Taking Back What Was Once Lost

Criminals In The Family: Joseph Harbour

Joseph Harbour

Every family tree, whether we want to own up to it or not, has its share of criminals, vagabonds, shysters, thieves, polygamists, deserters, roughnecks, liars and cheats. While lots of things change, human behavior doesn’t.

One of my shadier ancestors was Joseph Harbour, my 4th great grandfather, who was born in September 1852 in Hardin County, Tennessee. He actually even looks like he was up to no good, doesn’t he? In the early years of my research, he was a mystery. He only appeared in the 1880 census, married to Hannah Barnes, with two children, Doss and Odie. I assumed he died after that.(I’ve since learned that we must always remember our assumptions and be ready to revisit them in light of new evidence.)

I’ve blogged before about various types of court records, and in my lecture on court records, Joseph is the star. Only when I finally got up enough nerve to venture into local court records did more details about his life emerge. It was amazing to me that this behavior was done during the era of Reconstruction, where racial hatred and violence rose to unprecedented levels.

Joseph Harbour appeared in the criminal court records from at least 1882 to 1897. In 1882, he had been charged with profanity. The court minutes alleged that he stood out in front of a church house and said:

“…let any [insert profanity] man report [me] that wants to and by God it won’t be good for him…I am a [more profanity] on wheels…I dare any man to report me…”

I guess someone called his bluff and actually reported him! Sounds like he may have been drinking to me. The records go on to show that Joseph left his first wife and children to marry another woman, Rachel Shannon. Before his marriage to Rachel, the court charged them both with Lewdness (my mind can only imagine what they were caught doing). Our ancestors were truly reality shows before reality shows came to be! For the next decade, Joseph proved to be a constant presence at the courthouse:

Amazingly, Joseph escaped all the charges with fines, even the more serious charge of attempted manslaughter.

Joseph’s escapades must have caused Rachel to contemplate whether taking Joseph from first wife Hannah was a good idea. By July of 1895, Rachel filed divorce papers against Joseph with the Circuit Court. Their divorce papers detailed a violent and troubled marriage with both charging the other with adultery. In addition, Rachel stated that Joseph “threatened to kill her,” while Joseph responded that “the child born during their marriage was not his child.” Their divorce was granted in 1896, after testimony from witnesses on both sides. I have heard of some crazy divorces in my time, but my goodness!

After the divorce, Joseph Harbour disappeared from the written record in Hardin County, however, some of his descendants remain living in the county today. Let me state for the record, they are lovely, lovely people;)

Now I understand why his first wife Hannah, when asked her marital status in 1900 answered that she was a widow (leading me to believe that for many years). I guess he was dead to her, LOL.

1900 census


  1. carolyn atkinson's Gravatar carolyn atkinson
    June 25, 2012    

    I just found my direct ancestor criminal also. He is my 3rd g grandfather. I find him in the 1870 census of the prison Madison Penitentary, Lee Co, IA. He is listed as a convict, silversmith, b Ohio. He died in Jan 1880. I have not been able to find him in the 1880 mortality records.

    What kind of records did you find him in? I am going to go to the state historical library and look at the prison records as I believe that is where they are (I am calling them tomorrow).


    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      June 29, 2012    

      I suggest starting with the County Court Minutes, then try the Circuit Court Minutes. Many of those are indexed. But beware–depending on the state, those courts may have different names. Let me know if you find something.!

  2. June 26, 2012    

    Robyn this is a great post. When I teach my class on preserving local history I like to point out as family/community historians we must strive to be truthful and document the good and the bad about our ancestors. Your family is full of interesting people for many reasons.

  3. dncresearch's Gravatar dncresearch
    June 26, 2012    

    I loved this! Criminal records are some of my favorites, which probably says nothing good about me. 😉

    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      June 29, 2012    

      Thanks ! When I do this lecture about him, the audience just howls in laughter. I think the actual things that were “crimes” then are also interesting. Profanity a crime? Lewdness? I think they are just making up crimes…LOL

  4. June 26, 2012    

    Last night I had the pleasure of giving a talk to the Montgomery Co. Historical Society in Kentucky detailing the lives of some of my more “colorful” ancestors from that town. Reading your post made me realize just how much we have in common. I love your willingness to share the truth as you uncovered it and agree with your statement about having to revisit our assumptions. I’m working on a situation like that now. Finally, what software did you use to create your timeline? I love it (and want to steal it).

    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      June 29, 2012    

      Hi Kathy, Thanks so much for your kind comments, I truly appreciate it. I think that’s part of the draw to genealogy (at least for me) the fact that our ancestors were fully human–good, bad & ugly. I find it all endlessly fascinating! As for the table, I figured out how to create graphics in PowerPoint, then copy & paste them to Microsoft Paint, and save the image as a JPG. It’s a little cumbersome, but I love the results.

  5. June 26, 2012    

    Robyn, thank you for this excellent post and I must say that your Joseph Harbour was definitely a mischief maker – WHEW! Okay, I will admit that I don’t shy away from leaning about all the career criminals in my family tree — tehehe! Actually, I’m more drawn to them and want to know what makes them tick. But one thing I will say about them — their checkered pasts make family research very entertaining. Again, thank you for sharing gggg-grandpa Harbour with us!

  6. June 26, 2012    

    Sounds like my ancestor the late Bat Johnson who was quite a troublemaker in the Montgomery, Texas area. Older individuals still living recall their parents mentioning him. I’m not sure What happened to him after the 1900 Census he last appeared on the Tax records in 1905 so I assume he died during that time. A cousin stated she heard he died on the Church steps others mention some type of killing [either he was murdered or he killed someone]. Haven’t located anything criminal after 1900 for him. Most of his criminal activity occurred between 1873-1885. Thanks for sharing!

    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      June 29, 2012    

      Terence, I’ve found almost everybody has a story like this about an ancestor. They might not willingly share it…LOL…but they’re there. Have you looked specifically at county court minutes & penitentiary records for him in that area? What a name…Bat. If he was murdered, perhaps there are coroner’s records?

  7. July 12, 2012    

    I am doing some research on the Harbour family in Hardin County, Tenn and wondered if you had records of the parents of Joseph Harbour? Any info would be great.

  8. August 8, 2012    

    Fascinating story! I’ve found some scandal and murder in my family. My ancestor George D. Gordon shot and killed his stepfather in 1911 and spent 28 years in prison. I’m going to need the police report/prison records to get more information.

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  1. Ancestors with a criminal past « Discovering Yesterday on June 29, 2012 at 11:26 pm

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About Me

I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

Post History

What I Talk About

Locations and Surnames

Hardin, Chester and Lawrence Counties, TN
Holt, Barnes, Harbour, Bradley Springer and Fendricks
Lawrence County, AL
Springer and Fendricks
Montgomery County, MD
Prather, Simpson
Somerset County, MD
Waters, Fountain, Curtis
Duval and Madison County, FL
Smith, Harris, Garner

Favorite Family History Quotes

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
-William Faulkner

"Call it a clan, call it a network, all it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one"
- Jane Howard

"Friends are God's apologies for relations."
-Hugh Kingsmill

"No matter what you've done for yourself or for humanity, if you can't look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?"
-Elbert Hubbard

"Families are like fudge; mostly sweet with a few nuts."

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you might as well make it dance!"

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city;)"
-George Burns

"Where does the family start? It starts with a young man falling in love with a girl. No superior alternative has yet been found."
-Winston Churchill

"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never ever introduce yourself to had life not done it for you."
-Kendall Hailey

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
-Thich Nhat Hanh