Saints and Sinners Finding the Extremes in Your Family Tree

By Carolyn L. Barkley

One of the reasons I find family history research so interesting is the occasional discovery of ancestors who are a little out of the ordinary, perhaps an occasional black sheep or even a saint.

Kate E. Duncan was my great-great grandmother (aka my brick wall). In 1880, her brother, George H. Duncan, was a Civil War veteran living in Springfield, Massachusetts. When I began my family research many years ago, I was unaware of his existence, but once identified, I set out to learn more. My mother could add very little information, but did remember that my grandfather had also searched for information, but for some reason (at least unknown to my mother) stopped abruptly. Using census and city directory information, I found that following the war, George changed jobs frequently, seldom holding one for very long. In addition, he and his wife moved frequently, living with her parents from time to time. During a visit to Massachusetts, I visited the Pioneer Valley Historical Society Library in Springfield to check the local newspaper at the time of his death to see if an obituary had been printed. Instead, what I found was a short item in the “Police Blotter” that reported that George H. Duncan had died after falling and hitting his head on the floor, while incarcerated in the city “lockup” in the basement of the City Hall, following an “extended spree” – a polite term for a period of prolonged drunkenness. I had found my black sheep and now understood why my tee-total grandfather might have ceased his research. In the years since finding this police report, I have tried to learn more about George and the circumstances surrounding his death, but have as yet been unsuccessful in locating the Medical Examiner’s records for the time period or any other mention of the actions that contributed to his death.

I was reminded of George and the circumstances of his untimely death in April while working in the Genealogical Publishing Company booth at the National Genealogical Society’s Conference in the States, in Salt Lake City. In the booth beside us, author Ron Arons of California featured the second edition of his book, Wanted! U. S. Criminal Records: Sources & Research Methodology (Criminal Research Press, 2009).

Arons’ book grew out of his own research into a criminal ancestor and serves as a finding aid for prison records, criminal court documents, parole records, pardon records, executions, investigative files, and police files. The content is arranged by state and includes information about repositories holding these records, as well as websites where online records or indices may be located. In addition to the fifty states, a chapter is provided for the District of Columbia, as well as one for federal prison records and other related resources. The information provided for each state differs in quantity, coverage, and inclusive years. Listings for Kentucky, for example, include seven pages of entries from the Kentucky Archives and three pages of listings held by the National Archives (Southeast Region). While many entries are for twentieth-century records, Kentucky possesses nineteenth century records, too. The indexed prisoner description books for the State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Kentucky, begin as early as 1889; civil and criminal case files for the Kentucky Circuit Court in Bell County begin in 1876; and the Governor’s official correspondence files containing petitions for pardons begin as early as 1829. Massachusetts, on the other hand, has only two pages of resources, but among them are textual records from the United States Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts beginning in 1789.

A variety of web sites are included that provide more immediate access to information. For example, the Denver  Public Library provides an online index to inmates held at the State Reformatory in Buena Vista between 1887 and 1939. My search located a M. O. Barclay, inmate # 5027, listed in prison record volume 11; and Bill Barkley, inmate #7651, listed in volume 16. If you find a person of interest in this index, you will definitely want to locate the original record volume cited in the index as inmate records include inmate number, names, alias, crime, county of conviction, court, date of sentence, date received at Colorado State Reformatory, nativity, name of parents and their address, age, weight, height, complexion, color of eyes and hair, size of hat and shoe, education background, occupation, religion, use of intoxicants, narcotics, tobacco and cigarettes, previous criminal record, story of plea, medical and special reports conduct & grading record, date paroled and to where, and photo.

You may learn about a criminal ancestor through family stories, census records taken while the individual was incarcerated, newspaper articles, and other sources.  As criminals often crossed state lines, you may find that you will need to conduct your research in multiple jurisdictions. As Mr. Arons points out, you must also contend with individuals who lied about their names and origins and with jurisdictions that have privacy restrictions. You must be diligent in pursuing your research goal, and perhaps file Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests to obtain documents. Nevertheless, the information you may eventually locate will provide you with a richer understanding of your ancestors and certainly will enliven your family’s history. Wanted! U. S. Criminal Records is a useful resource in aggregating state and federal criminal record resources as well as their locations.

Other web sites that may prove helpful include Black Sheep Ancestors, where you can search in “free genealogical prison and convict records, historical court records, executions, insane asylum records and biographies of famous outlaws, criminals and pirates in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.” One of my favorite sites, however, is the online Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913. This fully searchable (free) database contains accounts of over 197,000 criminal trials of then “non-elite” held at London’s central criminal court. My Barclay search found 326 entries beginning in 1716 and ending in 1912. Among the entries I found the case of David Barkley, tried for theft on 2 May 1753. Barkley, who apparently felt the need to acquire a new wardrobe and some pocket change, was charged with the theft of one cloth coat, value 1 shilling; a cloth waistcoat, value 1 shilling; a pair of buckskin breeches, one Holland waistcoat, seven shirts, three pair of worsted stockings, two pair of cotton stockings, two guineas, and 3s/6d in money belonging to John Connolly, in the dwelling-house of William Crookshanks, on March 15th of that year. Testimony was provided by John Connolly, servant to Mr. Crookshanks, at the Rose and Crown in Dean Street, at the corner of St. Ann’s Court. He testified that the clothing in question was in his room (up three pair of stairs) and that when he went to the room on 15 March, “found my box broke open, and the things and the money gone.” He had seen them at 4:00 p.m. on that day and missed them at 8:00 p.m. He further stated that the accused was arrested on the 19th at the Star in Piccadilly, and before him and others admitted that he had taken the clothes and the money. Robert Apley testified that the accused had brought a pair of buckskin breeches to his house to pawn on the 18th of March. Isaac Joseph, another witness, indicated that on the 16th of March he bought the coat and waistcoat from the defendant at the Red Lyon in the Haymarket and had then resold them. Crookshanks, the pub/inn owner, testified, indicating that the defendant had stayed in his house four years previously and had admitted that he knew the way upstairs. In his defense, the prisoner stated that he “knew nothing at all of the matter.” The verdict was guilty; the sentence – death.

At the other end of the human spectrum, you may have a more exalted ancestor. If so, you will want to consult Alan J. Koman’s A Who’s Who of Your Ancestral Saints (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010). This recently published title outlines the lives of 275 early European saints and provides lineages connecting these saints to twenty-four well-known men and women in medieval Europe. Part I provides these lineages. For example, William the Conqueror had seven saints as director ancestors including St. Cunedda Wledig (400-460/70), founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, and St. William I “Longsword,” Duke of Normandy (900-942) in addition to having ten saints as either aunts or uncles. These latter saints include St. Non, mother of St. David of Wales (d. 601); and St. Jestin, son of St. Geraint, King of Brittany.

I must admit, that I was not familiar with these saints. Part II provides a short biographical history of each saint who serves as a direct ancestor and Part III provides the same for those saints who were either aunts or uncles. In addition, the author identifies each saint’s descendants. St. Cunedda Wledig, it turns out, was, in about the year 430, the leader of the northern British tribes resisting invasions by the Picts in the area around Hadrian’s Wall. Following that effort, he and his family moved to northern Wales where he held court at Carlisle. He drove out the Irish there and is remembered today as one of the founders of Wales. St. Jestin was the son of St. Geraint, King of Brittany, and all three of his brothers (Cado, Cyngar and Salamon I) were saints as well. He took vows and lived a hermit’s life in Brittany.

Well documented, A Who’s Who of Your Ancestral Saints is an intriguing book, even if you doubt that you had a saintly ancestor. Not only does it cover many early European historical events, but readily illustrates the interconnections among these early historical and religious figures. In looking through the entries, I was surprised to discover how frequently saints “ran in the family.” In addition to St. Jestin and his father and brothers mentioned above, consider St. Hereswitha, the daughter of a prince of Northumbria. St. Hereswitha’s family included several saints: her sister (St. Hilda of Whitby), her uncle (St. Edwin, King of Northumbria), as well as the five children from her first marriage (Erconwald, Ethelburga, Etheldreda, Sexburga, and Withburga) and her daughter Sethrida from her second. Hers was definitely not your normal family!

I hope you will continue to look for ancestral sinners and saints in your family and enjoy the resources mentioned here.

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