At the October meeting of the Oklahoma Genealogical Society, featured speaker Erin Taylor gave a riveting, yet macabre, presentation on researching those ancestors who have a criminal past, or who themselves have been a victim or witness to a crime.
Erin’s own family research prompted her to start the Killer Kin research group on Facebook. Fascinated, I asked her to do a Q & A interview for a special Halloween installment of Life in the Past Lane.
How did Killer Kin originate? How does it work? Killer Kin began in 2015, as we realized how many family historians were looking for resources and community when researching a serious criminal event. We saw how successful groups like Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness (RACOG) were in terms of helping one another out and just applied that to, specifically, historical crime events. People ask to join Killer Kin through our Facebook page and, once admitted, must disclose the state and period they are researching as well as anything else they want to share about the crime. We encourage our nearly 400 members to help one another out.
Who is involved in leading the group? How did you find each other? The administrators of Killer Kin are five women, of various lifestyles and means, but with the same black humor, from across the United States. We found each other off of a thread discussion that began or RACOG about researching crime. After my experience of co-authoring AliceMartinBishop.com, I felt strongly we needed to encourage accurate and in-dept historical research into past criminal events rather than engaging gossip and the “apology tour” just because we have a shady ancestor.
How has being involved with “killer kin” affected your view of family history? Killer Kin is a wonderful group simply because we can often see a little black humor in our bootleggin’, working girl, money laundering, even homicidal ancestors. Once we get to our 4th great grandparents, we already have 100 direct ancestors to research and some of them will have been the victim, perpetrator or witness to a crime. We do not look at any crimes past 1950, simply out of respect for family members that may still be living.
What have been some of the more interesting cases, personal or otherwise, that you have worked on or heard about? I’ve been asked to speak on researching ancestors with a criminal past in several venues now and people always come up afterward and share their stories. Just recently, an Oklahoma City woman asked me if I knew anything about a horrific gang rape of a young Texas woman in 1965 by seven local young men, all sons of prestigious Oklahoma City families. I can assure you I will be looking into that!
I am continuing to work on the 1912 case of Ella Barham in Boone County, Arkansas, for which Odus Davidson hanged (1913) as ordered by Judge George Reed, my great-great grandfather. Recently, some Davidson heirs came to a presentation and it was exciting to meet them. They had just the right attitude about this ancestor- he was a murderer and we don’t condone that, but nor will we erase that part of our family’s history because he had good parents.
Erin recommends the following sources for researching your own family crimes:
The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff
Jefferson’s Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy by Boynton Merrill Jr.
The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders
The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth
Beating the Devil’s Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigations by Katherine Ramsland
Erin Taylor, PhD, is an Oklahoma City mother to five teens, married to Jack and a disability advocate by profession. Originally from Costa Rica, she is the author of two books having nothing to do with genealogy. Her genealogy/history interests are criminal events, disability history and ancestor who were institutionalized due to any number of reasons. She frequently teaches on all of these topics. She can be reached at OkieErin@gmail.com.
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