“If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance.” Those words by George Bernard Shaw are a good reminder to those with black sheep in the family. (And who doesn’t have one or two of those?) Records created about the ne’er-do-wells of the family can be rich in clues. Once you get over the shock and surprise of finding a criminal relative, you might be amazed at what you can uncover.
New York has some of the most historic and famous prisons in the United States. We recently launched four new collections of New York prison records and in these you’ll find everything from those convicted of habitual drunkenness to convicted murderers.
The Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842-1908, has registers from prisons across the state. Records include the crime that was committed and the term of the sentence. They also include the county where the person was convicted, which can lead you to court records and newspaper accounts (of both the crime and the trial).
Need some clues about names? These registers have them. Prisoners are listed with aliases, “real names,” and full names. Could those aliases have been names they borrowed from people they knew?
Prisoners Received at Newgate State Prison, 1797-1810, documents the earliest state prison in New York. It was originally designed to be a model prison to reform those who had been convicted of serious crimes (aside from murder and arson). Prisoners from New York City were literally sent “up the river” to Newgate. (Yes, that’s where the phrase comes from.) Early records in this collection include occupation and physical description. Later records include the inmate’s previous offenses.
Discharges of Convicts, 1882-1915, applies specifically to those who were pardoned or had their sentences commuted by the governor. The registers include the name of the convict, county, crime, court, judge, date of sentencing, date received in prison, sentence, commutation earned, and discharge date. In some cases, you’ll find correspondence regarding commutations as well.
Executive Orders for Commutations, Pardons, Restorations and Respites, 1845-1931, is a good collection to use with the Discharges of Convicts. The governor could restore the citizenship rights of convicted felons. The Executive Orders show the governors’ orders restoring those rights.
Later this week, we’ll highlight some other new prison records on Ancestry.com. Stay tuned!