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Many people are interested in their origin. Our author shows how you can track down your ancestors with the help of a genealogist. Your journey leads through archives to the origin of a family legend.


Text  Nicole Tabanyi


Luckily my ancestors were so vain and loved to be photographed. Above all, my great-great-grandfather, Xaver Ott, who is the focus of this article, was obsessed with the flash. And so he traveled from Bischofszell TG to Paris in 1867 to do two things: to pose for a daguerreotype - the forerunner of photography - and also to get the laughing gas that was much invoked at the time.

Because in Bischofszell, the energetic but small man and father of eight children (see photo left, middle) realized himself in a "surgical hairdressing salon", as we would say today. He cut hair, trimmed beards, pulled teeth. And when it was necessary, he used a scalpel. These procedures should become more comfortable under the influence of nitrous oxide, an anesthetic. So off he went, with his best suit in his luggage. He sat down on the armchair in the Paris studio of the then well-known daguerreotypist Millet - and also bought the very same laughing gas from which he had high hopes.

At the same time, a world exhibition was taking place in Paris, where dentists from America demonstrated treatments with nitrous oxide. As a Swiss dentist with professional experience, Xaver Ott skilfully mingled with the crowd of doctors, talked shop with them - and that's how he got his laughing gas. Now comes the legend that has been told in our family for ages. The mishap. The accident. The blemish: the dead woman in the hairdressing salon. "Before your great-great-grandfather could scrape the pus out of her maxillary sinus, she turned blue, fell out of her chair and died of an overdose of nitrous oxide," my grandmother first told me when I was five. "What woman?" I asked in horror. "I don't know what her name was," my grandmother said. "She was short and slender and wasn't very lucky in her life." And since I found this story about the "mysterious dead" so terribly fascinating, I wanted to hear it again and again.


The inheritance of the ancestors

Today, almost 40 years later, I ask myself: did it really happen that way? What is true about it, what is poetry? And what facts can be learned after such a long time? With these questions I go in search of clues and open the door to the past. Behold: I am not alone. Many people are interested in the lives of their ancestors. They want to know if their ancestors were farmers or had to go to distant wars as mercenaries. “Or does their short temper, which the village still talks about today, come from the fact that they were hunters and butchers?” People who want to know more about their origins are puzzled. Genealogists and destiny psychologists promise that those who find out where they come from might understand better who they are as a reward for this search.

After all, our ancestors left us an inheritance that shapes us - or that still slumbers in us unimagined. For example, talents and talents that we can only guess at the moment. But they are just waiting to be awakened from their slumber. Other people travel into the past to track down a fortune that was thought to be lost. Or to investigate a family myth. Like me. They are supported by family and genealogical researchers, so-called genealogists.

They are the ones who struggle through the long corridors of the archives, look through bone-dry files and look for baptisms and marriages in church registers: all in the service of family research - so that they can draw branch after branch in the family tree.

Only the third genealogist I contact has time for me. "Is your family Catholic or Reformed?" Mario von Moos would like to know from me. "Catholic," I say. "It's getting harder and harder to find out about Catholic families because the pastors weren't so diligent about recording dates," the family researcher explains to me. "They just wanted to do something for heaven and often ignored the earthly."

In the Zwinglian town of Zurich, one comes across piquant details in church registers: it was not uncommon for a pastor to note: "The child can read", "It is in a proper household". Or: "It still doesn't know the Ten Commandments", "The father is a drunkard". One searches in vain for such entries in Catholic areas. In Manuel Aicher's office for “genealogy and heir investigation” in Dietikon ZH, where Mario von Moos works as a genealogist, the mountains of files stretch to the ceiling. But that's not all: Using a computer, von Moss can access 200,000 clues that are useful to him when creating a family tree. On request, he can also create so-called pedigree tables, in which only direct ancestors - i.e. father and mother, grandparents and great-grandparents - are recorded.


In the footsteps of the ancestors

In my case this is not necessary. My grandfather Anton Weber left me a pedigree. It lists all ancestors with their birth, marriage, occupation and date of death up to the birth of his great-great-great-grandfather Jakob Weber. My grandfather also collected the family photos and put them in albums: in his very personal ancestral gallery. Thanks to this legacy, I know when and where Xaver Ott lived. Who his wife and children were. And how they looked. "If we're unlucky, he was an influential man and was able to cover up the nitrous oxide accident," says Mario von Moos.

So where do we start the search for Xaver Ott and his supposed tragedy? "There are horror stories in many families," says Mario von Moos. “Some are true, others remain a mystery forever. I can't promise you anything about that." So the following needs to be clarified: Was there a process? Was Xaver Ott convicted? Was there anything in the newspaper about it?

We split the work: Mario von Moos takes care of the trial files, I take care of the newspapers from 00 back then. After a six-hour search in the Frauenfeld cantonal library, I discover an advertisement from my great-great-grandfather. Published in the "Bischofszeller Zeitung" on September 26, 1877. "He is not a phantom! It exists!” I yell into the phone receiver, because I have to tell someone about my joy at the find. But no sign of the process. Mario von Moos soon finds something amazing: My great-great-grandfather wasn't languishing in prison - no, he was making a career. As can be seen from the files in the Thurgau State Archives, he played a key role in founding the Swiss Dental Association. And his name appears again and again in later publications. He passed his passion for teeth on to his three sons and one grandson: all were dentists. The Ott family is a dentist dynasty. And the longer I look at Xaver Ott's photo, the more similarities I discover between him and me. Only that I might not be suitable for this job. Although I know that laughing gas - even today - makes many patients cheerful.

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