PRISON RECORDS FOR FAMILY HISTORY
By Holly T. Hansen
Genealogist Holly T. Hansen, Founder of Family History Expos, shares tips on Big Blend Radio, on tracing your family roots by researching prison records.
Those interested in family history cannot afford to ignore the criminal law in their research if they hope to build a comprehensive picture of the times in which their ancestors lived. You will learn not only of the convicts, but the victims, witnesses, jurors, Justices of the Peace, constables, and more.
Studying the records involved with the law can put light on the activities and movements of our ancestors and their family members. For example, if an ancestor disappears from the records, a look at police newspapers or gazettes may give clues to happenings in the area—such as theft, poaching rings, etc. Criminal records remain largely an untapped resource of information for historians.
Below we will discuss three types of records with which you will want to become acquainted.
Records of Bonded Passengers
Historically, convicted felons were often shipped to remote and inhospitable areas where the convict could work hard labor to pay for the offense. This is nothing new. The practice can be traced backed to the Roman Empire. In more recent times, England was heavily and consistently deporting their prison population for two and a half centuries. By 1776, more than 40,000 inmates from English prisons had been sent in exile to the land which eventually became America. Many achieved freedom and respectability within their lifetime.
Of the convicts dispatched to America between 1615 and 1775, most belonged to the poorest class and were sentenced for crimes which today might incur a small fine or probation.
Peter Wilson Coldham has produced a multi-volume set of books entitled Bonded Passengers to America, published by Genealogical Publishing Company. This is a good place to start.
United States Penitentiary Records
Prison files can offer unsurpassed details on the biography and life of the inmate. But it can also reveal details that are extremely sensitive and may cause considerable discomfort. So be prepared before you begin digging.
Case files can include inmate photograph, record sheet, personal data sheet, finger prints, daily work record, hospital record, correspondence log, visitation log, sentence of the court, and more.
Those who use prison records in their research will be rewarded with information unavailable anywhere else.
Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records Sources & Research Methodology, written by Ron Arons of Criminal Research Press, is another good resource to get you started.
Criminal Records in England and Wales
Until the end of the 1700s, the punishment for more than one hundred crimes was death (or transportation to the colonies). The penalty for lesser crimes was either the pillory, corporal punishment, or a fine. Jails were used only to secure prisoners while awaiting trial, with the exception of debtors who were jailed for years until their debts were paid.
There are many levels of jurisdiction for criminal records. A good book to help with your research of criminal records in England and Wales is Criminal Ancestors: A Guide to Historical Criminal Records in England and Wales written by David T. Hawkins, published by The History Press in England.
You will be surprised by the details and the people you find in criminal court records. Take a look, and have fun with your research.
Holly T. Hansen aka “Miss Holly GenTeacher,” is the President and Founder of Family History Expos, Inc, and as an author, lecturer, editor, and publisher, has been instrumental in helping thousands understand the principles, strategies, and sources they can use to trace their roots in today’s ever-changing technological environment. She is the mastermind behind more than 50 Family History Expos held across the United States, and is dedicated to helping individuals and families, one-on-one, with their personal research needs. Currently, she is involved creating podcasts, webinars, and video presentations to help people move forward in their family history endeavors from the comforts of home.