Tips from the Pros: Small-Time Criminals-Sources, from Mary Penner

Many of you who read my article about small-time criminals asked “where can I find these kinds of records?” Good question. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.

You’ll probably have to look for records about your notorious ancestors in several different places. For my derelict great-grandfather, I found his criminal case file in the office of the district court clerk at the county courthouse. Because he went to the state penitentiary for his crime, I also found records at the state historical society which is the repository for old government records in the state of Kansas. I found the intake ledger book for the penitentiary, and I also found copies of correspondence that mentioned my ancestor in the records of the prison warden and the governor. Unfortunately, his prisoner file couldn’t be found.

In the article, I referred to some records that I found at the New Mexico state archives. I found jail logs and criminal case files in a collection of county government documents. I also found judgment records and court dockets in the district court records.

So, you need to look in both local and state repositories for records related to the judicial process. You can find links to all of the state level repositories. Use their online finding aids and catalogs to help determine what records they have.

Unfortunately, jail logs and other court-related documents often are not indexed, so be prepared to spend some time scanning the pages. Once you find a relative who ran afoul of the law, don’t forget to look at the local newspaper for that time period. Details about my great-grandfather’s arrest and trial made the weekly newspaper nearly every week for two months.

In response to another question, yes, people who were in jail were enumerated in the census. That’s what tipped me off to my ancestor’s shady past; his residence for the 1880 census was the Kansas State Penitentiary.  

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One thought on “Tips from the Pros: Small-Time Criminals-Sources, from Mary Penner

  1. I really enjoy the articles that come out in your weekly newsletter, but the past few issues have been extremely sloppy. I’m sorry to complain, but I think they need to be cleaned up. For instance, about three weeks ago, there was an article about marking up old photographs. The following week was another article, obviously written over the old article to retain the formatting (and I can readily see the advantage of doing this), but old, irrelevant text was left in (“Don’t use these markers on your heritage photos. Purchase instead a very soft lead art pencil.”). This week, same story. Here’s where I found that old text again (notice the last two sentences, surrounded by brackets []) … a little proofreading goes a long way!

    “Tips from the Pros: Small-Time Criminals-Sources
    from Mary Penner

    Many of you who read my article about small-time criminals asked “where can I find these kinds of records?” Good question. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.

    You’ll probably have to look for records about your notorious ancestors in several different places. For my derelict great- grandfather, I found his criminal case file in the office of the district court clerk at the county courthouse. Because he went to the state penitentiary for his crime, I also found records at the state historical society which is the repository for old government records in the state of Kansas. I found the intake ledger book for the penitentiary, and I also found copies of correspondence that mentioned my ancestor in the records of the prison warden and the governor. Unfortunately, his prisoner file couldn’t be found. [Don't use these markers on your heritage photos. Purchase instead a very soft lead art pencil.]

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