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  • Kristin Wenger

Triple Conflict (#52Ancestors week 42: Conflict)

Updated: Oct 15, 2018


I’ll be honest. This week’s theme had me feeling extremely conflicted. It was difficult for me to write because there were three separate conflicts involved:

  • Conflict 1: Was a record actually “missing” from the archives or not?

  • Conflict 2: It’s the story of a divorce, one of the most deeply wounding conflicts to impact families.

  • Conflict 3: When it comes to family history, how does one decide what to share and what to keep private out of sensitivity and respect of living people?

Let’s start with the easy one.


Conflict 1: The missing record


One of my earliest blogs told the story of the murder of my great-great grandmother by her live-in boyfriend several years after she divorced my great-great grandfather.


Martin C. and Katie H. Hornberger family circa 1910 (several years prior to their divorce)

Children in order of age: Floyd, Erla, Irvin, and Albert. A fifth child, Robert, was not yet born.


I had attempted to find out the reason for their divorce, but as I wrote in January 2018:

A divorce was filed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as Civil Court case 16 in the September term of 1917. Much to my dismay, that record is missing from the Lancaster County Archives, so details of the divorce case are unavailable.[1]

Missing. I definitely didn’t like that answer. As a child of a divorce myself, I identified with my great grandpa’s experience and really wanted to understand the environment in his home and issues between his parents while he was growing up. I wondered if anything revealed in the divorce case would shed light on the relationship that led to Katie’s murder in 1924. But, alas, I resigned myself to the missing record and never knowing that part of his story.


My great grandpa Albert in 1921

Three years after his parents’ divorce and three years before his mother’s murder


Fast forward to late September 2018. I made a trip to the Lancaster County Archives for some client research. Just before I was about to leave, a niggling thought popped into my mind about checking the divorce records. I needed to see for myself that the case truly was missing. At the time I originally requested the record, I did so by e-mail because I was under time constraints for an assignment for my Boston University course.


I scrolled through microfilmed civil court cases from September 1917 until I came to the end of case 15. Advancing the microfilm, there it was in black and white, exactly as I had been told.


“Cases 16 and 17 – Missing”

I know sometimes records are lost. But still...

I thought logically about what could have happened. A new thought occurred to me. Maybe the records were not lost, but the case was delayed to the next term for some reason. I asked to see the original docket book.


Civil case docket book [2]


Ah ha! Martin had failed to respond to the subpoena, so the case had been postponed to January 1918. I quickly requested the appropriate roll of microfilm for 1918 and scrolled through with baited breath...


The records had survived after all.


Conflict 2: The story of a divorce


The divorce case [3]


The case contained twenty pages of detailed testimony from Katie, her two oldest children Floyd and Erla, and one of her sisters.


One of the typewritten pages [4]


Katie’ signature following her handwritten testimony [5]


I finally had answers to my questions about the conflicts in their marriage and what my great grandpa had witnessed as a child. It was absolutely heartbreaking to read. That brings me to..


Conflict 3: What should be shared and what should be kept private?


When writing about family history, one must strike a delicate balance between preserving stories and being sensitive to living people. In this case, after struggling through this inner conflict, I ultimately decided to keep the divorce testimony private.

My reason? Martin lived to be 92 years old, so there are living people (namely my grandpa and dad) who have memories of him.


4 generations of Hornberger men:

Martin (in chair), son Albert (L), grandson John (R), and great grandson Lenny, about 1964


You may wonder why I thought it was acceptable to share the story of Katie’s murder. Because she was killed in 1924, there is no one still living who knew her personally. My grandpa never met her. In addition, that story was reported in the newspapers, so it was public knowledge at that time.


It has been a difficult conflict to work through, but I have settled on how to draw the line. If I discover sensitive information about an ancestor, I keep it private if I have living relatives who knew that person.


Trust me, I’ve uncovered some major stories (half siblings, suicide, and more) that I have not shared on my blog. If family members ask me, I am happy to share with them one-on-one. But I won’t be sharing those stories publicly out of respect for my living family members who are entitled to their own memories.



Three Hornberger men and a little lady:

Albert, son John, grandson Lenny, and great granddaughter Kristin


Take-aways for your family history:

Be persistent in your search for records. I nearly gave up on my great-great grandparents’ divorce records, but I am so glad I pursued them.


Here is one more example from a client project. I was looking for two wills, but unlike almost every other will in the index, they had no book and page number listed. Someone had written in the margin: “found” for one and what appeared to say “vacated” for the other. I asked the archivist what that meant. Imagine my surprise when he went into a back room and returned with two ORIGINAL wills from 1759 and 1774. These documents, predating the birth of our nation, were in delicate condition and even had wax seals.


Will of Thomas Prees, 24 February 1759 [6]


It never hurts to ask.


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Sources:

[1]Kristin Wenger, “Favorite Photo (#52Ancestors week 2): a young family, a murder, a son redeemed,” 13 January 2018, Roots & Wings Research Blog (https://www.rootsandwingsresearch.com/blog/favorite-photo-52ancestors-week-2-a-young-family-a-murder-a-son-redeemed : accessed 3 October 2018); citing Greg Getz, archivist for Lancaster County (GGetz@co.lancaster.pa.us), to Kristin R. Wenger, e-mail, 27 November 2017. “Civil Case 1917 case 16 was missing when the roll was being filmed.”


[2] Lancaster County, Civil case docket book, September term 1917, case 16, Katie Hornberger vs. Martin Hornberger; Lancaster County Archives, Lancaster.


[3] Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Civil case no. 29, January term 1918, Katie Hornberger vs. Martin Hornberger; viewed on microfilm, Lancaster County Archives, Lancaster.


[4] Ibid.


[5] Ibid.


[6] Will of Thomas Prees, 24 February 1759; Lancaster County Archives, Lancaster.