A History of Crime: 20th Century outlaws on view at archives

By Joel Hall


By 1910, Charles Ponzi, one of history's most infamous swindlers and the man with whom the "Ponzi scheme" became most commonly associated, had already made a name for himself. He had served time in Montreal prison for forging checks in Canada using the alias of "Charles Bianchi."

It only took him a few months after his release to get arrested for attempting to smuggle illegal immigrants across the border to America. On Oct. 13, 1910, he was sentenced to pay a $500 fine and serve two years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. During the prison intake process, his fingerprints were taken, his photo was taken, and meticulous measurements were taken of his face.

An intake card shows his right ear length was measured at 5.5 centimeters, his head width was 15, and his cheek width was listed at 13.4.

During his two years at the prison, Ponzi was a model prisoner who translated the letters of Italian inmates for the prison warden, according to documents. In those two years, he also typed a lengthy letter to U.S. District Court Judge William T. Newman, arguing legal theories concerning his incarceration; advocated his case in writing to the King of Italy; attempted to organize an inmate donation pool for the Italian Red Cross to help soldiers impacted by the Turko-Italian War; had his mother plead to the warden he was merely a "guide" for Italian immigrants coming to America, and convinced the Venable Brothers, owners of the Stone Mountain Granite and Railway Company, to give him a job helping clear the land for a villa on the corner of Oakdale Road and Ponce de Leon Avenue, upon his release.

"You can see his personality coming through the letters," said Mary Evelyn Tomlin, public programs specialist for the National Archives Southeast Region in Morrow, where the documents on Ponzi are housed. "You can tell that he was an operator. He laid it on thick."

The original inmate records of Ponzi and 14,000 other prisoners held at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary from about 1900 to 1922 are available for public viewing at the research facility in Morrow.

Arlene Royer, an archives specialist for 22 years, said the historic inmate records tell a great deal about the popular crimes of the early 20th Century, and how they were was dealt with by the authorities of the time.

"Most people think that criminals are uneducated people, or come from economic stress," she said. "That is not always the case. Many of the criminals [on file at the archives] are very educated people who made some unwise decisions."

Royer said when the Atlanta prison was first opened, there were only two other major federal prisons, the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas and McNeil Island Corrections Center in Washington state. Because the Atlanta prison was new, it had room for new prisoners, and many were transported in from all parts of the country.

Some of the most common crimes were moonshining - the creation and transportation of illegal distilled spirits - and mail fraud, and they were prosecuted vigorously, Royer said.

"The most interesting file we have is that of Preston James," said Royer. "He was 12 years old and was put in federal prison with adults for stealing and tampering with the mail. The oldest prisoner [on file] is William Merchant who was 88 years old. He was arrested for moonshining."

Other famous criminals on file include Charles W. Morse, a notorious businessman and Wall Street speculator whose misapplication of national bank funds played a key role in the financial collapse known as the "Panic of 1907," and Ignazio Lupo, a.k.a. "Lupo the Wolf," a murderer who was one of the original Italian Mafia figures.

Tomlin said that while many people use the archives to piece together their family history, the prisoner files also tell an important piece of the past.

"One of our purposes is to retain original documents that tell the story of our country, and this is a big story," she said. "It shows the history of crime and punishment. There is so much detail about these prisoners, it's like we're watching their every move. It's almost like the guards who were watching them."