What no one tells you about investigating family history

January 7, 2019

What no one tells you about investigating family history

Midnight. I sat at my desk with a single lamp on, my wife and our child sleeping deeply in the bedrooms above me.

I was restless.

More than a year had passed since my father told me his secret, how in the mid-1950s when he was an infant he was abducted from his birth mother. The man who executed the cruel act, the ripping of an infant from a young mother, was my father’s own father. He was done with his mistress. He was taking their baby boy home to his wife.

And so in more ways than one, my grandparents on my father’s side turned out to be people I truly didn’t know.

Nearly sixty years had passed. No one had heard from my father’s birth mother or knew where she’d gone. All we had was a name. Dorothy Lipp.

We could safely assume, too, she’d been nothing more than a name, a faux alias conjured by my grandfather, whose relationship with the truth was always loose. Perhaps he wanted to hide the true identity of his mistress. To protect her. To protect himself.

Was it my place to find Dorothy Lipp. For a year, I said no.

The circumstances of the abduction, the possibility of finding my father’s birth mother, they belonged to my father, I believed. He after all was the victim. Any decision to find out what happened to Dorothy Lipp and the possibility of reunion, if she was still alive, should be his.

And yet, after all this time, he’d barely looked.

I was 34 years old. My 1-year-old son had changed my life, my perspective. The idea of someone ripping him away from us, telling us we’d never see him again, it was unfathomable.

What if I went looking for Dorothy Lipp? What if I in secret launched an investigation, and when it was all done, lay it before my father and allow him to chose what to do for himself?

The Challenge of Solving Family History Secrets

Everyone who begins constructing their family tree and history eventually runs into a plot twist.

Something doesn’t seem right. Maybe it’s a news article about a crime you never knew about. Maybe it’s an unexpected marriage license. Maybe it’s the manner of death not consistent with family lore.

Those prove challenging enough to accept. But another, more consequential decision awaits.

Should you, as the family historian, not only discover the family’s story — but also change it based on the evidence you uncover? Are you responsible for bending the family’s narrative arc in a different direction, changing not only our understanding of the past, but perhaps, too, the present and future?

Some secrets we discover are centuries old. Others are close enough in history to shake the lives of those we know and love.

What do we do? Is it our place to change the family story? And how do we decide?

Black-and-white photo of an older woman and her daughter.
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

I don’t care what anyone says. Family history requires more than just armchair investigative journalism and a fondness for sepia tone photos. You need to be stout of heart and mind because chances are, at some point, you’re going to shine the bright light of truth on family legends, and not everyone believes the truth should be revealed.

The best any of us can do is rely on facts. Verifiable facts. Facts as plain as the black ink on an old newspaper.

And then, let those you know and love decide how to react to those facts for themselves.

That night when I sat at my desk, I made my choice. But where should I start?

Two Days Out of Karachi

When I chose to go looking for Dorothy Lipp, I had two goals.

First, I wanted to discover who Dorothy was, whether she truly was my father’s birth mother, and what happened to her after my grandfather took their baby.

Challenging, to say the least. How do you find a young woman who may have lived in a major American city 60 years earlier?

Second, however, might prove to be even tougher. I desperately wanted to understand the context. How could this happen?

I once knew my grandfather, George T. “Bud” Pidgeon, and his wife, Mary Catherine, whom I grew up knowing as “Grandma.” They conspired to raise my father and not tell him.

They stole a baby from his birth mother. One can only imagine the consequences with law enforcement had this happened today.

I turned on my computer. I searched for “Dorothy Lipp” in Cincinnati in search engines and other databases. The results? Nothing. Hardly conclusive, but nonetheless disheartening.

When my finger touched “Enter” on the keyboard, however, while searching for my grandfather, something surprising revealed itself. Something I’d never known before, a part of this story that began ever so slightly to bring the context of it all into focus.

Page 14 of the Cincinnati Enquirer, November 3, 1945.
Page 14 of the Cincinnati Enquirer, November 3, 1945.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and photographer from Lancaster, Pa. He writes about fathers of the past and his own journey into fatherhood here at CausingDadmage.com. You can reach him at dave@writingintheafternoon.com

More about Dave Pidgeon

    1. Uncovering family secrets is a gift and a curse. But the history must be told like it or not. We,generations past the scandal,most likely won’t feel the same soul searing that our ancestors felt. Sadness maybe. Disappointment certainly. But also a sense that ‘knowing ‘will fill those voids. Fascinating story!

      1. Spot on, Barbara! But maybe too unwinding the twisted past into something true can release the burden a loved one has carried for far too long. More to come next week!

    1. What an interesting twist to the facts as you started to pursue the truth. Yes our relations try to help each other, and hiding the truth is often a way they see of keeping from hurting someone they love.

    1. Had a twist doing my husbad’s Family history. His oldest Aunt was given to his great Aunt to raise, his grandfather had killed his brother in-law in Mexico and so he gave his second older est daughter to his sister to raise. That was strange!
      Then this month I was contacted by a long lost cousin of my husband’s that we didn’t know about, he was adopted out at birth.

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