Laws to change names

“Oh,” so many people say, “there’s nothing to be found in those old law books that’s worth the effort of finding them.”

“Oh,” The Legal Genealogist hears time and again, “there’s really not going to be any genealogical information in legislative records.”

Oh, of course not…1 Nobody would ever be genealogically interested in the act passed by the Wisconsin State Legislature on the 6th of March in the year 1856.

It had but one section, and it read in its entirety:

That John S. Folds, commonly known as John S. Langrishe, shall hereafter be known in law, and called by the name of John S. F. Langrishe.2

names1That was just one of the statutes to similar effect that The Legal Genealogist came across last night, poking around in older Wisconsin laws in preparation for this weekend’s Gene-A-Rama 2016 of the Wisconsin State Genealogical Society.

On March 1st, the Legislature provided that “the name of Artemus Ewell George shall hereafter be Ewell George Munn, by which name the said person shall be called and known, to all legal intents and purposes.”3 And, that law went on, the child was to be the child and heir-at-law of Romanzo J. Munn and Louisa S. Munn, his wife.4

On March 7th, the Legislature passed a law that “The name of Mrs. Eliza Lucy Allison, of the town of Linn, in the county of Walworth, is hereby changed to Eliza Lucy Van Orden, and the name of James Henry Allison, her infant son, is hereby changed to James Henry Van Orden…”5

That same day, the name of James Thomas Jones, son of Hannah Jones, deceased, was changed to James Thomas Parkinson, and he was made the child and heir-at-law of Daniel M. and Mary F. Parkinson of La Fayette County.6

On March 20th, William Ramminger of Sheboygan became William Reichel.7

On March 22nd, “The name of Harriet Cowles of the town of Baraboo, in the county of Sauk, is hereby changed to Harriet Chapman, and the name of her infant daughter, Mary Emma Virginia Cowles, is hereby changed to Mary Emma Virginia Chapman…”8

On March 27th, John Dress became John Hubing, and the adopted son and heir of Nicholas and Margaret Hubing of Belgium in Ozaukee County.9

That next day, Ella P. Ward became Ella P. Ward Morris and the adopted daughter of Richard L. and Susan A. Morris of Fond du Lac,10 and Salena Richardson became Salena Wilson and the adopted daughter and heir-at-law of Charles and Elizabeth Wilson of Black Earth.11

Shall I do on? I can… In just this one volume, on just that one day — the 28th of March 1856 — the Legislature passed bills whereby:

• Adolphina Frantz of Grafton, in Ozaukee County, became Adolphina Frantz Downs.12

• Eva Viola Keene, daughter of the late Ephriam Keene, became Eva Viola Gill and the child and heir-at-law of Bolivar G. and Sarah S. Gill of Ozaukee County.13

• Elizabeth Van Antwerpen, daughter of Lovina Austin, became Sally Elizabeth Smith and the child and heir-at-law of Benjamin A. and Sally Smith.14

• Adam Jopst became Adam Jefferson.15

• Frank Edward Sherman became Frank Edward Bontello and the heir-at-law of Robert and Mary Bontello.16

• Emanuel Slade of Eagle in Waukesha County became William E. Slade.17

• Fred Elias Webster became Fred Elias Teetshorn and the adopted son and heir-at-law of Horatio N. Teetshorn and wife of Walworth County.18

• The name of Henriette Selsemeier, daughter of Charles Selsemeier and Fredericka Kirchbeck, formerly Selsemeier, was changed to Henriette Kirchbeck and she became the adopted daughter and heir-at-law of Wilhelm and Fredericka Kirchbeck of Herman.19

• George R. Rockwell and Martha H. Percel became George R. Nulph and Martha H. Nulph, the adopted children and heirs-at-law of Moses Nulph and wife of New Buffalo.20

• Frederick Delmot Gregory became Frederick Johnson.21

• Isabella Mary Maynard became Isabella Mary Rollin, and the heir-at-law of Thomas H. Rollin.22

• Philipp Albert became Philipp Hess, and the heir-at-law of John Hess.23

• Frederick Perry became Frederick Judivine.24

• Joseph Prinney became Joseph Johnson.25

• The entire Lewy family changed its named from Lewy to Louis: Jacob, his wife Rosa and their children Mathilda, William and Clara all went from being Lewy to Louis..26

•And three Hoffmans turned into Beckers: Frederick Joseph Hoffman, Matthew John Hoffman and Christine Leonore Hoffman of Milwaukee all changed their surname to Becker.27

• George Smith became George W. Smith, and the heir-at-law of Adam and Harriett Smith of Farmington.28

• Ella Olivia Hawes became Ella Hoffman, and the heir-at-law of Gilbert and Esther Hoffman of Whitewater.29

“Oh, but there’s nothing to be found in those old law books that’s worth the effort of finding them.”

“Oh, but there’s really not going to be any genealogical information in legislative records.”

Oh, of course not…

Unless your ancestor Joseph Prinney disappeared from the records in 1856…


  1. Yes. Yes, indeed. Tongue firmly in cheek.
  2. “An Act to change the name of John S. Folds to John S. F. Langrishe,” Chapter 11, General Acts Passed by the Legislature of Wisconsin … 1856 (Madison: Galkins & Proudfit, Printers, 1856), 9; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 5 Apr 2016).
  3. §1, “An Act to change the name of Artemus Ewell George, and to constitute said child an adopted son of R. J. and Louisa S. Munn,” Chapter 14, in ibid., at 18.
  4. Ibid., §2.
  5. §1, “An Act to change the names of Eliza Lucy Allison and James Henry Allison to Eliza Lucy Van Orden and James Henry Van Orden,” Chapter 16, in ibid., at 20.
  6. “An Act to change the name of James Thomas Jones to James Thomas Parkinson, and to constitute the said James Thomas heir-at-law of Daniel M. Parkinson and Mary F. Parkinson, his wife,” Chapter 17, in ibid., at 20-21.
  7. “An Act to change the name of William Ramminger to William Reichel,” Chapter 25, in ibid., at 29.
  8. “An Act to change the name of Harriet Cowles and her infant daughter Mary Emma Virginia Cowles,” Chapter 29, in ibid., at 35.
  9. “An Act to change the name of John Dress, and constitute him the adopted son of Nicholas Hubing and Margaret Hubing,” Chapter 33, in ibid., at 38.
  10. “An Act to change the name of Ella P. Ward to that of Ella P, Ward Morris,” Chapter 34, in ibid., at 38-39.
  11. “An Act to change the name of Salena Richardson to Salena Wilson,” Chapter 37, in ibid., at 41.
  12. “An Act to change the name of Adolphina Frantz to Adolphina Frantz Downs,” Chapter 38, in ibid., at 42.
  13. “An Act to change the name of Eva Viola Keene, to Eva Viola Gill, and to constitute the said Eva Viola, heir-at-law of Bolivar G. Gill and Sarah S. Gill, his wife,” Chapter 44, in ibid., at 47.
  14. “An Act to change this name of Elizabeth Van Antwerp to Sally Smith, and to provide for her as the child and heir-at-law of Benjamin A. Smith and Sally Smith, his wife,” Chapter 46, in ibid., at 49.
  15. “An Act to change the name of Adam Jopst to Adam Jefferson,” Chapter 50, in ibid., at 62.
  16. “An Act to change the name of Frank Edward Sherman to Frank Edward Bontello,” Chapter 57, in ibid., at 67-68.
  17. “An Act to change the name of Emanuel Slade to William E. Slade,” Chapter 58, in ibid., at 68.
  18. “An Act to change the name of Fred Elias Webster to Fred Elias Teetshorn and constitute him the adopted son and heir of Horatio N. Teetshorn,” Chapter 59, in ibid., at 68-69.
  19. “An Act to change the name of Henriette Selsemeier to Henriette Kirchbeck,” Chapter 60, in ibid., at 69.
  20. “An Act to change the name of George R. Rockwell and Martha B. Percel to those of George R. Nulph and Martha H. Nulph,” Chapter 61, in ibid., at 70.
  21. “An Act to change the name of Frederick Delmot Gregory to Frederick Johnson,” Chapter 62, in ibid., at 70-71.
  22. “An Act to change the name of Isabella Mary Maynard to Isabella Mary Rollin, and that the same may be made the heir-at-law of Thomas H. Rollin,” Chapter 63, in ibid., at 71.
  23. “An Act to change the name of Philipp Albert to Philipp Hess, and make him heir-at-law of John Hess,” Chapter 64, in ibid., at 71-72.
  24. “An Act to change the name of Frederick Perry to Frederick Judivine,” Chapter 65, in ibid., at 72.
  25. “An Act to change the name of Joseph Prinney to Joseph Johnson,” Chapter 66, in ibid., at 73.
  26. “An Act to change the names of the persons therein named,” Chapter 67, in ibid., at 73.
  27. “An Act to change the names of the persons therein named,” Chapter 68, in ibid., at 74.
  28. “An Act to change the name of George Smith to George W. Smith, and to authorize his adoption as the child and lawful heir of Adam Smith and Harriett Smith,” Chapter 72, in ibid., at 77.
  29. “An Act to change the name of Ellen Olivia Hawes, to Ella Hoffman, and to constitute her the adopted daughter and heir-at-law of Gilbert Hoffman,” Chapter 105, in ibid., at 107-108.
Posted in Methodology, Resources, Statutes | 11 Comments

April 19th for next BCG webinar

The Legal Genealogist occasionally has fumble fingers.

Mistake Concepts, With Oops Message On Keyboard.As in this morning, when I was going for the SAVE button on a blog post and hit the PUBLISH button instead.

The post is fixed online, and the date of April 19th that’s on the website really is the correct date.

But that case of fumble fingers may mean that you got a tweet or an email blog post saying the next webinar in the BCG webinar series would be tonight.

(Trying to recall these things after hitting the publish button doesn’t always work.)

So if you did get that tweet or email blog post…

For the record: nope, nope, nope.

Not tonight.

That’s a mistake.

The next webinar is scheduled for Tuesday, April 19th, and features James M. Baker, PhD, CG, describing strategies to find early 1800s United States data. A case study illustrates the use of different record types to trace families backward in time from Illinois through Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Key online sources include newspapers, historical books, property records, marriage records, military records, and city directories.

Jim has been an active genealogist for the past fifteen years. He earned a PhD in sociology and social psychology from the University of Utah. In 2011, he became a board-certified genealogist. He specializes in German, Midwestern US, and early American genealogy research.

Sorry about the date issue… but hey… you’ve got lots of time to register in advance for this webinar and put it on your calendar.

For April 19th.


Posted in General | Leave a comment

Free webinar April 19th!

How do we find those early America ancestors — the ones who lived in the early days of the 19th century?

They’re often among the hardest to nail down. They’re not among the first arrivals, whose lives are often so well documented by those anxious to join lineage societies. And they’re not among those who lived long enough to be recorded in the wide variety of records we often have for our 20th century relatives.

19cSo how do we do what we need to do to locate these folks and add them to our family trees?

How do we do it easily, using clues we can find online?

And how do we do it accurately, in a way that meets the best practices of our field of genealogy?

Come find out Tuesday, April 19th, when James M. Baker, PhD, CG, presents “Finding Your Early 1800s US Ancestors Online” in a free webinar presented by the Board for Certification of Genealogists starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time (7 p.m. CDT, 6 p.m. MDT, 5 p.m. PDT).

Now, three points right off:

First, you need to register in advance for this webinar. The link to do that is here.

Second, as always with a live webinar, space is limited and registration does not guarantee a space. You may need to log in early to be sure to get a seat online for the live webinar.

Third, just so you don’t miss it, a recording will be available afterwards if you don’t manage to get in for the live presentation.

If you’re able to join BCG for this webinar on April 19th, you’ll get to hear Jim Baker describe strategies to find early 1800s United States data. A case study illustrates the use of different record types to trace families backward in time from Illinois through Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Key online sources include newspapers, historical books, property records, marriage records, military records, and city directories.

Jim has been an active genealogist for the past fifteen years. He earned a PhD in sociology and social psychology from the University of Utah. In 2011, he became a board-certified genealogist. He specializes in German, Midwestern US, and early American genealogy research.

But if you’re not able to join the webinar on the 19th, or if you’ve missed one of the stellar offerings in this webinar series and want to catch up, remember: there are recordings available of the BCG webinar series. Some are free; some carry a small cost to help BCG recoup the cost of providing the webinars. All are worth your time.

For more information on past offerings in BCG’s webinar series, please visit

Posted in General | 2 Comments

No strikeout here!!

This is a day when The Legal Genealogist should be totally distracted.

When deadlines, new lectures, syllabus materials and even (gasp) the pay-the-bills job should all be set aside for a few hours.

When instead of census records and probate courts and tax forms, it should be hot dogs, crackerjacks and the crack of a bat.

It should be — oh yes it should be — Opening Day in New York.

BB.ebookToday was the scheduled first home game of the season for my favorite team — the team so much of the rest of the country loves to hate — the New York Yankees. At 1:05 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the first pitch should have been thrown out against the Houston Astros.

Mother Nature, however, had other ideas. It’s barely 40 degrees right now, and a light rain is falling. So — alas! — that first pitch of the season has been postponed. Opening Day 2016, the 114th season for the Yanks, will now be tomorrow.


But it isn’t possible to mope around and think that there’s no joy in Mudville — not when the National Archives gets into the act.

Those of us who need a baseball fix today can get it by grabbing a free downloadable eBook from the National Archives — Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives.1

I’ve written about this book before2 but it’s worth mentioning again and again — not just for people who love baseball, but also for people who love the law.

Those two topics — obviously favorites of mine — are intertwined throughout this wonderful free downloadable book:

• If you’re at all interested in patent law, you know that the law — now codified at 35 U.S.C. §§ 1 et seq. — was incorporated into American law and given constitutional status in the United States in 1789 as part of Article I.3 And how does Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives begin? With images of patents for baseball bats and balls and gloves.

• Ever have occasion to look into the laws that sent Native American children to boarding schools4 or that sent Japanese American citizens into internment camps during World War II?5 In Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives, you’ll find photos of the baseball teams from many of the Indian Schools and the internment camps.

• Interested in World War I draft registrations — and the law that required that registration?6 In the pages of Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives, you’ll find the draft registration cards of George Herman Ruth — better known as Babe. And Ty Cobb. And Shoeless Joe Jackson. And Charles Stengel — better known as Casey.

• If the fight for civil rights is what you’re most interested in, you can find in the pages of Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives the story of Jackie Robinson’s presence in national records from his acquittal in a 1944 court martial on charges of refusing an order to sit in the back of a troop bus all the way through his activism and correspondence with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

• For those of us committed to equal opportunities for our girls, you can read in Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives about the fight to open the Little League to girls — a legal battle fought around the country — but won in the courts of New Jersey when the Superior Court, Appellate Division, upheld a report and recommendation by a hearing officer who was a dear friend and mentor, the late Sylvia B. Pressler, who herself became the Presiding Judge of the Appellate Division in later years.7

You can download this free book in a number of different flavors: an iTunes version for iPad and another that works on the iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, an EPUB version for iPhone, Android, Nook, SONY Reader, other mobile device or eReader, or PC or Mac, a version for Scribd users, and, of course, the downloadable PDF for PC, Mac, or any mobile device with PDF reader.

So even if there’s no first pitch today, there is joy in Mudville — legal style — with Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives.


  1. Stephanie Greenhut, Kristina Jarosik, and Jenny Sweeney, Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives (Washington, D.C. : National Archives, 2013).
  2. Judy G. Russell, “Play ball!,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 Apr 2013 ( : accessed 4 Apr 2016).
  3. U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 8, clause 8.
  4. See Act of 13 July 1892, 27 Stat. 143 (1892), giving the Commissioner of Indian Affairs power to require “attendance of Indian children of suitable age and health at schools established and maintained for their benefit.”
  5. See e.g. Act of March 21, 1942, 56 Stat. 173 (1942).
  6. Act of 18 May 1917, 40 Stat. 76 (1917).
  7. National Organization for Women v. Little League Baseball, 127 N.J. Super. 522 (App. Div. 1974), aff’d 67 N.J. 320 (1974).
Posted in General, Resources | 3 Comments

So many losses…

His name was Hans, and he was born 90 years ago today.

He was the son of Gerhard Nuckel and Lina Sophie Henriette Blanke,1 who were married in Bremen, Germany, in May of 1922.2

And so he was The Legal Genealogist‘s first cousin once removed — and first cousin to my father, whose mother Marie was the older sister of this baby’s father, who was called Gerd.

And he lived for less than a single day.

Angel Statue Praying In Front Of Several Tombstones On A GraveyaHe died, according to the records, on April 3rd, 1926.3

The cause of death is hard to read, but his appears to have been a premature birth (“Frühgeburt”) — and that, clearly, was a great sadness.

But his death was not the only time the Grim Reaper came calling on this couple.

Taking family lore and official records together, Gerd and Sophie appear to have had at least eight children.

As to two of them, all I know is their names — there was a girl called Wilma and a boy called Friedel — and what they looked like in a 1932 photograph found in my father’s papers after his death.4 Wilma looks to be 10 to 12 years old in the photo, and Friedel perhaps 12-18 months old.

As to a third, all I know is that he or she was a twin, born on the 25th of September 1938. I don’t have a name or a gender, only a reference in another child’s birth record of that child being a twin.5

For all of these three, I also know that there is no record of any death of a person who matches what I know that was recorded in Bremen through the last year I can access in the member databases of the Bremen genealogical society Die Maus. That could mean they’re still alive; it could just mean they died somewhere other than in Bremen or after the years for which records are available.6

And as to the other five… well, Hans was one of them. Dead at the age of one day. But he wasn’t the first child Gerd and Sophie lost. Klaus Heinz Nuckel was born on the 22nd of March 1925.7 He was one day short of four months old when he died on July 21st of that year of meningitis (“Hirnhautentzündung”).8

Then there was Hermann Nuckel, born on the first of December 1927.9 He lived roughly a half-hour and appears to have been another premature birth (“Frühgeburt”).10

And there was Gerhard Nuckel, born on the 15th of June 1929.11 He was exactly five months old when he died on the 15th of November of heart failure and diphtheria (“Herzschwäche” and “Diphterie”).12

And there was Gustav Nuckel, born on the 25th of September 1938.13 He wasn’t quite two months old when he died on the 13th of November of some kind of eating disorder (“Ernährungsstörung”).14

Eight births.

Eight babies.

And five who did not live to see even a first birthday.

Five little boys — Klaus, Hans, Hermann, Gerhard and Gustav — my cousins whom I never knew. Cousins whom I remember today.


  1. Bremen Standesamt, Zivilstandsregister (Bremen city registry office, civil status registers), Geburten (births) 1926, Reg. Nr. 1207 (1926).
  2. Ibid., Heiraten (marriages) 1922, Reg. Nr. 815 (1922).
  3. Ibid., Todten (deaths) 1926, Reg. Nr. 923 (1926).
  4. See Judy G. Russell, “Well, hello there, Uncle Gerhard…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Dec 2015 ( : accessed 1 Apr 2016).
  5. Bremen Standesamt, Zivilstandsregister, Geburten, Reg. Nr. 5535 (1938), recording the birth of Gustav Nuckel “Zwilling” (twin).
  6. While many records have not been digitized at all, German privacy laws impact record access as well. German birth records are not available until 110 years after the birth, marriage records 80 years after the marriage, and death records 30 years after the death.
  7. Bremen Standesamt, Zivilstandsregister, Geburten, Reg. Nr. 1132 (1925).
  8. Ibid., Todten, Reg. Nr. 1821 (1925).
  9. Ibid., Geburten, Reg. Nr. 4385 (1927).
  10. Ibid., Todten, Reg. Nr. 3060 (1927).
  11. Ibid., Geburten, Reg. Nr. 2413 (1929).
  12. Ibid., Todten, Reg. Nr. 3175 (1929).
  13. Ibid., Geburten, Reg. Nr. 5535 (1938).
  14. Ibid., Todten, Reg. Nr. 3486 (1938).
Posted in My family | 10 Comments

It’s April First!

No, The Legal Genealogist hasn’t completely lost her mind.

Not yet, at least…

April1This really is a good day for genealogists to celebrate.

At least American genealogists.

And at least those whose folks can be found on the population schedules of the United States Census in 1930 or 1940. Or — for those of us avidly looking forward to 2022 — those whose folks we hope will be found on the population schedule of 1950.

Because April 1 was the census enumeration date in 1930 and 1940 — and continued to be the enumeration date thereafter.1

Everything reported in the census, from 1790 right on through to today, is supposed to be reported as of the enumeration date. In the statute authorizing the first census of 1790, the law itself stated:

That every person whose usual place of abode shall be in any family on the … first Monday in August next, shall be returned as of such family; and the name of every person, who shall be an inhabitant of any district, but without a settled place of residence, shall be inserted in the column of the aforesaid schedule, which is allotted for the heads of families, in that division where he or she shall be on the said first Monday in August next, and every person occasionally absent at the time of the enumeration, as belonging to that place in which he usually resides in the United States.2

And the census takers eventually came to be instructed that everything they were to report on the census form was to be reported as of the enumeration date. So, for example, in 1820, census takers were instructed:

all the questions refer to the day when the enumeration is to commence; the first Monday in August next. Your assistants will thereby understand that they are to insert in their returns all the persons belonging to the family on the first Monday in August, even those who may be deceased at the time when they take the account; and, on the other hand, that they will not include in it, infants born after that day.3

When our folks said they owned a radio in 1930, then, they should have owned one on April 1… but may have sold it by the end of the year. Age, marital status, whether able to read and write — all should have been reported as of April 1.

That can be a valuable clue — the enumeration date helps us narrow things down. Somebody who was recorded as 30 years old on the 1930 census should have been born between April 2, 1899 and April 1, 1900 — and not after April 1, 1900.

So celebrate the day!

It’s a good day for genealogists!

And that’s no joke…


  1. See Jason G. Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Census from 1790 to 2000 (Washington, D.C. : U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, 2002); PDF download, U.S. Census Bureau ( : accessed 31 Mar 2016).
  2. “An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States,” 1 Stat. 103 (1 Mar 1790).
  3. Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Census from 1790 to 2000, PDF at 5.
Posted in Methodology, Statutes | 3 Comments

The language of the law

It may come as a bit of a surprise that our ancestors couldn’t be convicted of the crime of assault in early Alabama.

Assault, by definition, is an “unlawful attempt or offer, on the part of one man, with force or violence, to inflict a bodily hurt upon another.”1 And in the early laws of Alabama, at least through 1833, there was no provision in the criminal code making a plain garden-variety assault a crime.

Oh, there were provisions that addressed violence, of course, as The Legal Genealogist discovered in poking through old Alabama statutes for this weekend’s seminar of the Tennessee Valley Genealogical Society in Huntsville, Alabama.

Ala.amerceYou still couldn’t commit “wilful murder,” for example,2 and rape was also a capital offense.3

And it was certainly a crime — the crime of mayhem — “if any person or persons, on purpose and of malice aforethought, shall unlawfully cut or bite off the ear or ears; or cut out or disable the tongue; put out an eye, while fighting or otherwise; slit the nose or lip; cut or bite off the nose or lip; or cut off or disable any limb or member of any person whatsoever…”4

But plain ordinary assault, or assault and battery? That didn’t get added to the Alabama penal code until later.5

Now aggravated assault — assault with intent to commit another crime, like murder, rape or robbery — that was a crime even in early Alabama. And anybody committing that crime, on conviction, was to “be amerced in such sum, as shall be assessed against him or her, by the verdict of a jury, and imprisoned a term not exceeding one year…”6


We all know what it’s like to be amerced, don’t we?


Just because this is the one and only time the word is used in the entire set of laws…

So… what exactly was being done here?

Now one law dictionary will tell us, helpfully,7 that an amercement was a “pecuniary penalty imposed upon a person who is in misericordia; as, for example, when the defendant se retaxit, or recessit in contemptum curioe.”8


At least another one is a bit more helpful, defining the verb amerce as “to impose an amercement or fine; to punish by a fine or penalty”9 and defining the noun amercement as “a pecuniary penalty, in the nature of a fine, imposed upon a person for some fault or misconduct, he being ‘in mercy’ for his offense. It was assessed by the peers of the delinquent, … or imposed arbitrarily at the discretion of the court or the lord.”10

And, the explanation continues, “The difference between amercements and fines is as follows: The latter are certain, and are created by some statute; … the former are arbitrarily imposed by courts…”11 And the whole business of being “in mercy”? That meant “to be at the discretion of the king, lord, or judge in respect to the imposition of a fine or other punishment.”12

So to be amerced was to be fined, only not in a set amount but rather in whatever amount the jury in the case determined was appropriate. A kind of criminal damage award to go along with the jail term, without any fixed minimum or maximum.

Takes all the fun out of an assault, now, doesn’t it…


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 94, “assault.”
  2. Chapter 6, Alabama Laws of 1807, §1, in John G. Aikin, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Alabama: … in Force … in January 1833 (Philadelphia: Alexander Towar, 1833), 102; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Mar 2016).
  3. Ibid., §6.
  4. Ibid., §4.
  5. See §142, Chapter 8, Offenses against the Person, in Geo. W. Stone and J.W. Shepherd, The Penal Code of Alabama (Montgomery: Reid & Screws, State Printers, 1866), 49; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Mar 2016).
  6. Chapter 6, Alabama Laws of 1807, §5, in Aikin, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Alabama…, 102.
  7. Yes, my tongue is in my cheek here…
  8. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 30 Mar 2016), “amercement.”
  9. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 67, “amerce.”
  10. Ibid., “amercement.”
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., “in mercy,” 604.
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | 3 Comments

Free on Ancestry Academy

Anyone who has read this blog for any time at all knows that The Legal Genealogist is a huge fan of the Preserve the Pensions project — the effort spearheaded by the Federation of Genealogical Societies to digitize the pension records from the War of 1812.

But it’s a war that most Americans don’t know very much about.

Oh, we may know that it began in 18121 when the United States declared war on the United Kingdom:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That war be and is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories; and that the President of the United States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States to carry the same into effect, and to issue to private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marque and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper, and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the government of the said United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the subjects thereof.2

We may know that at least one of the causes cited for the war is the impressment of American sailors by the British Navy,3 that the British burned the U.S. capital of Washington D.C. in 1814,4 and that Andrew Jackson led U.S. forces in a defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.5

And that’s usually pretty much it.

AA.1812But many of us need to know more, because, we’ve discovered, an ancestor fought in that war, or our family — in America, in Canada, in the UK or elsewhere — was impacted by it.

And now there’s a way to find out more, free, explaining both the war in brief and these amazing records — the pension records of the war held by the U.S. National Archives.


There’s a free course now online from Ancestry Academy. Taught by David Rencher, this new video course is entitled Ancestors, Family, and Associates in the War of 1812 Records and — like the pension records being digitized — it is and will be free, forever.

Here’s the course description:

The War of 1812 was America’s ‘Second Revolution’ – little understood by many in America how precarious the survival of the new nation was. This segment enlarges the student’s understanding of the causes of the war and how the Napoleonic War on Europe’s continent distracting the British military may very well have saved the nation. Ending in 1815 with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, the war directly led to the penning of our nation’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner and propelled Battle of New Orleans’ famous General Andrew Jackson to the Presidency of the United States, serving as its seventh president. To place an ancestor in the context of history, this segment paints the landscape of the social climate during the War’s four year course – 1812 to 1815.

And each of the segments can be viewed again and again as often as we’d like:

• Introduction to the War of 1812: “David Rencher and Laura Prescott welcome you to the War of 1812 course with a brief overview.”

• Brief History of the War and its Causes: “It’s important to understand the context of your ancestors in the battles and the history of the War of 1812.”

• Acts of Congress and the Congressional Record: “… Numerous Acts of Congress affected the availability of bounty-lands and pensions for those who served.”

• Introduction to the Records the War Created: “Many people don’t realize they had an ancestor who fought in the War of 1812 … (and) there are numerous other family members who may be associated to someone who did.”

• Naval and Marine Service During the War of 1812: “If your ancestors served in the Navy or the Marines during the War of 1812, this video will be particularly helpful to you.”

• An Examination of the Pension Records: “… the pension records for the War of 1812 (are) rich in genealogical details and information… Numerous types of records and vital information … may be found in the War of 1812 pension files.”

• Illustrations of the Scope of the Relationships in the Records: “When looking at … pension files …, sometimes there’s enough detail to begin identifying brothers who served in the war, fathers and sons who served together … linking them together into multiple generations…”

• Bounty Land Records – The Reward for Service: “The opportunity for land ownership was the single best motivation the new government could use to enlist recruits to serve in the war.”

• State Militia Records: “The number of men serving in state militias far outnumbered the regular army in the War of 1812.”

• Prisoner of War Records: “During any major war or conflict, prisoners are taken (and) these records will help you find information…”

• Native American and African-American Service During the War of 1812: “… there are numerous records about these (African American or Native American) ethnic groups.”

• In Conclusion: “David Rencher and Laura Prescott wrap up the … course and discuss the … Preserve the Pensions Project.”

Kudos to David for a great course, and to Ancestry Academy for producing and hosting it, free.


  1. Duh… it is called the War of 1812, after all.
  2. An Act declaring War between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories,” 2 Stat. 755 (18 June 1812); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 29 Mar 2016).
  3. Impressment of American Sailors,” Prelude to the War of 1812, Mariners Museum ( accessed 29 Mar 2016).
  4. See Anthony S. Pitch, “The Burning of Washington,” The White House Historical Association ( : accessed 29 Mar 2016).
  5. See Marc Schulman, “Battle of New Orleans,” HistoryCentral ( : accessed 29 Mar 2016).
Posted in General | Leave a comment

Asking works but...

It never fails. The Legal Genealogist puts the finishing touches on a blog post, checks (sometimes at least) for spelling mistakes, hits the post button… and somebody has a question.

And it happened yesterday with the post Checking for renewals.

Almost as soon as the post went live, suggesting four different ways of checking to see if a copyright had been renewed back in the time period when it was necessary to register and then renew a copyright, reader Sandra Johnson popped in with a question that coulda-woulda-shoulda been included in the post.

She asked: “Can we check with the publisher? Or the author?”

And, of course, the answer is…

It depends.

On at least four things, in this case.

Question mark symbol dice rolling 3d illustrationFirst, you have to be able to identify the publisher and/or the author. The publishing house may have been acquired, and then reacquired, and then re-reacquired, as the number of publishers has shrunk through mergers and acquisitions. The author may have chosen to use a pseudonym or a pen name that he or she doesn’t go by today, and may no longer be in contact with the publishing house at all.

Second, you have to be able to find the publisher and/or the author. That may be relatively easy for a publishing house called the Bltzlplk Publishing Company — how many of those can there be? — but it may not be the easiest task in the world for an author named Jane Smith. Especially if that’s not her real name.

Third, you have to be able to rely on the publisher and/or the author, to respond to your inquiry at all. There’s not a lot of economic incentive for a publisher to answer an inquiry from someone asking if a work is still in copyright, and an author who transferred his copyright to the publisher may not bother replying either. Let’s face it: it’s your responsibility to find out if a work is copyright-protected, and not getting an answer after writing a letter isn’t going to get you off the hook for copyright infringement.

And fourth, you have to be able to trust any response you get from the publisher and/or the author. There’s always the possibility that either publisher or author might simply take the easy way out and tell you the item is copyright-protected when, in fact, it isn’t any more. Or that some clerk in an office will tell you it isn’t copyright-protected when, in fact, it is.

So the bottom line here is… yes, you can ask either publisher or author or both about the copyright status of a work.

But, as with all genealogical research, we’re better off doing our own checking … in original sources, with primary information.

Anything else is … well… rolling the dice.


Posted in Copyright | 6 Comments

Copyright status

Reader Lexi has a great question about using materials that were copyrighted, but might not still be copyright-protected today.

Her particular reason for asking the question is that she teaches art to children, has a book of children’s poems she’d like to use in her classes and have the children do artwork to illustrate the poems. And then, she hopes, she can put the artwork and the poems together into a book and sell it as a fundraiser for her school.

It’s a great idea — but will it be a copyright problem since the book was published in 1953?

cstatusLexi notes, correctly, that materials published in the United States between 1923 and 1963 had to have a copyright notice in the publication and were then copyright-protected for a term of 28 years.1 But that initial copyright term could be renewed for a second period — originally 28 years under the Copyright Act of 19092 and then changed by statute, first to 47 years3 and then to 67 years.4

If the copyright was not renewed as the law then required, then the copyright on a book published in 1953 would have expired at the end of the 28th year of the initial copyright protection term5 or 31 December 1981. But if the copyright was renewed in that 28th year, the total copyright term for the work is 95 years (28 years plus 67 years), and the work will be copyright-protected until 31 December 2048.

Now the odds are pretty good that any given copyright won’t have been renewed. The Copyright Office reported that, as of 1960, copyright renewal rates for books were roughly seven percent and for periodicals about 11 percent.6 But playing the odds isn’t a safe bet when the consequences of copyright infringement can include statutory damages of up to $30,000 for a single violation.7

So… how do you know if a copyright was renewed or not? While the question here is focused on poetry, it’s a question we often encounter as genealogists when we try to figure out if we can use material created by others as part of our own publications — our genealogy society journals, our family histories, even blogs like this one.

And there are at least four options for getting an answer.

The first, and most expensive but most reliable, is to go yourself or pay somebody to check the records of the U.S. Copyright Office. The renewal records are kept at Copyright Office at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The office is open Monday—Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., eastern time.8 You can even get the Copyright Office to do the research for you, but there is a fee — and it’s hefty (a minimum of two hours at $200 an hour).9

Second, you can find a library that has the Copyright Office’s publication, the Catalog of Copyright Entries, issued in printed format from 1891 through 1978 and in microfiche from 1979 through 1982.10 The hitch with the CCE is that it won’t show assignments of rights, so if the item you want is still copyrighted, you’ll still need to do more research to be sure who owns the rights today.11

Third, you can check for online versions of the CCE. One major collection is at Internet Archive, with 674 entries (some of which, of course, are duplicates), and another is on The Online Books Page from the University of Pennsylvania, with most if not all of the digitized records of both registrations and renewals accessible from one entry portal.

And finally you can check the searchable database prepared by Stanford University from the Project Gutenberg transcriptions and other records. The big advantage to this database is that it only includes renewals.

All of the online records, of course, have the potential for error. Stanford, for example, reported that its error rate was “less than 1%,” but cautioned that “in practice there is significant opportunity for user error or other problems in searching.”12 Using all of the online methods, however, should reduce the chances for making a mistake and, if the stakes are high enough, paying the Copyright Office for a search to be sure is the way to go.

For more background on checking the copyright status of a work, you should also download and read the Copyright Office’s Circular 22, How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work and the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books Page has a nice overview: “How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed?


  1. U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 15a: Duration of Copyright, PDF version at p. 2 ( : accessed 28 Mar 2016).
  2. §23, “An Act To amend and consolidate the Acts respecting copyright,” 35 Stat. 1075, 1080 (4 Mar 1909).
  3. Copyright Act of 1976, 90 Stat. 2541 (19 Oct 1976).
  4. Copyright Term Extension Act, 112 Stat. 2827 (27 Oct 1998).
  5. Copyrights expire on 31 December of the last year of their term. See U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 15a: Duration of Copyright, PDF version at p. 2.
  6. Barbara A. Ringer, Renewal of Copyright (June 1960), in Copyright Law Revision: Studies Prepared for the (Senate Judiciary Committee), Studies 29-31, 86th Congress, 2d Session (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1961), 220.
  7. 17 U.S.C. §504(c)(1).
  8. See “Hours of Service and Location,” U.S. Copyright Office ( : accessed 28 Mar 2016).
  9. See ibid., “Fees.”
  10. See U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 22: How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work, PDF version at pp. 1-2 ( : accessed 28 Mar 2016).
  11. Ibid., at 2.
  12. Welcome,” Copyright Renewal Database, Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources ( : accessed 28 Mar 2016).
Posted in Copyright | 9 Comments