He was just 19 years old in February 1876, he said, when Mary Howard “went before a Justice of the Peace in the city of Cleveland … and made oath and affidavit … that she was pregnant with a child which if born alive would be a bastard” and that he, “John Teli, your petitioner was the father of such child.”1
She had him arrested, John Teli said, and threatened with jail, and “being without council and wholly unadvised in the premises he did, at the suggestion of said Justice and to save himself from being imprisoned consent to marry and then and there before said Justice did marry the said Mary.”2
But, John complained, “Mary at the time … was not pregnant, and immediately after such marriage abandoned him and ever since has been living a profligate life, and been guilty of acts of adultery with divers persons at the city of Cleveland.”3
And so, he prayed that “it may be ordered and adjudged and decreed that said marriage be dissolved and he be released from all obligation of the same.”4
Oh yeah. They’re almost as good as soap operas, those wonderful old court records wherein the party of the first part sues the party of the second part for divorce. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the papers will say somebody was fooling around, and often there are charges and countercharges.
Sometimes, the files are big and thick and sometimes they’re pitifully thin. But no matter if they’re rich with detail or stingy in denial, we always want to know: how did the case turn out?
And sometimes… all too often, in fact … the case file doesn’t tell us.
Sometimes there’s been a record loss. Sometimes papers were misfiled. Sometimes the original documents have actually been thrown away.
As genealogists, we learn to milk every single document of every single detail we can possibly get.
So The Legal Genealogist invites you to take a look at just one document from the file of Teli v. Teli, that 1877 Ohio divorce case. You see it above here. You can click on it and enlarge it.
The paper itself is a bill of costs. We’ve talked about those here before.5 There’s usually one — or more — of these in just about every kind of court case. This one happens to have been entered on a docket form.
So pretend with me that this is the only piece of paper in the Teli case. Does it tell us how this case turned out? Can we read between the lines and figure out who won?
The answer is, we can be pretty sure just what happened here.
As a matter of fact, there’s an awful lot this one piece of paper tells us about this case:
• Only one party ever came into court. There’s only one 10-cent charge for an entry on the appearance docket and only one five-cent charge for the entry of an appearance — that formal coming-into-court in a lawsuit.6 The party making that appearance had to be the plaintiff. Defendants don’t come into court unless a plaintiff hauls them in.
• The case began in one court term and ended in the next. There are two, and only two, 10-cent charges — one for “each term” — for entering the case in the calendar of the court.
• The defendant was actually served with the papers. There’s only one five-cent charge for a rule of pleading (an order by the court to the other side telling that side to act7) and there’s a mileage fee paid to the sheriff by the plaintiff to serve papers. And there’s no charge for advertising the case in the newspaper, which would have to be done if the defendant couldn’t be found to deliver the papers from the lawsuit.
• Only one set of costs was ever charged. There’s only one 10-cent charge for entering information in the execution docket.
• This wasn’t a jury case. No fee was charged for calling a jury.
• Eight witnesses testified. You have their names on the left, and an 80-cent charge — 10 cents for each witness — showing the witness’ attendance, plus a 40-cent charge (a nickel for each witness) for swearing the witnesses in.
• Six of the witnesses came in willingly; two had to be ordered to appear through a subpoena. That’s shown by the 15-cent charge for one subpoena with a five-cent charge for an additional name on that subpoena.
• All eight witnesses testified for the plaintiff. Only the plaintiff was charged with the 75-cent fee for each witness — and since the first two were J. Teli Sr. and Annie Teli, it’s a pretty safe bet they weren’t there on behalf of Mary!
• Some 2100 words were recorded in the testimony of the witnesses. Each 100 words cost 10 cents, and a total of $2.10 was charged.
• The case was actually decided on the merits — there are two charges of 10 cents each for entering and transcribing the judgment of the court.
Let’s see here… a serious allegation of adultery, no appearance by the defendant even though she was properly served, a full court hearing on the merits with eight witnesses testifying for John Teli including two people who look suspiciously like they were probably his parents.
So… ? What do you think?
Yep. Judgment for the plaintiff.8
And you’d have known that even if the decree hadn’t been in that file, right?
- Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Court of Common Pleas, Divorce Record no. 78, Teli v. Teli (1877), complaint filed 30 January 1877; Cuyahoga County Archives, Cleveland, Ohio; FHL microfilm 1984589. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Judy G. Russell, “A costly issue,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 Apr 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 17 Sep 2013). ↩
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 78-79, “appearance.” ↩
- Ibid., 1052, “rule.” ↩
- Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Court of Common Pleas, Divorce Record no. 78, Teli v. Teli (1877), decree, filed 10 May 1877; Cuyahoga County Archives, Cleveland, Ohio; FHL microfilm 1984589. ↩