Were any of your ancestors idle, dissolute, lewd, wanton, or lascivious? Did they sleep in outhouses, sheds, barns, or unoccupied buildings? Did they habitually neglect their jobs? Were they unable to give a good account of themselves?Â
This laundry list of wayward habits, according to the law in territorial New Mexico, identified a vagrant. The broadly-defined vagrancy law further extended its reach to include runaways, brawlers, pilferers, loiterers, gamblers, confidence men, drunkards, and common street walkers.
County jail logs clearly show that vagrancy was a popular pastime in nineteenth-century New Mexico. Vagrants, who accounted for the bulk of the jail population, usually paid a small fine and/or spent a few days in jail.
When we think of criminals in our family tree, we usually look under the rug for the big guns. You know, the black sheep cousins who did time in the big house for impressive crimes such as bank robbery, murder, and horse theft. If you really want to tread down the slippery path of uncovering family scandals, donâ€™t overlook the little guy–the small-time lawbreaker.
While itâ€™s certainly possible that you might find a big-time criminal lurking in the family tree branches, youâ€™re more likely to find ancestors who only briefly lapsed into lawbreaking habits.
For example, in the First District Court records for Santa Fe County, I found a list of fines imposed during the March court session in 1863. Two people were fined for assault, one for carrying arms, one for cattle stealing, and two for larceny–all noteworthy crimes. But, a whopping fifty-four individuals were fined for gaming. The gamblersâ€™ fines ranged from $75 to $2.50.
Even more interesting is who paid the price for pursuing the elusive payoff. The list of waging offenders reads like a â€œWhoâ€™s Whoâ€ of Santa Fe. Dozens of leading merchants and prominent citizens had their day in court, including one man who later served in high positions for three territorial governors.
Look for your misdemeanor-prone ancestors in jail records. Most rural communities had a county jail run by a sheriff, while larger communities had city jails run by a chief of police.
Jailers kept log books. Not always complete or accurate, jail logs generally included the name of the perpetrator, the crime, his or her residence, and the incarceration dates. Sometimes the log might have additional notes, such as the sentence.
People usually only spent short times in the county or city jail. Some were held just until they posted bail, others were held awaiting a grand jury, while others served out short sentences lasting up to three months or so. However, many culprits never spent time in the slammer.
You might instead spot your ancestral crook in a judgment record, which might include lists of fines and verdicts. Or you could look at court journals, which recorded all the actions of the court during a particular session.
Even though petty crimes didnâ€™t usually generate too much paperwork, you might find a criminal case file. These will sometimes contain an arrest warrant or witness statements.
Before you delve into the shady past of your ancestors, though, consider the positives and the negatives of uncovering both big-time and small-time criminals. On the plus side, criminals created paper trails, and the details certainly add depth to your knowledge of your ancestorâ€™s character.
On the minus side, some of your relatives might be offended by uncovering the ancestral short-comings. I discovered that my great-grandfather served three years in the Kansas State Penitentiary for swine theft. While I am fascinated by the details of his case, my mother is not. She and her siblings all have fond memories of their grandfather, and I have been gently instructed not to mention his youthful infraction to my elderly aunts and uncles.
But, if youâ€™re ready and willing to investigate old jail and court records and hunt for a small-time offender, you may be stunned or delighted when you find an ancestor with a checkered past.
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