by Harold Henderson | Apr 17, 2012
Court records are a form of postmodern literature - they drop us into the middle of stories with no known beginning or end, stories that vary unpredictably from boring to humorous to gruesome. But they can illuminate the past with a strobe-light precision that few other records can match.
A word about terminology: different states and jurisdictions have differently named courts that created differently named records; the records also change over time, becoming more specialized as we move into the 20th century. In Indiana, "order books" give a day-by-day, case-by-case account of what the court did, usually without much context or detail. "Complete record" books take a given case and describe it after the fact, providing a bit more context although often not what we most want to know.
Here are some of the fragmentary stories I've encountered while researching, abstracting, and indexing 19th-century court records in one medium-sized county in northwest Indiana. This is a sampling of a handful of the hundreds of record books (some indexed, a few microfilmed, and none digitized) in one office in one of 92 counties in a single state.
On 15 November 1833, Jeremiah Bartholomew sold "one half pint of spiritous liquor commonly called Whiskey" to Hugh McGiven for twelve and one-half cents. Because the whiskey was "not being sold for the uses of the sick," the sale was against the law. Bartholomew was indicted, pleaded guilty, and was fined $2 plus the costs of prosecution. He was spared jail time by John Brown, who came into court and provided "replevin bail and security" that the fine would be paid. 1
COURT LESSON: The order book does not name the man Bartholomew sold to; the complete record does. The violation was the unlicensed sale of small amounts; the court imposed the minimum fine allowed by law. 2
GENEALOGY LESSON: In these pioneer days, there were few professional bondsmen. Anyone researching Jeremiah Bartholomew should find out how he was connected to John Brown.
John and Mina McMillion had been married for seventeen years and had eleven children. When her twelfth child was due, 25 July 1835, John hired David Sinclair (or St. Clair) as "a Physician & surgeon and man midwife" to attend Mina, "who was then and there sick and confined to her bed in child bed."
In a lawsuit for damages tried the following spring, John McMillion claimed that instead of delivering the baby, Sinclair "lacerat[ed] the head and body of the child, so as to deprive it of life, whilst it was in the womb of its mother," and "lacerated the womb of the said Mina, and separated the womb of the said Mina, from her body, in such a wilful and improper manner, so as to deprive the said Mina instantly of Life." Having "wholly lost and been deprived of the company and services of the said Mina," he sued Sinclair for $10,000 in damages.
It is not easy to figure out what actually happened here. In this civil suit, the defense apparently did not contest McMillion's account of the events. Sinclair's attorney instead contended that McMillion's complaint was not sufficient in law. The court agreed and dismissed the case.
In the spring of 1837 the state prosecuted Sinclair on a criminal charge of manslaughter (in which case his obstetrical instrument was revealed to have been an awl) - and he was acquitted by a jury. 3
HISTORICAL LESSONS: Court records are not for the squeamish. The male-dominated profession of medicine was far from being in charge of childbirth at a time when a male physician could be referred to as a "man midwife."
David Sprague was doubly imprudent on 1 April 1836 when he made a $100 bet with Thompson Francis on the outcome of the mayoral election in Michigan City, Indiana. Not only did Sprague lose the bet, within days he was indicted for doing so! He pleaded guilty and was fined $5. Nobody went bail for him, so he may well have spent at least a night in jail. 4
COURT LESSON: It could have been worse. The law allowed a fine of up to $50. 5
David Vines, a resident of South Carolina, came into court in the fall of 1839, claiming that a black man known only as "Gabriel" was his slave. The judge found that Gabriel did not owe service to Vines, who appealed. To guarantee Gabriel's appearance for the appeal hearing 16 November 1839, Thomas Sayles and Owens A. Owen put up $2,000 bond. Gabriel did not appear and Vines accordingly sued Sayles and Owen . . . but dismissed the case at his own expense the following October. 6
GENEALOGY LESSON: What became of Gabriel and David? Research may reveal the beginning of this story, but you'll need to be prepared to travel!
On 10 March 1841, the grand jury inspected the county jail and was not amused. "The debtors apartment we found dirty. One Straw Bed, upon a Bed Sted, with a few dirty cloths, and destitute of either Sheets or Pillows, was the only furniture in the room. The cells below we found still more destitute of cleanliness and comfort, with only one thing which might be called a bed, consisting of a few Ragged and very dirty clothes, with a Kind of bed bag or tick partly filled with Straw which had the appearance of being in use a great length of time. The Whole was thrown in the dirt. The cells are very small. . . . In one corner sat the vessels for the calls of nature. In an other lay some charcoal on the floor and between the two sat a Small Iron Furnace for burning charcoal, discharging some of the most poisonous gases through every part of the building." 7
GENEALOGY LESSON: Every now and then a court record tells the whole story -- very pertinent if your research target either spent time in this jail, or worried about doing so.
On October 13, 1848, Dr. F. W. Hunt prepared a court affidavit on the question of whether a man was insane. Early on he wrote, "His age is about twenty nine though his parents may not distinctly recollect his age and the above may not be correct." 8
GENEALOGY LESSON: Remember this the next time you're tempted to take a census age record as gospel!
On August 4, 1863, Lorenzo Billington bought three ounces of turpentine from George B. Roberts & Co. for 15 cents. Over the next three years he bought many other items, including half a gallon of machine oil (88 cents), a ball of twine (50 cents), and a pint of rye whiskey (75 cents). The list of his purchases covered several pages. The store proprietors finally sued him for nonpayment of his accumulated bill of $78.55. 9
GENEALOGY LESSON: Business and store ledgers are records genealogists rarely use, in part because few survive. But sometimes pieces of them are "fossilized" in court records of debt cases like this.
The vast majority of civil cases brought to court were like the above, with people trying to collect a debt. Many of these cases originated and ended in local Justice of the Peace courts. Most of these records are lost, perhaps because the JPs considered the record books personal rather than public property. Against, the odds, one ledger for New Durham Township turned up in the La Porte County Clerk's office.
On 15 October 1881, Henry Bogue was sued by "the State of Indiana on relation of Lina Heiden" for bastardy before the Justice of the Peace. This was not a morals complaint; the state had an interest in unwed mothers and their children not becoming public charges. The complaint was dismissed once Bogue "made satisfactory provisions to her for the maintenance of the child." 10
GENEALOGY LESSON: Leave no record behind! Sometimes the one you need may be in an obscure and unexpected place.
1: La Porte County, Indiana, Circuit Court Complete Record A:10-11; County Clerk, La Porte.
2: The Revised Statutes of the State of Indiana (Indianapolis: Douglass & Noel, 1838), Chapter 26, Section 56, p. 217; digital image, Google Books.
3: Ibid., pp. 290-6, 465.
4: Ibid., p. 338.
5: The Revised Statutes of the State of Indiana (1838), p. 217.
6: La Porte County, Indiana, Circuit Court Order Books C:641 and D:119, 129, 213, 270, 492; County Clerk, La Porte.
7: La Porte County, Indiana, Circuit Court Order Book G:533; County Clerk, La Porte.
8: La Porte County, Indiana, Circuit Court Order Book F:628-9; County Clerk, La Porte.
9: La Porte County, Indiana, Circuit Court Order Book E:118-20; County Clerk, La Porte.
10: New Durham Township, La Porte County, Justices Court Record Book 1879-1906, p. 51; County Clerk, La Porte.
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