Sunday, July 22, 2018

Penitentiary Records

NY, Governor's Registers of Commitment to Prisons, 1842-1908 ancestry.com
12 State Prison  Research Treasures
From Alaska to Arkansas, California to Connecticut or Maine to Montana every state in the Union has state prisons, sometimes called the State Penitentiary. California has 33! As “black sheeps” and criminals sprinkle every family tree (if you look hard enough), prison records are a gem to family genealogists and historical researchers.


Find Your Blacksheep  
Liberty Tribune, 1857
Liberty Tribune, 1855

Although your black sheep may have visited the city jail, county jail, or Federal Penitentiary, be sure to check the following resources for those held in state prisons or penitentiaries. Although census records may enumerate your ancestor as “resident” of the penitentiary, remember newspaper articles provide accounts of not only the crimes, but often the trial, and witness statements.  In addition the details of your ancestor’s crime can be uncovered in a series of the following state held documents.

Top 12 Collections to Research
Many of the following records can be found at State Archives or the State Historical Society, but we have also noted collections that may be found in university collections.

  1. Original court case. With a bit of legwork, researchers may find copies of an original court case in the county courthouse, the State courthouse or at the federal level.
  2. Warden Papers. Most states have an extensive collection of Warden Papers. Maryland Historical Society Warden Papers date from 1797-1851.
  3. Prison Escapes. Of course the newspapers announced escapees, but also official papers may be located in the Board of Inspectors Records. Excess escapes often led to investigations of the lessee’s management of the prison by the Penitentiary Board of Inspectors.
  4. Penitentiary Board of Inspectors Records. It’s not always clear how collections cross the states, but the Missouri Board of Inspectors Records 1843-1854 can be located at the University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library: Finding Aid for Mo. Penitentiary Board of Inspectors Records 1843-1854.
  5. Discipline Papers. Guards and Wardens recorded “official’ disciplinary actions and so did prisoner advocates. Researchers may find records, like the Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy dated as early as 1845 from the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.
  6. Penitentiary Physician Collections. Physician reports can most likely be located at the State Archives.  The Texas State penitentiary from 1860 - 1880 is located at the Texas State Archives, 1846-1921.
  7. Pardon Papers. Although Pardon Papers may be extensive with explanation of decision, or may be as scant as a Certificate of Pardon, these collections are useful. Often pardons were initiated by community petitions. 
  8. Papers of Governors. As pardons were issued by the Governors, these papers are crucial in understanding a “missing” prisoner, a pardoned prison, or one note housed in the prison. Governor’s papers were often preserved and may be found at the State Archives as is the case for Missouri. Papers of Governor Meredith Miles Marmaduke have been salvaged from 9 Feb 1844 – 20 Nov 1944 and those of Governor Thomas Reynolds from 1840 to 19 Feb 1844 are available. 
  9. The Journal of the Senate. Names and events provided in the Senate Journal of the State provide delightful hints to prisoners and activities of the penitentiaries. A good example is the Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1841).
  10. County Histories. County Histories are commonly found at local libraries, State Archives, and online. It’s a welcomed surprise to find one’s ancestors in these county history books.
  11. State Historical Reviews. The Missouri Historical Review held a wonderful article on Strangers to Domestic Virtues: Nineteenth-Century Women in the Missouri Prison by Gary R. Kremer that proffered a wealth of knowledge.
  12. Dissertations and Thesis. The study of Prisons and the culture of penitentiaries has long been a favorite for graduate studies. Be sure to read "A History of the Missouri State Penitentiary, 1833-1875" written by William Charles Nesheim, M. A. thesis, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 1971).
Other Tips & Hints to Prison Research

Researchers will find that some documents will separate inmates by race and gender. The New York, Prisoners Received at Newgate State prison, 1797-1810 enumerates Black Women, Black Men and Foreigners separately.  This annual account of prisoners in the State Prison lists includes the crime.

The following records have been digitized on ancestry.com:  
  • New York, Prisoners Received at Newgate State Prison, 1797-1810
  • New York, Governor's Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842-1908
  • Alabama Convict Records (county and state), 1886-1952
  • Louisiana, State Penitentiary Records, 1866-1963
Review Penitentiary Records: Part I Women in Prison

And your military veteran may have served a few months in a county jail for being a "slacker" and not reporting to draft office on time.  More to come on this one later. 

    Kathleen Brandt
    a3Genealogy.com
    Accurate, accessible answers

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