This is Week 24 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. It would be easy to make a case for Law & Order to provide a separate A to Z theme for family historians because it covers so many items across the alphabet. However this week my focus is on a selected set of court matters: inquests, equity cases, and criminal cases. Next week we’ll dip into other related records.
It’s important to remember that in matters legal your ancestor or relative may be a victim, witness, defendant or plaintiff or even on the jury, a barrister, solicitor or a judge (when reading these documents do make a note of all the “participants” for future reference).
Enquiries into sudden deaths can be complex or cursory depending on the circumstances, inaccessibility of the location, availability of witnesses or even the time of year. A sudden death in Queensland in summer will certainly hasten the inquest process and the burial. You may find inquests indexed at your regional archive and/or available online. Looking at the original documents is of course highly recommended if you want to squeeze every drop of information from them. One thing worth keeping in mind is that not all deaths which had an inquest appear in the official death indices especially in the early days- I have encountered a few of these. The records will certainly give you more information than the summary death index and may give unanticipated insights into your family. Some examples include:
- The story of how a young man died during a faulty explosion while well-building. Other than his name on the gravestone nothing else had been known about this man.
- The circumstances of the drowning of the young McSharry man, who had a recently immigrated: he tried to take his horse through a flooded river but lacked the necessary experience or the ability to swim. Living away from his family, his work colleagues did not know much about him.
- The discovery of unregistered children to one of “my” Dorfprozelten families when a son drowned, based on the sister’s witness statement.
- The almost cavalier dismissal of “unsound mind” when a middle-aged woman threw herself into a well in despair. Admittedly this meant she could possibly be buried in a blessed gravesite.
- The gruesome suicide of one of the Dorfprozelten immigrants. The witness statements seemed somewhat cursory to me.
Of course those in Australia may choose to search Trove first for a mention in a newspaper report. Where inquest documents have not survived this may provide equally valuable information.
Moral of the story: if you find out that there has been an inquest has occurred in your family, do follow it up as it may yield unanticipated clues.
These cover a range of legal issues and Queenslanders are lucky to have nearly 40 years of these early records indexed. The great value of this is that your ancestor will be indexed whatever his role in the case. Like most of us I routinely search indexes for my main surnames and was astonished when I found the Kunkel name among these early records. He was neither defendant nor plaintiff in the case of Diflo v Kiesar and Lieflar[i], but the statements included with the case documents were pivotal to my family knowledge:
- George Kunkel was working on the goldfields at Tooloom even though he was technically resident in Ipswich and his wife was still having children there. Basically he was commuting between the two places.
- George was working as a pork butcher on the goldfields. This coincided with other information I had on his occupation and raised the question if this was the work he did at Murphys Creek during the opening up of the railway from Ipswich to Toowoomba.
- While the other Germans used interpreters, George Kunkel didn’t, which led me to conclude he may already have spoken some English when he arrived in Queensland and certainly was somewhat competent by this time.
- His statement is clearly articulated.
- He and Diflo knew each other at home in the “old country” even though they came from different, nearby villages.
Moral of the story: your ancestor’s role as a witness can be pivotal to developing your knowledge of him/her.
Criminal cases cover a wide gamut of issues. The judge and the jury determine the defendant’s ultimate guilt or innocence but you can also read these documents in detail for yourself and assess what you think are the merits of the case. In many cases the outcome may be blindingly obvious. Newspaper reports of the day can also be helpful as generally they are surprisingly accurate and true to the legal case presented.
Unfortunately I found my own great-grandfather S G Melvin as the guilty party in a civil case which hinged on documents about joint-ownership and development of a coal mine near Ipswich Queensland. As a result of that case, the judge deemed that Melvin and four fellow defendants should be tried for perjury. In the subsequent criminal cases three were found guilty and two released as innocent despite much the same evidence. As part of my reading of this case I also reviewed the judge’s case notes, which I must admit were made trickier by the handwriting (doctor’s handwriting looks good by comparison).
I have also carefully read all the archived documents and all the newspaper reports. My conclusion was that both sides were sailing close to the legal wind. My view is not because I can’t believe my ancestor may have been in the midst of dubious business dealings to get ahead financially. I just can’t quite see why the judge and jury opted for one side over the other on the written evidence, but perhaps it was more obvious from their demeanour in court. How did this case finish? Well he had a stint in jail but as my grandmother was born not long after his sentencing there had to be more to the story.
Moral of the story: Follow the paper trail to the very end, unravelling documents as you go and critiquing what you read. Read all components of the trial including the judge’s notebooks and perhaps even the Law Books for benchmark cases. Oh, and definitely don’t tell lies or stretch the truth in court.
Legal documents can be challenging to get into, let alone understanding the nuances of the law unless that’s your field of expertise. In these cases I wrote up my own summary of the documents with comments on my interpretation. This is only the tiniest dip into legal waters for family historians. I will add some other resource in coming weeks but you will need to follow your own regional clues and newspapers may give you the first clue that you should even be looking at these in the first place.
[i] Queensland State Archives Item ID94874, File – equity, Number 2, Kiesar v Diflo.
11 thoughts on “Beyond the Internet: Week 24 Court Documents”
Great tips Pauline. You have given me some ideas to follow up on.
Unfortunately, the report for the coronial inquest into the death of my great great grandmother who committed suicide in 1896 is not available (possibly no longer exists). I have seen the register information which contains much the same information as her death certificate. And similar to the one you mention it says she killed herself whilst suffering from temporary insanity. So, as a Catholic, she was buried in a Presbyterian cemetery. I still can’t understand how she killed herself by drinking acetic acid – its the same strength as vinegar.
I’ve also searched for court records for a case which appears to be between my 3x great grandfather and his brother-in-law… they didn’t seem to get on well. Unfortunately no records are available.
Sorry Prue, I read your comment days ago and missed replying. You’ve had unfortunate luck with the missing documents. Acetic acid seems odd..wonder if there was a mistake. I remember helping a friend years ago and the woman had used Toni home perm (remember those?) to kill her children and attempted suicide the same way.
Murphy’s Law at work for you with court records it seems. Does the second case get a write up in the paper?
Chemistry was never my strong point. I’ve sent an email to a friend who’s a high school science teacher to ask him!
The only reason I know about the second case was because it was noted in the paper as a case about to occur in the Banco Court – all it said was “Horsey v Irish”. It’s an unusual surname and knowing there was a relation with the surname of Irish I’m only guessing that it was them. But I still couldn’t find any court records for it.
That’s pretty frustrating Prue…if only!
Very interesting post Pauleen. Lots of ‘food’ for thought.
Thanks Jennifer. As you can see I’m a bit behind at the moment due to family commitments.