Attorney General and Secretary of State Lead Successful Effort to Return Historical Document to State Archives


State prison ledger from 1888 returned to Rhode Island by Connecticut antiquarian book seller


PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Attorney General Peter F. Neronha and Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea announced today that through joint efforts, their offices have secured the return of a unique 19th century state prison ledger to the Rhode Island State Archives from a Connecticut-based antiquarian book seller.


Under Rhode Island law, certain types of state property cannot be sold to private persons or entities. Such property includes public records of designated state agencies, like documents, maps, recordings, or other material. 


The historical ledger consists of one bound 526-page volume of inmate incarceration and release records encompassing the time period of 1888 through 1905. The volume contains an index of individual state prison inmates along with details of their criminal history as well as personal and family characteristics.


The State of Rhode Island was able to reach an amicable resolution with the bookseller, who ultimately donated the historical ledger to the State Archives. 


“On its face, a nearly 150-year-old ledger of state prison inmate records may not raise any eyebrows but this document, and other historical documents like it, are important pieces of our state history that illuminate our understanding of our identity as Rhode Islanders,” said Attorney General Neronha. “This is a unique primary source that should be available to historians and researchers to support their meaningful work. Through the help of a member of the public, we’ve been able recover a valuable piece of our history.”


The State became aware of the prison ledger in October 2020, after an archivist from the Rhode Island Department of State discovered the document listed for sale on the internet. The archivist then alerted the Office of the Attorney General to initiate possible action to recover the document.


Several weeks later, the State and book seller arrived at the amicable resolution, who ultimately donated the document to the State. The historical ledger has since been returned to the State and is being stored at the State Archives.


“Rhode Island has perhaps the richest history of any state, and it’s a privilege to oversee our State Archives’ efforts to preserve and display that history for future generations,” said Secretary of State Gorbea. “Documents like this ledger play a vital role in understanding our past and are an invaluable resource to researchers. I thank the Attorney General’s office and State Archivist Ashley Selima for their diligent work in returning this historical document to our collection.”


Over the years, members of the public have been instrumental in reuniting valuable historical documents with the State. The public is encouraged to contact the State Archives by calling 401-222-2353 to share information about possible state-owned documents.


The State has previously pursued repossession of state property held in private hands. In 2018, the Office of the Attorney General successfully blocked the sale of 18th century Providence County court documents that were placed for auction on the internet. Those documents were later returned to the state archives.