Criminal Ancestry

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Have you ever been exploring your family tree whena rotten apple falls down and hits you on the head? Most of us have at leastone ancestor with a checkered past. Some of our ancestors have even spent time in jail. Doyou know how to uncover a criminal past? Do you know the types of records toexplore?

Take as an example, William B. Schwartz, a man who faced the choice of financial ruin or a life of crime. Ultimately, he chose alife of crime, and inevitably, he was caught. His name is found in the Leavenworth, Kansas, U.S. Penitentiary, NameIndex to Inmate Case Files, 1895-1936 database at Ancestry. The same listis also published on the website of the National Archives at Kansas City. But finding a name in such an index barely scratches the surface of the biggerstory. In most cases, it starts with the question – what did your ancestor doto end up in Leavenworth? Most records in these situations are not found onlineand must be accessed from a wide range of repositories to learn the wholestory.

Inthe case of William B. Schwartz, he began his life in Ohio, but moved toIndiana as a young man. He started a promising career as a lawyer and as aninventor, but then things went horribly wrong. His wife was judged insane and shewas confined to an asylum for the remainder of her life. The medical bills bankruptedWilliam. He tried to sell property he owned jointly with his wife, but could notbecause she was not legally competent to co-sign them. He sued for divorce butthe judge denied him because being insane was not a legal ground for divorce inthe early 1900s. As an inventor, William was skilled in metalworking. Heeventually made his own coin plates and turned to counterfeiting to supplementhis income. It took the Federal agents five years to catch him. William’s storywas rediscovered through a wide variety of records, some of which were foundonline after much digging and extensive research, but many of the key documentswere found in repositories throughout the Midwest.

William B. Schwartz at his arrival  at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary,1906. 
Photograph from his inmate file courtesy of the National Archives Kansas CityThe records and documents related to any criminalcase are rich and plentiful, provided you know where to look. Most records are not foundonline, including the complete inmate files. In Federal cases, inmates wereoften sentenced in their city of residence but incarcerated in the nearestfederal penitentiary, which could be located across the border in another state.Penitentiary records are not necessarily located at the same National Archiveas the trial records. Many different types of records can tell the story ofyour ancestor’s checkered past. These can include newspaper articles, publishedbiographies, land records, court documents, sheriff’s records, guardianships, and so on. Each new document found will add depth to your ancestor’s story.Using the network of researchers at can help you lay torest those nagging questions regarding the rotten apple in your family tree.

by Deborah Sweeney © 2014,, All rights reserved

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December 4, 2014
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