The clue in the court file

Telling the story

Sometimes, the real story can be found only by reading between the lines.

Case in point: the clue that can be found in the case of Hall v. Loving, decided by the Superior Court of Mitchell County, North Carolina, most likely in the winter term of 1888 or spring term of 1889.

LovingThe case began in the spring term 1888 when F.A. Hall brought the suit against Jefferson Loving — whose name was spelled about four different ways in only 22 pages of court files. The papers were filed in connection with the estate of Josiah Wiseman, and it all had to do with the ownership and use of some land.1

Hall began by saying that Loving was in unlawful possession of about 100 acres of land on the northwest side of what was called Humpback Mountain, and had cut valuable timber worth $50 on the land. He asked the court for a writ of possession, for damages and for profits from the lumber.2

Nothing in the court papers spells out Hall’s exact right to the land, and the court ordered him to join all of the heirs of Josiah Wiseman as party plaintiffs in the case.3

One of the documents in the file is a summons issued on 5 March 1888 commanding the defendant, Jefferson Loving, to appear in the Superior Court at Bakersville on the third Monday in April 1888 to answer the complaint. The summons was served by Deputy Sheriff J. W. Buchanan on 7 March 1888, and, in his return (his proof that he’d served the paper4), the deputy said he had served it “by reading the within to Jefferson Lovin.”5

On 18 April 1888, Loving filed an answer to the complaint. He said the allegations of the complaint were not true, and that neither the plaintiff nor those he claimed through had been in possession of any part of the land for more than 33 years. He asked that the case be dismissed and that he be given reasonable costs as taxed by the clerk. And on that document, the signature section read:

Jefferson Loving being duly sworn says that he has heard read the within complaint and that the contents thereof are true of his own knowledge except as to matters stated on information and belief and those he believes to be true.6

Then in the fall term of 1888, the court ordered a survey of the property be taken. A copy of that order also had to be served on the defendant, and this time it was served by George K. Pritchard, Sheriff of Mitchell County. In his return, Pritchard stated that the order was “executed by reading and delivering a copy of the within, this Dec. 3d 1888.”7

In the end, the plaintiff won the case. In fact, the defendant admitted that judgment should be entered against him. So a writ of possession was issued to the sheriff to put Hall and the Wiseman heirs in possession and the defendant was ordered to pay all costs.8

So what do we learn from these documents? What’s the real story here, hiding between the lines in the court file?

It isn’t the relationship to F.A. Hall to the heirs of Josiah Wiseman. The file says nothing about that, and you’d have to go look at Hall’s wife’s death record — naming her father as Tom Wiseman,9 one of the heirs — to nail that down.

And we don’t find any clues as to the land that was at issue in the case — what Josiah Wiseman’s relationship to the land had ever been, what happened to it after the Wiseman family won the case, or even why Loving thought he was entitled to claim it and cut timber on it in the first place.

No, the story here isn’t about the land at all.

It’s about Jefferson Loving — and a fact about Jefferson Loving that isn’t clear anywhere else.

It’s the fact that, taken together, the documents in that court file tell us quite clearly that Jefferson Loving couldn’t read. All of the key documents in that case had to be read to him in order for him to be able to defend himself.

That’s not a fact he disclosed to the census taker in 1870, even though the census taker recorded a whole houseful of Lovings who couldn’t read or write just next door to Jefferson and his family.10

And it’s not a fact he disclosed in 1880, even though the question had to have been asked then as well.11

Surely there are other documents out there somewhere about Jefferson Loving. But nothing will equal this court file as evidence that he really couldn’t read.

It’s the real story of this court case — one worth mining these records to find.


SOURCES

  1. Complaint, Superior Court of Mitchell County, F. A. Hall vs. Jefferson Loving, filed 5 March 1888; Superior Court clerk, Bakersville; digital images, “North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 17 November 2013).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., order joining parties, 18 April 1888.
  4. See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1089, “return” (“The act of a sheriff, constable, or other ministerial officer, in delivering back to the court a writ, notice, or other paper, which he was required to serve or execute, with a brief account of his doings under the mandate, the time and mode of service or execution, or his failure to accomplish it, as the case may be”).
  5. Ibid., return of the summons, 7 March 1888.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., return of Sheriff, 3 December 1888.
  8. Ibid., final order, undated, likely spring term 1889.
  9. North Carolina State Board of Health, death certif no. 155, Charlotte Hall, 6 Apr 1939; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Raleigh).
  10. 1870 U.S. census, Mitchell County, North Carolina, Joneses Ridge Post Office, population schedule, p. 378(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 82, Jefferson Loving household, and dwelling/family 81, Jessee Loving household; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 Nov 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 1149; imaged from FHL microfilm 552648.
  11. 1880 U.S. census, Mitchell County, North Carolina, Grassy Creek, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 144, p. 39(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 72, Jefferson Lovin; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 17 Nov 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 973; imaged from FHL microfilm 1254973.
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2 Responses to The clue in the court file

  1. B.G. Wiehle says:

    While your conclusion might be correct, there are other explanations for the documents being read to Jefferson Loving besides illiteracy: failing eyesight, too busy to stop work, reading ability not up to court documents. If he had been an immigrant, language might have been an issue, too. Literacy is seldom a clear-cut condition, despite Y/N boxes on records.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re right that there are other possibilities. His native-born status, long-term work as a farmer (both before and after), and the fact that each and every document was read to him suggests that the most likely explanation is literacy (as opposed to language problems or vision issues).

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