Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records – Part 4, Breaking the Law

The previous three posts on social history looked at records of law abiding citizens. However, we know that in every place in every century, there were people who ran afoul of the law.

Do you have one of these black sheep in your family and, if so, where are records to document crimes and punishments? Well, it depends on the when and where.

Generally, laws that are broken bring charges and guilt/innocence is determined in court. However, in Puritan Massachusetts, church officials might first intervene to correct wayward behavior of a non-violent nature. The same process might happen in colonial Virginia because the church had a strong influence on local society. Once a rogue hit the frontier, justice might be imposed by angry citizens. It wasn’t called the Wild West for nothing. Woven through all these time periods and places is the court system, created as settlers moved westward.

Locating specific records will take some real digging. For primary records, created at the time of the event, court and church records kept in the town and/or county would be the first and, maybe, the only place to search. Be forewarned that the further back in time one goes, handwriting often becomes considerably more difficult to read. Cursive style in the 1600s takes a lot of practice to read!

Genealogical periodicals and newsletters are another source for finding criminals and their stories. These accounts might have been uncovered as part of a larger research project, they could be family lore which has been handed down, or perhaps a volunteer took the time to abstract local court or jail registers.

Newspapers, of course, can be an excellent source for details, but they must exist for the time period and location where the crime happened.

Historical Societies, particularly at the state level, may have links to correctional institutions.

To search for a specific location in FamilySearch, enter the STATE and then scroll to find CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTIONS.

Here’s a good article – Prison Records and Your Genealogical Research – on Ancestral Findings.

Ron Arons specializes in finding records about family criminals. He has written a book, WANTED! U.S. Criminal Records Sources & Research Methodology.

Here are a dozen online resources to help you with your search:

1.Kenneth R. Marks’ site, The Ancestor Hunt, has a huge database of links to prison records. This is a partial list:

2. FamilySearch – Lawrence County, Ohio Jail Register 1867-1923, FHL Film #973,437, which has been digitized and is available online. Details include: No. of Commitment, Prisoner’s Name, Place of Nativity,
Offense Charged, Date of Commitment, When Discharged, By What Authority, No. of Days in Jail,  No. of Days in Dungeon (!!!) and the sheriff’s fees for Commitment, Board and Washing, Attending Prisoner Before Court, Discharged, and Total. A final column allows for any remarks.

3. Virginia – Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Penitentiary Institution, Year Ending September 30, 1862. Besides the fiscal and manufacturing reports, there are items listing number of inmates working at each occupation and misc. expenses. Best of all, if you have a family member incarcerated in 1862 who never again appears in any records, he might have died in prison. The surgeon’s report, buried towards the back of the document includes details about the thirteen men who died that year in prison.

4. Inmates of the Idaho Penitentiary 1864-1947: A Comprehensive Catalog – this item must be viewed at a Family History Center, but is digitized and free to access.

5. Ancestry has a collection of U.S. Penitentiary Records, 1875-1963.

6. Cyndi’s List has links to the United States and other countries. Here is just a partial list.

7. Criminal Records – Mug Shots for Genealogy (1902-1981)- Photos can be ordered if you find a name of interest.

8. Historical U.S. Prison Records Online

9. The Genealogy Researcher Goes to Jail: The Records Are a Good Resource – Background article with links

10. Kansas Historical Society – Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing Records, 1861-1952)

11. Oklahoma Historical Society – Search Oklahoma State Penitentiary Photograph Cards and Fingerprint Cards.





One thought on “Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records – Part 4, Breaking the Law”

  1. RootsTech 2019 Contest Entry

    I am going to check out those criminal websites and see if we have a black sheep in the family. Thank you for sharing!

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