The killer even expressed the wish that he had never found out about his birth family and the incest and that it had all been left alone.

This brings up issues surrounding our own searches for living family and for adoptees as well. Will the family you are searching for want to be found? Will your search uncover sensitive and emotionally distressing issues? And, if distressing issues are found, should you tell people if they don’t already know? Will they want to know? This can also be said for living relatives that you do know. Often, issues such as illegitimacy, mental health and criminality were not spoken about at all, because of the stigma that was attached to them. You might have relatives that will not want to talk about any of these issues and/or will not want to know if you find out something like that yourself.

I found myself in a similar situation, which I will talk about in my next post, but when dealing with sensitive issues and living relatives, you have to stop and think before you let the excitement of a discovery get the better of you. Unfortunately, there are no definite answers if you do find yourself in an ethical dilemma, but think about what the other party might want or not want and whether any discovery you make will affect them on an emotional level. Finding out that your grandfather had an illegitimate child that you never knew about might be a journey of discovery to you, but will the rest of your family, both new and old, feel the same way? It is also about giving people the choice to know or not and coming to terms with the fact that your new-found relative may not want to contact you.

Various articles and blogs have been written about this topic in recent years, especially due to the rise of genetic testing in genealogy- another technique used in the CSI episode. Different professional organisations also have their own ethical guidelines for members and it has been a subject of certain talks at various Conferences I have been to lately. It is certainly an issue that even those pursuing genealogy as a hobby should be thinking about.

Some other useful reading includes Judy G. Russell’s ‘The Legal Genealogist’ blog ( It is written from an American legal point of view but does talk a lot about different ethical situations. Blaine Bettinger’s book ‘The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy’ talks a little bit about the ethics of DNA testing and various websites such as FamilySearch and Ancestry have written blog posts that talk about ethical issues. A colleague has also recently published ‘Ethical Dilemmas in Genealogy’ (Dr. Penny Walters).

So, do continue your journey into your past, but remember to think twice if you are discovering living relatives and potentially distressing events!

The wonder of Wills

Today, I thought I would share with you all how wonderful wills can be for family history research. Luckily, they are documents that most people are familiar with these days, but why can they be especially useful for family history research?

Back before the introduction of the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in 1837, all vital life events would have been recorded by the church. Unfortunately, baptism, marriage and burial records don’t always contain a great deal of information and it can be more difficult to confirm whether someone is your ancestor, especially if the surname is quite commonplace. There are other records that can be used to help in these cases, but often none contain quite as much information as a will. You might think that only the very wealthy left wills, but sometimes tradesmen, yeomen and others who were further down the social ladder also left them.

I recently did a bit more research on my Gloucestershire family, who came from Eastington (near Stroud) and it turns out that they were baptised in that village for almost 300 years! The earliest I have found so far was Richard Miles (baptised in 1596) and the most recent was the descendant of one of Richard’s brothers, my great-grandfather Arthur Henry Lewis Morgan (baptised in 1881). From the difference in surnames, you can tell that the descent from the Miles family came down through mostly female lines to get to my great-grandfather.

As you would expect, there is very little detail about the family in the baptism, marriage and burial records, so what was really wonderful, was that in the Miles family I found no less than four wills! Two were from the 1700s and the other two from the early 1600s and (with the exception of Margery Miles), all were male and weavers of some sort from Eastington. Weaving was a popular occupation in the area and would have been done by hand around the time these wills were written.

Now, it is obvious that these wills can tell you roughly when the person died- not the exact date though as the will would have been written before death and the date included in the will would have been the date that probate was granted. There is a wealth of information though, that you can find apart from the obvious. Wills can include a burial location, various bequests to family, specific religious institutions, also to friends and perhaps servants, who the executor of the will was and some idea of a person’s wealth in the amount and type of goods they were bequeathing. You might also be able to get an insight into the religious practices of the time or of the person, by the way any religious clauses are written.

The most exciting will for me was the will of Margery Miles from 1617. Before reading the will, I thought her maiden name had been Kinge, as this is the name on her marriage record to Thomas Miles on 26 November 1595. From her will I found that:

  • Margery’s maiden name was actually Chedworth (she left 30 shillings to Joane, daughter of her brother Thomas Chedworth)
  • She left various goods to her sons Richard, Thomas and William Miles
  • Margery also left the rest of her possessions to her son John Kinge and made him her executor

The baptism and burial records support this will, as a Robert Kinge was buried in Eastington on 10 March 1595 and four Kinge children were baptised in Eastington: Juliana (1586), Sara (1588), Richard (1591) and John (1593), all children of Robert Kinge.

Without Margery’s will, this information may have been more difficult to find, especially as history tends to record from a male point of view. But now I have been able to confirm her children by Thomas Miles, I have found her other children by her first marriage and I know that she was born Chedworth, had a brother named Thomas and a niece named Joane!

Eastington Church

The other will that was very exciting was technically not a will, but an inventory. Nathaniel Miles was a great-grandson of Thomas Miles and Margery Chedworth and he was buried in Eastington on 23 October 1736. He died without making a will, but his son John appeared before the local church court and asked for the administration of Nathaniel’s estate to be granted to him. There is an accompanying inventory of Nathaniel’s goods because he died intestate. Nathaniel was also a weaver (a broadweaver) and his inventory contains 13 separate items. Some of these were:

  • his clothes
  • debts
  • 2 beds with bedding
  • drinking vessels
  • a round table
  • an old loom
  • lumber goods
  • shop goods
  • 2 horses
  • all of the items came to the value of £18, 10 shillings (approximately £2,920 today)

From these items, we can start to build up more of a picture of Nathaniel’s day to day life. It seems that he might have had goods that he sold, although it is not clear whether Nathaniel had a physical shop. He was obviously not wealthy, but not a pauper either.

Something else that the administration request from John Miles tells me, is that he was no longer living in Eastington where his family came from, but in the parish of Standish instead. This is a migration that may or may not have been easy to track without this document.

I could probably go on all day about how wonderful wills are, but I will let you discover your own wills instead! The wills and parish baptisms, marriages and burials I have discussed were found through this time, using:

  • Gloucestershire, England, Church of England Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1813
  • Gloucestershire, England, Wills and Inventories, 1541-1858

BUT don’t forget that there is so much more to find at the Gloucestershire Archives:

Happy will hunting!