March 2023 Program
Pennsylvania Prison Records
Presented by Tyler Stump of the Pennsylvania State Archives
Researching Ancestors in Prisons at the Pennsylvania State Archives Pennsylvania’s prisons has a long and complicated history. From famous facilities like Eastern and Western State Penitentiaries to smaller county jails, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have spent time behind prison walls since the 1600s. Thankfully for researchers, all this history comes with a long paper trail full of invaluable genealogical information, much of which can be found at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg.
Join archivist Tyler Stump and learn about what kinds of records are available in the archives, how to access these records, and see recently acquired prison records which were only just opened for research last year!
The archived presentation may be watched here.
Tyler Stump has been an acquisitions archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives since 2016. He mostly works with historical PA government records. He has published several pieces about the history of Pennsylvania’s prisons and state-run institutions, most recently an article in Pennsylvania History about Fairview State Hospital, an institution in Wayne County. Tyler grew up in the Baltimore area, but his family has lived in the York Township/Dallastown area since the mid 18th century. He currently lives in Camp Hill, PA with his wife Andra (who is also an archivist at the PA House of Representatives Archives).
Program overview by Becky Anstine:
Researching family members can sometimes lead down some interesting and unusual “rabbit holes.” Tyler’s presentation described the resources available at the State Archives that can help one find out more about some of the elusive family members. File cards from the records can sometimes contain photographs, physical descriptions that can include descriptions of tattoos and scars.
The state prison system was established in 1790, with the first state prison built in Philadelphia. Tyler discussed six different prisons located throughout the state. Each prison kept a number of different records that are now under the State Archive holdings. He recommended that all types of records be examined as each of the three types can contain various related bits of information. The three types of records are: inmates, administrative and other.
- Inmate records record admissions and discharge dates, type of crime, physical description, an inmate number, information about any escapes that might have occurred and other statistical data about the inmate.
- Administrative records can include reports of various types, board of trustee minutes, construction and building files, warden journals, and financial records.
- The other category can include photos, newsletters published by the prison, special events that occurred in the prison, inmate and staff handbooks and publicity files.
The State Archives does not have the following: records written by inmates, court records, public newspapers, records created by family members or legal representatives, records from federal or local courts. There are very few inmate records dated after 1980 or later. These records are still held by the State Department of Corrections.
Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 outside of Philadelphia. From about 1820 – 1860, it was primarily a prison of solitary confinement. The majority of the prisoners came from the central and eastern counties of Pennsylvania. It was closed in 1971. Since then, the prison has become a popular tourist attraction, especially at Halloween. The staff at the prison have access to a number of records not held by the State Archives that relate to prisoners held there. Among the prisoners housed there was “Al Capone”. Tyler recommended visiting the prison. More information can be found at its website: www.easternstate.org .
Western State Penitentiary was located outside of Pittsburgh. It opened in 1826 and was closed in 2017. Most of the prisoners were from the western part of the state. It was also known at the State Correctional Institution of Pittsburgh. During the Civil War, it was a major prison for Southern POWs. Other penitentiaries were Rockview (located in Bellefonte, PA), Huntingdon (for minors), Graterford, and Muncy (female prisoners), located in Lycoming County, Pa.
Tyler concluded his talk with several recommendations:
- One man could have been in multiple prisons – check the records of all of them.
- Be prepared for surprises – the records don’t always match up to family stories.
- Contact the archives and talk to an archivist before visiting the archives – the archivist may be able to direct you to the best sources to check.
- Have as much information on the individual as you can: full name, aliases, date of incarceration, residence at time of incarceration, county where crime was committed, name of prison of incarcerations, inmate number if known.
- Check local courts, historical societies, and archives for records.
- To access the records:
- search ancestry.com for “Pa. US Prison, Reformatories, and Workhouse records
- go to the Archives website to see what is available online or at the archives (https://www.phmc.pa.gov/Archives)
- google “Power Library”(powerlibrary.org), Pennsylvania’s Electronic Library -click “PA Photos and Documents” tab, Using “Pennsylvania state prison records” in the search box will bring up a variety of results, including copies of “The Umpire” (Eastern Penitentiary’s newspaper), photographs taken at the Muncy State Prison, and Annual Prison Reports.