Posted by Ancestry Team on October 15, 2009 in Collections

Notorious train robbers, mob bosses, “butter imposters” and financial schemers are among the infamous outlaws who appear in a unique collection of federal prison records we just added to

Provided by the National Archives at Atlanta, the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary Collection (1902-1921) spans two decades and consists of more than 14,000 inmate records documenting some of the worst criminals in U.S. history.

Some of the most common offenses perpetrated by Atlanta Federal Penitentiary inmates, and documented in this new collection, include illegal distilling, tax evasion, counterfeiting, mail fraud and mail theft.

The collection also contains records documenting some more curious kinds of crimes, including:

  • Butter Imposter – Several individuals in the collection were sentenced to federal prison because they violated the “Oleo Margarine Act,” which made it a crime to produce margarine that looked too much like butter. Beginning in 1916, John R. Seymour spent 19 months behind bars for violating the Oleo Margarine Act.
  • Bad Seed – One individual, David A. Keys, spent more than three years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary because of “scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morals.”
  • Lead Foot – In 1915, Charles Arnett was sent to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to serve 19 months of jail time for “joy riding” in Washington, DC.
  • Youngest Prisoner – In 1905, twelve-year-old Preston James was sentenced in Jacksonville, Fla., for embezzlement of U.S. mail, and went on to serve a 2-year prison term.

The first residents of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary arrived in 1902. Because only three federal penitentiaries existed at that time, each served a large region of the country. Criminals tried in Eastern and Southeastern states including New York, Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida were often sent to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to carry out their sentences.

Check out the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary Collection to see if there’s a notorious character in your family tree.


  1. Valerie

    I notice that, on the banner advertising this collection, there are photos of inmates. Is this part of the collection that will be added or just part of the advertisement?

  2. Tony Masiello

    Hi Valerie,

    I don’t know for certain the answer to your question, but based on the description of the records, I suspect the photos are just part of the advert.

    This database seems to be just an index, but it does appear that the full records can be obtained directly from the National Archives. The full record may contain a mug shot. There is a detailed listing of what is in the index and what is in the original prison records here;

    I’ve sent an email to the address listed on this page inquiring about obtaining an inmate record.

    Good luck!

  3. peggy druck

    I was wondering if by soe small chance that the old Frankfort Prison that was in Frankfort Kentucky will be releasing records of those incarserated.I had a few relatives that had be guests of theiers and one even died in prison.
    Ky State reformatory has no clue on the records.
    Sincerley Peggy Druck

  4. Tony Masiello

    To follow-up on my previous comment…

    I received an email reply from NARA in Atlanta yesterday. They found the physical record for my great-uncle and told me it contained 20+ pages. The cost of a copy of the record is $15. They provided me with a snail mail address to send a check/mo and a phone # to make a cc payment.

    I called this morning and spoke with a very nice woman who took my info and told me she would have the record in the mail today or tomorrow.

    I have no idea what will be contained in those 20+ pages, but I currently know very little about this uncle, so I am hopeful for some insight into who he was and perhaps a photo…

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