Assistant Director Nicole B. DeRise is our resident genealogist. She provides here ways you can research family members that may have been incarcerated at Sing Sing Prison.
One question I get often is “how do I find the records of an ancestor that may have been at Sing Sing Prison?” The Sing Sing Prison Museum does not hold any of the historic admission or personnel records, nor does it hold any current records related to any incarcerated individuals. This blog post will outline some ways of conducting research that will hopefully help you find records and/or corresponding material.
New York State Archives is the holder of the Sing Sing Inmate Admission Registers (please note, SSPM does not use the terminology “inmate” but in cases of historic records and titles, we will use it for clarity purposes). The registers consist of information on each incarcerated person received at the prison. The following information is listed: admission date, aliases, what county they came from, age, birthplace, marital and family status, current address, physical descriptions, literacy ability, language spoken, religion, vices (drinking/smoking), occupation, date of conviction, crime, term of sentence, and judge in the case.
New York State Archives provides a comprehensive write-up describing the collection: https://iarchives.nysed.gov/xtf/view?docId=ead/findingaids/B0143.xml;query=
There are two ways you can access these records. First, you can sign up for an ancestry.com account, please note this is a paid subscription. Often libraries will offer a free institutional subscription, so be sure to check with your local librarian. The Sing Sing Records can be found here: https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/8922/.
The second option for accessing the records is through the New York State Archives ancestry.com portal found here: http://www.archives.nysed.gov/research/how-to-video-ancestry. This service is available to all New York State residents.
When searching for your ancestor it is important to try different variations of the name as spellings, handwriting, and transcriptions can obfuscate the actual name. A good trick to try is if you know the first three letters of the name, add an * at the end so that you will receive records that have those letters in the name and names that sound familiar. For example:
When you find the record you are looking for it will look something like this (depending on the year):
In the example above, the register shows that John Berthold was born around 1883 in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1899. He was convicted of Burglary in the 3rd degree, and sentenced to 1 to 6 years beginning May 15, 1914. We can find Berthold on the 1915 New York State Census for Sing Sing Prison:
New York Genealogical & Biographical Society has a detailed explanation of New York State Censuses with links to search the state census.
Another avenue for research is to explore newspapers. Library of Congress and Fulton Search are two free resources. In 1917 The Daily Argus—a Westchester-based newspaper—reported on Berthold, citing he had a “long criminal record” and had been in and out of prisons.
● FamilySearch is a robust and free research resource