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Back to Basics - Crime May Not Pay, But it Leaves Great Records
By Barbara McKinlay

Several years ago, I did some research for a lady whose grandfather had died in prison. She was anxious to see if further family information could be found, even though it meant delving into the prison records.

Let me tell you the story of this man. Bill was the oldest son of a family of five, and had inherited the family property. He was very artistic, and he was also very spoiled, tending to try to find the easiest way out of everything. Easily led, he met a former prison inmate who convinced him to help him counterfeit money. The two made plaster of Paris dies for nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars, and proceeded to make silver coins. Not accomplished criminals, they were caught and arrested by the Secret Service, and criminal charges were filed in federal court. The two were sentenced to five years in federal prison. Before his time was served, however, Bill contracted pneumonia and died.

Not all of you reading this article will uncover dastardly deeds done by someone in the family, but in researching over a couple of hundred years, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that you may uncover a case that has gone to court.

In America, we are a record-keeping nation, and you can be sure that any kind of criminal activity generates many records.

And that's not all. If the crime is local, interesting or unusual, it will surely be written about in the newspapers. Since it is fairly easy to get microfilm of old newspapers, the articles you read should lead you to the real records of the case.

We have had prisons for over 200 years in America. The Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia was the first modern prison, and by 1825, it had been improved upon and a more modern one had been built in Auburn, N.Y. Since then, the federal government, state, county, and city governments have built prisons and jails to house criminals. Their records will differ from state to state and city to city, but you can be sure that they were kept. The older the records, the harder they may be to find. Overburdened jurisdictions may turn them over to libraries or historical societies, or may even burn them up! But some have been printed and, as of this date, more and more will be finding their way onto the printed page.

As a genealogist, you may be in for a long search, but it is reasonable to suppose that something will eventually be found.

In Bill's case, some of the admission records were found, as well as a hospital record. No death record ever came to light. What was found gave his birthdate, schooling, the names of his father and mother, the number of siblings, the length of his education, and his hospitalization for pneumonia.

But in Bill's case, it led to even more records that were not of a criminal nature. Having inherited the family property, and having no wife and children, his death led to a long fight in the court over who had the right to the property. Court records show the location of his brothers and sisters at the time of the suit, the married names of his sisters, and even further information about his parents.

It is possible that, as a researcher, you have only passing information about a crime and will have to really dig to get any further with it. In "The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy," by Eakle and Cerny, (Revised Edition, 1997, edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, Ancestry Inc.) there is an excellent guide to correctional institutions before 1900, and also contemporary federal and state agencies. Addresses and dates are available, and it is an excellent starting place.

Inherent in this is a warning to the genealogist. Many families are crushed for many years by the knowledge that a family member has a criminal record. They refuse to talk about it, and in many cases, have hidden their family history. Each researcher has to handle this in his own way.

Much of the information gained is not hurtful and can certainly be printed—the names of the children, where they lived, etc. But it seems to me that in compiling a family history, we certainly should consider the family members. As in Bill's case, they may not care if it is written about. But, if the researcher does not know how the family feels, the researcher should consult family members about how much can be printed. Perhaps after older family members have died, the story can then be printed in its entirety.

I can't help but think about my favorite genealogy story, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times several years ago. It seems a proper Georgia woman commissioned a professional genealogist to write her family's genealogy. She was shocked when she was told that one of her grandfathers had been electrocuted in New York's Sing Sing prison. She pleaded with the genealogist to gloss over the facts. Whereupon he dutifully wrote that the man in question "... occupied the chair of applied electricity at one of America's best-known institutions. He was very much attached to his position, and literally died in the harness."


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