Not everyone who passed through a courthouse has a criminal record. The phrase ‘going to the courthouse,’ has a strong connotation of either getting a quick civil wedding or a heinous criminal trial. One could argue that the only time any law-abiding person has business at a courthouse is to pick up a copy of a document or fulfill jury duty. Your ancestors don’t need to be Belle Gunness, Stephen Richards, or H.H. Holmes to have business at a courthouse. In fact, some of the best everyday assessments of your ancestors can be found in divorces, civil suits, appointments to public offices, tax disputes, guardianships, and naturalizations. The criminal cases are just amazingly interesting in their own right.
Earlier this month, Raymond Johnson from HistoryCop.com presented a fantastic program on tracing infamous ancestors in court records. H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett), the infamous serial killer featured in the Devil and the White City, may have lived and murdered in several states and locations in the US and Canada, but his Chicago records are surprisingly of a non-criminal variety. You can watch the full program for free on YouTube!
Using the Cook County Courthouse records, Ray explains how he has been able to identify several aliases, business addresses, and fraud schemes for the infamous H.H. Holmes. Several of these fraud schemes included mysterious disappearances of individuals, of which no criminal charges were ever filed in Illinois. Holmes sued various businesses and individuals numerous times, under his own name and under various alias. Similar to other court records and documents, these lawsuits are not available online. Depending on court location and record availability, researchers may have to use microfilm or bound indexes to find cases, and wait for documents as they may be stored at an off site location.
Here is a selection of free online webinars for tracking down your ancestors in court records:
Order in the Court Records: Finding Briefs, Transcripts, and other Court Materials
Property Research for Genealogy
Convicts and Criminals In Your Family Tree Ancestry
Dear Myrtle GenLaw Study Group
Murderers, Rebels and Drunkards, your Irish Ancestors and the Law
PRONI – Your Family Tree – Using Court, Prison & Coroners Records
Court research may be a frustrating and confusing avenue of research, but these overlooked records shed light on the everyday
lives of our ancestors. You don’t have to have a criminal ancestor to find fantastic courthouse records, but it certainly does help! If your ancestor did commit a murder spree, you will want to find the court location of where the trial was held. You can usually find this information in newspaper or magazine accounts.
For example, the criminal cases of murder against H.H. Holmes are housed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. For one of the best comprehensive reports of crimes and charges against H.H. Holmes, you can read this Radford University crime summery published in 2013. You may also enjoy Murderpedia’s H.H. Holmes page which includes newspaper downloads, a photo gallery, and a sizable description of crimes committed.
If you’re a fan of Devil and the White City, you will want to read the book, catch up on a few documentaries, and watch for the new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
See you at the library!