Jun 23 2014

Snippet from History #6: U.S. Prisoners in 1904

Regular readers are aware that I am a data geek. A few years ago, at a library used book sale, I picked up an old report about U.S. prisoners in 1904. I’ve used it only a couple of times since I bought it but I thought that some of you might be interested in this information. These numbers include both the prison and jail populations. In addition, these are numbers of prisoners who were committed during the 12 months of 1904.  Anything surprising to you in these numbers?

Prisoners in 1904

Source:  Prisoners and Juvenile Delinquents in Institutions 1904 (Bureau of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, 1907)

1. Number and ratio of prisoners committed during 1904, classified by sex




Number per 100,000 of pop


Number per 100,000 of pop

TOTAL Number

Number per 100,000

Continental U.S.







During 1904, a total of 149,691 prisoners were committed on term sentences and the table below shows that 23,698 of these were “Negro.” On June 30, 1904, there were 81,772 prisoners locked up in the U.S. (We can assume that this represents the average number on any given day).

Comparatively in 2012, there were 2,228,400 prisoners in state, federal prisons and local jails in the U.S. and the incarceration rate was 710 per 100,000 people as opposed to 184.1 per 100,000 in 1904.

[I have included incarceration RATES to pre-empt those who will INEVITABLY complain about using aggregate numbers. So please save those complaints. Through the rates, you can now make apple to apple comparisons accounting for population growth.]

2. Distribution of prisoners committed during 1904, by sex, color, race and nativity

TOTAL Male Female
Total Number % Total Number % Total Number %
Aggregate 149,691 100 136,365 100 13,326 100
White 125,093 83.6 114,670 84.1 10,423 78.2
Colored 24,598 16.4 21,695 15.9 2,903 21.8
Negro** 23,698 15.8 20,865 15.3 2,833 21.3

** I’ve broken out Negro which is a subset of colored

Of the male prisoners shown in Table 2, 20,865 or 15.3 percent were Negro and of the female prisoners 2,833, or 21.3 percent were Negro. So what’s interesting to note is that in 1904 black women were disproportionately imprisoned compared to their male counterparts.