150 years ago today

Let us all stop at some point in our busy lives today for a moment of silence.

Today, 3 April 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of the fall of Richmond.

The account of the hours from the time Jefferson Davis ordered the evacuation of the Confederate government from the City of Richmond on the morning of Sunday, 2 April 1865, to the moment in the early morning hours of Monday, 3 April 1865, when the Union troops entered the city, is chilling:

By early spring 1865 the citizens of Richmond had become used to the threat of capture by the Federal army whose soldiers the Richmond newspapers described with great imagination as the vilest of humanity. Richmond had endured some frighteningly close chances, and its inhabitants had grown accustomed to the sound of artillery fire from just ten miles outside the city. Their faith in Robert E. Lee was so complete that they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that he would never allow Richmond to be taken. …


Lee had always felt constrained by the duty to defend the Confederate capital. But abandoning it, he knew he could move more freely. So when General Philip Sheridan’s troops overran Confederate defenses at Five Forks on Saturday April 1, Lee made the decision to abandon the Petersburg defenses and, in doing so, to abandon Richmond.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had discussed the probability of quitting Richmond with Lee a month earlier, and he had already sent his wife and family out of the city. Despite these precautions, Davis still believed Lee could stave off disaster.

I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.
–General Lee’s telegram to President Jefferson Davis

Davis read General Lee’s telegram while attending Sunday morning church service. He immediately issued the first orders for the Confederate government’s evacuation. Word spread across the city. Lawley reports, “…quickly from mouth to mouth flew the sad tidings that in a few hours Richmond’s long and gallant resistance would be over.” Officially, the citizens of Richmond did not hear anything for hours, but they could not help but notice the fires in front of the government offices as official documents burned. …

All through the night preparations for fleeing from the city kept the Richmonders busy. When the last Confederate soldiers rode across the pontoon bridge to catch up with Lee’s troops, those left behind believed they would return soon, to take the city back from the Yankees. In the city small fires of documents still burned. …

The fires, though, grew out of control, burning the center of the city …

Embers from the street fires of official papers and from the paper torches used by vandals drifted. The wind picked up. Another building caught fire. The business district caught fire. …

The Union cavalry entered town. … Union General Godfrey Weitzel … ordered his troops to put out the fire. The city’s two fire engines worked, bucket brigades were formed. Threatened buildings were pulled down to create firebreaks. Five hours later the wind finally shifted, and they began to bring it under control. All or part of at least 54 blocks were destroyed, according to Furgurson. Weitzel wrote “The rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it, was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession.” And the city rested.1

Now The Legal Genealogist is way too much of a Yankee to be mourning the impending end of the Confederacy that the fall of Richmond foretold. My Texas-born-and-bred grandfather referred to this Colorado-born grandchild as a “damnyankee” — one word, of course — for my north-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line attitudes.

It’s just that I am too much of a genealogist — and way too much of a descendant of Virginians — not to be mourning what we lost in those fire.

The loss of all those records.

You see, so many Virginia counties believed their courthouses would be burned by the Yankees as battle after battle was fought on the soil of the Old Dominion. So to preserve and protect the records so near and dear to our genealogical hearts — deed books, will books, court minutes, vital records and more, the counties carefully boxed them up and sent them — for safekeeping — to the city they were sure would never fall.

They sent them to Richmond.2

Where, during that terrible 24 hours before the city officially fell to the Yankees, the Confederate Government set some records on fire — and the spread of the fire took out the rest.

Records loss from the Richmond fire is simply staggering, among them some or all of the records of:

• Elizabeth City County
• Gloucester County
• Henrico County
• Hanover County
• James City County
• Mathews County
• New Kent County
• Richmond City
• Warwick County3

So let’s have a moment of silence today for the fall of the City of Richmond.

And the catastrophic loss of colonial and early statehood records that terrible time, 150 years ago today.


Image: “The fall of Richmond Va. on the night of April 2nd” (New York: Currier & Ives, c1865); Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov : accessed 2 Apr 2015).

  1. The Fall of Richmond, Virginia,” Civil War Trust (http://www.civilwar.org/ : accessed 2 April 2015) (emphasis added).
  2. Carol McGinnis, Virginia Genealogy: Sources and Resources (Baltimore, Md. : Genealogical Publ. Co., 1993), 155.
  3. Lost Records Localities: Counties and Cities with Missing Records,” Library of Virginia (https://www.lva.virginia.gov : accessed 2 Apr 2015).
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

A rare turn of phrase

The Legal Genealogist often joins the rest of the genealogical community in whining about legal Latin.

GreekBut the Romans are not the only ones we have to blame for obscure language in legal documents we come across.

And sometimes what we come across just leaves us shaking our heads.

A case in point comes from an opinion of the United States Supreme Court.

The case — Kungys v. United States1 — is an interesting case, all by itself. It involved an attempt by the government to denaturalize — take away the naturalized citizenship — of a man accused of participating in World War II atrocities and of lying in his initial papers seeking to come to the United States from Europe after the war.

The government advanced three reasons at the trial court level why this naturalized citizen, Juozas Kungys, should be stripped of his citizenship: first, his participation in the atrocities; second, that he had made false statements about when and where he was born, his wartime occupations, and wartime residence; and third, that he lack good moral character because of the lies.

There were all kinds of twists and turns in the case: the government failed to produce the kind of evidence the trial court could consider about the atrocity allegations; the trial court rejected the false statements claim because, it said, the kinds of false statements weren’t material, and since they weren’t material, they didn’t show bad moral character.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court about the atrocity allegations, but disagreed on the question of whether the false statements were material.

So when the case got to the Supreme Court, the whole thing came down to one real point: what did the term “material” mean in this context?

And that’s where the oddball case in point came in.

The opinion in Kungys v. United States, authored for the majority by Justice Antonin Scalia, solemnly concluded that: “The term ‘material’ in (the immigration statute) is not a hapax legomenon.”


What the heck is a “hapax legomenon”?2

I’ll tell you right now, don’t bother looking in the Latin-to-English dictionaries, because it isn’t a Latin-derived term. It’s Greek.

And don’t bother looking in the law dictionaries, either: the term isn’t there.

Np, you’re going to have to go to the regular dictionaries for this one, and there you’ll find that it’s a “word or form occurring only once in a document or corpus,”3 or a “term of which only one instance of use is recorded.”4

So what Justice Scalia was saying was that the word was used in many parts of the law, and had a generally known meaning that shouldn’t be monkeyed with in the context of the immigration laws.

He chose to do it with a term that nobody else was likely to understand without looking it up.

Because, you see, the term “hapax legomenon” is a hapax legomenon.


Even to this genealogist with a law degree, the language of the law is occasionally a mystery…

Oh, and by the way… Kungys voluntarily surrendered his citizenship to avoid deportation and died in the United States in 2009.5


  1. Kungys v. United States, 485 U.S. 759 (1988).
  2. Friend and fellow genealogist Vicki Wright suggested on Facebook that it sounded like a Harry Potter curse. Facebook, comment on J. Russell status by Vicki Wright, posted 31 Mar 2015.
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.m-w.com : accessed 1 Apr 2015), “hapax legomenon.”
  4. Oxford Dictionaries Online (http://oxforddictionaries.com/ : accessed 1 Apr 2015), “hapax legomenon.”
  5. See Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “List of denaturalized former citizens of the United States,” rev. 29 Mar 2015. See also Social Security Death Index, entry for Juozas Kungys (1913-2009), Mocavo.com (https://www.mocavo.com/ : accessed 1 Apr 2015).
Posted in Legal definitions | Leave a comment

Fare thee well, friend

Today, we are told, is the first day of the rest of our lives.

LouSzucsAnd The Legal Genealogist joins the rest of our community today in wishing the very best to one of our very best as she begins the rest of her life.

Today, you see, is the very first day that Loretto Dennis Szucs, known as Lou, will be officially retired from Ancestry, where she has served for nearly 30 years, most recently as Vice President of Community Relations.

And for every one of those years, Lou has been Ancestry’s best ambassador to the genealogical community — the very best that company has had to offer.

At the same time, she’s worked tirelessly, quietly, powerfully, to be the genealogical community’s best voice to the corporate types at Ancestry.

First and foremost a genealogist herself, Lou is the author or editor of books you and I use — or ought to be using — on a daily basis:

The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, with Sandra Luebking;1

Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records, with Matt Wright;2

Ellis Island: Tracing Your Family History through America’s Gateway;3

They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethic Origins;4

And The Legal Genealogist‘s favorite, with my German ancestors settling there in the Windy City, Chicago and Cook County Sources : A Genealogical and Historical Guide.5

For this work, and for so much more, she has been honored repeatedly, by the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE) as the first recipient of the Myra Vanderpool Gormley Award of Merit, by the Utah Genealogical Society with its Silver Tray Award and as a Fellow of that Society, by the Federation of Genealogical Societies with its David S. Vogels Jr. Award, by the Illinois Genealogical Society, by the National Genealogical Society… by so many others.

And even all that isn’t enough to begin to say thank you for all Lou has done. So much of it behind the scenes, out of the limelight. She has been an archivist, a genealogical society leader, a spokesman for genealogists and to genealogists, at the same time she has been a wife and a mother and a good friend — a hero, in Megan Smolenyak’s words6 — to so many of us.

Thank you, Lou.

And fare thee well, friend, as you begin your journey today into the rest of your life.


Image: Juliana Szucs, Ancestry.com.

  1. Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors, Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006).
  2. Loretto Dennis Szucs and Matthew Wright, Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records (Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2002).
  3. Loretto Dennis Szucs, Ellis Island: Tracing Your Family History through America’s Gateway (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2000).
  4. Loretto Dennis Szucs, They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethic Origins (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998).
  5. Loretto Dennis Szucs, Chicago and Cook County Sources : A Genealogical and Historical Guide (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1986).
  6. See Megan Smolenyak, “Lou Szucs: Genealogical Hero,” Huffington Post Blog, posted 31 March 2015 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/megan-smolenyak-smolenyak/ : accessed 31 Mar 2015).
Posted in General | 2 Comments

The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

Some of the most important types of records we ever come across as genealogists are estate records. All the kinds of documents that get created when someone dies: wills, inventories, petitions for partition, and more.

And all kinds of terms get used in those documents that can be as confusing as all get out. And very little is more confusing than the concept of who gets what from a will.

Part of the problem is the use of terms like “children” and “issue” and “heirs.” And it gets even worse with the use of terms like “per capita” and “per stirpes.”

Though The Legal Genealogist has tackled this before,1 it’s a topic that keeps coming up, so let’s see if we can make sense of this.

Let’s say that John and Mary have three children, two boys and a girl — Adam, Brenda and Charlie. Adam and Charlie are crusty old bachelors who never marry. Brenda marries and has two children, a son Dan and a daughter Edna. By the time John and Mary pass on, Brenda has also died, so the living members of the family are Adam, Charlie, Dan and Edna. The family would look like this:

(Living persons in red)

Now let’s say John is the last of the parents to die, and he leaves a will written years before, when Brenda was still alive. How his estate gets split up among his four living descendants depends on the words that were used in the will.

He might have said he wanted his estate to go to his children. In the law, as in common every-day usage, that means Adam, Brenda and Charlie. The word “child” in the law of wills, descent and distribution “is used strictly as the correlative of ‘parent,’ and means a son or daughter considered as in relation with the father or mother.”2

Or he might have said he wanted his estate to go to his issue. Now that’s a little different. In the law of wills, descent and distribution, that means “all persons who have descended from a common ancestor,” so it’s “not only a child or children, but all other descendants in whatever degree.”3

Or he might have said he wanted his estate to go to his heirs. And that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The problem is that the word is usually used when there isn’t a will; heirs are those who “succeed…, by the rules of law, to an estate in lands, tenements, or hereditaments, upon the death of [an] ancestor, by descent and right of relationship.”4

It’s a pretty safe assumption that, unless he said something specific to indicate a different intent, John would have wanted his estate to be divided among all of his descendants. That’s the usual presumption in the law.5

But how should it be divided? That’s where those other terms come into play.

The term per capita means, literally, “by heads” and refers to individuals. And when it comes to an estate, “the persons legally entitled to take are said to take per capita when they claim, each in his own right.”6 It means the same thing when the term used is share and share alike — in equal shares or proportions.7

By contrast, the term per stirpes means “by roots or stocks” or “by representation” where “a class or group of distributees take the share which their stock (a deceased ancestor) would have been entitled to, taking thus by their right of representing such ancestor, and not as so many individuals; while other heirs, who stand in equal degree with such ancestor to the decedent, take each a share equal to his.”8

And if John didn’t use either of those terms or concepts, the law would usually look at the classes: children would be one class; grandchildren a second class. Those in each class would take per capita; those who took by representation of a higher class (Dan and Edna taking Brenda’s share) would take per stirpes.

So how does this work? Like this:

“And I leave my estate…” “to my children
per capita”
“to my issue
per capita”
“to my children/issue
per stirpes”
“to my heirs” “to my heirs
share and share alike”
Adam (living) one half one fourth one third probably 1/3 one fourth
Charlie (living) one half one fourth one third probably 1/3 one fourth
Dan and Edna, children of Brenda (dec’d) nothing Dan, one fourth
Edna, one fourth
Dan, one sixth
Edna, one sixth
Dan, prob. 1/6
Edna, prob. 1/6
Dan, one fourth
Edna, one fourth

There are exceptions, of course; sometimes unless it was clear that a deceased child’s children were deliberately excluded, even saying “to my children per capita” wouldn’t exclude the grandchildren. That’s a matter that could vary from state to state, and even today it’s often different between states and American law can differ from the rule in England and British commonwealth nations.

But this will get you started when you’re poking around in that 18th or 19th century will…


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Per capita, per stirpes,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 10 Sep 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 30 Mar 2015).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 200, “child.”
  3. Ibid., 645-646, “issue.”
  4. Ibid., 565, “heir.”
  5. See e.g. Cook v. Catlin, 25 Conn. 387, 390-392 (Conn. 1856).
  6. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 169, “capita”; ibid., 885, “per capita.”
  7. Ibid., 1089, “share and share alike.”
  8. Ibid., 887, “per stirpes.” That second word is pronounced stir’-pees.
Posted in Legal definitions | 14 Comments

A little piece of it, anyway

So… for those who like The Legal Genealogist have ancestors who passed through Oklahoma, it turns out there’s a way for us to own a little piece of Oklahoma.

A piece that we can absolutely use, in a reel way, for our own research.

And no, actually, that isn’t a typo.

You really can own a reel… or a digitized version of it, your choice.

OHC.newsI was out in Oklahoma City this past weekend for the spring seminar of the Oklahoma Genealogical Society. Great group of people and I can only hope the attendees had half as much fun as I had.

It was held in the absolutely gorgeous meeting room of the Oklahoma History Center, the combination museum and research library of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

And I had the great good fortune on Friday to have a tour of the collections of the Oklahoma History Center, guided by Laura Martin, Deputy Director of Research.

There aren’t enough words to describe the joy anybody with Oklahoma roots will experience in that facility. The sheer scope of the records dating well before statehood and continuing up to today is stunning.

From some of the very earliest extant records on the Indian tribes of Oklahoma (there are school records going back into the 1840s) to court and probate records to oral histories to a photographic collection covering just about every aspect of life in Oklahoma, the holdings are a researcher’s dream.

But then there are the newspapers.

Oh… the newspapers.

You see, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Oklahoma Historical Society back in 1893 was the desire of the territorial newspaper publishers to preserve the newspapers they were putting out: the Society was actually founded by members of the Oklahoma Territory Press Association.1

As a result, there has been a concerted effort to obtain and preserve as many of Oklahoma’s newspapers as possible. The Oklahoma History Center holds somewhere in excess of 90 percent of all newspapers ever published in Oklahoma. Even before it became Oklahoma. Here’s the description of the newspaper collection from the website:

The Oklahoma Historical Society has served as the centralized repository for records dealing with the history of Oklahoma since before statehood. OHS has the largest collection of Oklahoma newspaper titles on microfilm. Titles date from 1819 to the present.

The newspaper collection consists of over 4,400 titles on approximately 33,000 reels of microfilm (of which 28,000 reels were produced in-house.) OHS has the oldest, largest, and most complete collection of newspapers available within the State. All microfilm is available for viewing, free of charge, at the OHS Research Center located in the Oklahoma History Center. OHS materials are non-circulating; we do not participate in the interlibrary loan program.2

That last sentence breaks your heart, doesn’t it? It’s all there… but you can’t get to it if you can’t get to Oklahoma City.

Except that you can.

First off, the Oklahoma History Center has digitized hundreds and hundreds of newspapers and, through its Gateway to Oklahoma History, has put hundreds of thousands of newspaper pages online. From the Altus Times-Democrat (1,193 files from 1903 to 1921) to the Yukon Sun (596 files from 1905 to 1922), what you need for your family history may already be online.

Second, if all you need is a single article from a single newspaper — say, an obituary — the Oklahoma History Center will retrieve it for you for a fee of $10 (you have to have the exact date — the research fee covers one search of one day of one newspaper). You can get more information through the Research Requests/Genealogy Orders & Fees page.

And between those two possibilities, you may just find what you’re looking for.

But what if you don’t?

What if what you really need is, say, the not-yet-digitized Frederick (OK) Free Press for the year 1903? Or the Frederick Weekly Enterprise of 1911-1914 (just to name two newspapers where I hope to find evidence of my own Oklahoma family members)?

What if you want to be able to read every copy of those newspapers during those years?

You can buy that reel of microfilm. Any reel of microfilm can be duplicated for a fee of $75, plus $5 shipping, through the Microfilm Orders page.

And for a little bit more — roughly $100 — the Oklahoma History Center will digitize it for you… and, if the original films are good enough, they’ll even make the digitized files word-searchable.

Now trust me — I get it — $100 isn’t exactly chump change and there may be four or five or six reels of microfilm that you really want.

But think about it for a minute. What would the airfare cost? Car rental? Meals? A single night in a motel on the outskirts of Oklahoma City — you don’t even want to think about the rates in the brand-new downtown hotels — will set you back the same thing as one of these.

It’s not as good as being there. Trust me on that. I’m already trying to figure out how to clear a week from my schedule to get back there, plant myself at one of the microfilm readers, and immerse myself in my family’s history.

But if life gets in the way, as it so often does, isn’t it nice to have options?


  1. About: History,” Oklahoma Historical Society (http://www.okhistory.org/ : accessed 29 Mar 2015).
  2. Newspaper Archives,” Oklahoma Historical Society (http://www.okhistory.org/ : accessed 29 Mar 2015).
Posted in General, Resources | 2 Comments

Why David and not Dorothy?

AncestryDNA has taken the position from the very beginning that individual users of its DNA product don’t need certain information.

We don’t, it contends, need to know what segments of DNA we might share with a person who is our match in the AncestryDNA system.

And we don’t, it contends, need to know who else in the AncestryDNA database we and a match might have in common.

AncestryDNA will tell us everything we need to know, it contends, by giving us DNA Circles.

compareDNA Circles, it tells us, “re-imagines what matching can do. It goes beyond finding a common ancestor with your DNA matches and can link you to additional AncestryDNA members with the same common ancestor thus creating a Circle of people who are all related.”1

We don’t need to have any of the information that explains the links between the people in the DNA Circles because, after all, AncestryDNA has “trained the computer to do the hard stuff like DNA matching, tree comparisons, and triangulation for you.”2

So why am I sitting here this morning, thoroughly frustrated and unable to figure out one simple question: how can a third cousin be in a DNA Circle for our both of our shared 3rd great grandparents and in a DNA Circle for our shared 4th great grandfather but not in a DNA Circle for our shared 4th great grandmother?

Our mutual line of descent is shown in the graphic above. Both of us have Martin Baker and Elizabeth Buchanan as our third great grandparents, and David Baker and Dorothy Wiseman as our fourth great grandparents, and both of us have all of them in our Ancestry family trees.

As for our shared fourth great grandmother, David’s Ancestry tree lists Dorothy as born 5 Feb 1765 probably in South Carolina and died 23 August 1855 in Bakersville NC. Her parents, he says, were William Wiseman and Mary Davenport.

My Ancestry tree lists Dorothy as born 5 Feb 1765 probably in South Carolina and died 23 August 1855 in Bakersville NC. Her parents, my tree says, were William Wiseman and Mary Davenport.

In other words, the tree data is exactly the same.

That sameness shows up in the DNA Circles for our third great grandparents Martin and Elizabeth — everything matches. It gets wonky when we get to that fourth great grandparent generation.

I have 17 people in my DNA Circle for David Baker and fewer for Dorothy Wiseman. That makes sense because David Baker had two wives, and some of those in the David Baker circle are descended from the first wife, Mary Webb, and not Dorothy, who was the second wife.

Of the six people who are in the David Baker circle but are missing from the Dorothy Wiseman circle, five fall into the category of “descended from Mary Webb.”

One doesn’t.

That’s my third cousin David.

And AncestryDNA gives me absolutely no idea why.

I suppose it could be because cousin David matches me and some other members of the David Baker circle but not some of the other members of the Dorothy Wiseman circle.

That could be, but I can’t tell, because AncestryDNA doesn’t give me a way to see who else cousin David and I have in common.

I suppose it could be because cousin David matches me in a different segment than I match the members of the Dorothy Wiseman circle.

That could be, but I can’t tell, because AncestryDNA doesn’t give me access to any of the segment data to make that kind of analysis.

So cousin David and I are a match, and we both have the same descent from the third and fourth great grandparents, and I’m in circles for all four — and he’s in my circles for three of the four — and I have no idea why.

So tell me, once again, why I don’t need those analytical tools, AncestryDNA.

Because I can’t square these circles.


  1. Anna Swayne, “New AncestryDNA Technology Powers New Kinds of Discoveries,” Ancestry Blog posted 20 Nov 2014 (http://blogs.ancestry.com/ : accessed 28 Mar 2015).
  2. Ibid.
Posted in DNA | 40 Comments

RIP little cousin

He was just a little boy, just two days past his sixth birthday.

And he died a horrible death.

What today would be a preventable death.

Ralph Livingston of Hollister, Oklahoma, was The Legal Genealogist‘s first cousin twice removed: his father Arthur Carlton Livingston was the brother of my great grandmother Eula (Baird) Livingston Robertson.

I had photographed his grave at the Frederick, Oklahoma, City Cemetery years ago, and knew from family that this little boy — Arthur’s first-born child — had died of blood poisoning on 17 March 1927.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. That I found yesterday in the stunning collection of newspapers held by the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, the fabulous research library and museum of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The Society was founded in 1893 by members of the Oklahoma Territory Press Association, in large part to collect and preserve the papers they had published.1 Its Oklahoma History Center, which houses that newspaper collection (and so much more), opened in 2005.2

And it is there that the rest of the story was told, in the pages of the Frederick (Oklahoma) Press issue of 22 March 1927:

RalphFuneral services were held at the First Baptist Church in Frederick Friday afternoon for Ralph Livingston, 6, son of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Livingston of Hollister, who died at the Tillman County hospital Thursday night, after an illness of several weeks. Rev. T. P. Haskins, pastor of the Frederick Baptist church, and Rev. J. F. Curtis, pastor of Hollister Baptist church, were in charge of the funeral.

“A large number of friends of the deceased gathered at the church to pay their respects to the boy, and a beautiful floral offering was made.

“Ralph died as the result of blood poisoning and erysipelas and other complications, which began with a diseased leg and followed his body to his face.

“Burial was made in the City cemetery.3

Oh ouch.

It turns out that erysipelas is a streptocaccal bacteria infection that often starts with some sort of cut in the skin. It occurs on the legs most of the time.4 The disease has been “traced back to the Middle Ages, where it was referred to as St. Anthony’s fire, named after the Christian saint to whom those afflicted would appeal for healing.”5

In untreated or severe cases, “(t)he bacteria may travel to the blood … This results in a condition called bacteremia. The infection may spread to the heart valves, joints, and bones.”6

When erysipelas does spread that way, it causes pain. A lot of pain.

When treated with modern antibiotics, the disease can be cured. A solid round of penicillin could knock out most erysipelas. But penicillin wasn’t available for widespread use until the 1940s — years after Ralph’s illness.7

And in those days before penicillin and other drugs became readily available, erysipelas killed.

Those believed to have died from erysipelas include Norborne Berkeley, a royal governor of Virginia; John Stuart Mill; and Pope Gregory XVI.8

And one little six-year-old cousin.

For the want of something we take so very much for granted today… a simple antibiotic…


  1. History of OHS,” About : History, Oklahoma Historical Society (http://www.okhistory.org/ : accessed 27 Mar 2015).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Frederick (Oklahoma) Press, 22 March 1927, p.1, col. 7; digital images, Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City.
  4. Erysipelas,” MedlinePlus, National Institutes of Health (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ : accessed 27 Mar 2015).
  5. Loretta Davis MD, et al., “Erysipelas,” Medscape (http://emedicine.medscape.com/ : accessed 27 Mar 2015).
  6. Erysipelas,” MedlinePlus.
  7. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Penicillin,” rev. 24 Mar 2015.
  8. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “erysipelas,” rev. 17 Mar 2015.
Posted in My family | 12 Comments

Those 1890 statutes

The Legal Genealogist is heading off to Oklahoma tomorrow, to speak at the Oklahoma Genealogical Society conference on Saturday and — with any luck at all — to track down some elusive Tillman County ancestors in the newspaper collection of the Oklahoma History Center.

OK.lawIn preparing for this trip, I was doing my usual routine of poking around in the local statutes and came across something that really reinforced a point I try to make all the time.

The common law wasn’t really all that common in huge parts of the United States.

Huge swaths of the United States were once under the control of the French or the Spanish,1 and the legal tradition they brought with them when they came into the Union was the tradition of the civil law — the law based in the 6th century Justinian Code2 — not the English common law.

And remnants of that civil law tradition persisted for a time — sometimes even to today — in the laws of the newly created territories or newly admitted states.

Case in point: Oklahoma.

The land that eventually became the State of Oklahoma was first part of the French territory known as Louisiana. It “did not become part of the United States until 1803, when the new American republic acquired the Louisiana Purchase. The U.S. Congress divided the purchased domain into two territories: Orleans in the south and Louisiana in the north. The Territory of Louisiana included what is now Oklahoma and had its administrative center at St. Louis. In 1812 northern Louisiana became the Territory of Missouri; in 1819 southern Louisiana, including Oklahoma, was organized as the Territory of Arkansas. The territorial governors of Arkansas exercised administrative jurisdiction over Oklahoma for the next thirty years.”3

On 2 May 1890, the Territory of Oklahoma was created in what’s generally called the Organic Act.4

And when the Territorial Legislature met in 1890, it passed a whole set of statutes — the very first official laws of the Territory of Oklahoma.5 And some of those very first official laws make it crystal clear that the template on which they were based was the civil law, not the common law.

In the common law, the language typically used to describe the process of property descending from one generation to another is probate,6 and where the deceased leaves no will the specific term used is descent.7 In the civil law, the term for the descent of property from one generation to another without a will is succession.8

Guess which word the Oklahoma Territorial Legislature used in its very first set of statutes?


Succession, defined in the statute as “the coming in of another to take the property of one who dies without disposing of it by will.”9

There are other bits and pieces like this scattered throughout the statutes, but just this one word serves as a powerful reminder that this nation’s legal heritage — like its genetic heritage — is a blend.


  1. See generally Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “United States territorial acquisitions,” rev. 17 Mar 2015.
  2. See “Roman Legal Tradition and the Compilation of Justinian,” The Robbins Collection, Boalt Hall (https://www.law.berkeley.edu/library : accessed 25 Mar 2015).
  3. Westward Expansion, 1803–1861,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma History Center (http://www.okhistory.org/ : accessed 25 Mar 2015).
  4. “An act to provide a temporary government for the Territory of Oklahoma, to enlarge the jurisdiction of the United States Court in the Indian Territory, and for other purposes,” 26 Stat. 81 (2 May 1890).
  5. See The Statutes of Oklahoma 1890 (Guthrie, Okla. : State Capital Printing Co., 1891); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 25 Mar 2015).
  6. See generally Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 945, “probate.”
  7. Ibid., 359, “descent.”
  8. Ibid., 1133, “succession.”
  9. Chapter 88, article 4, The Statutes of Oklahoma 1890, at 1211.
Posted in Legal definitions, Statutes | 2 Comments

For the common law crowd

Reader John Sparrow took one look at yesterday’s post about Black’s Law Dictionary and shot off a question.

“Do you know if there are similar books for England and/or Australia?” he asked. “If so, could you let us know what they are, please.”

You betcha.

dictionaryAnd — by the way — The Legal Genealogist stresses that all of these dictionaries are useful to everyone from a country with a common law heritage because so much of our legal traditions are shared.

So whether we sing out O Canada or Advance Australia Fair or The Star Spangled Banner, we all look to a time when we were singing God Save the King (or Queen, depending) and a shared legal tradition.

So let’s start by looking at dictionaries that help us with English law and English legal terminology.

And here we have a treasure trove — an online one-stop-shopping location for digitized law dictionaries that I’ve written about before: Georgetown University’s Law Library and its wonderful Digital Dictionaries: 1481-1916 collection.1

Among the offerings of this amazing collection is what may be about the oldest English legal dictionary available:

1607: John Cowell, Interpreter, or Booke containing the signification of words : Wherein is set foorth the true meaning of all, or the most part of such words and termes, as are mentioned in the lawe writers, or statutes of this victorious and renowned kingdome, requiring any exposition or interpretation (Cambridge : Printed by John Legate, 1607).

Another key resource you can find there is a dictionary focused on the legal French terms so often found in older English documents we use in genealogy:

1779: Robert Kelham, Dictionary of the Norman or Old French language: collected from such Acts of Parliament, Parliament rolls, journals, Acts of state, records, law books, antient historians, and manuscripts as related to this nation… (London : Printed for Edward Brooke, 1779).

So go ahead and poke around on that site and see what you can find.

But there’s one more legal dictionary we all need to know about and use on a regular basis whenever we’re working in English research, and although there are editions available on the Georgetown site,2 the very oldest versions are readily available at other sites like Google Books. It’s the law dictionary edited and compiled by Giles Jacob (1686-1744), an English legal writer.

His main work — A New Law Dictionary: Containing the Interpretation and Definition of Words and Terms Used in the Law; …, Published to this Time — was first published in 1729 and went through five editions before his death. And some of those earliest editions are readily available online:

• The 1729 edition in full text at Google Books.

• The 1729 edition in full text at Hathi Trust.

• The 1739 edition and 1743 edition in full text at Internet Archive.

There are a handful of resources specifically developed for our common law friends Down Under and Up North as well.

For Australian researchers:

Australian Law Dictionary, Trischa Mann and Audrey Blunden, editors, Oxford University Press (2010). Subscription access required.

Butterworths Concise Australian Legal Dictionary, Peter Butt Editor, LexisNexis Publishing, 2011. Generally available through booksellers as well (Amazon has copies now).

Encyclopaedic Australian Legal Dictionary – online, LexisNexis. Subscription access required, not generally available to individuals (see the Ordering tab at page bottom).

And for Canadians:

• “Canadian Law Dictionary,” CanadianLawSite.ca. Begun as a personal website by a Canadian trustee in bankruptcy who wanted to learn about Canadian legal history, CanadianLawSite went live on the Internet in 2007, and has since become one of the biggest commercial law sites in the country. It offers a comprehensive dictionary.

• “Legal Dictionary,” Duhaime.org. A major Canadian legal reference site by Lloyd Duhaime, “Barrister, Solicitor, Attorney and Lawyer (and Notary Public!)” The law dictionary contains terms both from common law and civil law.

• “Irwin Law’s Canadian Online Legal Dictionary,” IrwinLaw.com. A “collaborative dictionary comprised, initially, of terms defined in the glossaries of Canadian law books published by Irwin Law,” to which members of the public can contribute, wiki-style, after registering.

Know of more? Add a comment for the benefits of your fellow researchers!


  1. Judy G. Russell, “A defining moment,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 June 2014 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 25 Mar 2015).
  2. See this link for the two versions in the collection.
Posted in Legal definitions, Resources | 6 Comments

Best for genealogy

Reader Pam Anderson had a great question after trying — and failing — to find a truly archaic legal term in her pocket copy of Black’s Law Dictionary.

“On the Black’s Law Dictionary,” she asked, “any recommendations as to which edition for genealogy?”

Oh, boy, does The Legal Genealogist have an answer to that!

And — for once — it’s not “it depends.”

Blacks.4thFirst off, a brief explanation of this tome.

Black’s Law Dictionary has been around since it was first published in 1891 by Henry Campbell Black, then a 31-year-old New York-born-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar who only ever briefly practiced law.1

It’s a comprehensive dictionary of legal terms that’s been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 261 cases, the first time in 1901 for its definition of “common law.”2 I wouldn’t even try to guess how many times it’s been cited in American courts overall — in just my own state of New Jersey, I found 874 cases.3

Many of the terms it defines are critical to the records we work with day in and day out as genealogists. Let me put it this way: if a legal term you’re trying to figure out isn’t in Black’s, then it’s probably spelled wrong. But, as Pam found out, the question sometimes is — in which version will you find it?

Black himself authored the first4 and second editions5 of Black’s Law Dictionary. With a new version published just last year, it’s now in its tenth edition.6

The problem is that — at a particular point in the history of this wonderful dictionary — the editors and publishers decided that nobody was really interested in those old, archaic legal terms any more, and that they could make room for new terms and concepts coming into the law by simply leaving them out. I mean, really, who needs to know, today, what a “childwit” was anyway?7

That breaking point for the oldest legal terms was after the Fourth Edition. There were at least three printings of the Fourth Edition — in 1951, 1957 and 1968 — each with 1882 main pages and a varying amount of preamble material. It’s sometimes called the Fourth Edition, sometimes the Fourth Edition Revised, sometimes the Fourth Edition Deluxe or even the Fourth Edition Revised Deluxe. But that edition, with its 1882 pages, is the last edition with all the terms we want. The Fifth Edition, published in 1979, is a fundamentally different publication — and not suited for our purposes.

If you absolutely positively have to have a physical book version of a dictionary, this Fourth Edition is the last one to try to find — and it won’t come cheap. Amazon has some copies in its marketplace from third party sellers; the cheapest version this morning is $73.01. There was one on eBay where the auction won’t close for another five days, and bidding was already at $50 — or you could buy a second one for a flat $255.

I personally recommend that genealogists buy and use the first version, published in 1891. It’s the one written closest to the time that the records we usually work with were created, so the language will be closest to what the record-creator meant. Again, if you just have to have a physical copy, you can have your very own copy of a reprint in hardback from Amazon. It’s only $195 new — or you can save a whole $2 by buying it used (for $193).

Or you can do what I did. I bought the CD version from Archives CD Books USA. For $29.95, you get both the first edition (1891) and second edition (1910), fully word searchable. Best buy you’ll ever make.

And if you absolutely can’t scrounge up the money right now, you can find this dictionary online. HathiTrust has the 1891 edition, albeit in a form that’s not the easiest to use, while Internet Archive and Google Books have the 1910 (second) edition free.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Henry Campbell Black (1860-1927),” The Legal Genealogist, posted 6 Jan 2012 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 23 Mar 2015).
  2. Western Union Tel. Co. v. Call Publishing Co., 181 U.S. 92, 102 (1901).
  3. The most recent citation was in State v. Sumulikoski, __ N.J. __ (slip op., 18 March 2015) (per curiam); Rutgers-Camden Law Library, New Jersey Court Resources (http://njlaw.rutgers.edu/collections/courts/ : accessed 23 Mar 2015).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891).
  5. Black, A Law Dictionary, 2d ed. (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1910).
  6. Bryan A. Garner, ed., Black’s Law Dictionary, 10th ed. (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 2014).
  7. Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 200, “childwit” (“The right which a lord had of taking a fine of his bondwoman gotten with child without his license”).
Posted in Legal definitions, Resources | 16 Comments