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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States: Institutional Records by Amy Johnson Crow, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
As genealogists know, a name is not sufficient identification. Prisoners have tried to thwart officials correctly identifying them since the first prisoners. This became especially problematic in the mid-1800s as more judges were basing their sentences on how many times the person was previously arrested. If one could convince the authorities he had never been arrested before, he would likely get a lighter sentence.
In the late 1800s, Alphonse Bertillon devised an identification method based on various body measurements and photograph of the prisoner. The Bertillon method, or anthropometry, took measurements such as height, outstretched arms, trunk, head length and width, length of right index finger, length of left foot, and color of left eye.
With all of the measurements, the Bertillon method could place an individual in 243 separate categories. The information and picture was placed on a card and filed with the other cards in that category. In theory, officials could take the measurements of a suspect, compare them to the others records in that category, and determine if he was actually someone arrested before.
The Bertillon method made its way to the United States in 1887, being first used in the Illinois State Penitentiary. The use of the Bertillon method ended in the 1930s when fingerprinting became the preferred method of identification.
Most of us do not normally record the length of our ancestors’ right index finger, but complete Bertillon cards contain that which many are search for - a photograph of the person.
Figure: Example of a Bertillon Card
Figure: Back Side
Pardon and Parole Records
Pardon and parole records as a rule do not contain much genealogical information. They list the name of the inmate, crime, and sentencing court.
Execution lists give the prisoner’s name, serial number, convicting court, date the prisoner was received, name of person prisoner was convicted of murdering, date execution was set, and, when applicable, date and time of execution. They often list dates of stays of execution and new trials for those cases which received such action.Figure: Example of an Execution List
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Institutional Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.