By Jane Wilkerson, archival assistant
Many of us who do genealogical research like to believe our ancestors were God-fearing and law-abiding citizens. However, what if they … weren’t?
Most families are likely to have at least one “black sheep” in the flock, but refrain from discussing the person in polite company, usually out of embarrassment. Often, the status of these “sheep” has something to do with misdeeds of one sort or another which have led to involvement with law enforcement, the courts and the penal system — in short, criminal activity. This may be a source of embarrassment for the contemporary family but a boon for family historians: Police, court and penal records preserve much information about both the accused and the convicted, not limited to name, age and prisoner number. Therefore, while the term “criminal record” can be a stigma, the documents themselves are extremely valuable to genealogists. They not only can tell us about the criminal, but also his or her family dynamics. The hardest part may consist of figuring out where to start, when your family is not forthcoming with the details surrounding such sooty lambs.
|Indictment for Frank Browning|
|Daily Arkansas Gazette, |
Dec. 29, 1905
At some point during January 1906, Browning was transferred to the jail at Powhatan, the county seat. Visitors to our Northeast Arkansas Regional Archives or the Powhatan Court House State Park may have noticed the solid stone structure that still stands adjacent to the courthouse. A reporter in 1906 described it as the “darkest dungeon in the county … The place is over-run with rats, the only companion(s) to the man in the jail."
 Some may, however, refrain out of a sense of modesty, particularly if the ancestral malefactor is believed to have done a Really Big Oops, one that would be worth boasting about in the right company.
 I located these articles from across the state using newspapers.com. This is a subscription-based service, but visitors can access it at no cost in the ASA research room.