Sunday, September 22, 2013

Digging for Courthouse Treasure

Ever since I learned, though this newspaper clipping, that our Maddox family legend about a murder was true, I wanted to find out the story behind the legend. As I researched the story, I decided that I wanted to write a fictionalized account as a book.

Unfortunately, there's a gaping hole in the court records. The murder case dragged on for years, with each session of the circuit court continuing the case until the next session. Suddenly, at the end of 1874, the case file just stops without telling what happened.

One of the men had left the state. But were either of the two remaining men convicted of murder? Were they acquitted? Did the state drop the charges? Inquiring minds want to know.

In August, I returned for my third visit to the scene of the trial in Scott County, Illinois. The opportunity to do so was a big part of rescheduling my Illinois research trip to add three days. Priority number one was to find the missing puzzle piece in the courthouse.

Many of the old records are housed in a special vault. It's lined with brick, protected by a double metal door and is dark and musty. Disturbing the old books raised dust and mold, which made me sneeze and sent one allergic worker to an early lunch.

On previous visits, I thought that my cousin Lorna and I had covered everything of interest, but there just had to be more. I dug more deeply into the deed books and, when I was done, had found no new information pertinent to the murder. I had collected some other notes about family members, so it had been time well spent.

I walked the narrow aisles of the small vault, just looking at the record sets. What about mortgages? I knew I hadn't looked at them. I found where the family had signed multiple promissory notes to their lawyers, using the farm as collateral. I knew the lawyers had forced foreclosure, but now I saw the details of how the finances worked for the trial: who was owed how much and why.

But what else? I still needed to know the verdict or verdicts. I was tired and hungry, but I knew the answer had to be somewhere in this courthouse. There were some very narrow books at floor level near the back of the vault. What were they? In desperation I pulled my small flashlight from my purse and shone it on the spines.


The books were Court Dockets, labelled by year. I looked for 1874 and 1875, but couldn't find exactly what I wanted. Some books were even blocked by other shelves. But I did find a couple of books for the right time frame. I'm sorry to say that in my excitement, I don't recall exactly which book showed what, but I do believe the 1874 answer was written in a book labelled as either 1873 or 1875.

I've shown you a court docket entry before, so I won't show you this one. I do have to keep a little bit of mystery about the end of the story. But the point of this post is that obscure record sets can flesh out the stories of our ancestors. You have to be willing to dig deep and not just look online and in the library.

Court dockets aren't exciting or sexy. It's just names of plaintiffs and defendants, dates, case dispositions, court costs, etc. This docket gave me three lines: the date the jury was seated to try the main defendant, the date the jury returned and their verdict, and the disposition of the case against the remaining co-defendant.

Someday dockets might be digitized and indexed, but don't hold your breath. I think they'll be near the bottom of the priority list. I'm sure that the Scott County record keepers thought they were useless, thus placing some in such a way as to be inaccessible. However, this is the third time I've found dockets to be informative: once for a divorce and twice for criminal cases.

What Next?

So now that I have the final piece of the murder mystery, I can write the book. But should I? As books disappear from shelves and stores, it seems I wouldn't want to publish in paper form. And I'm not much good at writing fiction. It's probably more challenge than I want to tackle.

My thinking now is to write a series of biographical sketches on the key players and their extended families. I can "publish" the sketches via Ancestry and/or Family Search and can compile them as a PDF book to share with family. This approach is more in keeping with the way we share and research today and yet can be the sort of research book that has helped me along my own journey to find the story behind the family legend.

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