Monday, September 26, 2011

Problem #4: Civil Suits

Hershfield vs. Hershfield

For this week, our case study concerned a rather convoluted civil case from 1894, involving Aaron Hershfield and Dell (Hogan) Hershfield. Our professor, Dr. Petrik, provided the documentation and the context. The documentation, compared to previous problems in the class, was rather extensive, but once I managed to work through it and piece together a coherent narrative, what emereged was a remarkably sordid story.

The basic outline of the story is this: Aaron and Dell met at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893; they had a courtship which resulted in pregnancy and then matrimony; Aaron brought Dell back to his home in Helena Montana, but for reasons which are never spelled out, he completely turned his back on his child and his wife, and abandoned both of them. He ended up in North Dakota, leaving Dell and their child at a hotel in Helena, where she was a stranger. So far, this is a sad but not terribly unusual story. But Aaron Hershfield wasn't content to simply abandon his wife. So, while using his temporary residency to create a legal fiction of not having been a resident of Helena, Aaron Hershfield began reaching out to unscrupulous professionals who agreed to help him create an alternate narrative which would not only invalidate his marriage, but also deny the paternity of his child; in fact, which would essentially deny that the child existed.

The details of this plot, and how it unraveled, are more fully evident within these documents than certain other details, notably why Aaron Hershfield wanted to be rid of his family, or why he didn't simply ask for a divorce--he was, after all, a man of some means, and could have afforded the alimony and child support quite handily. Instead, he chose bribery and legal counsel, in an effort to slander his wife, and even some of the witnesses caught in the crossfire.

His plot was elaborately conceived; he evidently used family connections in New York to obtain the services of a certain Hartman, a rather loathsome character who was wililng to do dirty work for a price; Hartman worked to, among other things, create the fictional character of "Max Stein" (who seems to have been played by an associate of Hartman named Louis Michaels), who gave testimony indicting a man he claimed to be friends and associate with, a Bettig, who supposedly introducted him to Dell Hogan prior to her relationship with Hershfield. This was a casual sexual encounter, part of a broader campaign to solicit personal testimony to her allegedly promiscuous nature. Hershfield's lawyers were able to provide several other sworn affidavits and testimonials verifying this characterization.

Amazingly, Hershfield had gone even further than this, claiming that he had been coerced into marrying Hogan by unnamed other parties; and furthermore claiming that she had never been with child.

Also, his brother and sister-in-law testified against Dell Hershfield, and Aaron's lawyers were able to produce testimony to the effect that she had been seen walking around Helena in an active and healthy state--since Aaron claimed that she hadn't given birth, he evidently decided to go one step further and claim that the nurse she had hired was completely unnecessary. As a campaign of intimidation and slander, it was as thorough and comprehensive as it was sinister.

But his plan had a flaw--the assumption that his estranged wife lacked the means and the will to fight back was clearly false. His plot was clumsily constructed, and I am not altogether sure how completely his official legal counsel was aware of all his machinations, making a coordinated--and sensibly modulated--defense less likely. It was a desperate, craven strategy, perhaps best characterized by the cross-examination of Bettig (when he was finally located--it becomes rather clear that, once they realized he couldn't be coereced into lying for them, Aaron Hershfield's legal team deliberately tried to scare him into hiding from the court) by Hershfield's lead attorney, F. B. Morrill. The line of questioning does Hershfield's story no good, and ultimately Morrill openly insinuates that Bettig had slept with Dell Hogan and was refusing to cooperate because he was engaged. It also came out that he had been possibly swindled by "Max Stein"; the impression is that Morrill was hoping against hope that he could somehow find some leverage to intimidate Bettig into lying on the witness stand.

Instead, Dell's capable and shrewd legal team, led by Atty. Walton Ball, were able to demolish his story rather comprehensively. They hired Pinkerton Detectives to follow "Max Stein" and expose him as a fraud; contacts in New York City were quickly able to determine that, more than likely, "Max Stein" didn't exist. The other character witnesses do not do well under Ball's able cross-examination; he is aided once again by careful research and cross-referencing.

In the end, the court dismisses all of Aaron Hershfield's claims, and orders him to meet his obligations to his family. It is never explained what drove him to such dispicable lengths, although the suspicion that his brother and sister-in-laws' collective disapproval was key is hard to avoid. All in all, an interesting case; once which sheds more than a little light into the level of criminal investigative savvy avaiable at the time, both for good and for ill.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Problem #3: Inquest into Death of Mamie Grover

On Feb. 20, 1882, a coroner's inquest was held in Laramie, Wyoming. The deceased in question was one Mamie Grover. The cause of death was ruled suicide by self-inflicted gunshot; a ruling which agrees with all the witness testimony, including her husband. The contemporary reader, removed from the time and place the report was written, and unaware of the circumstances surrounding the events of February 19, may very well find this ruling sloppy at best, suspicious or possibly even ominous at worst.

The surviving document is difficult to read due to poor handwriting as well as seemingly inconsistent transcriptioning, occasional akward turns of phrase, and the glaring omission of at least one page of text. The impression given is that the parties involved, most likely including either Coroner P.F. Greensbud [sp?] or Clerk J.W. Wildrum, or even both.

At any rate, the inquest seems to be a legal formality. On the one hand, there are enough suspicious-sounding asides as well as the whiff of conspiracy to raise the possibility that a genuine cover-up has been achieved a dubious but still legal formal legitimacy; on the other hand, the too-perfect narrative has been stitched together a litle too haphazardly and with too little cohesiveness to suggest a well-organized or pre-existing conspiracy.

There is a lot here to raise doubts. The witnesses agree almost a little too much about some of the details, and when there is a discrepancy in the chronology, it is only by a half hour or so. But these details which agree are all of either the time, or the reaction of the various witnesses after the crime was 'discovered.

Alternatively, couple of discussions shortly prior to her alleged suicide are reported, and these two are so radically different in tone and context that it is very nearly impossible to imagine that they involved the same person in the same situation; by 7:00 PM on February 19, Mamie Grover was, by all accounts (except, implicitly, in one, as we shall see), intoxicated. Abd in this condition, she was alleged to have had an argument Mollie Arlington, who is referred to, by Mamie's hubsand J.A. Grover, as "the girl who left her some time ago". This statement which is not qualified or elaborated, although two details which come out are interesting--Mollie either still lives with the Grovers, or they still have regular access to her current lodging. Secondly, Mamie's husband elsewhere is quoted as describing seeing her arguing "with one of the girls," indicating both that there was more than one girl, and that Mollie Arlington was still around. This contradiction is not explained.

As for the other conversation--Mrs. Ryan (who is allowed to testify but not sign the inquest), stated that she saw Mrs. Grover a half-hour after she was supposedly shot; Mrs. Grover was pleasant, and asked to have her laundry finished and delivered that night. This is odd behavior indeed for an intoxicated person moments away from committing suicide.

Another unexamined detail mentioned more than once--the rumor, at least, that Mamie Grover was about to lose her liquor license. Why this was is not explained, if indeed true. Also possibly noteworthy--why was the license in her name rather than her husbands?

Much of the documentation consists of long ledger entries and lists; some lists include a great variety of products and services along with dollar amounts, while the other only includes regular amounts of money (even dollar amounts). It seems quite likely that Mamie Grover was operating a brothel, possibly not a legal or unofficially sanctioned one, and had come into some trouble with the city authorities. It is impossible to say who killed Mamie Grover, or why she killed herself if that bare fact is indeed true, but it clear that a lot more was going on on February 19, 1882 that a couple of local officials and a handful of citizens did not wish to pry into. At least not in the official record.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Problem #2: Wills

For this week, I compared two 19th-century wills; one for Caroline Carson of Adams County, Mississippi in 1831, and the other for Robert Christian of Augusta County, Virginia in 1857. Both of these individuals were Southerners of sufficient personal net worth to merit the writing of a will, so it is no surprise that in both cases, the overwhilming majority of the "property" in question, at least in terms of space and attention given, consists of slaves. What is interesting is to note the differences in which these two individuals appropriated their property.

My initial perspective on these two will was framed by the differnces between the year and geographic location each will represented. To say that both Caroline Carson and Robert Christian were "Southerners" is to obscure as much as it explains, because Mississippi in 1831 was a very different place than Virginia in 1857. Mississippi was the "Deep South" in the heart of the cotton-producing bastion of plantation slavery; in 1831 it was still a very new state, with a rapidly growing population and a high demand for slaves; Virginia in 1857 was an agriculturally tired Upper South state where slavery was slowly withering. In Christian's will, there is a hint at this context--after having gone into some detail as to which family member is to inherit each slave (in both wills, it is important to note, the slaves are identified by name), he makes a point to note that the executors are to have full power to sell these slaves as long as the profits go to the family member for whom each slave was assigned. Yet, Carson's will also contains a similar provision (at the beginning, rather than later in the will), so it seems that this might be little more than a standard legal necessity. When Christian's will was written, a Civil War driven by the fear of secessionists that the demise of slavery in borders states such as Virginia threatened the institution in places like Carson's Mississippi is only a few years away, but there is no sense of crisis or fear of losing property in his will.

But while the differing temporal and geographic contexts do not provide much contrast, another factor seems to, and I think that the best explanation is the most obvious--gender. Our class reading for this week is Free Women of Peterburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 by Suzanne Lebsock; Lebsock's study concerns one Southern city but covers a time period encompassing both of these wills and therefore provides a useful context. Among other points, Lebsock argues that when dealing with their estates, women in the 19th century South were generally more concerned with the emotional, financial, and social well-being of their heirs--to be blunt, they were not afraid to play favorites in order to consider the different needs of their offspring or other dependents.

We don't know Caroline Carson's marital status from the will alone, but I assume she was a widow. She strongly suggests that she is ill and will die soon; her age is not given but since she only has one living child and he is still a legal minor, it is safe to assume that Carson died fairly young.

Carson, possibly yielding to a legal reality that the executor must be a man, or perhaps out of a genuine respect for his competence, assigns her brother as the executor; given that the will is devoid of warnings or conditions, it does seem that Carson trusted her brother regardless of why he serves as middleman for her estate. At any rate, she first deals with her two sisters, each of whom (through Carson's brother, James Green) receives one of two "woman slaves" (I assume they were personal house servants) and one thousand dollars. One of the two sisters also receives the carriage and carriage horses; this discrepancy is not explained, so it may simply be that the other sister needed a carriage less than the other. Since neither sister shares a last name with Carson, one might assume that at least one of them is married (I don't know what Carson's maiden name was, if she was indeed married, so we cannot rule out one or the other of her sisters' last names), yet there is no mention of husbands. Under the legal standards of the time, one would assume that the husband would have legal right to his wife's inheritance, but there is no recognition of this, if indeed correct, in the will.

The two sisters are also entitled to "equal portions" to household furniture jewelry, and clothing. It seems evident that Carson trusted her brother's judgement, since "equal portions" of such a variety of material goods could be open to a lot of interpretation and disagreement. It also seems likely that the decision to give the carriage and horses to one sister rather than selling them and dividing the money was a recognition of greater need rather than an act of personal preference.

She then makes a brief mention of a legacy of five hundred dollars to be given to her slaves, and then a yearly stipend after that until her son reaches the age of majority. While this seems generous, and seems to indicate some level of personal feeling towards her slaves, she leaves her brother and sisters plenty of latitude in deciding how to divide this legacy and even whether or not the slaves deserve it at all.

The rest of the will concerns all the rest of her property (Carson was obviously fairly well-off, as she not only owned many slaves and sizable land holdings, but also had what was then a great amount of liquid capital--cash--on hand), which is given without any detailed inventory, to her minor son. Once again, Carson clearly tursts her brother, as the will does not detail this inheritance in detail. The only conditions she gives her son--and they are 'desires' not binding clauses--concern what seems likely to be one family of slaves. She asks that "Jesse, Mima, Jinney and Suckey" be given preferential treatment; that Ned Morris (the only slave for whom she designates a last name) be given a conditional emancipation at the age of 30, including a five hundred dollar award; and that his wife, Suckey (presumably the "Suckey" mentioned above; I suspect the other slaves mentioned are Ned and Suckey's children) also be given her emancipation if both herself and Ned meet the conditions of loyal service.

The will ends, almost as an afterthought, with the suggestion that certain tracts of land be sold "in the best manner for the interest of my son." The wording strongly suggests that these holdings are relatively minor parts of her larger estate, and yet is the only specific mention of actual real property. Given that the will strongly implies the ownership of many slaves, and presumably a large enough plantation for them to work on, this once again points out how much of her personal and real property Carson did not elaborate; she certainly trusted her brother, but also her primary concern as she was facing death was for the emotional well-being not only of her son, but also for her sisters and for a favored slave family.

Compare Carson's approach to that of Robert Christian. Christian is presumably older than Carson, because his son is at the age of majority and three of his four daughters are married. I assume he is a widower, as he makes no allowances for a wife.

Christian first wants his estate to settle all debts and bills; then he leaves all of his land and the buildings on them to his son John. Then he moves on to his daughters, and here things get a little more interesting.

He identifies each daughter by her first name and middle initial, and as the "wife of" the named husband; each daughter receives the same amount--two hundred dollars--but not under the same conditions. While Nancy B. wife of Robert P. Brown gets two hundred dollars without comment, the other two daughters receive theirs "for her sole and separate use", and Rachel M. wife of James H. Burdett is also "free from the debts and control of her husband." The fourth daughter, Sarah Rebecca, is to receive the same money in two yearly installments after Christian dies; it is not clear whether this is because she is a minor or solely due to her unmarried situation. The latter is possible, because the son is instructed to give her a home as long as she remains single and then, if she marries, to give her an inheritance equal to her sisters (no stipulations regarding the prospective husbands' control or lack thereof).

These same conditions apply to the division of the slaves, all of whom are named and each of whom are assigned to the different daughters, again with the same different conditions regarding the husbands for each of the married daughters; interestingly, when giving slaves to Rachel Burdett, the daughter whose husband is most explicitily and completely excluded from control or possession of his wife's inheritance, Christian also expresses a 'desire' for each of Rachel's daughters to be given/assigned a particular female slave.

It is very tempting to read this will and assume that Robert Christian simply did not like or trust two of his three sons-in-law, but in light of reading Lebsock it is entirely possibly that he was simply being practical--if he knew that Charles Hyde and James Burdett were in finanical trouble, he also knew that anything he left to his daughters would be lost to creditors unless he explicitly prohibited them from having any legal claim to those assets. It is not impossible that he was trying to help their families rather than expressing disapproval or trying to impose disharmony in their families.

It is also possible that Christian was aware of the bonds of affection between his slaves and his family, given that he specifically requests that particular attendents be allocated to two of his grandaughters. At any rate, what does come through is that Christian's primary motivation was a consideration of the financial status of his offspring; whether the considerations were driven by a distrust of two of his sons-in-law or a more sympathetic recognition that their assets would need to be protected, the terms of his will are primarily driven by a desire to control the usage and control of his assets even after his death; while Carson was driven more by concerns for the well-being of a favored slave family and most importantly a desire to express affection and love for her son and most likely for her sisters as well.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fredericksburg, Virginia 1880

This exercise was intended to give us students a small taste of the work involved in doing original research, particularly with a social history focus. Because even failure can be a learning experience, I should first of all concede that by not giving myself enough time to deal with any unexpected bumps in the road, my work here has been compromised by my lack of technological skill. If I am going to be more successful manipulating and analyzing digital documents, I need to become more adept at converting and editing various file formats.

On a related note, I will also need to familiarize myself with earlier handwriting styles.

For my analysis, I simply picked a page at random, and then the next three pages, and considered this to be a reasonbly useful sample size, for reasons I will explain below. Here is one of the four census pages I used:

Each page has just over 50 individuals, which is a fair sample from a city with a population of around 5000 at the time. Secondly, according to the Sandborn map I cross-referenced my census information with, these pages cover an area right in the middle of the town at the time; unfortunately, I don't extend my area all the way to the river, which possibly skews the sample somewhat, although my experience with Fredericksburg suggests that that area was largely businesses and warehouses anyway. One last caveat--this section of town is very near the "Colored Cemetary", so that it should not be surprising that over half the individuals here are either African-American or "mixed-race" (more on that below). I would want to look at the demographics of the white population in other parts of the town before making any broader interpretations regarding the social, economic, or cultural standing of whites who live in this part of the town; especially considering I have not determined whether or not this area contains the only African-American neighborhoods in Fredericksburg circa 1880.

It was certainly a commercially-oriented city, based on the 1885 City Directory--there were a few factories as one would expect from a city built on the fall line in the 19th century, but the bulk of the businesses listed were service or consumer good oriented. It was also a very, very Southern city--over 90% of the individuals listed were born in Virginia, and of the small minority who were not, all were born either in Maryland or Washington DC. The great waves of immigration which brought foreign-born workers to the growing cities of the north didn't land at Fredericksburg.

It was also a segregated city; street from block to block were either inhabited solely by members of one race, or another, with almost no exceptions; "W" is clearly to indicate "White" and "B" is equally obviously to designate "Black." All the entries will be one race or the other, until the census taker turns a corner, and then the racial makeup very well might abruptly change. Segregation in Fredericksburg was oddly intimate and shoulder-to-shoulder.

However, there was a third racial designation--my best guess is that it is "Mulatto" since the abbreviation appears to be "Mu", although sometimes it almost appears to be "Mi", which does not really lend any cofusion since I would assume that means "Mixed" and therefore the meaning is the same.

This is interesting, because in some places and times in America, the assumption was that if one had any trace of African-American parentage, you were by default considered "Black." I am really interested to look at other census results, particularly from the years after the final triumph of Jim Crow laws shortly after the 1880 census, to see if this "bi-racial" category survived as an official census designation.

Finally, I would note that in terms of occupation, white women tended not to work unless they were widowed (whatever "widowed" actually meant), while married African-American women often worked as washerwomen or some other service sector job. African-American men usually worked as "Laborers". Whites on the other hand tending to either work in small shops or own their own businesses.