Family rumor says that your Grandpa’s brother, Jack, robbed a bank and he served time for it, or, maybe in your research you discovered one of those skeletons in your closet, the one with “thief” written across his forehead.
Sometimes our ancestors lived their whole lives without creating a single document that identifies them. Other ancestors, however, may have left a long trail of court cases and newspaper accounts if they were a thief or criminal. While I don’t condone their actions, I get a little excited about the paper trail they may have left behind.
***If your ancestor was not a criminal, don’t write him off about not looking for his name in a record. Maybe he testified against one!
Check newspapers for the time and place where the event occurred. Local criminals often get written up in the news. These may be easier to find than the actual court records. If the event occurred away from his hometown, it may have been written up in home newspapers.
Check court records where the event occurred: You will need to determine if the criminal was tried in a federal or state court. I am not a lawyer and don’t want to give you misinformation, so I will steer you to a great table describing the differences between these courts. This table is found at the United States Courts website, “Comparing Federal and State Courts,” and “Jurisdiction of State and Federal Courts.”
A case that was tried at a state court may be appealed at the U.S. District Court of Appeals, or the U.S. Supreme Court. If a case was tried in the Supreme Court, you may find an abstract of the case in the Digests or Table of Cases found at law libraries. Law libraries are often found at university law schools and are usually open to the public.
Some court records are available on microfilm through the Family History Library Catalog. Search by locality (usually for the county level). You may have to contact the actual court for a copy of the file.
Check for prison records from the state at the Department of Corrections.
You can read more about finding and searching court records as published in The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, found in the Ancestry Wiki.
So, while we may not relish having a notorious ancestor, he may have left some records to discover!