Caution: The Myth vs. the Reality

For many Swedish Americans, the glowing art of Carl Larsson epitomizes Sweden. But not all Swedes have enjoyed the comfortable, secure lives and happy family relationships depicted in Larsson's paintings. In fact, the artist himself grew up under grim and impoverished conditions, son to a father who treated him cruelly. And Larsson was not alone. Well into the 1900s, life in Sweden could be very hard. 

Both in the urban areas and the countryside, many people were poor and hungry, especially during the famine years. Women and children were economically and socially vulnerable and could easily end up in desperate situations. In the cities, workers and their families lived packed into tenements with inadequate heating and ventilation and no sanitary facilities. Public health scourges such as tuberculosis were rife, and untimely deaths were common.

The lovely young woman shown here, Kristina Svensson, is one of countless Swedes whose fate was a sad one. In the late summer of 1906, she and her husband, Hans, traveled from the city of Malmö to Kronoberg County to attend a family reunion. The event was organized in honor of Kristina's emigrant brother, my grandfather Frans August, who was visiting from America and had brought along a camera. Kristina and Hans had married the previous December, and the pictures Frans August took at the reunion show her heavily pregnant and smiling. A month later she gave birth to a daughter. But by spring both Hans and the baby were dead, victims of tuberculosis. Kristina collapsed, deeply depressed, and was committed to a mental hospital. She never fully recovered.

In accordance with professional genealogy's ethical guidelines, I do not hide from clients the facts that I discover in my research. Therefore, if you commission a study on your family history, you should be prepared for unexpected and possibly distressing information.

My previous research into Swedish and Swedish-American families has revealed cases of murder, suicide, drowning, theft, mistreatment of children, child marriage, illegitimate births, bigamy, adultery, illegal fornication, irregular marital arrangements, desertion by soldiers from the military, desertion by unmarried men of women they have made pregnant, desertion by married men of their wives and children, desertion by women of their children, desertion by children of their aged and ill parents, excessive gambling, drunkenness, physical handicaps and disfigurements, horrendous diseases, psychiatric disorders, and extreme poverty, as well as confinement to psychiatric institutions, prisons, orphanages, workhouses, and poorhouses. 

Having Martha Garrett do research on your family history is like opening Pandora‚Äôs box. If your family has an interesting secret, she will probably find it. Birgitta F, Malmö

Martha warns her clients that research can have unexpected results, and that was certainly the case with my family. Her outstanding work revealed tragic events, including the murder of a child. Nevertheless, I am glad to know what actually happened to my ancestors. I can warmly recommend this skilled genealogist to all Swedes and Swedish Americans, but they should be prepared for shocks!  Gun P, Lund         
Some Swedish Americans want to connect not only with their Swedish heritage, but also with their living Swedish relatives. If you are one of these Americans seeking your Swedish släkt, you deserve an additional warning. It may be that you have much in common with the grandchildren of your farfar's brothers and sisters, that the first family reunion is great fun, and that you consequently stay in touch and return for other reunions. But you may also discover that the descendants of your ancestor's siblings are not people you particularly like or want to meet again. It's a good idea to be ready for both eventualities.