My Twins, and mom in the middle, flanked by my step-parents
We know quite a bit about my maternal grandmother’s stepfather. His name was Howard Clinton Wissel. He married my great grandmother in 1931 when my grandmother was 12, and eventually adopted her and her sister. He was a bandleader by profession and gave music lessons most of his life. During the depression he sold a valuable and beloved violin and took any job he could to keep his new family fed. Though he passed on well before I was born, I heard quite a bit about him over the years and it was obvious he was an adored father. It was quite a surprise to learn that he was not their biological parent. I myself happen to have two very special stepparents, so not sure why I should be surprised by this relationship. They are worth their weight in gold, and though I call them by their first names (they both entered my life during my teenish years) my children call them grandma and grandpa without skipping a beat.
Most researchers at one point or another are going to encounter an ancestor with multiple spouses. The typical scenario is a farmer with many children, loses a wife, most likely giving birth to yet another child, and marries within a year of his spouse’s death. You may even find said farmer marrying his deceased wife’s sister, I know I did a double take the first time I encountered that, but it was not uncommon. Logically he needed someone to run the household and watch his brood while he tended the fields. As genealogists we are focused on the bloodline, and sometimes I get a bit sad when I see barely a mention of the second spouse. I can only hope that in life their family recognized how difficult it must have been to step into the shoes of another parent and pick up where they left off.
In some cases death isn’t the reason for a broken marriage, occasionally desertion occurred. Like most of us my initial stages of research start with interviewing family members to see what is known about our common ancestors. My Mother informed me that Howard adopted my Grandmother and Great Aunt and that Franz or Fritz Hiller their biological father had deserted them. He was actually Frederic Oscar Hiller, as indicated on my grandmother’s birth record. I added him to the family tree and decided that is about as much attention as he deserved. He languished there for about a decade, when speaking with my Aunt she indicated she tracked him down to my home county. Since Hunterdon is across the Delaware from Philadelphia where my Grandmother was born I assumed it was a fleeting visit and tucked the fact away in a file.
Time moves on but I still ignored his little “leaf” on my ancestery.com tree. My mom is visiting and we were looking at the tree and decided there might be some information that would be useful and decided to take a look. Sure enough on his WWI draft card he indicates his employer is my Great-Great Grandfather Otto, and that the location is in my county. Since Otto lived two counties away, I found it unlikely that he would own a farm in Hunterdon County. I had to make a trip to the Hunterdon Historical Society for a client, and my parents wanted to find some examples of some Stangl local pottery so they tagged along. We had to walk by the Hall of Records to find the pottery so on a whim we decided to check the deeds and sure enough my GG Grandparents did own a farm in Hunterdon County. I was surprised, but it did provide another layer of information into my family tree. There is a benefit to researching those less savory branches of our tree.
Although my Black Sheep really is of little interest to me, I’ve decided to go find out what I can about him. If I were working on a client’s case I would most definitely had encouraged a review of his line, so why should I conduct my personal research any differently? I can easily withhold my findings from relatives that were closer to this situation, and more sensitive to any reference to him. I wonder how other genealogists handle such a situation with their unsavory ancestors? Sure it may be exciting to find a notorious ancestor 5 generations back, but something that impacts living relatives is a little less enjoyable.
In the meanwhile I am thankful for all the stepparents throughout history that did their best to provide a stable home to the families in their care. While I am sure stereotypical evil stepmother did exist, I’d like to think they were a rarity.