Reading between the lines

The outcome

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

TeliShe 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?


  1. 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.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Judy G. Russell, “A costly issue,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 Apr 2013 ( : accessed 17 Sep 2013).
  6. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 78-79, “appearance.”
  7. Ibid., 1052, “rule.”
  8. 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.
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24 Responses to Reading between the lines

  1. Susan Clark says:

    Thank you, Judy! You’ve demonstrated the richness of court records so clearly. I need to laminate this to have by the boxes or microfilm reader. Or find a way to fold it up into a locket and wear near to my heart.

  2. This was great, Judy! I enjoyed the soap opera in the beginning of your post (and was actually watching it unfold in my head like a lifetime movie) … but even more, I LOVE the way you took the court costs apart and extracted useful information from them. I haven’t had an opportunity to delve into any court records for my people yet, but when I do … I’ll definitely be on the lookout for the stuff between the lines!

  3. Ann says:

    I’m thankful that rules of civil procedure have made things easier on family law practitioners! Wonderful discussion of these old court records — you have, indeed, made it come alive.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Ann! But gee… I agree. Can you imagine if family law today was still hidebound with the old writs? Omigosh… talk about gridlock…

  4. Douglas Burnett says:

    This was a great lesson that can be applied to many documents like this.Maybe in a follow up article you could discuss in the spirit of GPS…what other records might you look at to comply with “exhaustive search” requirement.

  5. Natalie Levinson says:

    Love this, Judy! Within the last couple of years, I was able to obtain over 400 pages of court documents for the divorce of one of my great-grandmothers and her ex’s subsequent wife as well as the wills and related court documents for her ex-husband and his brother from Sidney, Nebraska and the Wyoming State Archives. They contain allegations of everything from physical and mental abuse and infidelity to attempted murder – quite a drama to be sure! While I still am hunting for that great-grandmother’s maiden name (she and her ex were married back in Russia/now Ukraine), the documents did give me about 4 versions of the name of the town/village from which they hailed, among many other things! Amazing documents!!

  6. Jana Last says:

    Thank you Judy for this post! Court documents are fascinating. I requested and received the divorce court records of an ancestor of mine. Wow! Talk about a soap opera. Allegations of improper activities which were not conducive to keeping one’s marriage vows were alleged. And names were even revealed in the document. Of course, the genealogist in me did an internet search on said names. But that’s another story.

    Thanks again!

  7. Judy, I cannot agree with you more whole-heartedly about the need to read “between the lines” where legal documents are concerned. A recent case of mine has a number of parallels to your example, but with some distinct departures.
    I was suspicious from my very first reading of an “afffidavit of ownership” dated 17 September 1979 and recorded in Hanover County, Virginia, Deed Book 467, pages 334-35, of the list of owners contained therein being complete for 3 very rudimentary reasons: 1)the owners identified themselves as the children of their father; 2)they identified themselves as the neices and nephews of their aunt; and 3)they identified themselves as the grandchildren of their grandmother.
    You see, the standard phrasing in such documents is: 1)for a child of a deceased parents to acknowledge if there had been any other siblings, whether full or half-blood who were deceased and if deceased, whether survived by issue [said phrasing was conspicuously absent from the affidavit]; 2)for a neice or nephew to acknowledge if the aunt/uncle had any issue and when the aunt/uncle was deceased, whether said aunt/uncle was survived by issue [said phrasing conspicuously absent from the affidavit]; and 3)under the applicable law of the time, a woman HAD NO PROPERTY RIGHTS INDEPENDENT OF HER SPOUSE, WHETHER LIVING OR DECEASED, short of the existence of a convenant (what would now be called a “pre-marital agreement”) [any acknowledgement of the existence of such a convenant being conspicuously absent from the affidavit]!
    My research subsequently established 1)8 full-blood siblings had died before the date of the affidavit, 6 of them survived by issue; 2)the aunt had at least one and quite possibly 2, sons (by different husbands) who I could not positively stipulated died without surviving issue because my research also raised the question of whether those sons were indeed heirs to the property in question as it turned out what the affidavit and the majority of the records of Hanover County treated as a single tract of land was actually two separate tracts WITH DIFFERENT OWNERS; and 3)the grandmother was NOT THEIR GRANDMOTHER, but the second wife of the grand-father (and mother of the aunt), who had only a right to live on and derive an income from the property until her death.
    This was all established as a result first of a chancery suit styled Thomas H. Winston vs. Robert Winston et al., filed in Hanover County and designated 1896-011, second, two deeds which were meant to execute the judgment in the aforesaid chancery suit which were recorded in Hanover County, Virginia, Deed Book 178, pages 58-63, and dated 1909; and third by census, obituaries and other records. These records further establish that Robert, father of those swearing the affidavit of ownership in 1979 was the sole owner of the larger of the two tracts, while the other tract was purchased by Robert’s two step-brothers, both of whom died, with no surviving issue, before the deed recognizing their ownership was recorded, thus that deed recognized as the owner of the second tract their sister (half-sister of Robert). Only if the sister either sold her property in her life-time or died without surviving issue would Robert or his children have become owners, but they would have also have shared ownership of the second tract with the surviving issue of Robert’s four full-blood siblings!
    There is still more to this story for a title search company which handled the case before I was brought in first failed to consider the possibility of there being more than one individual of the same full name of one of the “owners” in the affidavit, so did not continue to search for records when the administration file found DID NOT ACKNOWLEDGE ANY OF THE OTHER SIBLINGS WHO WERE PARTIES TO THE AFFIDAVIT, thus failed to uncover the 8 deceased siblings (I knew I had the correct individual when his obituary mentioned a nephew of the same name as the person who had been paying the taxes on the property for upwards of 25 years!). That company also failed to uncover chancery suit, thus failed to uncover there would other claimants to the property than the children and surviving issue of the father of those who swore the affidavit.

  8. Dan Myers says:

    I think I’ll have to get my wife to haul out the records we found on her grandfather’s brother’s divorce, and we’ll go back through them again. Those papers did name her grandfather’s first wife as being (working?) at the same “house of ill repute” that the brother complained his soon-to-be ex was found in – the Bucket of Blood in Pottsville, PA. We were able to get quite a bit of information that pointed us to other records (marriage, etc) which more or less explained long-standing questions (like decades old!) of just what possibly went on to cause her grandfather to disappear from Pennsylvania and change his name before he showed up here in Ohio. As a child, my wife’s mother never heard more than whispered talking about some mysterious “red-haired woman” that her father seemed to have known at some point, but that information certainly didn’t come out of his mouth! With the divorce records of his brother, we were able to find out he actually WAS married before, and put a name to an innuendo. We’d still like to know if there might have been a child involved (who could actually still be alive now).

    It sounds like we might be able to glean additional information by revisiting the paperwork. Thanks for more Tips and Tricks (from your presentation title last week) – keep ‘em coming.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Glad you found it useful, Dan — and oh yeah… go back over those documents with a fine tooth comb. Every time I review a document set, I find something I hadn’t seen before.

      And for heaven’s sake — write this up! Sounds like a terrific story!

  9. Mary Starr says:


    Just wanted to say that I enjoyed this post. About eight years ago, my Dad was able to find a copy of the divorce court records for his grandparents, dating to the 1920′s. What was interesting is this. Neither grandparent showed up for the final hearing so no divorce was granted. However, on all the paperwork I have found for Gramma, she lists herself as divorced and on his paperwork, Grampa lists himself as married. Grandpa outlived Gramma and on her death certificate it is listed that he was widowed. It was very interesting because we were always told they were divorced and here was proof that they weren’t. As for the information in the records, there wasn’t much there and to be honest, I’m ok with that. This was a horrible marriage and I think some of the things that happened, that have been “handed down” verbally are more than enough. I’m not sure I want to have my kids know all those stories. To see it in black and white, particularly since I knew this Grandpa until I was 12 when he died, would be hard to see. While he was wonderful to me, I also know the truth about him. For me, it’s easier to see that kind of information on folks removed more than a few generations, it’s a bit more distant and I don’t feel like I have as close of a connection. I don’t know if that makes sense or not to some but it just makes me uncomfortable.

    Love your blog, I look forward to it and read it during lunch at work. Shhhhh


  10. Jade says:

    Judy, another stellar post pointing to the need to look at the actual Court records.

    In one divorce proceeding, an ancestor sued for divorce from his second wife. The Court record is scanty, the case was abated due to the plaintiff’s death. But the original complaint survived, in which my ancestor claimed that his wife had brought disease to the marriage bed and among her other cruelties had hit him over the head with a skillet!

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