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  • Writer's pictureJessica Feinstein

Finding criminal ancestors

While writing my blog I have discovered (through a newspaper account) a 4x great-grandfather of Ari’s – an agricultural labourer – who was charged with wife-beating in 1876.

Now I have discovered (through the criminal registers on Ancestry and newspaper reports) a 5x great-grandfather of Ari’s, a weaver, who was convicted in 1842 of gross assault or “assault with intent to ravish” “upon a young girl only 9 years of age”. This ancestor was imprisoned and sentenced to two years’ hard labour but later released on the grounds of poor health and old age.

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Is it OK to be proud of your ancestors who did good things but not ‘claim’ others who did bad things?

I have been thinking about how to handle such cases in my blog, and wondered what other people do when they find criminal ancestors.  I came across a researcher, Aoife O’Connor, who is studying this issue. Her PhD explores the impact of digitisation on the study of crime history. She says that “Previously many would have sought out a criminal ancestor based on family lore, but with the advent of digitisation, more are discovering ‘criminal’ ancestors serendipitously. As an employee of Findmypast I have first-hand evidence of the range of reactions these types of users have when confronted with a criminal ancestor – from amusement to horror.  I also see a potential pattern emerging related to level of kinship, and family’s attempts to distance themselves from their criminal associations. In all I have witnessed descendants shrug off, laugh, be embarrassed by, and take pride in their criminal forebears.” (See more at

There is a project called Our Criminal Ancestors (, which is a public engagement project that encourages and supports people and communities to explore the criminal past of their own families, and communities. Their website has some great links and resources.

In my one-name study on Feinsteins worldwide, I came across Irving “Puggy” Feinstein, a New York mobster who came to a very nasty end in 1939 (see

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Knoxville News Sentinel, 13 June 1941

But that’s OK because he’s not related! (Probably…)

In my experience people do tend to laugh it off, but I think it very much depends on the crime. There are also other considerations, as with all genealogical discoveries, because you can’t always predict how other family members will react to the news that you are sharing with them. So I think it’s important to be sensitive to that. I still don’t know what to do, but for now I am not going to name these ancestors. What do readers think?

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