Ironically, it’s often the black sheep that bring the most color to our family trees. I love researching all the stories in my family, and prison records are a wonderful resource.
Before the French occupation (1795-1813), people were rarely imprisoned. Instead, criminals were hanged, banished, put in the pillory or sent to the work house. The modern system of prisons was introduced in 1811.
In the 19th century, people were much more likely to be send to prison than today. Today, you only get prison sentences for serious offenses, and sentences are usually long. But two centuries ago, even petty crimes like smuggling some butter across the border could land you a few days in prison. You might be surprised how many relatives went to jail, so it is well worth searching for them.
Like all Dutch government institutions, prisons were required to keep records. These can help us find out if our ancestors were ever in prison.
The most useful prison record for genealogical purposes is the “inschrijvingsregister” [admittance register], in which all prisoners were recorded upon arrival.
Admittance registers may give the following information about a prisoner:
- Full name
- Date and place of birth (or age)
- Names of parents
- Physical description
- Crime for which they were convicted
- Date and court of the verdict
- Sentence, including start and end date
- Previous convictions
- Behavior while in prison
- Other notes
The registers will not provide much detail about the crime they committed, usually it is just a short indication (theft, assault, smuggling). The information about the verdict allows you to track the court case in court records, which will give you the full description of the crime and reasoning of the judges.
Example: Hubertus van den Biggelaar
The Brabants Historisch Informatie Centrum [Brabant Historical Information Center, the archives of the province of Noord-Brabant] have digitized all their prison records. Volunteers created an index containing information on over 100,000 criminals, which just became available online this week.
My mother’s ancestors are mostly from Noord-Brabant so I immediately searched for her ancestors. I found several, including her great-great-grandfather Hubertus van den Biggelaar (1833-1872).
His admittance register had the following information:1
He was recorded under number 192, with a reference to description register no. 1276. Hubertus van den Buggelaar, age 26, born and living in Terheijden, was a married laborer of the Roman Catholic faith who had had primary education. On 5 December 1859, he was convicted to one month imprisonment by the “arrondissementsrechtbank” [district court] of Breda for “mishandeling” [assault].
He arrived in the prison on 21 February 1860, his second time in prison. The information about his admittance states that he came from this register under number 109. He was discharged on 22 March 1860 after his sentence expired. A note says that he had been convicted before, see no. 109.
This gives me several things to follow up on:
- I can check the admittance record for prisoner number 109 to see if that is about his first imprisonment. Since the admission information refers to his previous imprisonment, it seems he served two consecutive sentences. Or did he commit assault while in prison?
- I can check the court records of the district court of Breda for 5 December 1859 to find the records of the criminal case against him. The BHIC has an online index of these records. The court records themselves can be accessed in the reading room in Den Bosch.
- I can check the court records for his first conviction.
- I can check the finding aid for the prison records to see if there is a log for the time he was there, to see what was going on and if he was involved in any incidents.
- I can check the population registers of Terheijden to see where he was living at the time.
This record gives us a glimpse into the life of Hubertus van den Biggelaar. It not only tells us about his crime, but also that he had some education. Of the six people on the page, he was one of three people to have had a primary education.
The timing is also interesting: he had been married in 1858, the year before the assault. I wonder what his wife felt about the situation. Their first known child was born in 1862 so at least he did not leave her with a newborn baby.
If your ancestor was in prison, it is worthwhile to check the finding aid for that prison to see if any of the logs have survived for the time he or she was there. Most of them did not survive but if you do find them they can give you a great deal of information.
Example: Prison logs of Rotterdam house of arrest
One page of the prison log of the Rotterdam house of arrest in 1825 gives us the following information:2
- Hendrik Appels was placed in the water cage from 5 to 12 June for an unnamed transgression.
- The sermons took place orderly.
- Pretonella [sic] van Groningen was placed in the “Waag” [Measuring house, probably a part of the prison complex] on water and bread for brutalizing and cursing against the hired hand from 20 to 25 June.
- Johanna Geerhoff was found to be very drunk. When asked, she confessed that the overseer in the “Waag” had given her half a pint of gin, together with three other women: Grietie Harsen, Catrina Ligtenijger, Tetie Cornelis. She was punished with water and bread from 2 July to 10 July.
- On 10 July, there was a lot of noise and the guard found thet “Gommok” had taken Antonij van der Sanden by the throat and was abusing him severely. Gommok was taken off him and placed in the dark cage number 1.
- 27 July. Klaas Harres Douwma reports that he has lost 90 guilders that he had hidden in his scarf.
The range of punishments is quite extraordinary. “Dark cage number 1” suggests there were more, and then there was the equally sinister sounding water cage. Discipline also seemed to be a problem, with the overseer handing out drinks to the women.
We will never get a complete picture of what life was like for our imprisoned ancestors, but these logs sure give us some idea. And this isn’t even a prison log, this is for the house of arrest, where suspects were sent while they were awaiting trial. It must have been a scary place!
Where to find prison records
Prison records are usually kept in the archives in the capital of the province where the prison was located. Most of them can only be accessed in the reading room, but some archives provide online access:
- Noord-Brabant prison records (index and digital images). Select “Uitgebreid zoeken” [advanced search] and then “gevangenisregisters” [prison registers]).
- Zeeland prison records (index only). Click on the dropdown and select “gedetineerde” [Detainee] as source.
Dutch Genealogy source score
Amount of information about births, marriages, deaths
Amount of background information about your ancestors
Online availability of scans
Online availability of indexes or transcriptions
Easy to understand if you don’t know Dutch
- Breda prison, admittance registers 1859-1861, p. 64, no. 192, Hubertus van den Biggelaar, 21 February 1860; “Stamboom” [Family tree], index and digital images, Brabants Historisch Informatiecentrum (http://www.bhic.nl : accessed 24 February 2015), option “Gevangenisregisters” [Prison registers].
- House of arrest (Rotterdam), “register van bijzondere voorvallen” [Register of remarkable occurrences], 1815-1839, call number 688, unpaginated, 5 June – 27 July 1825; “Strafinstellingen Rotterdam” [Penitentiary institutions Rotterdam], record group 3.05.10; Nationaal Archief, The Hague, the Netherlands.