Every extended family has misfortune of one sort or another, somewhere along the line:
- failed crops/losing the farm or house
- women dying from complications of childbirth
- infant/child deaths
- marital discord
- loved ones not returning from military service
The family lines I research are no different. As a researcher, it’s my responsibility to record and document what I find. Sometimes, though, the information is of a “sensitive” nature. I’ve learned to put on my “Sargent Joe Friday” hat to record “the facts” and keep my opinions and biases out of it–not get caught up in the drama, and hopefully not create any! It’s certainly not my job to judge. Hopefully I succeed.
But I am not merely a researcher–I usually am part of that family in some way. As such, I must be mindful of the people involved or affected by the event or situation, and not sacrifice feelings or privacy in my zeal for “the truth.” The need to temper how information is handled might be because
- the event is very recent, and people haven’t healed
- it might be embarrassing–and the people involved (or very close) are still alive and would feel hurt
- it really isn’t my story to tell
On occasion I will put notes in a private area, so I don’t lose track of the information, but keep it out of general circulation. More often, I simply record it, but not draw attention to it. If it’s noticed by someone, I can discuss it with them, perhaps providing more explanation and context. Time and distance provide perspective, and as time goes by, the sensitive topic generally becomes less touchy.
While I can find at least one example of each of the misfortunes above, I’m going to drop back 300+ years to Alsace (NE corner of present-day France). That should give us LOTS of perspective! The year is 1673, and Alsace is still comprised of kingdoms, duchies, and whatnot. While my ancestors lived in Dehlingen, Lorentzen, Waldhambach, Berg, and other small villages in Bas-Rhin; Diemeringen was the location of the local lord. As such, it is where trials would have been held, and punishments meted out.
Genealogist Robert Weinland (an 8th cousin, once removed, I believe) put together a web page for his genealogy in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, my original link broke, though the information can still be accessed via the “wayback machine” at Internet Archive: (copy and paste this 2007 link)
Though further searching turned up his current web page at this address (you may need to run Google Translate on it):
In the section listing the people “beheaded and burned near the gallows” on 16 October 1673, three of the six listed are direct ancestors of mine:
- Ottilia [Bach], widow of Carl Ensminger,
- Margaretha, wife of Anstett Hemmert,
and (my favorite, but don’t tell the others . . . ),
- Walburga/Walpurga [Eberhard], wife of Johannes Koeppel
Two 9th great-grandmothers, and one 10th great-grandmother. Why is Walburga my favorite? She was the first one I learned of. Just like a first kiss or a first love, the first witch is something special. I love Otillia & Margaretha, too, but they are just extra icing on the cake.
Their death record in Diemeringen (transcribed and translated at the bottom of Robert’s web page) simply records the deaths, giving no information regarding the charges against any of them. I don’t know if any court-type records survive in Diemeringen that could shed light on the events leading up to these people being accused and found guilty. All three were older (thankfully, or they would’t be direct ancestors!), and surprisingly had adult children, and husbands (except for Ottilia) alive at the time of their execution. Generally, those accused of witchcraft were more likely to be alone in life and not have close relatives who could protect them. It seems a little odd mine were singled out, despite having family. Interestingly, one of Walburga’s sons was the maire (mayor) of Dehlingen later on, so clearly it didn’t impact his reputation negatively.
The consensus now is the Salem, Massachusetts, witch accusations were baseless–caused by anger, fear, or jealousy, and “confirmed” by atypical behavior by the accused. Some of the behaviors could have simply been eccentricities (hey, some people like dancing naked in the woods during a full moon!), or physical (epilepsy?) or mental (schizophrenia?) illnesses that were unknown, not understood, or treatable at the time. It’s unlikely accusations in the “old world” were much different. I seriously doubt they were casting any spells on people or things.
Am I upset or embarrassed by my witches? Heavens, no! While I am not “proud” of them, I’m certainly not bothered by them, either. They had the misfortune of being out of step in some way with the rest of the local society, and suffered for it. So I love my witches–all of them. Hopefully at some future date, no 9th-great-grandchild of mine will be embarrassed by my eccentricities or (figurative) warts . . .