When the truth contradicts the “family folklore”; treading carefully around the relatives

One of the unintended consequences of becoming the family historian – as opposed to just collecting and handing down the family stories – is that realities exposed by searching the records don’t always match up with the sometimes cherished stories. While this is really exciting for me, I think it’s proving a bit stressful for my parents who have lived most of their lives with the family folklore.

I started thinking about this a while ago when I was researching my Cruden great grandparents – my mum’s grandparents. I’d discovered that my great granddad, Alexander Cruden, was one of seven kids so I set about finding out what happened to them all. My mum knew about a couple of his sisters and his younger brother who died about the Arctic Convoys in World War II, and told me that one of the sisters had died young “of a broken heart, because she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she wanted to.”

What I discovered wasn’t quite as romantic. Mary (May) Balsillie Cruden, my great, great aunt; died of eclampsia in the Royal Edinburgh Maternity Hospital in February 1921. She was nineteen, worked as a children’s nurse – and was unmarried. Frustratingly, I don’t know for sure if the baby died as well, but I have to assume so because I haven’t been able to find a birth certificate.

My family tree is full of marriages that precede births by only a few weeks, and I’d like to think that the father of her child was ready to “do the right thing”. But, mindful that family stories usually contain at least some truth, I can’t help wondering if the “broken heart” story would have taken hold if May Cruden had left behind a lover or fiancée mourning her death and that of their unborn child.

I don’t have a picture of May Cruden, but have always liked this photo of May’s mother Isabella (nee Wallace) and niece (my grandmother).

7 thoughts on “When the truth contradicts the “family folklore”; treading carefully around the relatives

  1. It is so sad to hear all these stories of our female ancestors isn’t it? I remember my mother telling me a story about a relative of hers but I have to follow up and find out the facts. I think it was her dad’s sister found herself pregnant at a young age and with no man around. She was sent away to have the baby girl (Jessie). Jessie was brought up by her grandparents. When Jessie grew up she died in childbirth at a very young age. Awful stuff!

    I was actually talking about your story to my friend who is also researching her family and has been for many years. She asked if you had looked for a death certificate for the baby because if it had been stillborn it would not have had a birth certificate. Thought I would pass that comment on to you.

    I am enjoying your blogs Sue – keep them coming!


  2. Thanks Lynn. You’re right; there are so many sad stories – especially of our female ancestors. I don’t know about you, but I’m staggered to find how many children many of the women had. I’ve traced several branches of the family through census records from 1841-1911, and every ten years another bunch of kids have arrived.

    I’ve got used to finding marriages taking place only weeks before births, but I recently found the birth certificate for a half-sister of a great-grandfather (think that’s right), and it had “illegitimate” written on it. Her mother (my great, great grandmother) married my great, great grandfather the following year and went on to have five or six more kids, and although her first daughter isn’t directly related to me, I want to find out what happened to her. Her name was Christina, which I think is a lovely name and very unusual in my family of Isabellas, Jeans, Elizabeths and Marys. The only other Christina I’ve found was the mysterious second wife of another great, great grandfather – and I want to find out about her too.

    Thanks for your suggestion about a death certificate. I’d hadn’t looked for one, but did yesterday. I couldn’t find one, but according to Wikipedia (font of all wisdom!) death certificates weren’t issued for stillbirths until 1939.

    Thanks again for reading my blog, and for your comments.

  3. Pingback: Treasures from the past | Shaking the tree

  4. Pingback: Caught in a sadness I can’t quite shake | Shaking the tree

    • It is tricky. I’ve told my mum what I found out about her great aunt, and as she didn’t know May Cruden, I don’t think there is any harm done. Not sure what I would have done if my gran had still been alive. Mum said that May’s death had quite a big impact on Gran. She was only six years younger than her aunt, and Mum says Gran was very upset by May’s death.

      • It’s seems right that the story has been corrected because it honours May’s life. However, I suppose one could still say that she died of a broken heart because it is a real medical condition, and it is possible that the stress of her situation may have put her in a fragile state of health not conducive to a successful delivery.

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