NARA Coast to Coast: Discovering Black Sheep in the Pen!
Special acknowledgment goes to Steve Spence, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at Kansas City, for his assistance in writing this post.
Bank robbers! Prohibition gangsters! Con men! Wartime spies! Your great uncle Charlie? This week’s post features records that combine criminal activity and family history, giving genealogists access to the shady underside of their family trees. The records to which I am referring are Federal penitentiary inmate case files from the records of the Bureau of Prisons (RG 129). Records from Federal penitentiaries are an exceptionally rich source of information about prison life. They are used by a variety of researchers to document the history of the American justice system, trace the changes in social attitude about the treatment of criminals and their rehabilitation, follow the lives of some of America’s more infamous outlaws, as well as discover details of the lives of the majority of virtually unknown prisoners in the Federal penitentiary system. Inmate case files from 1890 through 1960 can be found at NARA regional archives locations for the following federal penitentiaries: Alcatraz Penitentiary at San Francisco, Atlanta Penitentiary at Atlanta, Leavenworth Penitentiary at Kansas City and McNeil Island Penitentiary at Seattle.
Every family has its black sheep. If yours happened to do some time at a federal prison and you’re prepared for what you might find, their inmate case files can provide genealogical information that cannot be found anywhere else. Inmate case files vary, but the “typical” inmate case file generally includes the following documents: inmate photograph (otherwise known as mug shots,) record sheet, personal data sheet, fingerprints, individual daily work record, hospital record, physician’s examination of prisoner, correspondence log, personal correspondence, trusty prisoner’s agreement, and the sentence of court. It should be noted that earlier case files will be sparse compared to later ones. As ideas about the effects of sociology on criminal behavior became popular in the 1930s and the bureaucracy in Federal prisons grew, the size of inmate case files did as well. Due to the amount of personal information about inmates and their families, these records may contain information that is restricted under the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. §552).
Inmate case files are of great value to family historians, but you don’t need to have a relative in the records to find them intriguing. Some of America’s most notorious criminals were housed in Federal prisons: Charles Manson at McNeil Island, Al Capone at Atlanta and Alcatraz, Jack Johnson and Bugs Moran at Leavenworth. These hardened criminals continue to fascinate people long after they committed their crimes and did their time. Even the mug shots of virtually unknown prisoners evoke a strong curiosity about the face staring back. We wonder not only what their story is and what they were thinking at the time their mug shot was taken? The great thing about these records is that we don’t have to wonder. They contain so much biographical information that much of a prisoner’s story can be told through the inmate case file itself. The National Archives at Kansas City did just that when they recently held the exhibition “Mugged!: Facing Life at Leavenworth,” which looked at life in Leavenworth Federal Prison through the records of the inmates. The exhibit will be permanently housed at the Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Whether you’re researching gangsters or your grandparents, inmate case files are records that inform and intrigue everyone. Curious what crime the folks in the mug shots in this post committed? Leave your guesses in the comments and I’ll post the answers on Friday!
For further information on inmate case files or to request copies of them from each NARA location that holds them please follow this link: http://www.archives.gov/research/prisons.html.