If there are criminals throughout history, chances are you have one on your family tree. When you write a genealogy book, how do you tell the stories of criminal ancestors? And should you?
I teach writing workshops online and in-person and receive some of the most FASCINATING questions. This Q&A is one such exchange.
Reader Question: I have a family story that I want to include following the A Recipe for Writing Family History method. However, the story involves a person of questionable character. My relative received medical assistance from a General in General during World War II. Without that support, the relative would have died. Years later, the general was captured and executed for war crimes. How do I share a war criminal's human side without offending people and making it sound like anything other than history?
To order your copy of the book the reader mentioned in their question, check out the prices on Amazon for A Recipe for Writing Family History.
How to Write about Criminal on Your Family Tree
It's real simple: Write the story as it happened.
Your job is not to pass judgment on anyone in your family tree.
Your task is to present the facts you discover in as objective a fashion as possible. Then let your reader decide for themselves. There are a few things to recognize:
Criminals Weren't All Bad
Many criminals in history did positive things. I remember visiting the Saratoga Battlefield in upstate New York. There is a monument of Benedict Arnold. It does not mention his name and is only of his boot to honor his heroic deeds during the battle that turned the tide of the war.
Yet, Benedict Arnold is a traitor.
If your ancestor interacted with Benedict Arnold, you would not hide the story, would you?
Yes, you would.
You would include Mr. Arnold in your story because the story is in the distant past, and many can accept that he was a complicated man.
It would be best to write the complete story of your ancestor who had trouble with the law. Let readers see the good and bad things they did.
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Websites Dedicate to Famous Criminals
Some websites talk about the most famous criminals throughout history. Not every such websites glorify the crimes but instead shares the account.
Take the same approach with your lesser-known ancestors and their crimes. Share the stories from a fact-based approach.
Watch this video on YouTube.
Record The Stories of Your Ancestors
In the case of the reader's ancestor’s interaction with the German General, include the details. Yes, the man committed war crimes, which must have been egregious to have resulted in his execution. However, the man was not entirely evil.
Record the story your ancestor shared. At that moment, the General was a blessing in another man’s life. You can mention how the general’s life came to its end. However, don’t defend or accuse him. It is what it was.
Moreover, this anecdote is a fascinating peek into German history, and it is leaders. The question that will remain in your family’s mind is, “How could the man who helped Uncle _____, have been so cruel on a larger scale which ended his life?”
You will not have to discuss that question, but your inclusion of the moment will lead readers to it themselves. Moreover, if anyone is offended, that is their problem, not yours.