Census 1860: Wethersfield State Prison: Crimes

The last piece on the inmates of the Connecticut state prison at Wethersfield in 1860 discussed their gender and race; this piece discusses the crimes for which they were convicted. To repeat from before, there were 179 inmates, 12 of them female.

The Census marshal also, in accordance with his instructions, reported the crimes for which they were imprisoned and the year in which they were convicted. Note that they also did this for people not residing in prison, thought for that category it was only those convicted in the past year (those who were in the prison had often been there for much longer than one year). The instructions also thoughtfully noted that for convicts living in families,

as the interrogatory might give offense, the assistants had better refer to the county record for information on this head, and not make the inquiry of any family. With the county record and his own knowledge he can seldom err.

One of the women in the Wethersfield state prison was jailed for adultery (still a crime in 1860, but she was the only person in prison for it); another for “Abandoning child” (also the only instance of that crime). One had passed counterfeit money, and four had committed theft. Two were imprisoned for murder in the second degree, and two for manslaughter. (That doesn’t add up to twelve because I failed to make a note on one of them.)


Overall, the actual crimes were overwhelmingly related to property. There were four categories that included the term “burglary,” and 61 prisoners held for them; 37 were convicted of theft alone, 3 for “Stealing” (which is different from theft in what way, I wonder?), and two for “Robbing U.S. Mail.” And another 3 for horse-stealing. That’s 59.2% of the total, if you’re wondering. (And if you’re still reading this, perhaps you are!)

5.6% of the crimes (a total of 10) were arguably sex offenses. There was the one adultress mentioned above. One man was imprisoned for “Abusing Female Child,” which is a little ambiguous. Another was in for “Buggery,” that is to say, sex with another man (very illegal until quite recently), and a startling 3 for “Incest” – especially considering the nearly identical 4 charged with rape or attempted rape (2 each).

Stepping back from the really depressing, there was apparently a difference between “Arson” (2) and “Burning barn” (6) – perhaps the latter was sometimes accidental? One man was in for an extremely vague “Felony.” Another 10 were imprisoned for forgery – 8 for unspecified forgeries, one for forging a land warrant (that is, a government grant of land), and one for forging some kind of pension document (again, this probably was a government pension). There were a total of 6 people locked up for passing counterfeit money. And I don’t know what “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” meant at the time – but 2 men were imprisoned for that. Another 3 had committed perjury, and one had obstructed a railroad (a very serious crime then and now).

Back to the violent crimes, then. 24 people (13.4%, four of them women) had killed someone. 5 had been convicted of murder, 9 of second-degree murder, and 10 of manslaughter. Another 7 were imprisoned for assaults or attempts to kill.

I have not been able to find comparable statistics for Connecticut’s current population. It does seem to me that I’ve read that most prisoners are currently in for nonviolent offenses – overwhelmingly drug offenses, which were not an item in 1860 at all (not counting the people locked in the county jails for drunkenness). For now, these 1860 numbers will have to stand on their own.


Incidentally, the quote from the census instructions is taken from Twenty Censuses: Population and Housing questions 1790-1980 (Bureau of the Census, 1979). And if you like, you can read the whole thing yourself!

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