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Was Your Ancestor a Criminal? Historic Prison Records Online

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How to research criminal ancestors in U.S. prison records.

John Dillinger mugshot from an early FBI wanted flyer.

FBI.gov

Most 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 hold a wealth of records that may put you hot on your ancestor's trail. 

What You Can Learn From Prison Records
Prison records can be rich with information so finding a criminal in your family tree can be looked at as a positive. A number of different prison records may provide background information on inmates and information about their incarceration, imprisonment and release, including receiving ledgers, biographical registers, record cards, assignment cards and discharge ledgers. These types of records may include some or all of the following information about a prisoner’s personal and criminal history:

 

  • Name
  • Age
  • Birth date
  • Physical Description (Height, Weight, Complexion, Eye color, Hair color)
  • Nationality
  • Occupation
  • Religion
  • Names of living relatives (e.g. parents)
  • Father’s place of birth
  • Mother’s place of birth
  • Children
  • Date incarcerated
  • Prisoner number
  • Court where charged
  • Recommitments
  • Details of discharge

Prison and related criminal records can be found 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 through a variety of repositories for researching your own criminal ancestors.

Criminal Records Online
A surprising number of prison records can also be found online, even historical ones. These indices and databases often include varying 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 the databasesHistoric 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.

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