Is This Why I Couldn’t Find Peter?

John Brooks, (who died as a soldier of the War of 1812), and his first wife Hannah Grosbroek had two children together before she died. The eldest, a daughter, died as an infant, but Peter, their youngest, lived long enough to be raised by his step-mother Dinah.

Poor Peter had it a bit tougher than his half-siblings because both of his biological parents had died by the time he was 12, while they still had their mother Dinah. To top it off by the time he was about 13 or 14 he was being raised by two step-parents, as Dinah had married her second husband Robert Little.

Until this last week have not been able to find anything on Peter Brooks beyond his father’s guardianship papers in 1815. Then I saw this intriguing record at

(if no image is seen be sure to download the file from the link)

This document, that you see reference to above, is a prison discharge record for Auburn Prison, and in this discharge record is listed a Peter Brooks, born about 1803, in Albany, New York. All of that data matches the Peter Brooks I have been looking for these past few years. But is it him?

According to this record Peter was in prison for 7 years for breaking gaol [jail]. Which also means that he had been in jail longer than those 7 years, because he had to have been in jail to have broken out. He was released in 1829 at the age of 25. If he served the whole sentence, that means he was in prison when he was 18, and possibly earlier. If this is indeed the same Peter who is a grand half-uncle of mine, then it is no wonder I have been unable to find him. And him being so elusive to me before makes a good case to this being the Peter I have been looking for.

What I have to do next is see if the Albany Archives have any court records that might inform me as to the reason for Peter’s incarceration in the first place. Hopefully, I will also be able to confirm that he is the right Peter.

Auburn Prison where Peter was incarcerated, is in Auburn, NY, and opened in 1817. It was built with the intention of using a congregate system. The inmates worked and ate together during the day, but went into isolation at night. The work they were expected to do consisted of hard labor working on bridges, ditches, quarries, and other difficult and tedious tasks. They also had to make items like barrels, buckets, clothes, shoes, boots, tools and saddles. These were sold at a profit making the Auburn system the first to wade into the prison manufacturing industry a trend that continues to this day.

Floggings, though outlawed as a sentence, became the primary means of discipline. This soon became known as the Auburn Prison System, which owes many of it’s attributes, such as better food and health care and an increased emphasis on rehabilitation, to the Pennsylvania system. [Yes, because everyone knows a good flogging fixes everything.]

Silence was the over-riding theme of the Auburn system. John D. Cray, a deputy warden at the Auburn Prison, said silence took away the prisoner’s ‘sense of self’, which made them more obedient, and prevented them from corrupting each other. Thus the prisoners did everything without talking. They also wore a uniform of white with broad horizontal stripes. When they moved anywhere as a group, they had to walk in lockstep with their hands grabbing the side of the prisoner in front, and their elbows at their sides covering the hands of the prisoner behind. If one stumbled, many would fall and, of course, later be flogged.

This was Peter’s life for 7 years.

Unfortunately, after this ‘released from prison’ record, I have again been unable to find Peter Brooks in any records. Maybe he was a repeat offender. I guess it is off to the court records in Albany, New York.

Incarceration, transportation, slavery, freedom…

Debtors prison in the 1700s.

Thomas McQueen, son of Dugal McQueen, married a woman by the name of Elizabeth ______ Berry. She is said to have been born in France sometime in the 1700s. Somehow she ended up in England. In 1739 at the Lent term of court in the Oxford Circuit, an Elizabeth Berry, wife of Ambrose Berry, was sentenced to transportation to America for seven years for theft at St. Aldate[’s street]1 in Oxford. It is believed that this is, quite possibly, our ancestress. We don’t know what she stole or why she did and I am sure the court didn’t much care either. We also do not know if her husband was alive or around when she was arrested or transported.

Transportation of convicts to America by the British started as early as 1610 and continued until the American Revolution. It was about 10 or so years later that England started sending their convicts to Australia. (In the meantime, male convicts were confined to hard labour on prison hulks2 on the Thames, and the women were imprisoned.)

When England started transporting its convicts, the reason touted about was the belief that the sentence would reform the criminals. But most everyone knew it was merely a ruse to just get rid of them. The first transportation act was passed in 1718 and allowed the courts to sentence felons to seven years transportation to America.

While Elizabeth waited for her court date she sat in prison.

Prisons in England in the 1700s were mostly unregulated institutions. In fact they were usually privately owned by: franchises, individuals, or municipal corporations. The location of the prison could be the cellar of a business, an old castle, or a courthouse dungeon. However, while the locations might differ, the things they all had in common were the appalling conditions and complete lack of care for the prisoners. In fact, everyone was locked up together without regard to sex, age, type of crime, or sanity. These places were overcrowded pits of disease, death, and despair.

Because a large majority of these ‘prisons’ had not been built for holding prisoners, there was a universal use of irons, straight-jackets and chains by jailers to keep the prisoners confined. At one prison the jailor secured his prisoners by chaining them on their backs to the floor, putting an iron collar about their necks that contained spikes, then placing an iron bar over their legs.

Jailers were not paid for their employment. Instead they relied on bribes, tips, and fees to make their livelihood. They profited from the sale of gin, acted as pimps, and charged inmates fees if they wanted to be released from their chained confinement, for a short amount of time. These conditions, of course, attracted the most vile of people to the job. This also meant that imprisonment could be a life sentence. If your sentence was up but your fee wasn’t paid ‘for services rendered’ you weren’t released until it was. Life in prison could happen to those who were merely waiting on their day in court, and then were pronounced innocent.

The merchants who shipped these convicts off to America made a fortune for themselves, and the plantation owners who bought them made a fortune on cheap labor. Many convicts died on the trip over and more died from the treatment they received from their ‘owners’. Many of the women who were transported to the colonies were used as prostitutes/mistresses to meet the demands of the men, whether they were willing or not. Those who were able to escape being prostituted worked for the managerial class.

Happily, for us, Elizabeth survived the horrors of her incarceration, her dreadful transportation to America, and her 7 years of slavery indentured servitude (unless she ran away! You go girl!).

By about 1755 Elizabeth was married to Thomas McQueen3, (both were of Baltimore), son of Dugal, who had been transported to America as a Scottish prisoner of war in 1716.

1 A search of the internet shows that St. Aldate is actually St. Aldate’s Street in Oxford, England.
2 These hulks were old navy ships anchored along the banks of the Thames.
3 Researchers have been unsuccessful in finding a marriage record for them, but their first known child was born in 1756.

Civil War tidbits…

In 1865 Abram Rosa was put in front of a military court and charged with “Conduct prejudicial to good order and Military discipline”. The result of which he ended up spending 3 months in a military prison in Florida. A true hellhole.

According to the charges he took offense at his superior officer, Major Thomas B. Weir’s treatment and punishment of a fellow soldier threatening and insulting him with, “No God damned Officer shall abuse that man, “Look here,” God damn you, you have churned that man enough, “ I’ll show you, by God. He also removed his coat and shook his fists in a threatening manner towards, Major Weir  still using insulting and threatening language. All this happened near Eagle Pass, Texas about September 7, 1865.

While I knew the story, and was of course appalled by the verdict and punishment (nothing like good old military justice). I was interested in learning more about the story, or at least by researching the officers involved in the case maybe I might find something else out about the incident.

Major Thomas B. Weir

Well something interesting did turn up when I googled Major Thomas B. Weir the officer whom Abram threatened. This Major Weir is famous, as he was the same Major Weir who was involved with Custer and the massive defeat at Little Bighorn.

Major Weir commanded Company D of the 7th Cavalry under Custer, and joined him in the attack on a large Native American encampment on the Little Bighorn River in Montana on June 25, 1876. Weir disobeyed orders to remain on what is now Reno Hill, and instead, moved north to attempt to support Custer, who had led a detachment to attack the encampment from that direction. The effort was too late and Custer and his soldiers were slaughtered. Weir himself survived the assault, but died later the same year, 1876, having drank himself to death. It is believed over his inability to save Custer, whom he greatly respected.

I doubt that Abram would have shown any sadness at his passing, maybe he even did a little jig when he heard the news. 

It is interesting that Weir sendt Abram to hard labor in a horrible prison for three months, when he was only trying to protect a fellow soldier from over-enthusiastic punishment. Yet, Weir disobeys orders from his superiors, hoping to protect Custer from a disastrous attack. Fails. And wasn’t punished in any way by the military.