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February 26, 2011

Are Genealogists Desensitized to Horrors and Tragedies?

Last year while searching for hubs' English ancestors I stumbled on the Southwold Diary of James Maggs, 1818-1876 on 

This database contains the diary of James Maggs written between 1818 and 1876. James Maggs was, among other things, a respected schoolmaster in the town of Southwold. He was interested in maritime events and lived in the coastal town of Southwold in Suffolk County for much of his life. 
Hubs' ancestors lived in Southwold and this diary was an amazing find. In it I found many references to the Martin family, Boniwell family and Markham family - all of whom were in hubs' lineage. One entry in particular proved fascinating (albeit dreadful) 

Hubs' 5th great-grandfather was James Martin (ca 1781-1842), owner of the Red Lion Inn in Southwold. A search of his name brought up several references including a first-hand account of his death in 1842. James died while firing a cannon to celebrate the Prince of Wales' birthday. This was a yearly event and townspeople gathered for the fun and excitement of hearing the town cannons firing their salutes. But this year the cannon firing had tragic consequences for poor James.
On Nov. 9, 1842 on occasion of Prince of Wales' birthday and election of mayor,  "our guns (cannons) were fired [and] one of the Preventive officers, James Martin, was, as is supposed owing to ye N.E. cannon not being carefully sponged, killed upon the spot - deceased was in the act of ramming her charge"

When firing a cannon the following steps had to be taken:

1. Powder bags were placed down the front of the barrel
2. A cannon ball wasn inserted in the barrel and  a ramrod used to push it all to the back or bottom.
3. A fuse was placed in a small hole drilled in the top back of the cannon that led to where the powder bags sat.
4. Aim the cannon, light the fuse and the cannon ball would shoot out

If a cannon was being fired repeatedly the inside of the barrel had to be swabbed out between each shot to remove any burning coals. Apparently James, or an assistant, didn't take the time to do this properly and the cannon exploded when he rammed the powder bag into the barrel.

For genealogists this is the kind of detail we long for. But often we lose sight of the tragedy itself and how it must have affected others. Imagine the shock of the crowd. Little children playing, perhaps eating sweet treats on this special day when suddenly someone is blown to pieces before their eyes. It must have been horrifying.

But we genealogists become somewhat desensitized to the horrors and the tragedies and simply add the notations and sources to our genealogy programs to share with other family members. Poor James. I wish we knew more about him other than this gory death. But I admit that hubs and I could hardly wait to share James' fate with the rest of the family.

It seems that the gorier the details, the happier we genealogists are. What are your thoughts? And how can we ensure that we retain our humanity by caring about each ancestor as a real once-living person and not just a name and date in our database.


Lisa Wallen Logsdon said...

I don't feel like I am desensitized at all. I automatically tend to imagine and relive each death scenario as I discover it. More now than in the beginning 16 years ago, I appreciate each and every person individually.

Genealogy Blogger said...

Lisa I'm glad to hear that. I'm afraid that my first reaction is invariably "Oh wow that's so cool!" It isn't until later that I actually think about the death - how dreadful it may have been for the individual. And MUCH later before I think about how the death affected others involved - victim's family, friends and so on.

I'm not a cold uncaring person which is why I wonder if we genealogists get so caught up in the STORIES (the more bizarre/unusual the better!) more than the individual.

Riley said...

For my research purposes, the sensational deaths that get good press have provided some great leads. I appreciate that part of the information, but always have reflection about how that may have affected the people that I am reading about.

Lisa Wallen Logsdon said...

There are a number of tragic deaths I have found out about, mostly through records although a couple of the later ones were remembered by family and told to me by a family member. Several suicides, several murders. They are really fascinating because we can't really know all the circumstances surrounding the event and I have to admit they ARE exciting to find out about because it's not the usual sickness or old age demise. Anything that sparks our imagination is certainly cool, LOL!

JenS said...

Honestly, I think I was more desensitized before I had children. I used to be more interested in just the facts but now I consider how events must have affected the family and others involved.
And today when I discover the deaths of children under any circumstances, I am particularly saddened. I recently found the only child of one relation died in infancy. I am quite possibly the only person alive today who 'remembers' that child once existed. I find that bittersweet and it helps me remember that everyone was important to someone no matter how long or short the life or how tragic the death.

Sarah B. said...

This is a really interesting question. I find that the more time that has passed since the event, the less sensitive I am to it. But, I do try to remind myself that this was an actual person, whose family had to deal with a tragedy. Still, it is great to have these kinds of details to add to a family's history, awful though they may be. They remind those who will read our research that we are not name collectors, but engaged in reconstructing the lives of real people.

Greta Koehl said...

If anything, I think my research has made me more sensitive to the aftereffects of events - not just horrors and tragedies, but even family alienation in the aftermath of lawsuits, etc. We can often trace the effects of those events - I have seen members of what was once a well-off family working in a laundromat on the 1930 census, most likely the result of the Depression.

Anonymous said...

I don't think genealogists are more or less desensitized to horrors and tragedies than any other group. It's part of human nature to be drawn to the gory. For genealogists, we get excited about horrific events in part because they tend to cause the creation of good records! In some ways, I think that genealogists are much more in tune with the circle of life (if you want to call it that). The population as a whole would probably say, for example, "It was tough way back when. Lots of babies died." Genealogists are the ones who research and record those babies -- making sure that they are not forgotten.

Terry Loucks U.E. said...

Here is another tragedy found in my family research. The widow,I later discovered, was 5 months pregnant at the time. A sad sad story. A sense of empathy helps !

An accident, resulting in sudden death saddened the hearts of the people in the vicinity of Minden Village, on friday last, 7th, 1875instant. William Taylor, renting and working the saw mill on Gull River, near this village about noon invited his wife to come to view certain logs as they passed over the rapids towards the mill, and which were to be used by him. Scarcely had they reached the bridge and he commenced to pry the logs up with a pike pole, than one became fast and required a stronger effort from poor Taylor. From some cause it moved more easily than he expected; he lost his balance, fell backward beneath the boom he had stood upon, was carried under it by the current, and down the rapid, only appearing now and then as the impetuous waters forced him over the rugged rocks that form the river's bed, and so out of all sight and help. To the four or five persons near, the poor fellow seemed to be dashed against logs etc. for some twenty rods till the foot of the falls was reached, and therefore began a search near in an eddy, but to no avail til Saturday noon, when the body was recovered, bruised terribly. On Sunday, the remains were carried to the grave. The Orangemen marshaled by S.S.Peck, Esq. Reeve of Minden, accompanied and showed due respect to the departed as a brother. The Rev. Fredrick Burt officiated. After the Church of England service at the grave was concluded, the chaplain of the Orangemen performed their accustomed obsequies, then neatly filled in the grave and returned in order to their lodge. A widow and two sons by a former wife, are left to mourn his untimely end.

Marian Pierre-Louis said...

I agree with Jen that I too became more sensitive to this sort of thing after I became a mother. It's amazing how motherhood changes a person. I am most sensitive to reading these kinds of stories about children. Whether it happened 5 years ago or 300 hundred years ago I am still horrified. I don't have quite as much trouble with adults. But these sorts of events are somewhat beneficial to us as genealogists because it means a lot more information is available about the participants and the event.

Missy/Bayside Research Services said...

I don't think I am desensitized, but I am fascinated by certain stories and what I have learned has led me to be amazed that many of my ancestors lived as long as they did, considering how dangerous their lives could be. I do admit to being excited by the records tragedies leave in their wake, but I always find myself reflecting on such incidents and being thankful for what I have.

Lorine said...

I am really enjoying reading the comments you have all left. I am still questioning though whether or not it is truly possible to internalize all that emotion from every ancestor's tragic death. If we feel each death deeply would it not be too overwhelming and make it too difficult for us to carry on as genealogists?

When I worked with abused children I had to distance myself and see them as non-emotionally as possible. If I had not done so, I would have burned out and been incapable of helping them.

That does not mean I didn't care. I did. But I think we have to switch off the empathy switch sometimes or we would fall apart.

Lynn Palermo said...

I have always encouraged the storytelling of our ancestor's lives and not just a rendition of the facts. It was my goal when writing my family history to make my ancestors real, human and I wanted the compassion of the reader. When my family sent me emails telling me they laughed and cried I knew I had successfully reached my goal and portrayed my ancestors in the most respectful, compassionate and sensitive way I knew how. I believe it is equally as important as conveying the facts of any document.

Anonymous said...

LOL! When I read "Desensitized" I was imaging all kinds of hand sanitizers being used. LOL! But I am right there with many... I immediately think, "NO WAY! They are gonna love this story!" I am not sure that is the genealogist in me or the historian in my husband, but we come together loving these kinds of stories with our ancestors. I feel the same way about finding a marriage that no one knew about, or a ancestor who was going to jail but somehow fleed the train & never seen again, or when I find a biological mother on a birth certificate that NO ONE knew about :) LOL! We live for the stories!

Anonymous said...

When I am indexing from newspapers, I almost always will read all newspapers in our area for the same year and/or time frame so I see/read the same story eight or nine times. There are times I hope no one writes for a specific obituary or a story, as they are difficult to read when I'm not related to them. For me the more difficult ones are the stories that involve those still living - the weight of knowing too many stories.

Geni Grant said...

Fascinating concept. I think all historians, genealogists included, have to detach themselves when doing research.

If we were emotional wrecks all the time, nothing would ever get done, I suppose.

Keith said...

Just one point - this James Martin was a coastguard - the James Martin at the Red Lion actually died in 1844