There’s a Black Sheep in the Tree! – Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors

There’s a Black Sheep in the Tree! – Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors

  • Ever thought about revealing your ancestors’ uncomfortable secrets and grisly tales?
  • Everyone has a black sheep in the family, who’s yours? Stephen Wade, true crime and crime history writer, explores the delights and shocks of tracing his criminal ancestors.

Writing Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors by Stephen Wade.

At the time I began to write true crime and crime history, I think that everyone writing any kind of social history knew about, and used, David Hawkings’ Criminal Ancestors, which is very solid and packed with examples from court records. But being a freelance writer looking for opportunities, it struck me that there was a need for a shorter read on the market. The market research was simple: there were just two series of that kind, from the Society of Genealogists and from pen and Sword books. I approached the latter and so the book began to take shape.

I have to say that, in this year in which my 70th book comes into print, this was one of the toughest challenges. There was just so much crime in the records; the human being is a creature who relishes transgression, and sometimes that stepping over the line is illegal. Of course, what was illegal in 1800 is often not illegal now. Even more daunting when I began the book was the realisation that criminal justice systems change and evolve with great complexity. I was not a lawyer, not a police officer. I was an amateur.

The mugshot of Frank Sinatra
Mugshot of Frank Sinatra: one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century was arrested on a morals charge for seduction.

In a sense, my amateur status was an advantage. I looked with innocent eyes at records and cases; I enjoyed chasing up the legal terminology, as it presented me with a truly knotty and fascinating challenge. After I had written several lists, in order to ascertain the sheer breadth of the subject, I started to see some kind of progression and shape. The most essential research tool was a complete diagram of the courts system from the magistrates’ court up to the superior courts. Then other subjects entered the picture, such as transportation and of course, capital punishment.

Still, I was aware that this had to be a book for family historians, and so it was essentially about where to find the ‘paper chase’ relating to the most common offences. The heart of the matter was the trajectory of the average crime narrative. Once I knew what that was, for the greater part of the time period covered, then the case studies became easier.

After some time passed in archives, staring at documents and deciphering the language, eventually, the most enjoyable part came in: the stories. One of the main reasons for the growth of interest in crime history is of course the possibility that one may have a black sheep in the genealogical record; there may be some very nasty DNA in the researcher, and ancestors may well have been anything from a petty thief to Jack the Ripper. Unfortunately, in my own case, my family were potters, farmers, lace-makers and soldiers and they all stayed on the right side of the law – or, at least, if they transgressed, they were never caught.

You can buy Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors from Amazon.

‘Famous Crimes’ magazine
‘Famous Crimes’ magazine.
‘The History of Newgate magazine
The History of Newgate, a popular publication c.1880

This was a book that needed case studies, and there was no problem there: I had spent several years researching crime and so I had plenty of cases in my files from which to choose. But of course, the case studies had to illustrate typical searches and offences or perhaps courts and trials. To back this up, I had original documents. Fortunately, my writing involves a certain amount of collecting; crime historians tend to be compulsive collectors of the material sources of every aspect of police and legal history. Consequently I own such items as a poster about an assassination attempt on the life of Queen Victoria, a record of a hanging from the 1890s, ‘penny dreadful’ literature and ephemera relating to prison escapes and horrible murder.

York Castle, an early Victorian crime chronicle
York Castle, an early Victorian crime chronicle.
Assassination attempt of Queen
A poster giving an account of an attempt at assassination.

Now that there is so much available online, I would recommend, more than ever before, that historians start with the court records and then the newspaper material. After that, some of the most interesting footnotes from crime history are in such literature as police and lawyers’ memoirs, and in features in periodicals. I made discoveries which have helped me in my later research for books, of course, and one of my most pleasurable occupations when working on a book is to read the secondary texts such as street ballads, poems or dramas.

Naturally, there is the topic of the potential shock and revulsion at finding that one’s ancestor was indeed a very bad lot. Anyone following the television series, Who Do You think You Are? Will recall Patsy Kensit’s repeated confrontations with villains in her family story. But for most of us, the knowledge we acquire from studying the crime committed is related to offences committed in contexts of desperation and dire straits, such as when a man went poaching in order that his family would not starve.

Overall, writing the book was both a chore and a delight. That could probably be said of all writing- creative or non-fictional – but the satisfaction for me was that I deepened my knowledge of crime and law. I saw that writing about a crime from the past involves digging deeply into the social situation from which motives of transgression emerged. I enjoyed the work so much that I then wrote Tracing Your Police Ancestors and Tracing Your Legal Ancestors for the same series.

More recently, I did recall that there had been a ‘black sheep’ in my family but it was a very sad case indeed: a suicide, committed just a few years before suicide ceased to be a criminal offence (in 1961).

Vintage suicide poster
A poster from 1846 demonstrating how alcoholism can lead to poverty, crime, and eventually suicide. In most Western countries, suicide is no longer a crime; but was in most Western European countries from the Middle Ages until at least the 1800's.

Today, when writing on crime history, I still have David Hawkings’ book at my elbow, as it is for comprehensive reference. But I like to think that my book has helped readers to see the working of the courts, police and criminal records through the ages.

•   •   •

Stephen Wade

Stephen Wade is a professional writer specialising in regional crime, family heritage and nineteenth century history. He has written numerous books for Pen and Sword, most recently Britain’s Most Notorious HangmenTracing Your Police Ancestors and DNA Crime Investigations.

His upcoming books Going to Extremes: The Adventurous Life of Harry de Windt, due August 2016, is available to preorder from Pen and Sword Books.

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