Linens, spoons and lunatics: Team works to preserve county probate records

Last modified: Monday, September 08, 2014
NORTHAMPTON —According to records from Hampshire County Probate Court, on July 15, public notice was given that Josiah Allis was officially declared a lunatic.

Oh, that was July 15, 1843, just to be clear.

That probate record, along with thousands of others, some dating back nearly 350 years, is in the process of being archived and preserved in the court building.

The project is funded by a grant through the state’s trial court system that provides money for projects like records preservation.

Hampshire Probate Court was one of seven grant winners that will share $18,700 for their respective projects, according to Register of Probate Michael Carey.

Robert Cox, head of special collections at the University of Massachusetts, said Thursday that he’s gone through a few boxes of the documents, “a handful, really,” and said it’s a large and very important collection.

“I’ve just begun to graze the first wave,” he said.

The probate records contain information about wills, property, estates, marriages, divorces and their ilk that, when taken as a whole and cross-referenced, provide a glimpse into early life in the region that otherwise may not be possible.

“On the surface, it sounds pretty dull,” Cox said. “These are the only records we have for a lot of people considered too insignificant to appear anywhere else.”

“For this period of time, they might be the only mention of who you are, but they might also be an indication of who you are, what clothes and furniture you had, how many forks and spoons,” Cox said.

Cox said many people in the region likely remained mostly anonymous in the historical perspective of the area and, unless they had criminal records, their lives are probably documented only through probate records.

The records themselves vary, Cox said, but one thing that’s clear from what he’s seen so far is the excruciating amount of detail contained in them.

Inventories are cataloged down to individual forks, people recorded what type of bed and linens they had, one was a record of nothing but cooking pots, said Mark Ames, head administrative assistant of the Probate Court.

The information about beds and bedding is of particular interest to Cox, who is studying the history of sleep and how people slept in America.

The inventory records are about the only way, he said, to learn details that specific about a specific topic.

“There’s almost no other way you’d get at the history of sleep,” he said.

Genealogists may also find the documents immensely useful, Cox said.

Through birth and death notices, wills and property transfers, those studying a particular family may be able to trace their history across several generations as well as glean details about which family members may have been more or less favored, depending on what share of an estate they received.

Cox warned that going through the documents to trace one continuous thread of information may take some patience to pick out the pertinent details across a series of documents that may have not been well cross-referenced when they were created, or have details missing.

But, when taken together, some of the records tell fascinating, if incomplete stories, he said.

Cox said a case in point was probate documents that show two slave owners had a dispute over the fate of a child conceived between two of their slaves.

Cox said he hasn’t been able to determine the outcome of that situation from the records he’s seen so far.

“No set of records are absolute,” he said.

Preserving those records is being accomplished mostly by a small team of volunteers, including Barbara Fell-Johnson, former librarian at the Hampshire Law Library.

She said it was when she was combing through probate records doing her own research that she saw the state of the original forms and the condition they were in.

Most were folded and stored in cardboard sleeves with court codes and dates on the front.

The problem with those sleeves is they are not free of acids that degrade paper over time.

Each of the documents is being taken out, unfolded and flattened and placed into acid-free folders and will be refiled in the Probate Court building.

Despite having been in storage, enveloped in acid-rich paper and cardboard, the documents have held up remarkably well.

Ames said that’s due in large part to paper being a much more durable product in centuries past than it is now, incorporating stronger fibers and, in some cases, cloth into its creation, which have helped it weather years of less-than-ideal conditions.

Many of the pages are disintegrating along the seams where they have been folded and refolded, most are yellow with age, and some are nearly illegible, between the degradation of the ink and the small size of the writing.

Some have decorative flourishes on them like small notary-type seals made from thin squares of metal or foil, with insignias stamped into them and attached to the side of some of the pages.

There are about 165 boxes of documents to extract and refile, Ames said and the hope is to have the project finished by the end of the year.

Ames said in a further effort to permanently preserve the documents, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has expressed interest in making digital copies of the documents as part of its effort to digitize and publish historical records.

Ames and Fell-Johnson said the detail of the inventories suggests how much more importance people placed on things that most modern Americans probably take for granted, like individual utensils or single pieces of flatware.

“One inventory was just pots and pans,” Fell-Johnson said. “That’s all that was in there. That shows what value was placed on items like that.”

Many of the documents are difficult to read, not because of deterioration over the years — though that is sometimes the case — but because of the archaic typeface used on much of them.

Often, the letter “s” looked like the letter “f” and old English language and terminology is used throughout, like “lunatic,” for example.

Other bits of history contained in the documents include some of the only records from the early history of the four towns — Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott — that were disincorporated in the late 1930s to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir.

“It’s really the history of Hampshire County,” Ames said. “It’s what people valued at that time.”

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.