Did this bad New York State apple rot in prison?
January 12, 2013 11:15 AM   Subscribe

How do I get information about a turn-of-the-century criminal? He was my great-grandfather.

This is anonymous to protect my AskMe posting history and separate it from real-name queries in genealogical forums and emails.

Last week, after years of genealogical searching for someone who seemed to disappear from the historical paper trail after 1892 or so, I learned that my great-grandfather was a convicted forger, with counts against him in Hudson Valley communities in New York State, and in New Jersey in 1896.

I found this information in online New York State historical newspapers. One article mentions that his picture was distributed around the country in order to help catch him. The four or five 1896 articles cover his arrest and trials in New York State. There are no accounts in them of him being remanded to New Jersey, but counts against him there are mentioned.

He died in Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey in late 1902, at the age of 38. My guess is that he died while incarcerated, since hard labor plus our medical genealogy would probably lead to a dirt nap pretty quickly, IMO. His brother arranged to have him re-interred in New York State, per another small-town New York paper’s item on those arrangement that included the date of death.

He does not appear in U.S. Census records for 1900. His wife remarried and they appear on the 1900 U.S. Census. There are no online newspaper accounts of the divorce or remarriage, at least that I've found so far. Certainly not in the venerable, still-publishing hometown weekly bugle that had the re-interment item.

A few years ago, I requested his death certificate, with complete birth, death, and parentage information, but the State of New Jersey informed me that they had no record of his death.

How could I get the wanted poster/picture (are there prison history archives?) and information on the place and cause of his death? Thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
He doesn't appear on ANY census records for 1900? You might re-check that a little: I can confirm prisoners were counted for the Census, because I've found some of my own family members that way (I've found one each in NY and NJ state jails, plus my favorite: one long-term 'inmate' in the Western Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane.)

I'd check New York State jails as well as the New Jersey ones; plus Hudson Valley newspaper archives might point you towards a specific town that he committed crimes in to try for any wanted posters.
posted by easily confused at 11:28 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding that the 1900 census is worth another look. Jails, prisons, mental hospitals, and the like were all counted in the census. If he's in America in 1900, he's most likely on a census somewhere. Broaden the search a little and throw out what you think it most likely true when searching, maybe check outside of NJ and NY?

If you were able to decipher where exactly he was incarcerated that might help in a records search for information about his death.

Do you know of the cemetery where he was re-interred? I've gotten plenty of records from cemeteries where my family was buried, usually in the form of a copy of the death cert, records detailing who paid for the burial, and other interesting (and sometimes helpful) bits. Get a hold of that cemetery if you can or the undertaker who took care of the burial, either in the original town he was buried or where he rests now.

I don't believe there are widespread prison archives but you might luck out so that's worth investigating but I really think getting a hold of the cemeteries here would help. Is it possible he died in New York instead of NJ? Maybe contact that state and inquire about death records there.
posted by youandiandaflame at 11:34 AM on January 12, 2013

Are you working with genealogists in the local areas, such as Hudson County? These are folks who are likely to know both the scope, availability, and location of related records. To a point some of this is available for free but you may want to hire someone to do the legwork for you.

One problem you have to face is the destruction of records not required for legal purposes, thus wanted posters, prison archives, and such are on or beyond the edge of what I would expect to find.
posted by dhartung at 12:42 PM on January 12, 2013

Try alternate spellings of his name.
posted by brujita at 12:47 PM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Did he maybe change his name and skip town? In an era before computerized databases and everyone having a driver's license or state ID card, an ex-convict might well decide to take on a new identity and move far away. Sara Jane Olson got away with it for 23 years in an era with widespread ID checks and state ID's.

If great-granddad did go underground, it will make finding him a lot harder/impossible. But it's something to consider.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:13 PM on January 12, 2013

If you haven't already discovered this resource, the Cyndi's List website has a section devoted to links for Prisons, Prisoners & Outlaws. Genealogical research of individuals with a criminal past has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade or so.

While finding ancestors or relatives who have been involved in criminal activity is generally not a positive thing, researching that person's life story can be rewarding and fascinating. Genealogy was once the domain of 'blue bloods' and simply a means to tie one's ancestry to the wealthy, powerful and famous. Instead, with stories that involve drama and basic human emotions, I think knowing about criminals and crimes involving our relatives and ancestors are the more powerful stories to tell in any genealogical account of one's family as long as they are retold with respect and dignity.

I've struggled with this myself, at first discovering distant relations' brushes with murders. I have at least two stories so far in my heritage, one the victim, one the perpetrator (who ironically was the son of a doctor, and the doctor himself survived being charged with arson but being acquitted after it was learned the house he torched was infested with disease). Things became very real for me when recently I learned of my grandfather's brush with the law in the 1950s, a fact I'd never known but had been hinted at through less-than-savory remarks about his character (he died well before I knew him, so I had no opinion of him regardless). Despite brief national exposure, he did not do jail time as far as I can determine and he went back to operating his business for another two decades.

I also even have lighthearted stories of interactions with police. I once found my grandmother (not related to my grandfather mentioned above) in a police database as having once been arrested with zero details about it. Since Grandma was not a criminal type, I dared venture to ask and was quite surprised to hear that she'd been stopped by a policeman for some small reason and she made the mistake of mouthing off to him despite her innocence and was arrested for that reason but never charged with anything. That story certainly added a bit of a dimension to her whole life story (and also served as a cautionary tale never to mouth off to cops!).

I've found the best way to cope is to be forthright about the details and also keep an awareness that these are real people as complex as anyone we'd know personally today. We may never have all the facts, as criminality is something deeply shunned and hidden from wider view, but we must share these stories as examples of the ranges of human behavior.

Lastly, a research hint. When searching census records, always always always search variant spellings of surnames and even first names. If your ancestor was jailed during the 1900 Census, no doubt he would have been enumerated, but he himself would not have spoken to the census taker. That job would be left to prison officials and it's unlikely they would be stringent about accuracy. So you might be left with a phonetic rendering of his surname, or if the census taker's handwriting was messy, you might have the first letter of a surname changed to something else (I had ancestors in the 1850 Census who were listed under an "F" surname, not the "C" surname that was their true last name!).
posted by kuppajava at 8:52 AM on January 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

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