Tuesday, September 13, 2016

In Pursuit of Pennsylvania Prisoners

If you've found any newspaper mentions of the arrest of an ancestor in Pennsylvania, you may want to search prison records to see if he/she served time for the crime. Ancestry.com has a new record collection called Pennsylvania, Prison, Reformatory, and Workhouse Records, 1829-1971 (subscription required) that may give you some new information about your troubled relative.

Image from Annual Report of the Managers of the
Allegheny County Workhouse & Inebriate Asylum
, 1923
Here's the description of this database: "This collection from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) consists of records from the Eastern and Western State Penitentiaries, the Allegheny County Workhouse, and the Pennsylvania Industrial Reformatory in Huntington, Pennsylvania. It includes a variety of records, including inmate registers, bertillon hand books, identification cards, hospital records, and descriptive lists."

My 3rd great-uncle, James Baker, is in the database multiple times for sentences served in the Allegheny County Workhouse. Despite his common name and another Pittsburgh man in the collection with the same name and age, I'm almost certain that I'm looking at the various records for my James since they each contain a note of his "rt arm off." While newspaper articles give more detail on some of his crimes (see post at the end), I did learn that James had 30 convictions by 1919 when he was 58 years old. Yikes! And it's likely there were additional arrests that did not lead to time in the workhouse.

The workhouse records also show that James seemed to spend many years as a homeless peddler. I know this because occupation is listed for all inmates, and James was sentenced for vagrancy on more than one occasion. The majority of his sentences are for disorderly conduct, although it appears that only a fraction of his total convictions are in Ancestry's database.

Each Pennsylvania institution's records are different, so you may learn even more about your ancestor. For example, the Eastern Penitentiary indicates if any relatives are in prison, and the Western Penitentiary provides a very detailed description of each person's appearance, including measurements.

Of course, court records should be explored for more specific details about a conviction, but the records in this Ancestry database give some interesting general information and are definitely convenient.

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