Finding History in a Drawer

In 1875, a jury committed Mary Todd Lincoln to an insane asylum.  This week, the Chicago Tribune reported that two Illinois State Supreme Court justices discovered her trial papers still on file with the Cook County Clerk!  The Clerk’s Office will be donating them to the Lincoln museum, but we hope the story does not end there.  Like many others, we’ve previously posted about the cultural heritage reflected in state court files.  Some of the stories told in these documents are historically significant, like Mary Todd Lincoln’s commitment, or John Wesley Hardin’s murder trial (see this Texas Task Force report).  Many stories, however, are just minor threads in life’s tapestry: divorces, probates, business disputes.  Whether the story is big or small, the court records that tell it may be irreplaceable.

Each state’s preservation rules differ.  Some place the retention determination in the hands of state libraries or archives, some issue mandatory retention schedules based on the nature of the action, and some afford the clerk of court discretion to dispose of files after prescribed time periods.  Even if a clerk of court wanted to save everything, storage expenses and space constraints make this impossible.  The costs of digitizing every paper record are prohibitive.  As cultural institutions may not be interested in less noteworthy files, many are noticed for destruction.  Provided that a state’s rules allow it, however, law libraries may be uniquely positioned to rescue these files — preserving not just the documents, but also state history.  And if you spend some time digging through them all, you never know just what you might find…

Don’t Mess With Texas State Court Documents

State court case files are rife with personal and community histories that often cannot be found anywhere else.  These documents also reflect developments in the language of the law, and the procedures of our court systems.  Preserving these historical gems is increasingly important as many records face destruction due to court space and budget constraints, and the ill effects of time or the elements.  We hope to provide periodic updates here about states’ efforts to preserve such records and, on that note, want to spread the word about developments today in Texas.

Just shy of two years ago, the Texas Supreme Court established a volunteer task force of attorneys, judges, historians, document preservationists, and county and statewide officials to “develop a report that discusses statewide county preservation needs, the importance of protecting the records, and providing assistance to counties to do that.”  (See this Texas state bar blog.)  After extensive studies, the Task Force issued this report on August 31, 2011.  In addition to containing practical information for other jurisdictions similarly seeking to preserve state court files, the report contains anecdotes that scratch the surface of the kind of information at risk of being lost.

Here is an excerpt from its “Overview”:

In his classic song, Hardin Wouldn’t Run, Johnny Cash sang that outlaw John Wesley Hardin was a steadfast man. Truth is, Hardin was not so firmly fixed. After shooting Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb in Comanche County in 1874, Hardin fled Texas and headed east. Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong pursued Hardin and found him on a train outside Pensacola, Florida several years later. Armstrong overtook Hardin after Hardin got his pistols tangled up in his suspenders when he tried to draw. He was brought back to Comanche County, Texas, and put on trial before a jury of twelve citizens of the county. Bob Dylan, in his Hardin song, sang that “no crime held against him could they prove.” That is also incorrect. Unlike Jesse James and Billy the Kid, who were both gunned down, John Wesley Hardin, who killed many people in multiple states, was convicted of murder in 1878 and sentenced to prison in Huntsville, Texas.  The historical documents that record the true story about the trial and sentencing of Hardin are at risk of being stolen, destroyed, or lost . . .  The Hardin records are not unique. Thousands of other Records are stored in hundreds of Texas district and county clerk archives. Some of these facilities are excellent; some of these Records are preserved, or in the process of being preserved. But many of the oldest Records – especially those that date back to the Republic of Texas, early statehood, or the Civil War – are at risk of being lost forever, unless measures are soon taken to help district and county clerks protect them.

US National Archives Materials Found in UK Archives

Law Librarian Blog today features an interesting post about items missing from the U.S. National Archives, likely through employee theft.

See Missing Items from US Archive, Found Item in UK Archive.

See also the National Archives webpage Missing Historical Documents and Items.

And see the U.K. National Archives news item Lost Page of American History Found at The National Archives about a rare print of America’s Declaration of Independence (dated 4 July 1776), named after printer John Dunlap (1747-1812) — one of only 26 known copies in the world — recently found among files at the British Archives at Kew.

Nice to have some redundancy, even if all the way across the Pond!