Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Penitentiary Records: Part I Women in Prison

Missouri State Penitentiary
(as seen on WDYTYA Cynthia Nixon)
As historical researchers, we already know that we must exhaust various collections to gather documents, data and information on any topic. This is true when uncovering prison records and related documents to understand the complete story of our ancestors’ lives. In the July 2014 episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) with Cynthia Nixon, Missouri prison records were featured in the uncovering of her family history. What was even more unique is that the prisoner was her great-great-great grandmother! Yes a woman imprisoned in the 1840’s.

Researching women who were imprisoned takes a bit more sleuthing, because they didn’t always serve “inside the walls” of the penitentiaries. Each State Penitentiary used different guidelines, so it’s important to first research your states’ practices.

Women Were Pardoned (or Abused)
Prisoner Petition to Governor Reynolds

The Missouri State Penitentiary was the second largest in the nation. It opened in 1836. The first woman sentenced to prison as a result of attempting to poison her husband was Rebecca Hawkins in 1841. Although she failed to kill Mr. Hawkins, he was murdered by another and Rebecca was immediately pardoned as she was the sole care giver of the eight children. Rebecca was never sent to the penitentiary. Researchers will find that many of their female ancestors were pardoned for various reasons.

In May of 1842, the first female convict sent to the Penitentiary was Ann Amelia Eddy from St. Louis County. She had stolen a coat and pantaloons and was given a two-year sentence for grand larceny. Like her predecessor, she did not serve her sentence and was only held for two weeks before being pardoned by the Governor. As with many Government pardons of this era, Amelia was released due to the lack of adequate facilities for women.

But the next prisoner at the Mo. State Penitentiary, Martha Casto (the great-great-great grandmother of Cynthia Nixon as seen on Who Do You Think You Are? Season 5, Episode 1, 23 July 2014), was not immediately pardoned. And unlike her predecessor who only served two weeks, Casto served a year and a half before being pardoned. Across the nation, women who served time in non-segregated prisons were abused by guards, wardens, and at the work-place houses.

An abstract from the Missouri State Penitentiary: 170 Years inside “The Walls” by Jamie Pamela Rasmussen provides us with further history to Women Prisoners:
Petition to Pardon Prisoner, 1841
The next female prisoner, Martha Casto [great-great-great grandmother of Cynthia Nixon, as seen on Who Do You Think You Are? Season 4, Episode 1, 23 July 2014], was not as lucky as Amelia had been. As soon as she [Casto] arrived, special arrangements were made for her to live and work in the home of one of the lessees. While there, she became pregnant. She was horribly mistreated by the man's wife and ran away. Apprehended the next day, she was returned to the prison and given an isolation cell. There she later gave birth with assistance from one of her fellow convicts-a man-and both the mother and baby girl remained imprisoned until a year and a half later when Casto was finally pardoned.

Another woman unfortunate enough to be sentenced to the penitentiary was simply placed in a cell with three men. She was forced to wear a dress vividly dyed half yellow and half white that identified her as a convict. During the day she worked in the wash house. While in her cell, the door was kept unlocked so that any prisoner or guard could "visit" her as he wished
” (Rasmussen).

In 1919, Katie Richards O’Hare served part of her federal sentence at the Missouri State Penitentiary. She was indicted under the Federal Espionage Act and was forced to work 50 hours a week in a clothing factory and was prohibited from communicating with her husband and four children. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted her sentence and she was released. Later O’Hare received a full pardon from President Calvin Coolidge. Another infamous prisoner at the Missouri State Penitentiary was Emma Goldman who was convicted for various criminal charges ranging from “inciting a riot to advocating the use of birth control to opposition to World War I.”

But by the turn of the century, prisons were being built for women. The Renz Women's Penitentiary in Missouri opened up in 1926, and operated as a prison farm, where more than 500 female inmates raised chickens and grew produce. These types of work prisons were popular at the turn of the century.

1-2-3  Begin Your MO. Prison and Pardon Research
There are several key repositories and collections available for the Missouri researcher. Keep in mind, however, that Missouri was one of the largest prisons resulting in inmates from across the nation being housed at the Mo. State Penitentiary.


  1. State Penitentiary History and Newspaper Research
    Missouri State Penitentiary: Women in Prison
    The Mo. State penitentiary: 170 Years inside “The Walls” - Women Prisoners Who Changed the Walls form the Inside Out, Jamie Pamela Rasmussen.
  2. MO. State Archives. 
    This is a good place to begin your search is with the State Archives. Hopefully your State Archives will hold as rich of a collection as the Missouri State Archives. (Be sure to also check the Midwest Genealogy Center for their microfilm collection of Penitentiary records).
    Prisoner's Complaints
    • Register of Inmates Received, 1836--
    • MO State Penitentiary Register
    • Records of Pardons 1836
    • Circuit Court (usually catalogued by counties if available)
    • Original copies of sentences and judgment papers from the Court
    • List of Prisoners As They Sit at the Table
    • Prisoners’ Complaints
    • Accounts List
  3. MO. State Historical Society
Be sure to visit Part II, Prison and Pardon Research, 12 Prison Research Treasures for additional tips and hints to your penitentiary research (to be posted 24 Jul 2014).

Kathleen Brandt
a3Genealogy.com
Accurate, accessible answers

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Very interesting. These poor women endured such terrible circumstances.

    ReplyDelete