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Genealogy of Communities: Prisons

Everyone lives someplace. Even prisoners are counted in the census. If they happen to be residents of the penal system, they are counted where they reside.


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The prison residents who are not there by choice fall into two main categories. A prisoner is someone who is either awaiting trial or has been convicted. Convicts have been adjudged guilty of a crime. Either term can be searched as a keyword in genealogical databases.

Finding Prisoners

Locating prisoners in a database like requires nothing more than the keyword "prisoner." It works for foreign countries, as well as the United States. A simple search, with no other data, will generate a list of more than 18,000 prisoners in 1881 England.

The word "convict" can generate lists of prisoners who were shipped to other countries. A convicted thief from Scotland who was sent to South Carolina was a "convict" and not a prisoner. It's a fine line, but it is something to be aware of when doing electronic searches.

Prisoners are enumerated the same as non-prisoners. Their birthplace and age are identified. Some are impossible to identify, as only a first name or initials were given. For most, a non-prison occupation is listed.

As with other communities, there are a variety of roles within the prison, and a lifestyle. In 1881, the prison wardens and their families lived where the warden worked. The warden of Her Majesty's Prison at Kutsford Nether in Cheshire, England, lived on the property.

There was a political organization among the community. The Deputy Governor Edwin Taylor, and his wife and two teenage children lived at the prison. There were gatekeepers and a schoolmaster who probably taught the staff's children. It was not an era of rehabilitation and prisoners probably were not granted the benefit of the schoolmaster's knowledge.

Convict Hulks

The York Convict Hulk was enumerated in 1841 in England. It was home to more than just convicts. It was a the District Ship York Convict Hospital in Hampshire, England. Again, we see a community evolving with residential employees in charge of the convicts.

The overseer and his wife lived aboard the ship along with steward, quartermasters, and guards responsible for some 400 convicts. No further information is provided beyond names, ages, and whether they were born in Hampshire County.

We can turn to Google Books for quick access to reports made by the Governor of York regarding the vessel. Reports were made on a regular basis for all ship prisons. In making the report for 1850, we find some surprising genealogical information.

One prison warden, Warder O'Connor was murdered by the convicts, allegedly over the lack of tobacco available to convicts. To find more reports about prison hulk hospitals, use any generic search engine to search for the keywords "convict hulk" and "hospital." The United Service magazine published a list of convict ships in 1836.

The Internet Archive and Google Books are both good sources for locating lists of prisoners.

The Common Prison

Every community has a prison. Small town prisons remind us of the homey jail on the Andy Griffith Show. We find prisoners "boarding" with families all across the country during the 1800s and even into the 1900s. The jail was the family home.

We don't like to think our ancestors might have spent time behind bars, but keep in mind that loitering or being too poor to pay your bills could land an entire family in jail - including the children! If the trail goes cold and you even suspect someone might have served time, search for them as a "boarder" or "prisoner."

In 1900, we find Findley M. Sinclair in Fullerton, Nebraska. He was a 30 year-old single farmer from Scotland - and a prisoner. He and Abraham Gallatin, a farmer from Illinois, were the only two prisoners on June 4, 1900. We don't know what they served time for, but the census found they repaying a debt to society in this little town in Nebraska. Surely there is an interesting story to be told!

Crimes and Criminals

Most criminals are behind bars. But, a search for "thief" can turn up people like Marion Stanly. His name appears in the 1870 U.S. Mortality Schedule. He died in Cooke County, Texas, as a result of being shot. His last known occupation was "horse thief." Henry Watt was shot to death in Storey County, Nevada, in 1880. His last known profession was "professional thief."

Perhaps both thieves were not as good at their jobs as they believed. But they leave an interesting piece of information behind.

An occupation like "thief," generally ends in prison rather than death. Browse through the 1880 census enumeration for Sing Sing Prison and you'll find prisoners reporting occupations ranging from physician to horse jockey. But "thief" was the only occupation George Pettigrew reported.

It seems that criminal occupations are one instance of a resident's occupation following them outside the community, in this case the prison.

Sing Sing was more than just the prison. It was a village surrounding a prison. There were farmers, merchants, and laborers outside the prison walls. John Murphy was a liquor seller in the village. He and his wife, Eliza, operated a boarding house for those who listed "keeper at prison" or "night watchman" as their occupation.

It serves as reminder not to overlook prisons as a community for non-criminals. The prison community consists of far more than criminals.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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