Friday, September 25, 2015

Problematic: Between History and Gossip

When I first started trying to ask my grandmother for stories about the members of our family that I never knew, she became very uncomfortable. At first, I couldn't understand why, but she tried to explain to me that collecting stories about the family seemed like the sin of Gossip to her. I learned to back off and let her tell me what she was comfortable sharing, but it could be frustrating to see the way she held back from saying anything she thought was negative.

Personally, I'm not as interested in salacious details as I am in finding out what people were like and what they might have thought about the world around them. Unfortunately, most things that we might find interesting or adventurous - or simply "human" - tend to be very close to Gossip. When I find a story that seems tawdry, shocking, or potentially embarrassing, I think about grandma, and try to use her sensibilities as a guide between recording history as it happened and simply sharing a juicy story.

Today we have something of an update on someone who was included in the previous post, The Sons of the Shoemaker. In case you don't want to click back to re-read it, here is our relevant relative:
William Jefferson Callin was born in Tiro, Crawford county, 17 May 1885. His father's dry goods business was doing well, and the family had relocated to a larger city, where Martin served as postmaster. William would be four years old when his father was killed [in a collision with a train], and he was likely raised in his step-father's home. According to the CFH, he married Elizabeth Ziters in 1907, and they had two children: Joseph (b. 1909) and Virginia Alice (b. 1911).
This marriage would not last, though, and in 1916, Elizabeth remarried to a Carl D Lindsey, who appears to have adopted Joseph and Virginia, as they are listed in 1920 with his surname - not Callin. I can confirm that the Ohio birth index lists both children as being born with the name Callin, and both records show "Additional information" indicating that their mothers' maiden name was "Zeiters." I lost track of Joseph after that 1920 Census, though a Social Security Index for Joseph Lindsey matching his birth date indicates that he most likely died in 1983. Virginia married John H Davis around 1931, and they had two daughters.
As for William, he was married to another woman named Pleassia1, according to his World War I draft registration card, and the 1920 Census, but after that, he stayed single, and went from living with Pearl and Robert Todd (1930) to renting a room on South Broadway in Shelby (1940), to listing his address as the County Home in Richland county (WWII draft registration). He died in 1949.
As it happens, the first sentence of that second paragraph is a bit of an understatement - "This marriage would not last..." - and this excerpt from a 13 July 1910 story in the Mansfield News should make it clear what I mean:
"Elizabeth Callin, of Shelby, has filed an action in probate court against William Callin and Mrs. Harrison Carlisle, in which she asks that she be decreed reasonable alimony and an allowance for the support of her child, also that she be awarded the custody of the child.
"The parties were married Sept. 4, 1907, and have one son, Joseph.
"The petitioner says that her husband has been guilty of habitual drunkenness covering substantially the whole period of their married life; that during the times he was drinking he was neglectful of his duties toward her in that he remained out late at night and repeatedly ordered her to leave their home.
"She says that for some time he has caused her to live in the same house with his mother, Mrs. Harrison Carlisle, who has urged and increased the trouble between them...
"The plaintiff says that she is now living with her father and mother and by reason of her present physical condition is unable to maintain herself and child."

To be honest, I suspected from some of the clues we already had (the traumatic childhood event, the abrupt ending of a young marriage, prolonged bachelorhood, and apparent decline) that William had some problems, probably related to alcohol. This newspaper story seems to confirm that, but you will note that I didn't speculate about any of this until I had seen the clipping.

So, there are a couple of potentially scandalous details in this story; the first being Elizabeth's accusations of William's abusive behavior. Second, because of the timing of the events - July of 1910 - and Virginia's subsequent birth date of February 1911, I have to wonder if the "present physical condition" the plaintiff cites is not Elizabeth's second pregnancy. If it is, this would have complicated Elizabeth's suit for divorce; knowing what little I know about the laws surrounding marriage and divorce, a pregnancy could have been used to argue that William was evidently not "neglectful of his duties" - but now I am speculating and possibly reading too much into a newspaper article. Clearly, the court found for the plaintiff, and from what I can tell from the records, Elizabeth remarried to Carl Lindsey in 1916, and he adopted Joseph and Virginia. 

On the surface, the article tells us some facts, but there are a lot of ways these facts could be interpreted. The accusatory nature of an alimony suit may prejudice us to form a picture of William's mother that is quite uncharitable; or one could turn the story around and look at Elizabeth from Mrs. Carlisle's point of view to see an angry 20-year-old exaggerating her son's faults and trying to take away her grandchildren and as much money as she could. Perhaps if we heard from William, he might argue that he did not have any such problem, and who are we to judge? It would be understandable for the rest of the family to refrain from talking about this, especially if they maintained contact with both parties.

The problem for a family historian in this situation is twofold: How do you know which version of the story is "true"; and how do you record it in a way that won't offend or hurt any of the survivors?

In this story, all of the primary characters are long dead. William in 1949; Elizabeth in 1970; Joseph likely died in 1983; Virginia in 1993. I don't know if Joseph had a family of his own, or how they would feel about this description of their biological ancestor. Virginia had two daughters, both of whom have died; but I don't know whether they had families who might be trying to trace their ancestry. And really, unless they knew the individuals personally, I don't know many people who would be more scandalized than curious find out what kind of person a long-dead grandparent really was.

My personal feeling is that the truth is important. I don't think you can, or should, hide it because it usually comes out in some form, anyway. And having lied about it can make it take a "bad bounce" when it eventually does pop up - a lesson that 50+ years of television comedy has labored to teach us.

So, on the off chance that someone would be hurt by the airing of Gossip, I try to stick as closely to the facts as possible, leave room for the living to preserve their dignity and privacy, and avoid treating any of the parties involved as though they were in a reality show sideshow.

This family obviously had its problems. William's mother tried to look out for him after his father died, and his siblings clearly tried to help by letting him live with them when mother was gone. His young, angry bride seems justified - they married when she was 16, and the abuse she describes combined with the pressures of caring for two small children are problems we see people struggling with to this day. 

I don't think it is too biased of an opinion to say that I'm glad Elizabeth had the courage to get out of a bad situation and make her life - and her children's lives - better.

1 UPDATE: Just found this on this morning (19/8/2015):

Found on


  1. Thanks for posting this. I too have struggled with the decision of whether or not to share particular findings on my blog when the information is unpleasant.

  2. Tad,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!