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Baltimore’s John Waters learns on PBS show that his ancestor owned slaves

The Baltimore filmmaker John Waters was confronted on camera Tuesday with an ugly truth: a great, great grandfather owned enslaved people in the years leading up to the Civil War.

What’s worse, that ancestor, Somerset R. Waters appears to have had a particularly vindictive nature. He actively pursued enslaved people who attempted to escape. In 1858, he offered a $500 reward (nearly $16,000 in 2021 dollars) for the return of a woman named Caroline Gassaway.

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“I hope every bit of his racist genes has been wiped away,” John Waters said.

And Somerset Waters didn’t stop there, according to revelations made on the season premiere of “Finding Your Roots,” which aired at 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS. When the Carroll County landowner suspected that Gassaway’s escape had been aided by three free Black men, he arranged to have the trio tried and sold into slavery. He purchased two of the three men at a sale outside of the Frederick County Jail and brought them back to labor on his Mount Airy farm.

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Baltimore's John Waters stars in an episode of "Finding Your Roots" with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Baltimore's John Waters stars in an episode of "Finding Your Roots" with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (GREG GORMAN)

John Waters, who has spent his career behind the camera making cult films aimed at shocking and scandalizing audiences, was visibly shaken by the disclosures.

“It’s appalling,” he said. “I should go spit on his grave.”

“It’s stupefying, of course,” John Waters continued. “Maybe that’s why you don’t want to look sometimes, for fear of what you’ll find. Because what can you do about it? My whole life I’ve been pissed off about racism as much as I could possibly be. I live in a city that’s still torn by it, and it’s because of people like him.”

“Finding Your Roots,” which explores the ancestry of celebrities, is hosted by the noted historian and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In addition to Waters, Tuesday’s debut also delved into the personal history of actress Glenn Close.

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The show explores both the maternal and paternal ancestors of its influential subjects — and perhaps not surprisingly, both sides of Waters’ family are colorful. The episode details hushed-up family secrets, vast wealth, violent death and a headline-making custody battle.

As Gates told Waters: “This is like a Dickens novel. Your family tree drips with drama.”

One paternal ancestor, Richard Waters, was a surgeon during the Revolutionary War and treated wounded soldiers in George Washington’s Army at Valley Forge.

A maternal great, great grandfather, Clifford Whitaker, was an adventurer who braved temperatures of up to 50 degrees below zero to mine for gold in the Klondike in the early 1900s using only a pickax and shovel.

What makes Whitaker’s story unusual is that he didn’t need the money. He was the heir to a fortune bequeathed to him by his father, George P. Whitaker, owner of an iron furnace and at one time the largest landowner in Maryland.

“It’s great that we had someone that brave in our family, who was that much of a risk-taker,” John Waters said. “He could have sat around eating bonbons and being Richie Rich” — a reference to the 1953 comic strip character known as “the poor little rich boy.”

“I’m proud to come from people who took chances,” Waters said.

Not all risks pan out, and “Finding Your Roots” reveals that Whitaker was fatally shot in northwest Canada when a pistol accidentally discharged.

The cameras show Waters reading aloud the account of his great-grandfather’s death from the April 23, 1902 issue of the Dawson City Daily Morning Sun.

“Whitaker received a bullet in the right breast,” Waters read. “The bullet had cut through an artery and blood began to pour from his mouth.”

Waters put down the newspaper article and observed:

“It’s kind of dramatic, a twisted history. It sounds like a movie scene I’d write,” Waters said.

It’s remarkable how much information the researchers on ”Finding Your Roots” can unearth. To recreate Waters’ family tree, they pieced together newspaper accounts and public records. But one question lingers to haunt viewers:

What happened to Caroline Gassaway? Was she recaptured? Did she die during her flight for freedom? Or did she successfully slip away and create a new life for herself?

The episode doesn’t say.

“This is almost like a dream, because I wasn’t there,” Waters said.

“You wonder how much was passed down. ... We had a lot of relatives on both sides, and it seems like there was only one rotten apple,” Waters said. “Every body probably has one rotten apple — I’m not saying it was slave owners — but did something hideous.”

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