They say dead men tell no tales, but George McMath has convinced quite a few to share their secrets.
For the last 20 years, McMath has been chasing family ghosts. He began the journey of several hundred lifetimes at his father’s request.
"He had heard family stories about his grandfather and seven brothers going off to fight in the (Civil) War of 1861. There were eight that left from Alabama, but only three of them came home," McMath said.
"They didn’t know what happened to the others so he asked me to do some research. I started digging and I confirmed four of them. I know where they died and I know when they died.
"Finding that gave me the bug."
It’s a common ailment among those curious enough to dig into their family history.
"I’d written down some things that I’d asked my grandmother about. One day, I just decided to go to a beginning genealogy class and I’ve been hooked ever since," said Wanda McKinney, who was visiting the Gainesville branch of the Hall County Library System during a special genealogy event.
"I’ve been working on this for seven years. I didn’t expect to be working on it this long. My husband keeps saying, ‘When are you going to be finished?’
"Well, you never really finish because you’ll find out something else that takes you down another road."
One particular trip down memory lane proved to be darker than others.
"I confirmed that my great-great-grandfather was murdered," McKinney said.
"That was the story that was told, but sometimes those stories are not backed up by facts. One day when I was doing research, I saw an abstract of an old newspaper article that had his name in it.
"I said I’ve got to research this further to see if it’s him, and it was him. Now I’ve got to get the court records to see what happened."
Potential discoveries like that one is one of the reasons why organizers of the "Sitting Up With The Dead" genealogy research event at the Gainesville library say it isn’t for the "faint of heart."
"We’ve been doing this for at least eight years," said Ronda Sanders, Hall County librarian.
"We close the library to the public at 5 (that day) and the researchers can stay until midnight. Since it’s after regular hours, the genealogists can be as loud as they want.
"It’s not a good night if someone doesn’t let out a yell when they find something good."
The odds of finding something good are very high since the Gainesville branch has a special research section, known as the Sybil Wood McRay Genealogy & Local History Collection on the library’s second floor, named for the late local historian. It includes access to online resources like the Ancestry Plus database, microfilm of all releases of Georgia census records, and even individual Native American and African-American collections.
The genealogy section also includes some paper indexes with census records from surrounding states.
"Folks in this area are very lucky," McMath said. "Most libraries don’t have decent genealogy sections.
For one of his most prized family finds, McMath had to head over to the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.
"A cousin of mine was a captain with the 11th out of Tuscaloosa, Ala. He died in Glendale, Va., in 1862. I put him in the family database (online) and a guy emailed me and says, ‘Have you been to the Alabama state archives and seen Cpt. McMath’s diary.’
"I said excuse me, a diary? And he said, ‘Yes. He wrote a diary during the (Civil War).’"
With a too good to be true lead, McMath decided to take a road trip to the archives. After requesting and receiving a copy of the diary, he thought that was as good as it would get.
He was wrong.
"I’m sitting there struggling to read it and a guy walks up behind me and asks if I was a relative (of the captain). I said, well, we have the same name and he’s a first cousin three times removed," McMath said.
"He says, ‘Hang on.’ Fifteen minutes later he taps me on the shoulder and motions for me to come here. He sits me down at a table in a secure area with a folder. Inside was about a 4-by-6 leather-bound diary. The binding was messed up and it was real fragile-looking."
After "freaking" out, McMath, satisfied with laying his eyes on the diary, got up to leave.
"He says, ‘What are you doing.’ I said, well, I’ve seen it. That’s what I wanted to do," McMath remembers. "He says, ‘You aren’t going to read it?’"
Amazed that they would let him interact so intimately with history, McMath again took a seat. And returned three more times to completely transcribe the field journal.
"The only requirement was that I give them a copy when I finished," McMath said.
The diary not only strengthened the ties binding McMath to the captain, it also gave him the opportunity to provide closure for other families.
"Four families have written me since then because their ancestors died of disease during the war and they didn’t know when they died, where they died or anything about them," McMath said.
"I was able to tell them because he’d written about it. Most times, if they died of disease they were buried next to wherever they were in camp. It made me feel good when they said, ‘Thank you for finding our lost relatives.’"
Finds like the captain’s diary aren’t the only resources that have helped McMath along the way. His father, the originator of the history project, proved to be an invaluable source, especially since the family Bible had been destroyed many years ago.
"Fortunately, I was able to interview my father several times before he passed in 2005. It was a joy talking to him. He could go on for days," McMath remembers fondly.
"I’ve gotten a lot of information off those recordings. Names, marriage dates, birth dates — and I’m talking date, month and year.
"At the time when we started he was 81 or 82, but he’d just rattle that stuff off. We had a lot of fun doing the little bit we were able to together."
Although he thinks filling in the gaps of his family history is "so cool," McMath has a serious warning for other folks.
"If you haven’t started doing a family history, don’t. It’s like taking drugs," McMath said only half joking.
"I stopped smoking nine years ago, This is more addictive than smoking. I can’t quit it. It gets in your blood.
"The more you find out, the more you want to know."
He’s found a wedding portrait of his parents — his mom a 15-year-old bride and his father a 19-year-old groom in "God-awful striped pants" — that he’d never seen before.
He has corrected previous family historians who claimed his great-grandfather relocated to Texas, where he died in 1910. He actually died in Alabama in 1916.
It has taken decades, but McMath has pieced together a history of his Scots-Irish clan that includes a database of more than 3,500 kin.
"That’s where I get a lot of my satisfaction — being able to bring it all together and make connections," McMath said.
"When they say a family tree, this is a big old oak tree and it keeps getting bigger and the branches are starting to hang to the ground.
"This is a hobby that will get under your skin and you can’t turn it loose."