Posted by Ancestry Team on July 8, 2014 in Collections

“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?

John Reilly (alias), John Burke (real name), and John Sullivan. James Stephenson (indicted), James R. Warren (alias), and James Sully. Six names, two men.

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 Stay tuned!

Blackwell's Island Penitentiary. Image from Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000.
Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary. Image from Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000.


  1. arlene

    you need to update your site when you want to unscribe. there is no option!! it is not there.

  2. Dale Wingo

    Very good information! Thank You!

    I’ve got a “Gray Sheep” in Springfield, Mass: my wife’s ggrandfather Edvardo Albertus Hendrick. His wife died fron typhoid fever leaving him to raise 4 children by himself including the yougest daughter aged 3 (my wifes grandmother). The grandmother was handed off to a couple that must have been family friends and was raised by them. Edvardo worked in a firearms manufacturer thereafter but I’ve come across the 1930 census that stated he was admitted to the notorious mental hospital, “Northhampton State Hospital”. I recently discovered that he appears in a Death Index as having died in 1931. That document gives a volume and page number of some other document that might have the details but I’ve been unable to find that other document. I’ve corresponded with several different gov’t agencies in MA to no avail.

    Could you point me to someone that can help me sort thru all of the information I’ve found and make sense out of it? My wife and I are very perplexed as to what might have gone on with that part of her faimily.

    Interestingly another ggrandfather of my wife died while looking over the railing while riding in a freight elevator and got his head caught and broke his neck. I was able to find all of the documentation on him, thankfully.

    Dale Wingo

  3. John Fischer

    There is a link to the SIng Sing records from the explanation of the Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons; however it appears that the Sing Sing records are not accessible yet. When will they be accessible?

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