Everyone who studies genealogy is always on the look-out for that next notable person they discover in their family tree. Someone famous or even just someone interesting. But not all notoriety is the same. You may find you have some relatives who are “famous” for the wrong reasons. I’m talking about those criminals and other law-breakers that we all have in our trees.
Now not all criminals are going to be of the same calibre, and many are likely just small time issues. But no matter what your ancestor’s crimes were, you can be sure that there are going to be some documents for you to uncover.
When we talk about criminal circumstances, it can include all sorts of different things. Accusations, arrests, trials, fines, penalties, jail stays and more. You may even discover some executions. The various kinds of criminal records and scenarios will vary by location and era, since the justice system has changed so much over the centuries.
Obviously, records that pertain to these illegal events will give you more information on the crimes themselves, but they can also give you a nice supply of more general genealogical information as well. Different types of documents can give you details on someone’s full name, their birth date, occupation or current place of residence. You probably won’t find any family relationship details unless the victim of the crime happens to be a family member (it happens quite a bit, actually). A relative may post bail or provide witness statements though. Generally, you’ll only find information on the individual themselves though.
Just remember that the legal system can be very complicated, especially when you are dealing with other countries or distant time frames. Different types of crimes can be handled by different official bodies, such as city, parish, state or federal levels. Records are stored in many different places, though local courthouses are usually a good place to start. Cyndi’s List also has a very good collection of prison and prisoner websites that makes an excellent point to start from.
Even if you don’t actually have any law-breaking relatives, you can find important genealogy information among criminal records. You might have ancestors who had given testimony, were witnesses or even victims of a criminal act. They would still be mentioned in many court documents or other criminal records, so don’t ignore these resources. They may not be as helpful as your usual vital records, but court or legal records can still provide all sorts of unexpected details. Even if they just give you another story to tell about a known relation.
Don’t forget to use newspaper resources too. Many crimes are reported as news, so that can be your first step to discovering the shady underside of your family tree.