Small Time Criminals in the Family Tree

prison barbed wire.jpgby Mary Penner

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? 

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, don’t overlook the little guy–the small-time lawbreaker.

While it’s certainly possible that you might find a big-time criminal lurking in the family tree branches, you’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 gamblers’ 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 “Who’s Who” 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 didn’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 ancestor’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 you’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.

Genealogist Mary Penner writes “Lineage Lessons,” a weekly genealogy column, for the “Albuquerque Tribune” ( She can be reached at [email protected].

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17 thoughts on “Small Time Criminals in the Family Tree

  1. Swine theft? That’s too cool. I had one great-uncle who was in jail for something or other. This has inspired me to look up why.

  2. I, too, would like to know how/where to find jail log books and other such records. Does anyone know if people in county jails were counted/recorded in censuses? If so, would they be found in the regular census in 1850 (census in question in my case)? Any help appreciated.

  3. I loved your account for some of our ancesters. Keep up the
    fantastic work. I started my genealogy with the acceptance
    that I may run across some shady characters in the family tree
    that has been handed down through our lineages. I have been
    prepared ahead of time, but didn’t think others would find
    some in theirs as well. Thank you for admitting it online
    so none of us will feel so different. I love this!

    Betty Johnson
    [email protected]

  4. It’s also a mixed blessing to find a relative or ancestor has been in a mental institution in the past…I found one in an old census record. You really have to be open to anything in the pursuit of genealogy! It’s not just the nostalgic “memory lane” it’s often romanticized to be…

  5. Great story! I too have found several “skeletons ” in our family. Sometimes, more than one in the closet at a time. Our family had the same situation in that our older members did not want the true stories get out/go public. For that reason I am attempting to get them all written down so that future generations will know their history. Some of the stories are just too good to be lost in time.
    Good Hunting
    Until Later—

  6. This is a great article that hits home with me. I had a lot of trouble finding out any info on my grandfather. I ran into a brick wall in the late 1930’s and he just disappeared. He and my grandmother divorced and the family never talked about him except to say that he was a trouble maker. One day I was visiting the Colorado State Archives’ online information and found their prison index. I tried looking up his name just for fun and found one similar, but the last name was spelled a bit differently…the first and middle names were the same. I placed an order for the prison record not really expecting to find him. What arrived in the mail was a written record and mug shots of my grandfather…the name in the index was spelled wrong. It turns out he spent a year in the Colorado State Penitentiary. Also in the prison record was a listing of his military service and where he went to live when he was released. So far I’ve been unable to get a hold of his court records, but am still trying. It pays to check out the prison system if an ancestor seems to have disappeared from the world with no explanation.

  7. Great article tell us more I agree with Sharon Peach where do we go for these records. My relative was in a military prison during WWI easy to find those records but afterwards I believe he was a bank robber. Nothing after the 1920 census. When I would ask the family I would always here “their died let sleeping dogs lay”. Many of us do not have the money or the time to do actual research of these small towns (half way across the United States), the state of Nebraska acts if these are their records and they do not need to share. LTE

  8. Wow, thanks for the excellent article! I never would have thought of jail records… brilliant! I agree with so many of the previous comments and questions… hopefully, the questions will all be answered in an upcoming issue?!? I really enjoy reading Mary Penner articles. Many thanks!

  9. Great story! I am researching my father-in-laws family. I found a census record from 1910 with his grandfathers name on it, the only problem was it was a 1910 census from Georgia and he was from Vermont. It was also the census record for the State Penn in Fulton Co Georgia. The age, marital status and place of birth matched what I already had. I found a phone number for the prison in Atlanta to see if they could give me some info or direct me where to look. After several phone calls, I finally got in contact with the southeast regional archive office and spoke with a very nice gentleman. He looked my relatives name up on the computer and low & behold, it was my father-in-law’s grandfather. He told me that he had been in prison for forgery. I asked if it was possible to get a copy of his records, he told me he would do a page count & get back to me. The next day a woman from his office called, told me how many pages there were, I gladly paid & rec’d his prison record. It included his mugshot (we had no pics), fingerprints, who wrote him letters, whom he wrote letters to, his fine, etc. It took a lot of digging & phone calls, but it was worth it to get a little more insight into the family.

  10. One of the previous comments mentioned relatives in the state hospital. I recently made arrangements to be taken to the cemetery at the ND State Hospital to photograph a relative’s tombstone. The State Hospital employee gave me some history about the patient population that I found interesting. A large percentage of the population were women, and many had been admitted by their husbands because of their menopausal symptoms, and ended up living the rest of their lives there.

  11. My mom always talked about my dad’s brother staying in trouble all the time and going to prison for robbery. I already had his first wife’s name & address (High Point, NC)and found both on the 1930 census. His wife was living with her parents in NC, but he was in a Richmond, VA prison. His middle initial was wrong on the census, but the age & state of birth matched. I had always thought he was in a NC prison. Apparently he stayed in VA and had a savings account with the then Fredericksburg Savings & Loan Assn. He was living with his sister when he died, but when she died a few years later, a courtesy card with his picture was found in her belongings. His soc. sec. info listed death residence localities in both Spotsylvania, VA & Fredericksburg, Va. Since finding this, I have also found him on the naupa VA list (unclaimed money) and informed his 2 children that he had money in an account with the state of VA and they could file a claim for it.

  12. My aunt jokes that every time her father got out of jail her mother got pregnant.His parents had him jailed once for stealing their chickens.The man had a gambling and alcohol problem.The old county jail is now a museum/coffee house and my aunt jokes about having to pay to eat where my grandfather ate for free.Research on the computer shows that my granfather’s sister’s husband’s half-sister was the wife of gangster John Dillinger . My college classmates were once telling tales about how the police would run and hide when they heard that Dillinger was coming to town.I don’t blame them…what’s a revolver against a machine gun?

  13. I know the FBI was searching for a first cousin who had gone AWOL during WWII. Is there anyway I can find out what happen to him?

  14. It is helpful to know there are many sources I would not have thought to look at. Thank you for the aericle.

  15. I am searching for my grandfather that disappeared to look for work in 1932. While doing search I found out that he may have bee a bootlegger and was fleeing so he wouldnt be arrested. This was in Washington state. Do you have any idea how I could find him? Where would I look for records if he was arrested for this? He never did turn up in life or death so far. My grandmother waited the required time and then divorice him. He never surfaced.

  16. I have a family member who was convicted of murder in the 1930’s.It is all hush-hush in the family.Now perhaps I will seek more details and you gave me clues to doing this. Thanks

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