Obtaining numerous probate, marriage and land records from the wonderful personnel at the county courthouse in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I was 'knocked off my feet' to learn that my great great grandfather Clark Mathews had a criminal record. Asked if I would like the record mailed to me (an indictment), I responded with a quick 'absolutely'!
Feeling quite stunned with the thought of having an ancestor with a criminal past, my mind began to wonder what the contents would reveal, bringing days of imaginative guesses as to the alleged crime: Perhaps a white-collar crime such as unpaid taxes, forgery or maybe something even more tantalizing such as an official charged with embezzlement.
As the days slowly passed, my creative mind provided increasingly imaginative thoughts. And suddenly the large but very thin yellow envelope arrived at my door. Gently pulling the paper out, I quickly placed my magnifying glass over the document and began reading the following out-loud:
'Washington Circuit Court, State of Arkansas vs. Clark Mathews: Indictment.'
'The Grand Jury of Washington County in the name and by the authority of the State of Arkansas, accuses Clark Mathews of the crime of Larceny committed as follows:'
'The said Clark Mathews in the County of Washington in the State of Arkansas on the tenth day of October A.D. 1886; one bushel of turnips of the value of one dollar, the property of Jack Pollack, then and there being found unlawfully and feloniously did take, steal or carry away against the peace and dignity of the State of Arkansas.'
Screaming for my neighbors to hear, I yelled: 'What!, are you kidding me?' 'A grand jury indictment for a one dollar bushel of turnips?!!!'
And then, turning to the next page I read: 'State of Arkansas vs Clark Mathews leaves the State of Arkansas by his attorney and by leave of the court, elects to enter his nolle prosequi herein. It is therefore considered by the Court that said defendant be discharged.'
In a non-legal interpretation, at the time the indictment was issued, my ancestor was no longer residing in Arkansas resulting in the dismissal of the Grand Jury charges. Most likely an accusation resulting from a dispute with a neighbor, my 'black sheep' ancestor escaped with no prosecution and little fanfare. However, his alleged dastardly criminal past provided days of genealogical suspense and a very loud 'Wa Ha Ha!' echoing within the walls of my house.
As a result of my experience with the more 'seedy' side of genealogy, I discovered the very interesting and rich research details ancestral criminal records can reveal. And if Grand Juries in the 19th century investigated and released indictments as petty as a misplaced bushel of turnips, imagine how numerous the criminal record files are in the dusty archives of little county courthouses. More importantly, the genealogical usefulness of the records can provide the family historian with information such as: Date and location of ancestor, possible names of relatives bringing forth charges, court pictures of ancestors and many more. I learned my ancestor was no longer living in Arkansas in 1886, which leads me on another hot trail.
Look for your notoriously criminal ancestors at Black Sheep Ancestors, Ancestry.com and Ancestor Hunt's Prison Search. Their dastardly deeds may provide you with 'bushels' of genealogical information.