I thought I was related to Jane Austen. Turns out there’s a serial killer in my family tree – TheSpec.com

Stories

When researching family history, most people dream of discovering they are descendant of famous historical figures such as Joan of Arc or Napoleon. But what about discovering you are related to someone horrible? That’s what happened to me.

I joined Ancestry, one of the world’s most popular genealogy websites, in May and started researching my family tree as a way to keep busy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Soon it became addictive. I loved being the family detective, connecting with distant relatives to find stories and old photos. I saw the pictures of great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents whom I had never seen before.

For a brief moment, I thought I was a direct descendant of a famous English author when I discovered my great-great-great-grandmother was named Jane Austin and was born in England in 1826. But a quick Google search crushed my dreams. The “Pride and Prejudice” author was born in 1775 and her last name is Austen, not Austin.

A few weeks ago, my family history journey took a dark turn when I made a shocking discovery about a relative who died in 1830. Publicly executed to be more specific.

I learned my fifth great-uncle, Charles Routley, was a serial killer.

His name appeared on a distant relative’s Ancestry family tree.

He was born in England in 1789 and died in Australia in 1830. The first red flag while looking at his Ancestry profile was the many historical documents with titles such as “England & Wales Criminal Register 1791-1892” and “Australian Convict Transportation Records.”

A Google search told me more. My first hit was an Australian law school webpage that outlined the details of Routley’s 1830 murder trial for killing a man named John Buckly. As I quickly scrolled through the details, I got to a newspaper article with the headline “EXECUTION” and realized he was publicly hanged for the murder.

At first I was shocked but not too concerned. Every family has a bad apple or, in this case, a really bad apple. It was 190 years ago and not a close relative like a grandparent or great grandparent.

Then I read a line in the article that made me realize there was more to the story: “This wretched man appears to have been one of the most horrid and blood thirsty monsters that have yet disgraced the annals of humanity.”

After more googling, I discovered Routley was a lifelong criminal who murdered six people. Some of the details are gruesome — he beheaded one person and burned another alive. A 2014 book called “A Compulsion to Kill: The Surprising Story of Australia’s Earliest Serial Killers” described him as Tasmania’s most sadistic serial killer.

I come from a normal family. Nobody has spent time in jail or appeared on “The Jerry Springer Show.” I could handle learning someone in my family tree murdered one person, but discovering I share the same DNA as a sadistic serial killer worried me.

A talk with Toronto genealogist Bill Gladstone put me at ease as he said I have very little in common with my fifth great-uncle.

“I wouldn’t worry too much because it means you have less than one 10th of one per cent of that DNA in you,” Gladstone said. “Human nature is such that evil exists in all of us, as does the capacity to do good. It’s more the matter of the choices you make in life that determine if you are a serial killer or an angel.”

Gladstone has been researching and writing books about genealogy for more than 20 years. He’s heard stories about people discovering old relatives who were horse thieves, embezzlers and slave owners.

Sometimes surprises come from people learning they are not related to a close family member. There are many articles online about people who took a DNA heritage test only to learn a parent or grandparent is not their biological relative due to a secret affair.

On the PBS genealogy TV show “Finding Your Roots,” “Game of Thrones” creator George R.R. Martin was shocked to learn that he was nearly a quarter Jewish and had no Italian DNA. Followup testing with relatives showed it was likely that George’s grandmother, who married an Italian, had an affair with a Jewish man.

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“DNA is throwing new wrenches into everything,” Gladstone says. “There are estimates that up to one in 10 people have some surprise waiting for them in their DNA.”

I have no regrets exploring my family history because one shocking discovery does not outweigh many positive experiences. One of my favourite moments was when I found a 1952 Montreal Gazette article about my grand-aunt’s wedding that was accompanied by a photo of the bride and groom and a cute flower girl. I asked my mother if she remembered seeing the article. It turns out my mom was the young girl.

I’ve seen a few photos of my mom as a teen, but pictures of her as a child are rare, so this was special.

People who begin to research their family history need to realize they might discover something they do not want to find. But according to Gladstone, the vast majority of genealogy experiences are positive.

“You have to get over the fact that you have this awful person in your tree,” Gladstone told me. “If you dig hard enough, you will find lots of good people as well.”

Michael Onesi is a freelance writer living in Kingston, Ont.

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