Sunday, November 8, 2015

Skeletons in the Closet: Illegitimate Births

This is one in my occasional series of posts about those "touchy" subjects which may arise during your family history research, or which some relatives may try to have you ignore.  A page listing all of the posts in the series can be found here.

It isn't actually that uncommon to find an illegitimate birth, or more broadly a birth outside of a marriage, in a family.  Modern society doesn't have a lock on the situation; it's been going on for hundreds of years.  There are court cases in the 1600's for financial support for children fathered out of wedlock.  But depending on the family's social status and the specific circumstances, there may have been embarrassment at the time and more now when learning about it.

In some times and places, there wasn't even a stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock as long as the couple stayed together and raised and supported the child.

I recently confirmed that my paternal grandfather was born seven months before his mother married.  I don't know if his father was the man his mother married, as no name appears on the original birth registration.  The fact that my great-grandmother added that husband's name to the amended birth record 37 years later, 22 years after the man in question had died, doesn't exactly make me feel too confident about it.  I'm currently exploring other ways to investigate that and try to learn more definitively who my great-grandfather was.

Several years ago I learned that my grandparents were never married.  My grandfather was still married to his first wife but was a real charmer, and my grandmother apparently was ok with the situation.  My father was surprised to find out, but luckily he has a good sense of humor.

As young soldiers were going off to fight in World War II, many of them convinced their girlfriends to "give" just a little more, which led to several "surprises" about nine months later.  We have one of those in my family also.

The confusing part about researching an illegitimate child is figuring out what surname the birth is registered under.  When searching for my grandfather's record, my first two attempts were for Sellers.  When I learned that his parents had married after his likely birth date, I tried with his mother's maiden name, which I eventually learned was the name on the birth record.  Of course, I was looking for a boy, and I had no way of knowing then that his original record said that he was a female child; that doesn't happen very often, though.  (Though I do have a second example of it in my family:  My half-sister's maternal grandfather, whose name was Francis Maria [a good Irish Catholic name!], was recorded as a girl with the name Frances Maria.)  You just need to leave your mind open to multiple possibilities.

If this research involves relatives who have all passed away, it often doesn't cause too many problems among living family members.  If it's for people who are still alive, your access to records may be affected by privacy restrictions.  Then you'll probably have to ask those living family members for help, and they may not want to talk.  As usual, be diplomatic and nonjudgmental, but don't be surprised if you are rebuffed anyway.  You may simply need to put that particular research on the back burner for a while.

And speaking of skeletons in the closet, the Illinois State Genealogical Society is offering a free Webinar this Tuesday, November 10, on that very subject.  It will run from 8:00-9:00 p.m. Central time.  You can register for it here.


  1. Wish I had discovered this site before now and had seen the webinar. I discovered that my grandfather was born 3 years before his parents married. I had had trouble finding his birth record until it dawned on me to look under her maiden name and sure enough it was there. There was another man's name listed as the father (a neighbor living a few doors down). However my grandfather was given the first and middle names of my great grandfather who was only 17 at the time. Not sure if the neighbor knew that he had been named on the record - it's a mystery. My great grandfather's and great grandmother's families lived in the same building. My grandfather's sister was born several years later but also before the parents married. There is little doubt though that my great grandfather was the father of my grandfather because my dad is the spitting image of my great grandfather (and also named for him). My father does not want to acknowledge that his father was born out of wedlock though.

    1. It does help to narrow down your choices if the child looks a lot like the parent. With my grandfather and his siblings, they all looked like their mother, and we have only one photo (that I know of) of their father. I turned to Y-DNA testing to resolve the question of who my grandfather's father was. I hope to be able to post about that soon.

      If your father looks just like his grandfather, it is definitely confusing why the birth record lists the neighbor. You might want to consider DNA testing just to make sure, if you can find someone appropriate to test.

      As for your father not wanting to acknowledge the situation, probably no way to change that. You'll just have to talk about other parts of your family history with him, I guess.


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