Too often, we think our ancestors were like us. We find it hard to imagine they would break the law and don’t even look for prison records. However, lots of people got in trouble with the law; especially if they were poor. In the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century, if people could not pay a fine, they could end up in prison.
People could go to prison for unpaid fines given for transgressions we would consider minor today. Here are a few examples from my own research:
- turning a plow in the road rather than on your own land
- having a chicken run lose in someone else’s garden
- emptying your chamber pot in the street gutter rather than in the creek
- walking around with uncovered fire
- calling someone a bad name.
Other things that regularly got people in trouble were tax evasion, drunkenness, disturbance of the peace, and fighting.
Many of these offenses would have carried a fine, but if a person could not pay, they would have to spend time in prison instead.
Prison records for several provinces are now available online for you to check whether any of your ancestors appear.