Civil life or death in 1920s AlabamaTwo young men from St. Clair County, Alabama, were sent to state prison in Alabama in the 1920s.
Quitman Battles was 31 when he became convict no. 11953 in the Alabama Prison System, sentenced to one year to one year and 90 days in 1924 for manufacturing liquor.1 And Ross Battles was 23 when he became convict no. 13612, sentenced to one year and a day to two years in 1925 for distilling.2 That much appears on their prison records in a database and in images now online at Ancestry.com.3
I was intrigued by those records in particular for two reasons.
First and foremost, though I didn’t chart it out to be certain of the exact relationship, both of these chaps were cousins of mine. We’re all descended from a Revolutionary War soldier, William Noel Battles, who died in St. Clair County, Alabama, in 1840.4
And secondly, the records show that these two men — convicted of very similar crimes and given very similar sentences — were treated in all but one respect in very similar ways. Each of them was left out on bail while he appealed his conviction and sentence. Neither of them spent very much time in the hoosegow. Both had periods of extended temporary parole.
But for some reason, the records make it crystal clear that Ross was treated in one very critical respect in a way that Quitman wasn’t. Perhaps because of his age, perhaps because of good lawyering, perhaps because of the underlying facts of the case, Ross was pardoned about 18 months after he was released from prison. And, the prison record notes, he was “pardoned with restoration of citizenship.”
It’s that second part that needs some explanation.
Historically, in the United States, conviction of a felony — often defined as “any public offense on conviction of which the offender is liable to be sentenced to death or to imprisonment in a penitentiary or state prison”5 — resulted in what was called a “civil death”6 — the loss of some or all civil rights.
Among the civil rights typically lost due to a felony conviction was the right to serve on a jury — a civil disability that continues widely today.7 Another right denied today to convicted felons is the right to own or even possess a firearm.8
But the provision that’s been the most controversial is disenfranchisement — loss of the right to vote.
As far back as the Constitution of 1819, Alabama provided that “Laws shall be made to exclude from office, from suffrage, and from serving as Jurors, those who shall hereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors.”9 The Alabama Constitution of 1875 denied persons “convicted of treason, embezzlement of public funds, malfeasance in office, larceny, bribery, or other crime punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary” the right to register, vote or hold public office.10 These offenses were largely, if not entirely, felonies.
And the Alabama Constitution of 1901 — the one in effect when my Battles cousins were convicted — provided for the disenfranchisement of persons convicted of “treason, murder, arson, embezzlement, malfeasance in office, larceny, receiving stolen property, obtaining property or money under false pretenses, perjury, subornation of perjury, robbery, assault with intent to rob, burglary, forgery, bribery, assault and battery on the wife, bigamy, living in adultery, sodomy, incest, rape, miscegenation, crime against nature, or any crime punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary, or of any infamous crime or crime involving moral turpitude; also, any person who shall be convicted as a vagrant or tramp…”11
These disenfranchisement provisions — in Alabama and elsewhere — were often rooted in Reconstruction racial policies. The Mississippi Supreme Court in 1896 made no bones of the fact that that state’s disenfranchisement of persons convicted of some felonies rather than others was intended to reach crimes committed primarily by African Americans.12 These types of laws — even when racially motivated — stayed on the books for a very long time. It wasn’t until 1985 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama’s disenfranchisement provision as racially discriminatory.13
But these laws were not limited to the South, and some vestiges of these civil disabilities on conviction remain in effect to some degree even today. In 2004, an American Bar Association journal article reported that “forty-eight states and the District of Columbia prohibit felons in prison from voting, and thirty-three states ban people on probation and/or parole as well. In thirteen states a felony offense can result in the loss of voting rights even after the sentence has been completed, and often for life.”14
By 2008, many states had changed their laws to permit more ex-convicts to vote,15 but shifting political winds can change the landscape pretty quickly. In 2011, Florida rolled back rules making it easier for ex-convicts to vote.16
In Alabama, today, thanks to a 2003 amendment in the law, it’s easier for an ex-convict to regain the right to vote.17 That change came far too late to help my cousin Quitman. And, but for the stroke of the Governor’s pen on a 1927 pardon, my cousin Ross would also have been among the ex-convicts who couldn’t vote.
Just one more thing to keep in mind when perusing those genealogical records… and maybe both a reason to look at the prison records, and an explanation why a cousin just might not be found on a voting list.
- Entry for Quitman Battles, convict no. 11953, “Alabama, Convict Records, 1886-1952,” database and images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 29 Mar 2012); citing Alabama Department of Corrections and Institutions, State Convict Records, 1889–1952, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery. ↩
- Ibid., entry for Ross Battles, convict no. 13612. ↩
- Thanks to Michael John Neill who called attention to this database in his blog post yesterday. Michael John Neill, “Will Ancestry.com Tell You Your Ancestor Was Mentally Deficient?,” RootDig.com, posted 29 Mar 2012. ↩
- Shiloh Cemetery, Etowah County, AL, William Noel Battles marker; digital image, Find A Grave (http://findagrave.com : accessed 29 Mar 2012). ↩
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 483, “felony.” ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Civil death,” rev. 17 Mar 2012). ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Loss of rights due to felony conviction,” rev. 12 Dec 2011). ↩
- See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), making it a crime for a convicted felon to possess a firearm. ↩
- Article VI, § 5, Alabama Constitution of 1819, Alabama Legislature (http://www.legislature.state.al.us/ : accessed 29 Mar 2012). ↩
- Article VIII, § 3, Alabama Constitution of 1875, Alabama Legislature (http://www.legislature.state.al.us/ : accessed 29 Mar 2012). ↩
- Article VIII, § 182, Alabama Constitution of 1901, Alabama Legislature (http://www.legislature.state.al.us : accessed 29 Mar 2012). ↩
- Ratliff v. Beale, 74 Miss. 247, 266–267 (1896). ↩
- Hunter v. Underwood, 471 U.S. 222 (1985). ↩
- Marc Mauer, “Felon Disenfranchisement: A Policy Whose Time Has Passed?,” Human Rights, 31 (Winter 2004): 16-17. ↩
- Ryan S. King, “Expanding the Vote
State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2008,” The Sentencing Project (http://sentencingproject.org : accessed 29 Mar 2012). ↩
- “Florida: State Board Makes it Harder for Ex-Offenders to Vote, Activists Express Disagreement,” Disenfranchisement News, posted 17 Mar 2011, The Sentencing Project (http://sentencingproject.org : accessed 29 Mar 2012). ↩
- See Ala. Code § 15-22-36.1. ↩