52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 7 – Unusual Source
Prompt: Not all of our genealogy discoveries come in the “regular” sources like vital records and the census. What is a discovery that you’ve made using an unusual source?
One of the most unusual sources that I have used thus far in my genealogical research has been a prison record.
I found out about the availability of this source from a hint on Ancestry.com for a distant cousin: Samuel Perry Curry (1891-1945). A “Samuel Curry” appeared in the Name Index to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary Inmate Case Files, 1895-1931, and this listing popped up as a possible match. Through family photographs posted by others—along with more traditional sources—I was able to positively determine that this prisoner and “my” Samuel Perry Curry were one and the same.
Once I had ascertained that this record did indeed belong to a member of my family, all kinds of questions came to mind. What was his crime? And, he was arrested in Indiana–where he lived–so why would he have been incarcerated at Kansas? My husband answered that for me: it was probably a federal crime he had committed, he informed me, thus he had served time in a federal prison.
Well, now I was REALLY curious! I decided to call the penitentiary and see how I might found out what crime(s) my ancestor had committed. The person who took my call informed me that she was not permitted to reveal that information. However, she said that—through the Freedom of Information Act—it was possible for me to place an official order for the record and the record could then be sent to me. I needed only to pay for the cost of photocopying the record itself.
It was an unusual source, but not a cheap one: I agreed to a credit card charge of $115.00 for his full record to be copied and sent to me. But I had to solve this mystery!
When I received the large envelope from Leavenworth, Kansas, I could hardly contain my excitement.
Upon opening the file, I learned that Samuel Curry had been convicted of multiple violations of the National Prohibition Act.
Curry’s numerous charges were for transporting liquor during Prohibition. Interstate transport of the illegal substance constituted a felony. On this charge, he was arrested and convicted, and on October 3, 1929, he was sentenced to five years at Leavenworth State Penitentiary.
It appears that Samuel’s first record of criminal activity was in 1928 in federal court in Indianapolis at which time he paid a $300 fine for transportation.
The parole report of the Office of the U. S. Attorney continues:
On April 3, 1929, [Curry] was arrested for transporting intoxicating liquor at Clinton, Indiana, 65 gallons alcohol, and three revolvers. While that case was pending in State Court, he was found transporting 90 gallons of alcohol by automobile, carrying a 45 Cold [sic] pistol on May 17, 1929, which latter transportation is the subject of Criminal No. 4493 in this court. He gave bond and was again arrested carrying 100 gallons of alcohol by automobile on August 29, 1929, which transportation is the subject of criminal indictment No. 4492. The car he was driving in May was equipped with a two gallon tank under the hood filled with crude oil and glycerin, attached to the exhaust manifold, and with valve attachments to the driver’s seat which would, when turned on with the engine running, provide a smoke screen to render pursuit difficult.”
The last detail calls to mind James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 “gadget car!”
On October 29, 1929, Samuel Perry Curry began serving his sentence at Leavenworth.
Besides learning that Samuel was a bootleg “runner,” his prison file told a more complete story of his life. He was married and had eight children living in Indianapolis. His file contained a copy of a hand-written note from his wife, Josephine Curry, pleading to the warden for his early release and stating that she was the one experiencing the true punishment for his crimes–living with eight children with no help. She wrote that she was existing on charity and that, because so many others were without work and income, she and the children were not receiving much assistance. This was during the Great Depression, of course.
The file also contained back and forth exchanges between the prison and the Catholic Welfare Association and Family Services, trying to ascertain whether Samuel’s wife had sought or was eligible for assistance. There was even a letter in the file indicating that Samuel’s son Chester Curry had made a plea for his father’s release in a personal letter he had written and sent directly to President Roosevelt!
Meanwhile, in Leavenworth, Samuel served his time and showed up to work detail. Having apprenticed as a boiler maker prior to his conviction, he was assigned numerous times to the boiler room, eventually serving as the night watchman of the boiler room. But other assignments included “Farm No. 2” from which he asked for reassignment, claiming he was no farmer. He was also assigned to the shoe factory for some of his time there.
During Samuel’s stay in Leavenworth, there was a prison break. On December 11, 1931, Warden Thomas B. White was taken hostage, and seven inmates escaped. The escape made national news, and footage devoted to this event–and how the prison complex looked at that time–can be seen in the newsreel fragment below.
I found a full transcript of a prison (re)intake interview with Samuel Curry in the record. This was a statement taken upon Samuel’s return to Leavenworth after violating the terms of his parole. Asked why he had returned to the liquor transport business, he said that he needed the money so that his family could eat. His time for good behavior was ceded back for this violation, and he ended up serving his full five-year term.
A rather interesting detail about his parole violation is this: his son John had been transporting liquor during this time. During one run, John’s truck broke down. John called his Dad at home in Indianapolis to come pick him up. It was at the scene of the truck’s breakdown that Samuel was once again arrested. Although his son had been the one transporting illegal cargo, his father took the blame in order to spare his son and, in doing so, was sent back to prison. Several other Curry sons were also in the liquor transport business, but I have not found any records indicating that any of them served time.
However, the following letter indicates that John was sent to a reformatory:
In the last lines of his full record below, it would appear that Samuel was also arrested for aiding and abetting a fugitive and as an accessory to murder.
Samuel Perry Curry finished his sentence on June 13, 1936, about two-and-a-half years after the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution—repealing the Eighteenth Amendment and ending Prohibition—had gone into effect.
With large numbers of impoverished Americans out of work and very few jobs available during the Depression, many were, like Samuel Curry, desperate for ways to support their families. Meanwhile, the making, transport and resale of liquor—prohibited and therefore untaxed and unregulated during Prohibition—represented a wide profit margin and, thus, a very lucrative enterprise.
Difficulty enforcing the law, the rise in drinking during Prohibition, the inability to regulate underage drinking, and the crowding of prisons due to the criminalization of all liquor-related enterprises are some of the reasons that led to the repeal of Prohibition.
“Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.”—Will Rogers