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Hoosier crimes

In anticipation of this weekend’s Genealogy & Local History Fair at the Indiana State Library — a whole day focusing on “Crime and Punishment in Indiana” — The Legal Genealogist spent some time last night poking around in the early laws of the Hoosier State to see just what sorts of things our Indiana ancestors might have gotten themselves in trouble with.

IN.crimesAfter all, we all want to know, for sure, that our ancestor charged with petit larcency in the 1830s was accused of taking some personal property from another person of the value of less than five dollars, and that other ancestor who was charged with grand larceny was charged with taking personal property valued at five dollars or more.1

And you got the same penalty, depending on the value, if you altered the mark or brand of an animal: it was treated as grand larceny if the beast was worth $5 or more and petit larceny if less than $5.2

That makes sense, especially in an early agrarian economy.

But we might be a bit more bemused by the fact that every person convicted of grand larceny faced hard labor in the state prison for not less than two nor more than 14 years… but the sentence for petit larcency varied. If you were male, you could be sent to the state prison for not less than a year, but a female would be sent to the county jail for not more than 60 days.3

Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?

It’s also enough to take us aback a bit to read that there was a specific provision in those early laws making it the crime of malicious mayhem to “unlawfully disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut or bite off the nose, ear, lip or other member of any person, with intent to disfigure or disable such person.”4 It was just plain mayhem if you did it without specific intent to disfigure or disable.5

You’d have thought that would kind of be covered in the whole treating others as you’d want to be treated concept, but…

And then there are the crimes we no longer think of much:

• Giving or accepting a challenge to fight a duel, agreeing to leave the state for the purpose of dueling, or even carrying a challenge to fight a duel on behalf of another person was a crime carrying a fine and a year in the county jail.6

• Fighting a duel carried the same year in the county jail unless someone was killed, in which case it was murder and carried the death penalty.7

• Fighting in a public place, “to the terror of the citizens of this state,” was an affray. For that, our ancestors faced a fine of not more than $20 and not more than five days in jail.8

• Any three people getting together intending to do an unlawful act — but not doing it or anything towards it — were guilty of unlawful assemblage.9 If they took one step towards accomplishing the act, it was the crime of rout.10 And if they actually did an unlawful act, it was riot.11

• Graverobbing — that is, disinterring a corpse without consent — was specifically forbidden by the statutes.12

• It was a crime to help an escaped slave — to encourage a slave to escape — and to prevent or hinder the owner from recapturing the slave.13

• A ferry or bridge owner who took more than the law allowed for passage or didn’t keep the ferry or bridge repaired was guilty of extortion.14

• Carrying a concealed weapon was unlawful, unless you were a traveller.15

• And if you were 14 or older, it was a crime to be found — on Sunday — “rioting, hunting, fishing, quarrelling, or at common labor, works of necessity and charity only excepted.”16

And my favorite crime of all: barratry, the crime of frequently exciting and stirring up quarrels between or among the citizens of the state, at law or otherwise.17

Oh, and come on out on Saturday to the Genealogy & Local History Fair at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis! I’ll be speaking about researching your “black sheep” ancestors and using court and prison records, and Kevin McQueen — author of Murder and Mayhem Indiana, Strange Tales of Crime and Murder in Southern Indiana, and other books about Hoosier true crime stories — will be speaking about the strange stories and crimes he has researched while writing his books.

It’s gonna be fun.


  1. §6, Chapter XXVI, “An Act relative to Crime and Punishment” (10 Feb 1831) in The Revised Statutes of the State of Indiana (Indianapolis : Douglass & Noel, Printers, 1838), 207-208; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 20 Oct 2015).
  2. Ibid., §19, at 211.
  3. Ibid., §6, at 208.
  4. Ibid., §13, at 209-210.
  5. Ibid., §31, at 213.
  6. Ibid., §20, at 211.
  7. Ibid., §21.
  8. Ibid., §27, at 212.
  9. Ibid., §28.
  10. Ibid., §29.
  11. Ibid., §30, at 213.
  12. Ibid., §36.
  13. Ibid., §37, at 214.
  14. Ibid., §43, at 215.
  15. Ibid., §58, at 217.
  16. Ibid., §71, at 219.
  17. Ibid., §46, at 215.
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