Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Researching Criminal Records

Since we're all good Mennonites, none of us has a criminal in our ancestry.  Or do we?  Family Tree Webinars is hosting a webinar by the always-entertaining Ron Arons about researching criminal records on 28 April.  The webinar will be available free to non-subscribers for a week afterwards, so I would highly recommend listening to it.

I had heard stories from older relatives about a certain criminal act committed by a collateral relative.  (I won't give any more details because it is a rather sensitive matter.)  The stories were contradictory - the person had gotten off scot-free because the father used undue influence on the judge - no, the person had served a year in prison, etc., etc.  I was determined to find out the truth, but I was puzzled as to how to proceed.

I started by searching online sources.  I tried the criminal and prison databases at Ancestry and FamilySearch, but I got no results.  I looked at the state and federal websites of prison records, but also found nothing.  I searched the state law books for that time period (sorry, I can't remember the website I used) and found that it was indeed a state felony, so the person's action should have been punished.

When I had a chance, I went to the county where the person lived at the time and did a search in the court records.  Most old criminal court records are not indexed and not computerized, and that proved to be the case here.  Only cases in the last decade or two were in the computer database.  But I knew about when the crime was committed, so I asked the court clerk to give me the handwritten index books.  No one had used them in years, but she found them for me.  Unfortunately, these index books started a few years after the crime had been committed. 

So I asked if there were any older index books - books for the first fifty years or so that the county had existed.  She did some checking and found that the books were stored in the county judge's office.  Since he was out of town, she found a key and dug up the book for me.  And there it was!  The whole sordid saga was laid out in the case file - the crime, the warrant ordering the sheriff to arrest the person, the details of the hearing, the witnesses hauled into court to testify - no doubt reluctantly, and the sentence of one to seven years at hard labor in the state penitentiary.  The now-deceased (and very nosy) distant cousin who said that the person had spent a year in prison had been right.

When I got home, I did some research on what it meant to do hard labor.  I found that the penitentiary had a farm and a rock quarry where the prisoners labored.  The site even described some of the buildings that the prisoners had built with the rock they quarried.  And once I knew the dates to search, I found a couple mentions of the trial and the sentence in the local newspaper on Chronicling America.  The records of that prison are at the state historical society, so I wrote and asked for copies, but they are quite expensive, so I decided not to get them.

I checked the church book to see if disciplinary action had been taken against the person, but some pages were cut out of the church book.  This person had no record in the book for that church, so I wonder if those pages were cut out.

Now what?  I put all the copies together in a file and wrote a short story of the incident.  Maybe I'll tell the story someday, but now is certainly not the time.  But I satisfied my curiosity, and I definitely understand the family much better.

Don't miss Ron Arons webinar - he may help you uncover some interesting and enlightening family history.

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