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April 30, 2020

Find Prison Records for Ancestors

1863 Jury William Massey Trial
My husband's 3rd great grandfather William Massey was sent to trial, found guilty and given 6 months at hard labour in the Stratford Ontario Jail. He was found guilty on April 18, 1863. His sentence began December 10, 1863 and he was released June 10, 1864. So William was incarcerated in the Stratford Jail and not in Tennessee fighting for Grant as family legend had told. Sadly William died a year and a half after his release from jail.

Why the Lie?

Our best guess is that a lie was told to his children (ages 3 to 16) when he was imprisoned. Far better to tell the little ones that Daddy was off being a hero fighting a war, then to say Daddy was a thief and was sent to jail. And note MaryAnn's words in a newspaper article "....after spending 6 months in a Federal Hospital he was discharged..." Wow - 6 months - that was his sentence in Stratford Jail! We are just surprised that in such a small town, the gossip didn't make the rounds  for the kids to get wind of! Or did MaryAnn simply make up the story on her own?

We think the jail term may have hastened William's early death. He was 41 when he served his time at hard labour. And it would have been very hard. Conditions at the jail were not good, there was very little ventilation, it was cold in winter and hot in summer. Disease was almost certainly rampant.

So as sad as it is to think of William suffering as he must have, we are delighted to have found yet another bit of detail to help us form our story of this ancestor.

Prison Records Provide the Clues Needed

It was not the non-existent court records suddenly appearing that provided this information. It was the records of the Stratford Jail. They are sparse but they do provide the prisoner's name, age, length of stay in Canada, place of birth, crime and date imprisonment began and ended. The records also provided us with height, colour of eyes and hair, and a few other comments about his character. William has two mentions, the second states that his conduct as a prisoner was good.

Immigration Date Found

The other very welcome bit of information we gleaned from the jail records was that William had lived in Canada for 20 years. This gives us an approximate year of immigration from Ireland. Since ships passenger lists to Canada were not archived before 1865 we had no year of immigration and had previously only known that in 1843 William married Ellen Montgomery in Quebec. But we did not know if he arrived in Quebec as a child (with parents) or as a young man.

Now we know that he was approximately 21 years old when he sailed from Ireland to Canada. Since his wife's family was already in Quebec, and had been for many years, we assume he met her soon after arrival.

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