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Overheard on the Message Boards: Prison Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

April 10, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I have a great-grandfather who was in prison in Massachusetts sometime around 1915-1940. I don't know why or exactly where. Is there a way to get the prison records or for me to find out where he was imprisoned and why? Any help is appreciated. -- Tina

A: First let me caution you in pursuing such a question. As genealogists we often can't stand to have an unanswered question. As humans, though, we sometimes wish we hadn't pursued the answers to certain questions. Once we discover the truth behind family secrets, we may never tell anyone in the family but we still have to come to terms with what we discovered.

You should use what you know about your great-grandfather and follow the genealogist's golden rule. That is, work from the known to the unknown.

Be careful about opening a genealogical Pandora's box.

Finding Your Great-Grandfather

The first step I would take is to determine where your ancestor was from 1910 to 1940. Some of this can be done through census work. Locate your great-grandfather in the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census. He should be enumerated as an inmate if he was in prison when the census was taken. Finding him in prison in one of these census years would certainly make your research easier since you would know the prison and be off and running. At the very least identifying him in the census will give you towns and counties. You may find that it was one of these towns where he committed his crime.

If your great-grandfather stayed put then you may find the 1930 to 1940 period easier. A search of city directories would be the first stop for this period. City directories may be available on microfiche or with a Family & Local Histories subscription, while others may require hiring a professional genealogist or taking a trip to the city in question. Tax lists may also be of use in this period, though they are seldom microfilmed this far into the 20th century and may also require a trip or that you hire a professional.

As you search these records, you are looking for him to be listed as an inmate or for a gap in the records. A gap in the records would indicate a possible time period during which he was incarcerated. In fact, once I located him in the census, I suspect that I would also track him through the city directories to see if he appears each year. If he doesn't, then those would be the years I would concentrate on with the next phase of the research.

Going Through Newspapers

Once you have located him in given towns, the next step is to look for available newspapers for that town. Some of them may be on microfilm and available through interlibrary loan, while others may require a trip or that you hire a professional researcher. For Massachusetts, the largest collection of microfilm copies can be found at Boston Public Library, Copley Square, Boston, MA 02117. Also check the Massachusetts State Library, 341 State House, Beacon St., Boston, MA 02133. At the Boston Public Library you'll find the "Boston Evening Transcript," a genealogical column of queries, answers and notes published from 1894 to 1941 and the Hartford Times.

You will also want to check the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media — found at most public libraries — to see what newspapers exist in the town in question. The Gale directory will tell you when and for how long the newspaper was published. If the newspaper still operates, you'll learn contact information. You could call the newspaper to find out what it has done with its old copies. Does it have a newspaper morgue on the premises? Are the newspapers on microfilm? You may also find some of this information in one of the following:

  • Newspapers in Microform, United States, 1948-1983 [Washington: Library of Congress, 1984] Note: These dates have nothing to do with the dates of the newspapers in this collection. Coverage of the newspapers actually dates from 1704 to 1972.
  • United States Newspaper Program National Union List. (FHL fiche 633332710-14) An inventory of newspapers that had been collected by the Library of Congress and 20 states as of 1985.

You may also want to see if the newspaper in question is part of one of the many ongoing online digitization programs that are making more and more newspapers available, especially older issues.

Once you have determined the time period, the crime, and where he was incarcerated, you can then see what might exist in the way of prison records. Remember, though, that the step of identifying when he committed the crime and where he was sent to prison may be the longest and require the most determination by you.

Prison Records

Prisons as we know them today have been in existence for more than 200 years. The first prison was the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia which opened in 1790. This was soon followed by the Auburn Jail at Auburn, New York, which opened in 1816. Most of the prisons today are modeled after that of the Auburn Jail.

Prisons fall under one of four authorities: federal, state, local, and military. The difference in the authority may affect the records you have access to. All prisons are listed in the Directory, Juvenile and Adult Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies and Paroling Authorities published by the American Correctional Association. Most public libraries will have a copy of this directory, which numbers more than 850 pages.

The records generated by a prison differ by prison, authority or time period. Many of the records will include some identifying information and a few will give you some information about the inmates family.

Some of the records to keep a look out for include

  • Admission Books
  • Register of Prisoners
  • Biographical Registers
  • Hospital Record Books
  • Descriptive Records
  • Convict Dockets
  • Clemency Files
  • Pardon Books
  • Discharge Books

Some of these records may have been microfilmed and may be available through the Family History Library. Once you have determined where your great-grandfather was incarcerated, I would suggest searching the Family History Library Catalog for the county and then the town looking for any prison records.

While the prison records will give you some of the information you are looking for, don't forget to also check court records. Court records should have transcripts of the trial and should give you a much better picture of what really happened.

In Conclusion

Institutional records are one of the record groups that few people think to search. Some people don't consider that one of their ancestors may have ended up in jail while others just aren't aware of the types of information you can learn from them. In your case, you are seeking these records in order to answer a specific question as to what the deep dark secret is. Once you find out though, it will be up to you to decide what to do with it.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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