Saturday, July 17, 2010


It’s said that gossip and rumors are more entertaining than the truth. I’m not sure, but I think they’re almost always as interesting, especially trying to figure out where truth ends and fiction begins.

Every family has wonderful stories, shared during holiday get-togethers, funerals, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, birthdays, or baptisms. Sometimes they revolve around skeletons in a musty old closet. Most often they revolve around some ancestor. We all seem to be able to claim a famous person on our family tree – George Washington, Joan of Arc, Winston Churchill, the Wright brothers, or the King of Siam. A horse thief or two occasionally slips into the conversations. Interestingly, though, I’ve never met anyone willing to lay claim to Rasputin, Al Capone, Attila the Hun, Lizzie Borden, or Bernie Madoff. Some families even have members who claim they were King Tut, Queen Nefertiti, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Lily Langtree in a past life.

It’s been said there are only six degrees of separation between anyone alive today and anyone who has ever lived. When it comes down to it we’re all linked, for better or worse. If we were to look long enough and hard enough we’d find the rumors and quirky stories we carry around go all the way back to Adam and Eve.

My wife, Nancy, has become the Catron family archivist. Years ago, when we lived in New Jersey, she told me that one of her distant relatives was once a Supreme Court justice. I was skeptical, but politely kept my doubts to myself. I became a true believer upon visiting the Supreme Court and seeing his portrait on display in the basement gallery.

Of course, not everyone in her family tree was famous. One, in particular, had become infamous. A couple of months ago she was rummaging in a file folder looking for information about her great-grandfather, John Knierim. Over the years I’d occasionally heard stories about him. From the little I heard I was able to glean four bits of information. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was a Methodist preacher. He smoked a pipe. And, rumor had it; he frequented saloons, finding his way in through the back doors, thus preserving his ecclesiastical reputation. The rumor was rooted in a tidy piece of gossip that he had somewhere in the course of time “fallen off the wagon.” The sordid details shocked and entertained his fellow Methodists. As soon as the local skeptics and agnostics got wind of it, the story confirmed their suspicions that he was, like most religious folk, a hypocrite. Once their suspicions were confirmed, they spread the tale like a prairie fire. Their motives were, of course, entirely noble.

Nancy’s rummaging proved fruitful. She found an affidavit, dated July 30, 1897, which has shed some light on the rumor. The text of the affidavit, filed by John’s son, George Knierim, follows:

“On the 16th day of June, 1893, I went with my father John Knierim to Clinton, Henry County, Mo., where we bought a Deering Selfbinder Harvester. On our way home, with the Harvester and a can of oil on the wagon, near the town of Deepwater, Mo., about 4 ½ miles from our house, we met with the following described sad accident. Some dry hay in the bottom of our wagon caught fire, doubtless from father’s smoking. Before we could extinguish the fire it reached the oil can, causing quite a flame, which scared the horses so that they made quite a side jump, which caused father, who being stiffened considerable from rheumatism, to fall from the wagon, whereby his left hip was injured so that it has made him a cripple for his lifetime, being able to get around only with crutches or cane. I was the only person with father when this sad accident took place. I can also further state that said fall and injury was not the result of vicious habits.”

Well, there you have it. John Knierim really did “fall off the wagon.” The circumstances of the fall were, however, a bit different than those that persisted in the rumor mill. It appears the affidavit may have been filed in order to get a veteran’s pension for his service in the 31st Ohio regiment. It was either that or his way of proving to his critics that his fall was not the result of “vicious habits.”

His fellow Methodists must have been quite relieved; his critics sadly disappointed.

The affidavit was filed 113 years ago, but it could easily have been written today. We’ve gotten much more sophisticated over time, but, the human habits of gossip and rumor mongering still abound. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

1 comment:

Knitwit said...

I don't know of anyone famous in our family tree (although my grandfather has been on a first name basis with admirals at the Naval Academy, but that's another story). My dad, however, always said we must be descended from horse thieves, since he always parked facing out - to make a quick get-away.