If you are looking for the skeleton in your ancestor’s closet, Ancestry has just added a record set that may help. Various New York State prison records are now available for research. To access Erie County records, search for this title in Ancestry’s Card Catalog: New York, Governor’s Registers of Commitments to Prisons, 1842-1908. Erie County Penitentiary commitment registers are included from 1883-1908. The registers are keyword searchable and list convict names, crime, name of judge, county where the convict was arrested, date of sentence, date received at the penitentiary and length of incarceration.
Included amongst the Erie County records is author, Jack London. He is found on line 176 in the June listings, as “John Lundon” [see image above]. London famously wrote about his Erie County Penitentiary experience in The Road, which is a memoir of the time he spent as a Hobo in the 1890s. On June 28, 1894 London was arrested in Niagara Falls, NY for being a “tramp.” At his “trial,” he was not allowed to speak [not even to enter a plea]; he was not afforded a trial by jury; and he was not allotted a lawyer. London was sentenced to spend 30 days in jail. Both his trial and prison transfer happened the same day of his arrest.
London survived his sentence with the help of a friend who he met en route to the prison. His friend was an experienced convict who taught him the ropes and secured him a position as a “hall-man.” A hall-man was shielded from heavy labor and served the prisoner’s their food. They were able to obtain extra bread and used it in the prison bartering system. London also used his letter writing and other skills to acquire money and favors from other prisoners.
To learn more about London’s time in Erie County, read chapters “Pinched” and “The Pen” in The Road: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14658
To learn more about the Erie County Penitentiary, see the following article from Western New York Heritage: http://www.wnyheritagepress.org/photos_week_2012/jack_londen_pen/jack_london_pen.htm
Other recently added New York prison-related records include: New York, Prisoners Received at Newgate State Prison, 1797-1810, New York, Executive Orders for Commutations, Pardons, Restorations and Respites, 1845-1931, New York, Discharges of Convicts, 1882-1915.