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# Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Finding Incarcerated Ancestors
Posted by Diane

Q. My mother told us repeatedly that she thought our paternal grandfather spent time in various jails and/or prisons in the Deep South. Is there any way to track criminal incarcerations in first quarter of the 20th century without going to each individual district?

A. I don't know of any comprehensive prison indexes, though you can find a few records from individual institutions online. See Ancestor Hunt for a list. (I haven’t clicked all those links—some may go to pay sites.)

Decennial US censuses typically enumerated prisons and other institutions (you’ll see the institution’s name at the top of the return), so search for your ancestor’s name in censuses during his lifetime. Note that not everyone listed in censuses as “inmate” was in prison—people in orphanages and hospitals sometimes were called inmates.

You also could run searches of various online newspaper indexes to see if your grandfather’s name turns up in crime-related coverage.

Do you know the places he lived? If so, you could always run place searches of the Family History Library catalog to see whether it has any microfilmed prison records from those counties or states, then rent the film through a Family History Center near you. Search state archives’ Web sites and catalogs, too, as state prison records would likely be with the archives.

But it sounds like you’re taking a shot in the dark. Without a more-specific idea of when and where your grandfather may have served time, renting all that film will be time-consuming and expensive.

Aside from checking censuses and using the easily accessible online indexes mentioned above on the off chance you'll find something, your best bet is to continue your general research of your great-grandfather and other relatives. Keep your eyes open for clues. Ask cousins whether they've heard anything about your grandfather being incarcerated.

For example, my family had a similar story about my great-grandfather, and only when I got his son’s orphanage application (it mentioned the state penitentiary) did I learn when and where he was imprisoned, and where I needed to look for records.


black sheep ancestors | institutional records
Wednesday, January 14, 2009 4:46:40 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Finding Your Ancestor in State Hospital Records
Posted by Diane

Q My grandmother died at the Cleveland State Hospital during the Flu Epidemic of 1918 after staying there two months. I’ve learned the hospital was torn down, but I could never find out where the records went. How can I get them?

A We received this question in response to a Family Tree Magazine E-mail Update newsletter editorial about my search for my great-grandmother’s Cleveland (Ohio) State Hospital records. I’d learned from her death certificate that she died there.

To learn the whereabouts of the hospital records, I first did a Google search on “Cleveland State Hospital” and learned some history. The hospital was once called the Newburgh Asylum and was demolished in 1977.

The Google search also led me to a Web page from the Case Western Reserve University archives, which referred me to the Ohio Historical Society for patient records. That made sense: Records of a state institution would probably be in that state's archives.

I searched the Ohio Historical Society library catalog and found (after experimenting with various search terms) entries for patient admission and discharge books. The catalog listing labels these hospital records “restricted” and instructs you to call the archives for more information.

The public can’t access these records because patients named in them may have passed medical conditions to their descendants, who may be living. Instead, I submitted a research request and a $25 fee. A few weeks later, I received a transcription and photocopies of my ancestor’s entries in admission and discharge registers (the archivist had obscured other patients’ names in the photocopy).

A reader e-mailed us a suggestion to examine county court records, too, for documents related to commitment hearings. She’d obtained her great-uncle’s “Inquest of Lunacy 1884, the full medical certificate of the doctor's exam and the application of admission by the probate judge.” Write the court clerk or see if the Family History Library has microfilmed the records, in which case you'd be able to borrow them for a fee through a branch Family History Center.


institutional records
Wednesday, June 13, 2007 1:07:07 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [2]