Each time I post about this subject, I wrestle with whether or not I should be airing the family laundry here in cyberspace. However, as genealogists, we are most interested in the truth. Sometimes the truth is not what we would like it to be. It’s perhaps not like we had hoped it and envisioned it to be, and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable. The main characters in this family story have been dead over 100 years, and I think that this is not only a tale worth telling, but also a lesson in just how incredibly valuable– or perhaps invaluable— court records can be in conducting our research. How-many-ever years ago, this was my first foray into Common Pleas records. The moment I found this case in the index–a dusty book that was long forgotten and stuck in a little-used storage room– is to this day the single-most exciting find I’ve had.
Granted, this is my own family so it’s likely more compelling to me than anyone else. However, more than all the combined documents I’ve found, more than any county history I’ve read, this court case makes my ancestors human–with all their strengths and weaknesses– in a way nothing has before or since. It’s a slice of life that gives me chills and I swear to you, I can see and hear this case as it’s being tried. I can hear the silence…the uncomfortable silence, as witnesses are brought before the judge and jury to testify for and against their children, friends, neighbors, and associates in rural Harrison County, Ohio that day in May of 1838.
This is not a good guy/bad guy tale– simply a story of two people; one that also happens to be the story of how my branch of the Staats family came to be.
Edith Staats was the second youngest child of Elijah Staats and Margaret Chandler, born 12 Apr 1818 in Freeport Township in Harrison County, Ohio. The Staats family came to Freeport from Luzerne Township, Fayette, Pennsylvania in 1815. Jesse Brock Pickering was born two days before Christmas, 23 Dec 1818, a son of Abel Pickering and Nancy Brock.The Abel Pickering family was also in Harrison County by 1817, when Abel was taxed there. In the 1830 census, the families are enumerated a page apart – the Pickering family in the city of Freeport, and Staats family in Freeport Township.
Jesse Brock Pickering married Elizabeth Manlove Whealdon one day before his 18th birthday, the 22nd of December 1836. Both the Whealdon and Manlove families were Quaker, and migrated from Kent County, Delaware– just across the New Castle County line where Elijah Staats’s family lived. Their first child, Able, was born 22 Sep 1837. Elijah Staats’s wife, Margaret Chandler was also Quaker. These families were no doubt, well-acquainted with each other.
This case focuses on the events of one day in June of 1837. Edith was a nineteen-year old single girl, and Jesse eighteen, married, his wife, Elizabeth expecting their first child in a few months.
The State of Ohio on Complaint of Edith Staats vs. Jesse Pickering:
Court of Common Pleas May Term, A.D.1838. Bastardy.
Passages in italics are quoted from the Common Pleas Record entry. All other information is paraphrased from the same entry unless otherwise noted.
Be it remembered that heretofore to wit on the fifth day of March in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty eight: John Knox Esq. one of the Justices of the Peace of Freeport Township Harrison County and State of Ohio filed in the Office of the Clerk of the Common Pleas Court of said Harrison County a transcript of the proceedings before him had in a certain action of bastardy…
On the sixth day of February 1838, Edith Staats an unmarried woman entered complaint under oath against Jesse Pickering the defendant setting forth that she, the said complainant is now pregnant and that he, the said Jesse Pickering is the father of said child.
A warrant was issued and Constable Cree returned the same day with Jesse Pickering. The defendant refused to make any compromise. It had been a cold Ohio winter, and it was about to get even colder, as John Knox began the questioning:
Knox: What reason have you to believe that Jesse Pickering is the father of the child with which you are now pregnant?
Edith: Because I know he is.
There’s no hesitation, no beating around the bush, and indeed no sign of backing down. I picture Edith casting a steely stare directly at Jesse as she makes her statements.
Knox: When had he sexual intercourse with you?
Edith: The twenty fourth day of June.
Knox: Had he intercourse with you more than once?
Knox: Where were you at the time you had sexual intercourse together?
Edith: At our own house (Staats’s)
Knox: Was it at night?
Edith: No, it was in the daytime.
Knox: Were any of the family at home?
Edith: No. There was nobody there but myself.
In that direct, no-nonsense line of questioning, Edith points to a single moment during that day, the 24th of June 1837. She points to one instance of weakness between two people who probably should have known better– who almost certainly did know better. Further testimony would reveal it was likely that Jesse and Edith had a previous, amorous past, but nothing leading up to that moment would prove to have as lasting an effect as that solitary encounter in June. An agent for Jesse, R.R. Price, took over the questioning:
Price: Was this before harvest or after harvest that this took place?
Edith: Before, in June.
Price: Was Mr. Pickering in the habit of paying his attentions to you at that time?
Edith: No, not after he was married.
Price: Was there not any other young men paying their respects to you about that time?
Price: Did you not, after Jacob was married, say that you would match them yet?
Edith: No. I never said any such thing.
Having already withstood questioning by the Justice of the Peace, Edith is now facing these questions by the agent – presumably an attorney for Jesse. She never backs down, and fires right back. The agent’s questions imply less than subtly, that there was a previous relationship between Edith and Jesse, and perhaps a bitter ending when Jesse married another. It’s easy enough to picture, and clear where the attorney is going with the questioning – that she had a motive to lie. Next up, Jesse himself asks the questions:
Jesse: Do you not remember, Edith, at the time I came to your house to get a piece of paper, did you not consider me clear at that time?
Edith: No. You never denied it to me.
Jesse: You recollect the paper you gave me to clear up this do you?
Edith: No. I never gave you any.
Whereupon the said Jesse Pickering still continuing to refuse to compromise with the said Edith Staats he was required to enter into recognizance in the sum of three hundred dollars…
Standing tall in the face of questioning by a Justice of the Peace, an attorney, and Jesse himself, Edith persevered and took the case to court. As the record shows, Jesse never denied the encounter, but instead focused on a piece of paper– presumably a written statement by Edith absolving him of responsibility. The case went to trial and carried on for at least five days. Twenty three witnesses took the stand including Edith’s mother, and several relatives of both plaintiff and defendant- this in a township of less than 1300. Anyone who’s lived in a town that small will understand– there are no secrets.
When the dust settled, the jury returned a guilty verdict. A notice of appeal was mentioned, but no appeal has been found. Based on comments included in the original case files for this case, the defense was trying to prove that Edith had relations with other men during the same time frame, but the testimony was disallowed. Original documents also included the doctor bill for the the birth of Alexander Allan Staats, my great great grandfather.
What did one have to pay for child support in 1838? Jesse was ordered to pay $36 plus court costs up front, and $0.75 per week for five years. It appears payments were made quarterly, but only though 1841.
Edith married Daniel Toms in 1847. They had no children together. Alexander Staats went on to attend Marietta College, Starling Medical College, and graduated from the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery. He served in the 88th OVI in the Civil War, and practiced medicine in Summerfield, Ohio until a short time before his death in 1913. Edith passed away in 1901. Family legend is that she kept a detailed diary, and that on her deathbed, she asked one of her granddaughters to read the diary and then destroy it. The rest is history…or more accurately, lost to history. The Alexander Staats family has many descendants still alive and kicking, including your author. I’ve taken a yDNA test to try and confirm the court’s findings I’ve had three close matches. They are all Pickerings. And to think– it all goes back to that single fateful day, the 24th of June, 1837.
Ready to check into court records now and see what details they might hold about your own family? I hoped that you would be.