Skeletons in the closet, every family has them. Some you know about, others you stumble upon while researching your family tree.
One day, I found as close to a literal skeleton in the closet as one can come (without actually finding a skeleton intermingled with our clothes).
I know I’ve written before about this guy-
my maternal biological grandfather, John Underwood Rigsbee, Jr.
What I didn’t write about was just how crazy this dude was (/is???).
Using genealogybank.com, I stumbled across a newspaper article from July 7, 1952 in the Times-Picayune, from New Orleans, LA.
The article is about Rigsbee, who is 17 at the time, having been arrested for grave robbing. Yes, they actually caught him with two human skulls, some metal coffin handles, and a parchment cross. Naturally he was arrested. But Rigsbee seemed unperturbed.
“I had to get some human skulls, Rigsbee said matter-of-factly. They’re quite necessary in the study of anatomy. And you’ve got to know anatomy to be a painter. The cross makes a nice wall decoration in my apartment. I’ll use those old coffin handles on a sea chest I’m planning to build. […] I’ll tell you something you probably don’t know, Rigsbee said. Some of the world’s greatest painters- Da Vinci, for example- were grave robbers. Why? Because the study of anatomy was so important to them.”
Yeah, weird. I don’t know what happened after that. I haven’t been able to find any follow-up articles. I did find an article from the same paper in 1974 in which the writer was wondering whatever happened to Rigsbee. I’m in the same boat, buddy!
In 1959, I found him in Honduras, according to an article from the Omaha World Herald. In this article he’s listed as a “24-year-old United States photographer” who “joined the rebels in the Honduran jungles near the border [with Nicaragua] to witness a 32-man attack on the town of Santa Clara.”
What???? Honduras? Why? My mother would have been around 2 years old at this time. So what is her father doing traipsing off to Honduras??? Weird.
In 1962, I find him in a bunch of newspapers because he is the main subject of a documentary that is appearing on television. “The Big Revolving Door: Portrait of A Prisoner” features Rigsbee being released from Riker’s Island (where he had served time for auto theft).
“An interesting character study of a short-term prisoner after his release. John Rigsbee is the subject […] and he is quite a guy. Rigsbee talks about his background, what he “learned” in prison, and the cameras follow him to a Greenwich Village night club where some of his inherent difficulties with society become apparent.”
I wish I could get my hands on this film! I’d like to see if he was actually plain-out crazy.
That’s the end of the paper trail of RIgsbee. Having read these three stories, I’m not so sure that the end of documentation is necessarily a bad thing!
The little information I do have on the man brings up a bigger question- nature vs. nurture. Obviously he was the product of a messed up couple- I have found enough evidence that both his parents were raging alcoholics. Was this enough to mess him up? Is there something genetic (like schizophrenia) that his descendants need to be worried about?
I don’t know, and I hate that I’ll probably never know.
(I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again- genealogybank.com is well worth the subscription cost. So far, I haven’t found newspaperarchive.com to be worth the money. It costs more and you get the same or fewer results than from genealogybank. Newspaperarchive is much fancier and allows more search terms, but it seems that they have access to fewer papers- this has been my experience as of yet.)
So prepare yourself for the skeletons you might find hanging around your family tree!
I had to laugh to myself when someone responded to one of the message board queries I had set up for Rigsbee on ancestry.com. The man who responded to my question was very polite and tactful when referring me to the grave-robbing article. He didn’t tell me what the article was about- I’m guessing he assumed I hadn’t seen it. I suppose if you were running a search for a stranger you might not be sure of how they would take a story like that!