Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Courthouse Public Library?

Since I have been very lax in posting to the OGS blog recently, I have gotten permission to copy an article that I did for another group, Special Connections, the Blog of the Subject and Special Collections Division of the Ohio Library Council. This group encourages cross posting and especially would like readers to visit their site - - and click on the "Follow" button at the bottom of the screen.

                Did you ever stop to think that courthouses are perhaps the most important libraries with special collections and are hidden in plain site? Generally speaking, most do not employ librarians or archivists. They are in architecturally significant but often antiquated structures. Many record storage areas are environmentally inadequate and collections are literally kept in basements and attics. Yet courthouses are often at the forefront of digitization of current materials. At the same time, funding is sometimes not pointed to their vast historical resources. When these treasures concerning everyday people are included in larger digital projects, then the question of preservation of the original document comes into question. To top that, state archivists today are often fighting for their existence let alone being able to provide much guidance in records management when it comes to local government records.

                My example today is the lowly “case file”. A “case” is a general term used to indicate some type of argument brought into court to be settled, and the “file” contains the supporting documentation for either side, often a summary with affidavits, and lists of the plaintiff’s and defendant’s witnesses (including subpoenas) - along with any financial obligations and decisions. Litigious types and criminals often surface on a yearly basis. Bundled by court term (cases heard over a multi-day period), I have many times been the first to cut the string that bands them together. Imagine reading 150-year old contemporary accounts that apparently were not even viewed by the recognized 19th century county historian. How could they have overlooked this stuff? I’ll give you three examples.

                Isabella Ireland vs. John Ireland: “To wit, on the tenth day of October eighteen hundred & sixteen your Petitioner was duly joined in marriage with one John Ireland, to wit, at Madison Township”… “that on or about the 10th day of February AD 1817 he left your petitioner & has not since returned”… “said Ireland & he had acquired a small tract of land situate in said County [Richland] of about sixty-five acres & had built thereon a rough log cabin in which she has continued to reside for the last twenty-five years or thereabouts”….”that she has a daughter unmarried who is dependent upon her for a home”…”said log cabin which is greatly dilapidated & wholly unfit for the residence of herself & daughter”…”[Ireland] resides in the County of Knox”…”has committed adultery with one Betsey Irvine in said county to wit on the 10th day of June AD 1832”…”by whom the said John has had several children”…”that said John committed adultery with one Elizabeth Sawyer to wit in said County of Knox to wit on the 5th day of June AD 1834”…”that said John committed adultery with a person whose name is unknown to petitioner”…”and that the said John has been an habitual drunkard” and she prays for the marriage contract to be dissolved.

                An 1822 affidavit of Joseph Workman in a land debt case resulting from a general depression and the failure of the German Bank of Wooster: Question: “Are those kind of lands as valuable now as they were in the year 1815?” Answer: “They are not near so valuable as they were by nine tenths.” Question: “Was the Grist mill and Saw mill built on the east half of said quarter section before you sold it to Mr. Lake?” Answer: “No, there was about twenty acres cleared and the principal part under fence and two small cabins of an indifferent kind.” Question: “Did Mr. Lake go on to build the sawmill & gristmill directly after he purchased of you?” Answer: “Yes, he built the sawmill in 1816 and had it in operation and in 1817 he built the grist mill and had it in operation.” Question: “Has not William Black been in possession of the premises for some time past?” Answer: “Yes, he has been in possession of the mill since Mr. Lake moved away in the spring of 1821 and is now living there.” Land disputes and water rights cases often include original deeds – this one includes several for the property dating back to 1810 [Winn Winship, Register of the Virginia Military District School Lands Office, to Joseph Gladden] – and they give settlement dates for each party and the history of any improvements.

                After some 30 plus years of working with manuscripts, there are some discoveries that still fall in the OMG category. Too volatile for the Internet, I’ll have to substitute the milder case of John Iler vs Harriet Cromer. “No terms can be employed too severe against this one,” says Parker & Burr, attorneys, in their September 1833 brief. “You, meaning the said Harriet, was shagged last night and my big dog done it, by God,” said Iler, “a crime not to be named among Christians”. “On cross examination defendant’s counsel first enquired of the witness if the defendant did not say, that if anyone done it to Harriet it must have been his (defendant’s) big dog – without saying that his big dog had in fact done it – to which enquiry witness answered that defendant said that his big dog done it.” Iler was eventually charged $175 for slander in the case.

                Common Pleas and its accompanying appellate branches (Supreme Court 1803-1851, District Court 1851-1883, Circuit Court 1883-1912, Court of Appeals 1912-Date) were not the only courts to offer case files. One finds them with Probate estates, criminal records, Coroner’s inquests, penitentiary inmates, and more. These tell the true story of early Ohio – or at least the story part! So, stop in at your local courthouse, inquire of the librarian or archivist (if any), and just start reading those musty case packets! 

Richland County Supreme Court Records (now at the Ohio Genealogical Society Library):
   Ireland vs. Ireland, September Term 1840
   Larwill & Bowen vs. Lake & Bentley, Directors of the German Bank of Wooster, November Term 1822
   Iler vs. Cromer, November Term 1833
Richland County Courthouse Photo, Paul White Collection, Folder 64, Richland Co Chapter OGS

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad the librarians and archivists in Ohio courthouses are willing to let people view these files. It has been our experience that many of the people who work at courthouses in various counties in Michigan are not willing to let the public view actual records any more. Maybe in small towns, it's still possible, although we have run into clerks in small towns who refused to let us view any records at all. Of course, Michigan is struggling to survive as a state, and the past governor was willing to throw the genealogy library into the trash (literally--it was in her executive orders!). So perhaps it's not so surprising that local courthouse clerks are less than cooperative.