Criminal History

Grand expectations consume us whenever we commence genealogical research. Images of discovering we’re related to world figures who changed history dance through our dreams. If not a Churchill or a Washington, at least we want to find some relative who will impress our friends and/or fellow researchers. When I started researching my Great-Grandmother Violet (nee Bishop) Connelly’s family history I had just such aspirations.

“Mom Vi” was the closest my family came to having an official chronicler. She’d regale everyone with all these great tales about our family history. I didn’t have the pleasure of hearing them first hand, as she passed away during my early childhood. When her “students” did relay her stories to me I felt inspired to learn more.

Mom Vi held that our lineage included two Presidents of the United States: William Henry and Benjamin Harrison. Not just Chief Executives, but a great adventurer was among our ancestors as well. She said we were related to the man who discovered Pike’s Peak: the great explorer Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. When I heard all this I couldn’t wait to start digging on my own. I wanted to see what other interesting characters I could find hidden among the roots of my family tree. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of my relatives, in fact Mom Vi’s own grandfather, had a criminal history! Curiously when I mentioned this to some members of the family they were shocked. For some reason Mom Vi neglected to mention this part of the family saga.

With help from friends in the on-line community, I located a snippet from the Philadelphia Inquirer dated March 28, 1870. It read that Edgar Bishop and an accomplice were sentenced to three years in prison. They’d been convicted of counterfeiting five-cent pieces. As stunned as I found this news, the most astonishing part was that the sentencing took place on a Saturday. They must’ve really wanted to shuffle this guy off to prison if the judge came in on a weekend to do it.

Every family has its share of less than savory characters, but I never would’ve thought that person would come from the Bishops. They’ve got a long history in this country going back to the early years of the eighteenth century. In fact, my 5th Great Grandfather Ichabod Bishop even played a role in the American Revolution. According to an application for membership in the National Society for the Sons of the American Revolution, “Ichabod Bishop received from Timothy Elmer, December 20, 1777, 5:0:0 for a blanket during the Revolutionary War.” Apparently, that blanket helped the Colonists in the war effort as it qualified Ichabod Bishop as a genuine patriot. What went wrong with his grandson Edgar, then?

Another interesting thing about Edgar’s story is that Mom Vi’s other grandfather, William Henry Harrison Coates, fought in the Civil War. While Mr. Coates spent the following years recovering from that experience both in mind and body, his counterpart was trying to make a living by stealing from the same government for which he fought. I found this to be an intriguing comparison.

In light of this new revelation about my ancestry, I’m sure people will ask me what I think of having a criminal in my past. The first thought that comes to mind is that the measure of a person’s life is more than the worst thing he/she ever did. In the course of my research I’ve found that Edgar fathered seven children. One of whom, Albert Bishop, went on to father “Mom Vi.”

I discovered that Edgar married a woman named Mary Pike. I’m still researching to discover whether or not she is the “missing link”, so to speak, as to how I’m related to General Pike. If so, I could say that Edgar redeemed himself by “marrying up” and tying our family history with that of the great explorer.
The thing that stands out most in my mind is that Edgar had a number of different jobs throughout his career. I’ve discovered documents showing he worked as a watchman and a mariner. Those are pretty diverse fields of endeavor. I know that in 1850 he didn’t have a source of employment. It’s difficult to support a family large as his under any circumstances. It’s much more challenging when finding one’s self out of work for a time. Not that hardship excuses law breaking, but it’s useful to look at the whole picture before judging someone.

To borrow a line from the great historian Charles Beard when we take up the study of history our “noble dream” should always be the pursuit of truth through objectivity. Just because we’re researching our own history doesn’t give us the right to select facts that happen to appeal to us. We owe ourselves and our family an accurate portrayal of our past “as it actually happened” to paraphrase Leopold von Ranke. To do anything else would be criminal.

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