Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Strange as it may seem, as an after hours activity, time spent at the National Archives can be as pleasurable as a good meal, more addictive than the Internet, and more intoxicating than alcohol. At least it can be this way for lawyers who are also history buffs. For what reposes quietly there � besides the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and all those genealogical records � is the law of the land in practice. The National Archives is home to old court records from several states and the District of Columbia, stretching back to the start of the republic. I went there looking for the trial record of a specific case, United States v. Richard Lawrence. President Andrew Jackson was attending a funeral in the Capitol on Jan. 30, 1835, when Richard Lawrence stepped toward him. Lawrence fired two pistols at Jackson, but each one misfired. Enraged, the president started beating the would-be assassin with a cane. According to one version of the incident, “Old Hickory,” who was 67, would have killed his younger assailant if aides hadn’t intervened. His action earned Lawrence the infamy of being the first person to attempt to assassinate a president. The matter came to trial less than two months later. Francis Scott Key, the author of the National Anthem, was the prosecutor. However, Lawrence was nutty as a fruitcake. The jury acquitted him by reason of insanity. Thus, Lawrence achieved another first. He had the first successful insanity defense in the District of Columbia. Court records weren’t computerized in 1835, of course, and so I knew that finding a specific case would be tricky. Fortunately, there is human help. Robert Ellis is an archivist in the Old Military and Civil Branch of the National Archives and an expert in how to find material in the old court records. He also has an index of notable cases, built up over time from researchers reporting back on their findings. Ellis readily pointed me to the files on United States v. Lawrence. An attack on a president didn’t generate the volume of paper in 1835 that it would in later years. The National Archives holds 4.5 million pages related to the assassination of President John Kennedy. It has 16 rolls of microfilm on the investigation and trial in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. But there are only three pages of court records about the attempt on Jackson: the trial court minutes on microfilm, the original one-page presentment by the grand jury, and the one-page verdict. The minutes record the verdict: “We (the Jury) being of the opinion that he was under the influence of Insanity at the time the act was committed.” However, United States v. Lawrence, docketed as Appearance #119, was only one of many trial records from 1835 in the box I reviewed at the Archives. So, with spare time on my hands, I decided to surf through the others to get a feel for what the criminal docket was like then. Each folder held the presentment and the outcome of a case. Some of the crimes seemed trivial, but life was hard and so, apparently, was justice. For example, William Wallace was convicted of stealing one pair of pantaloons, valued at $15, belonging to Thomas Rogither. They seemed to be an expensive pair of pants for the time. D. Foose, yeoman � presentments commonly used the appellation “yeoman” to describe the one who was charged � stole a $4 shirt from Jacob Niecly. Henry Johnson purloined a pair of shoes worth 75 cents, “a middling of bacon” worth $1.50, a 75-cent pair of drawers, a 50-cent neck ribbon, and “a parcel of hog’s lard” valued at 75 cents from Andrew King. To a 21st century lawyer, eating hog’s lard seems as much of a crime as stealing it. Other cases dealt with more violent crimes. Rezin Banker took “with force and arms” the saddle, bridle, and martingale of Joseph Kuhn. They were valued at $15. One wonders why Banker didn’t take the horse. Thomas Turner assaulted Robert L. Didenhoover. Peter Murphy “did make an assault on William Thursby [and] did then and there beat, and ill treat” and commit other wrongs to his person. John Brooks, John Brown, and Charles Montgomery were charged with disturbing the peace by “cursing, swearing, making a noise and other indecent language” outside the Methodist meeting house near Foundry Chapel, then at 14th and G streets. They were convicted. Apparently adding to the seriousness of their disturbing crime was the fact that it happened on Dec. 25, 1834, as more godly residents were undoubtedly attending Christmas services at church. Women, too, ran afoul of the criminal justice system in those days. Richard Bell, yeoman, and Martha Nailor, spinster, were indicted for “whoredom and fornication whereby divers unlawful assemblies, riots, routs, affrays, disturbances, and violations of the peace . . . and dreadful, filthy, and lewd offence.” Prostitution was apparently such a common problem then that the colorful, quoted language appeared on a preprinted presentment form. Perhaps the defendants had a good lawyer because they were convicted only of the more euphemistic crime of “keeping a house of ill game.” A woman was the victim in the only murder case that I came across. It was a gruesome attack. On March 23, 1835, Richard Eagan did “not have the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved at and by the instigation of the Devil, with force and arms” attacked Ann Connor. He “feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice afore . . . with his feet and hands did then and there kick, beat, choke, and cast [her] down . . . and with brick bat of the value of one cent which in his right hand he then and there had held and threw at the said Ann Connor, did then and there strike and beat” her. The fatal wound was two inches wide and four inches deep. The indictment continues: “And so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oath aforesaid do say that Richard Eagan . . . in the manner and form aforesaid, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought did kill and murder against the peace and government of the United States.” There is a sense of being a time-traveler in reading the old court records at the National Archives. You can almost see tough Richard Eagan standing before a jury that was probably horrified by the violence of his crime. You wonder if there were faint smiles on the faces of yeoman Bell’s and spinster Nailor’s jury, and if, perhaps, some jurors had a prior acquaintance with the house of ill game. Then there is poor Henry Johnson who was so hungry that he swiped some bacon and hog’s lard while making off with clothes from Andrew King’s house. Such was life, death, and crime in Washington 168 years ago. Of course, these criminal files are only a fraction of the court records the National Archives has about almost every aspect of District life: probate, naturalization, guardianship, and divorce; apprenticeship, habeas corpus, manumission, emancipation, and fugitive slave; liens, debtors, and bankruptcy; admiralty, copyright, and equity; and, criminal and civil matters. And, should you tire of seeing what life was like for the common man in days gone by, you can always ask Ellis and the other archivists to point you in the direction of records of the rich and famous. GETTING STARTED AT THE ARCHIVES Records of the courts for the District of Columbia from 1801 until 1936 are located at the National Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20408-0001. A researcher’s identification card must be obtained in order to use original records (but not microfilm). Archivists routinely help in searches. Patience is a virtue, though. Retrieval of identified records may take an hour or more. D.C. lawyer James H. Johnston is a frequent contributor to Legal Times. He may be contacted at [email protected].

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.