May 27, 2022

A Murderer in the Family

May 27, 2022

My fourth great grandfather was a murderer. Bengt Henrik Rosendahl was a drunkard who drove his wife and young child away by beating them and destroyed his army career with his drunken behavior. One day in 1769, Bengt began drinking in the early morning, prior to visiting one of the tenant farmers on his farm. He and the tenant got into an argument, followed by a fist fight. Bengt was clearly drunk and stumbled into his house to get his army rifle. He returned to the tenant’s house and shot the man.


Bengt paid the ultimate price for his violence. After a trial, Bengt was executed later that year. His wife and children lived in poverty and shame after his death.


When I found out about Bengt, I was horrified. I will admit that his having lived so long ago was a relief. Finding out about a crime like this by a recent ancestor such as a grandparent would have been worse. Even so, his is an ugly story. I don’t think anyone would want to have an ancestor like him in her family tree. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose our ancestors. Bengt is the worst of the ancestors I’ve found so far, but I’m sure that hiding in the branches of my family tree there are others.


We all see the pride that descendants feel when shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are reveal heroic ancestors to their guests. The guests then talk about how good these ancestors make them feel about themselves.


Whenever I watch those shows, I think about Bengt. By any standards, he was a terrible man. Whether he had reasons for his behavior or not, it doesn’t excuse his misdeeds. He’s certainly not someone to be proud of.


The more I think about Bengt, though, I realize that his misspent life is not something for me to be ashamed of. He did what he did, and I can’t change that. I’m sorry that he wasn’t a better man, but it’s no reflection on me.


By the same token, those ancestors that we’re all so proud of are no more a reflection on us than the bad ones. The heroic general or the self-sacrificing mother are people who lived their lives, just like my Bengt did. They don’t reflect their glory on me.


Having a murderer like Bengt in my family has made me realize that researching ancestors is interesting and can give us new insights into how families evolved as they did. Having a murderer in the family or having a Revolutionary War Patriot in the family don’t make me better or worse than anyone else. I now know I have both, and it hasn’t changed who I am at all. It’s good to remember this since everyone who does genealogy will eventually find a scoundrel or two.


Carol Stetser