Black Sheep Ancestors

Prison Records--shutterstock_86779999

In almost every family tree there will be a black sheep ancestor. Don’t shun these relatives or pretend they do not exist. These are fun relatives to research and genealogists love them. Judy Russell entertained us with her topic “Doing Time-Prison Record as Genealogy Resources.”

“I have mostly farmers and preachers in my ancestry. Frankly they are boring. I like finding the black sheep in my family. I found a relative who committed his first murder at the age of fifteen. He was described as a gentleman killer. How did he get that name?  He said he never killed anyone who didn’t deserve to be killed. He also was a gentleman killer because most of the people who lived to describe him stated he was very nice”

Genealogists are thrilled to have prisoners to research. Why? Because they create records. Not only can you find newspaper clippings of the crimes committed, but you have their prison records. Prison records give you information that you won’t find on your average citizen. Prison records will include photographs of the criminal, the county of sentencing, their age, height, colorations, tattoos and scars. Prison records not only show the facts, but also show what kind of prisoner your ancestor was. With many prisons you can find letters received while your ancestor was incarcerated. These letters will give you an idea of their lives, what kind of prisoner they were. Not only do you find out about their crimes, you can find personality traits, what they struggled with and why. Some records will go into great details like whether or not they could read; or if they had any talents such as fiddling. A warden’s record will give you tons of information.

You can find prison indexes online at or at FamilySearch online. You may also find some records and images online at or at Library of Congress. Another excellent source for pictures is Flickr photostreams at They will have images and documents you can obtain and research completely free.

State Prisons are a great resource and are run by the State Corrections Departments. There is a wide variation in what may be available state to state. Many historical records have been moved to the state archives or the state historical society. In every state you can get current inmate lists online.

Cyndi’s list is a great source for online prison records. genealogy has hotlinks with state records that have been digitized.

County jails are a wealth of information. County jails are a good place to start your search. They are run by the county or the local government. This is where you find short term prisoners for minor offenses of pending trial. Not everyone who served time was a criminal. Some people were jailed for not paying a bill. The records will still be at the county courthouse.

This kind of detailed information so easily obtained may make you wish all of your ancestors had gone to prison.

This article was written by guest blogger Maggie Stevens


About the Author