While growing up in West Virginia, Myra Bonham Lucas didn’t know much about her father’s family. In fact, she knew nothing.
“He was very private about his past,” she said. “Dad was secretive and would even get angry if we asked questions. After Mother died, he began to reminisce a little.
“Then, after Dad passed seven years ago, at 84, once he was gone, there was such a mystery there.”
Lucas, who works as a lifestyle coordinator at The Arthur B. Hodges Center at Edgewood Summit, in Charleston, wanted to learn more about her roots, so she did what an increasing number of Americans do: she began searching the Internet for clues and subscribed to ancestry.com, an Online resource that aims to “help everyone discover, preserve and share their family history.” The site has more than 2.5 million subscribers worldwide.
What she found was fascinating.
Turns out, her grandfather, Lawrence Bonham, had been convicted, along with his cousin, of first-degree murder at age of 17 in 1912. He served seven years of a life sentence at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville before he was pardoned by the governor.
“My great-grandmother wrote a letter to Governor [John] Cornwell, asking for his pardon,” Lucas said. “He was released in 1919 and Dad was born in 1921.”
But that wasn’t the end of her grandfather’s criminal activity.
Both he and her grandmother, Florence Weade Bonham, served time on bootlegging convictions. While they were in prison, her father, Charles, was raised by his grandmother, Katherine Bonham Hill Lewis, also a “well-known bootlegger who ran a prostitution house” in the Smith Street area of Charleston.
Lucas blames her great-grandmother for taking the family down a criminal path that proved difficult to overcome.
Katherine Lewis was called “Old Lady Lewis,” and people said she was “mean enough to shoot you,” Lucas said.
While Myra’s father was “never wealthy, and never really had a good job, we always managed,” she said.
“It takes so many generations to come from a poor era into an era of achievement,” she said. “It gives me such a sense of pride, even though bad things have happened, to know how far we have come.
“I’m very proud of my dad for turning his life around. He was nothing like the people he came from. I was so impressed with his moral values.”
A hundred years after Katherine Lewis’ shenanigans, which led all three of her sons down a criminal path, Lucas said the family has recovered.
“Our family history is so interesting, especially to my children,” she said. “We look at it with disbelief.”
Lucas’ quest didn’t stop with her Great-Grandmother Lewis. She has traced her family history back to 1230 England using multiple resources.
Along the way, she’s discovered Nicholas Bonham, of Wiltshire, England, a knight during the 1400s, and Lady Thomasine Anndell, a countess and even a duchess. In fact, at one point, the Bonhams made their family home at Stanway Hall, “also known as Bonham Manor,” a castle in England.
A few generations later, George Bonham, born in 1604, arrived at the Plymouth colony, in Massachusetts. He served as a minister and lived to be 100 years old.
There also are military records of service for the Bonhams from the American Revolutionary War to the Civil War to World War II.
“This has given me a greater sense of who I am and forces me to examine where I am in life; look at the accomplishments of the family,” Lucas said.
Not every family tree is likely to include royalty, saints and sinners, but unless you do some investigating, you’ll never know.
Reach Marta Tankersley Hays at email@example.com, 304 348-1249 or follow @MartaRee on Twitter.