“My Ancestor was Nuts” and Other Uncomfortable Truths of Genealogy

“My Ancestor Was Nuts” and Other Uncomfortable Truths of Genealogy” 

By Gillian Leitch

I found out, through research in the Montreal newspapers of the late nineteenth century, that my great-great-grandfather had been a patient of the city’s lunatic asylum.  With a little more digging I found out that he had been put there because he had attacked his brother with shears.  Further digging found out that he had been a prominent part of a chapter in a book called “Fous, prodigues et ivrognes.  Familles et deviance a Montrea au XIXe siecle” by Thierry Nootens [McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007].  Yeah something to be proud of.

So how does one deal with this kind of information?

This is how I see it: my research into my family’s history is not really about me.  I am not my great-great-grandfather.  His life was his, and no matter how bad it turns out to be, I cannot take it personally.  Sure, I feel sad about his problems which, from research in the court records, I found to be quite serious.

He was apparently an alcoholic, and from the five years before his being locked up, he hounded his wife and children, accused them of poisoning him, visited them in the middle of the night to yell at them, and then watched as one by one they fled the house to live with one of his married daughters. He attacked his brother when he was over at the house to help his sister in law get some of her belongings. Then the law came into play, and he was locked up.  He fought the findings of his incompetence and actually won his freedom (which according to Nootens was extraordinary).  The judge stated that he was within his rights to control the actions of those in his home.  He died three weeks later.

In reality, finding an ancestor who lived a more than ordinary life is like winning the historical sources lottery.  Rather than hanging my head in shame for the actions of a dead man, I revelled in the material that I was able to find, when I found out that John Patrick Cuddy was put into the Longue Pointe Asylum.  His obituary mentioned his stay there, the newspapers covered the court proceedings, and the court records held over fifty pages of testimony from his family, his doctors, and others concerned with the case, and with the family.  I even found out, through these records, when he visited Ireland (and no I am not sure why this was an issue in the court case), how he did business, who lived with him, his relationships with all of his children, his maid, and how much property he owned. These people came alive.  It was gold.  Absolute gold.

When doing your family history you have to understand that there will be things that you will find out that won’t be comfortable.  Not everyone lived a simple, honest life. Rather than to fear it, I say embrace the oddballs, nutcases, and criminals.  They make the search more interesting, and are certainly not any reflection on you and how you live your life.

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About gilliandr

A historian and traveller
This entry was posted in 19C, Canada, Family History, Genealogy, Ireland and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “My Ancestor was Nuts” and Other Uncomfortable Truths of Genealogy

  1. Doréus says:

    I’d be curious to see what Isabelle has to say about this, given that in her thesis/book, she argues that genealogists’ tendency in general is to embellish the past and try to gloss over the less-than-desirable chapters in a family’s history.
    In many ways, you may have started as a genealogist, but you have turned out much more the historian than the genealogist.

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