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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Greek, part law French, even part Anglo-Saxon. And all confusing.

The story that reader Charles William Meiser found in the newspaper article was a wonderful one for a genealogist.

Under the headline “Mary’s little lamb” the article said that “little lamb” was “one that is causing Louis Gebfert a vast amount of trouble and annoyance.” It went on:

Yesterday afternoon, in the court of Squire France, a case was commenced by the State of Indiana ex rel. Mary Snitzler against Louis Gebfert on the charge of bastardy. The girl is a sister of the deceased wife of Gebfert, and resides near the village of Sheldon. By various wiles and artifices Louis gained the confidence of Mary, and the result is that the tete-a-tetes ended as many such do, and the frolicking Louis now wants to drop the whole matter, but Mary desires that her lamb have a father’s protection. After hearing evidence, the justice bound Gebfert over to court in the sum of $400 to answer the charge against him. He was not able to furnish the amount, and in default thereof he was lodged in jail to linger, mourn and meditate until his case is disposed of in the circuit court.1

It’s great stuff, particularly at this early time when birth registration –– although required in the Indiana counties –– was often hit or miss. But there was one thing that Charles found a little confusing.

CradleIt was the reference to the case title as “State of Indiana ex rel. Mary Snitzler.” What, he wondered, did “ex rel.” mean in this context? He’d thought that it simply meant “on behalf of” and wondered if it indicated that the mother in this case was a minor or otherwise incompetent to bring the action herself.

Not exactly.

The term — like so many others we encounter in legal documents — is an abbreviation for a term in legal Latin.

In this case, it’s the Latin phrase ex relatione, and here’s how Black’s Law Dictionary explains it: “Upon relation or information. Legal proceedings which are instituted by the attorney general (or other proper person) in the name and behalf of the state, but on the information and at the instigation of an individual who has a private interest in the matter, are said to be taken ‘on the relation’ (ex relatione) of such person, who is called the ‘relator.’”2

And in fact, that’s exactly what the laws of Indiana required at that time. The laws in effect then provided that any unmarried woman who’d given birth to or was pregnant with a child could make a complaint before any justice of the peace charging any man with being the father.3

Section 980 of the Bastardy law then provided: “The prosecution shall be in the name of the State of Indiana, on the relation of the prosecuting witness…”4

It makes good sense to handle the case that way, since it wouldn’t go away even if the mother died. The case would continue on behalf of the child.5 And the judgment, if the defendant was found to be the father, was that “he shall be adjudged the father of the child, and stand charged with the maintenance and education thereof.”6

In other words, if the case succeeded against the man, the State and people of Indiana wouldn’t have to pay for the support of that child. So in the final analysis, since the State had the biggest interest here (in ensuring the kid didn’t become a public charge), it’s the State ex. rel. (on the information of) Mary against Louis.

And no, the excerpts don’t say how the case came out…

Sigh… a genealogist’s work is never done…


  1. “Mary’s Little Lamb,” Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, 13 Dec 1898, excerpted at “Bastardy Case News Excerpts, Fort Wayne, Indiana,” Allen County Genealogical Society of Indiana ( : accessed 11 Feb 2018).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 447, “Ex Relatione.”
  3. §978, Article 33, “Bastardy,” in James S. Frazer, John H. Stotsenburg and David Turpie, compilers, Revised Statutes of Indiana (Chicago : E. B. Myers & Co., 1881), 187; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 11 Feb 2018).
  4. Ibid., §980.
  5. Ibid., §988, at 189.
  6. Ibid., §990.
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