I thought I would share with you some of the rabbit holes that open up to those of us who go searching for ancestors.
I recently received a long note from my niece that illustrated all of the problems I have already detailed…women’s records are difficult and spotty, common names like Jane and John and William are hard to wade through, families often switch between references to first and middle and then compound names (Michelle, I’d suspect that Sarah Jane actually could be the full name for someone referred to as Sarah and/or Jane).
There is the frustrating use of junior and senior, which in the old days did not necessarily indicate father and son (or mother and daughter) but rather meant older and younger closely related family possibly living in the same house or neighborhood.
Then there’s the rabbit hole of a good story possibly unrelated to your family. I went down that rabbit hole yesterday.
One of my ancestors had a unique middle name. In researching his father, I found that I had two choices for his mother, both with the same first name, but one with the last name that matched my ancestor’s middle name. That was a pretty good clue as to which possible mother I should track, so I began to look for that surname which was Elston.
I casually scrolled down several pages of search results, finding several probable new relatives when I was struck by one result that read “A Warning for Bad Wives or The Manner of the Burning of Sarah Elston Who was Burnt to Death on Wednesday the 24th of April 1678 For Murdering her Husband….”
I had no indication that where were any ancestors named Sarah or Thomas Elston in that generation of my Elston line, but how could I pass up a story like this? I couldn’t.
It was a most controversial case, raising all the questions that we struggle with in this day and age. On the bare facts of the case, Sarah’s crime would appear to be a matter of self-defense. During a heated argument, Thomas had beat Sarah severely with a fire shovel and was reaching for a frying pan to continue the abuse when Sarah stabbed him in the left chest with a pair of scissors.
An editorial note here: a frying pan would not have been a lightweight, one-egg Teflon pan like we use today—it would have been a large, cast iron skillet and would have probably resulted in a totally different outcome for Thomas and Sarah.
The story does, however, include much testimony from neighbors and paints a picture of regular marital strife including violent arguments, physical altercations and loud and public threats of future revenge and even death.
Neighbors told of Sarah’s threats on her husband’s life and how her drunkenness and profligate spending had driven him to try “to beat her out of this wicked course, and to that end [he] did sometimes chastise her with blows…”
Thomas was described as “troubled and disturbed” by his need to use violence on his wife, violence that included throwing her down the stairs on the night of the final argument.
Witnesses heard Thomas “wish himself dead, or that he had been buried alive that day he was married to her” and Sarah’s threats that at one time or other she would kill him.
Historian J.M. Beattie, PhD. is a professor in the History Department of the University of Toronto, and he wrote extensively about crime and law in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He commented on this case, and I’m sure many will be upset by what he says, but remember, he is telling it like it was in the 1600’s.
He says the “self-defense plea was inappropriate in the context of husband-murder” because “in law, wielding a knife or pair of scissors against a man who used mere bodily force or a blunt instrument indicated excessive retaliation,” not legitimate self-defense.
Bottom line, Sarah was found guilty and burned at the stake for her crime. At the stake, before her sentence was carried out, it was reported that she said, “notwithstanding all his Abuses,” she still felt that “she had done very ill in lifting up her hand against her Husband, and offering to revenge her self of him.”
My guess is that all law enforcement officers would recognize these events back in the 1600’s as exactly the kind of domestic situations they find themselves called out on in this day and age.
You see how I get involved in this research and end up being late to work or unable to eke out time to write or forget to go to bed at a reasonable time!
Once again, I must say, schools should teach history this way, with genealogical research. The problems, the relationships, the issues, the hopes and dreams of the past are all present now in the lives we live every day.
Probably some of the truest words ever spoken are George Santayana’s: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Yes, Winston Churchill said something like this, but Santayana said it first.)
I think I might add that those who can’t understand the past will never understand the present.