Highway robbery!

Ms_101840.detailSometimes I think my preferences for new materials for the collection are a bit off-center. When a prison log came up at auction a while ago, I asked if we could bid on it. A prison log? Who would want that? Well, we would, of course. Think of the genealogical and social history enclosed in its covers!The log is for prisoners awaiting trial in New Haven County Superior Court. The entries begin in 1866 and end in 1897. What is fascinating to me and I hope to researchers is the amount of data included. Obviously there is the person’s name, when he or she was committed to prison, and the crime for which they are being tried. Then there is a record of the town they were from, their age, color, whether they are foreigners or not, whether or not they are natives of Connecticut, and then the date and manner of their discharge. The crimes include horse stealing, burglary, theft, forgery, highway robbery, rape, adultery, arson, and murder. Discharge could be to the State Reform School for minors, state prison or the county jail, paying bonds, or acquittal. Several individuals were committed to the insane asylum.

Entries from the prison log for New Haven County Superior Court. Ms 101840

Entries from the prison log for New Haven County Superior Court. Ms 101840

I can see this volume being mined for a statistical study of crime in the 19th century or for a study of the change in punishment over the course of thirty years. In looking at the pages, numerous questions come to my mind. How many of these people were re-arrested and when? What happened to them once they were released from prison or jail? Did the crimes of women differ significantly from those of men? Where were the female prisoners held? Did the minors who went to the reform school commit crimes later in life? There are so many avenues for inquiry from this single document.

I believe real history is found in everyday activities like writing a letter or paying a bill, or keeping a prison log. That is why I like to collect materials that are a little off-center. See what else we have on prisons and prisoners by visiting the Waterman Research Center.

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About Barbara

Barbara Austen is the Archivist at CHS and is responsible for all of the incoming manuscripts, which means she gets to read people's diaries or mail. She has a master's Degree in Library and Information Science and has been working in the museum and historical society world for 30 years.

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