Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Collections

We’d all like to think that our ancestors were good, kind-hearted, upstanding citizens who followed the letter of the law. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and sometimes we find a few leaves in our tree attached to troublemakers. Whether they were trying to sell unsuspecting customers snake oil, or became experts in lock-picking or safe cracking, some of our ancestors were scofflaws. Fortunately for us, the descendants of these rabble-rousers, their evasion of the law created an array of records. Here are some of our favorite criminal records available on

Album of Criminals, 1906 – Recently Released!

William Regal -  Pick Pocket
William Regal, a 28 year old pick pocket

Put together by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, this is a 200+ page collection of criminal records and a treasure trove of information if your ancestor was among the offenders. Each record includes a photograph (mug shot), any aliases, physical descriptions, associates, and more – making these records an amazing find.

We particularly love this collection because it also tells you if and when your ancestor ever served time in prison – leading you in the direction of more records.

Police Gazettes, New South Wales, Australia, 1854-1930

The Police Gazette was used as a way for the New South Wales police department to communicate to one another about a variety of items. The Gazette included descriptions of wanted criminals, major criminal activity occurring, notices of changes in the law, missing persons etc.

These records not only have valuable information that could help you track down more information about your ancestral troublemaker, but also gives you some context into what kind of place your ancestor was living. There’s also some fun and interesting information you’ll find like this list and description of horses and cattle gone missing in March 1888 (note: you will need to have a World Explorer membership to view this collection):

List and description of horses and cattle reported to the police as stolen, during the week ending 7th March 1888
List and description of horses and cattle reported to the police as stolen, during the week ending 7th March 1888

Alabama Convict Records 1886-1952

If your ancestor ever spent any amount of time in prison between 1886 and 1952 in the great state of Alabama, they might be included in these convict records.

These convict records include information such as age, sentence term, crime committed, whether or not they escaped prison, and if they were recaptured. You might be surprised how often inmates escaped, although many were recaptured and re-sentenced. Take a look at these amazing handwritten records:

Alabama Convict Records
Alabama Convict Records

McNeil Island, Washington, U.S. Penitentiary Photos & Records of Prisoners Received, 1875-1939

This database has a lot of great information, as this is the log kept for incoming prisoners into McNeil Island Penitentiary. The prison was established in 1875, and in 1889 it became a federal penitentiary. Since then many inmates have come through its doors.

As a part of receiving prisoners at McNeil Island, they had to go through a process, which is how these records were created. They include details such as the following:

  • Name
  • Alias
  • Offense, crime, or cause of arrest
  • When and where arrested
  • Where tried
  • When convicted
  • Date and term of sentence
  • Physical description (age, height, weight, color of eyes, complexion, color of hair and whiskers, marks)

Those are just a few of the fields you’ll find if your ancestor was a McNeil Island resident. The real gems in this collection, however, are the photographs. As prisoners were received they each took a photo, which we have made available in this collection to search and browse.

Prisoner # 2206 received at McNeil Island Prison in 1912 for smuggling
Prisoner # 2206 received at McNeil Island Prison in 1912 for smuggling

One of McNeil Island’s most notable prisoners was Robert Straud, who later became known as The Birdman of Alcatraz. Received in 1909, he stayed at McNeil Island until he was transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in 1912 – where he came to care for and sell canaries from his prison cell, and eventually became a respected ornithologist before being transferred again to Alcatraz in 1942.

Record of Robert Straud's arrival at McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1909
Record of Robert Straud’s arrival at McNeil Island Penitentiary in 1909


In an ideal world, all of our ancestors would have kept their nose clean and abided by the law, but sometimes having a prisoner or inmate ancestor makes for a great story! These are just a few criminal records we have available, feel free to explore others in our database and find those family tree troublemakers.







  1. Adriana

    An ancestor of mine had frequent run-ins with the law. In fact, one such incident was so scandalous and devastating for the family that a persistent and unconfirmed rumor about what happened came down through the different branches for generations.

    After speaking online to a distant cousin whom I’d never met, I learned that he’d heard more or less the same story. That led him to search genealogy records, including prison records, for the answer. Nothing.

    Funnily enough, what ultimately worked was a search of the New York Times website. We knew that our ancestor was living in Manhattan, we knew his name, and that turned up two articles about his crime and arrest.

    I contacted the prison the article mentioned directly hoping to find some record of his incarceration, but there’s nothing, so I haven’t been able find a death record or any evidence that he actually served time. Regardless, I have a more complete picture of the events that unfolded, and the family rumor was most definitely false.

    If you suspect your ancestor was a criminal and you can’t find anything on a genealogy website, look through newspaper records and contact prison historians if you get a lead. The historian I talked to was willing to do a search and send me records for free, which was extremely generous and helpful (if only it had worked out!).

  2. Janice

    Even if you don’t expect to find a criminal ancestor, take a look at these kinds of records if you find them – including the 1890 “special census” records! My ancestor served in the Cavalry in the Indian Wars, had a good job in Washington, D.C., a wife and two young sons – and one day he disappeared. All kinds of stories and speculation about what happened to him by his children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. 125 years later, thanks to the 1890 census record found on Ancestry, his tale began to unravel. It is too long a tale to write here and maybe I’ll save it for a book – but no-one imagined he had been in prison! Suffice it to say that the census record led to more questions and, in a few short months, most of the answers were found through some detective work.

  3. George Grazier

    I discovered that my gr gr uncle was hung for murder in 1890. He was part of a group called “The Blue Eyed Six”from eastern Pennslylvania They were the first men convicted in the United States for murder for insurance.
    Interestingly one of the prison records listed cause of death as asphyxiation. I guess hanging from a rope around your neck would cause asphyxiation.

  4. hi my name is lance ashford benton jr find my family member ok i have a sister and tree brother all of thit art old thie me ok i am the hoge one ok find me on face book ok and till thit thety i have a face book ok

Comments are closed.