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Kimberly Powell

Was Your Ancestor a Criminal? Historic Prison Records Online

By August 31, 2013

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John Dillinger mugshot from an early FBI wanted flyer. Photo: FBI.govMost of us can't claim notorious criminals such as John Dillinger, Al Capone or Bonnie & Clyde in our family tree, but our ancestors may have been convicted and imprisoned for hundreds of lesser reasons just the same. State and federal penitentiaries and prisons, state archives and other repositories have put a wealth of records and databases online that may put you hot on your ancestor's trail. These online indices often include extra details from descriptions of the offense, to the inmate's place and year of birth. Mug shots, interviews and other interesting records may also be found in these databases of Historic U.S. Prison Records Online or Researching Criminal Ancestors in Britain.

While having these prison and inmate databases available online is a great starting point, most of the records beg that you dig further -- into correctional records, court records, jail logs, Governor's papers, records of the Secretary of State and/or Attorney General, etc. Historical newspaper accounts of the crime and conviction can also add substance to your family history.

Hundreds of thousands of other criminal records are also waiting to be discovered in state and university archives, county courts and other repositories. Your ancestor may not have been sent to San Quentin for murder, but you may be surprised to find a newspaper account of his being investigated for arson, or being arrested for a minor misdemeanor such as vagrancy, petty larceny,  gambling or even making moonshine. Turn to finding aids for repositories such as the State Archives, the Family History Library Catalog or the local county historical society to learn what might be available for researching your own criminal ancestors.

April 9, 2013 at 10:51 pm
(1) Mckinley says:

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September 5, 2013 at 7:37 pm
(2) Ron Arons says:

Thanks for the article – it’s great. The fact is, however, that the overwhelming majority of criminal records (prison records, court records, pardon & parole records, and investigative files, e.g. FBI files) remain offline in repositories across the country. WANTED! U.S. Criminal Records is a 388-page reference book that shows where historical criminal records can be found (state by state) across the union. The book also has an introductory chapter that gives guidance on how to research these colorful characters, based on year of experience. The book is available at http://www.criminalresearchpress.com .

September 9, 2013 at 11:16 pm
(3) Sheri Fenley says:

The California State Archives has San Quentin Prison and Folsom Prison inmate records from 1867 to around 1950.

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