If These Walls Could Talk,
the Stories They Would Tell
By Michelle Hamilton
That used to be my line while sharing the history about the courthouse at the Whaley House, but thanks to Bruce and Alana who retrieved four court cases from the archives and with the help of my mom, we were able to decipher these handwritten records of 1869 & 1870. It was fascinating to see court records from 130 years ago. The handwritten search warrants, arrest warrants, trail transcriptions and jury verdicts certainly have changed over the years. I have found that visitors who work in law enforcement or in the court system are fascinated to see how it once was. We had the records copied, transcribed and set up in a binder so visitors can enjoy them. We learned that two individuals had been sentenced to state prison, one received 20 years and the other 8 years.
I wondered how old they were, did they serve their time or get out early, what did they look like, where were they sent? With a little research we found that San Quentin was the only state prison at the time. After curiosity really set in, we made a call to San Quentin and were referred to the right department. My second phone call happened to fall on a day they were on full lock down while preparing for the execution of one of their inmates. Was my timing off! A few days later I spoke with Sgt. Crindon at the prison, and after telling him what I wanted and why I was looking for these records, he was interested and helpful. He told me that once a prisoner is off parole, their records go to the state archives, so my next stop was the California State Archives in Sacramento. About a week after speaking with them, I got the call I was waiting for. They had it! 27 pages of information on these two cases. We ordered copies and impatiently waited for the packet to arrive.
It is interesting looking back 130 years. As you may remember computers were not invented back then, heck, I don't know if they even had typewriters yet. Needless to say, these records were all handwritten. Reading them has been time consuming but well worth it. It has been fun to see, what I call, the guest registry log that was used to enter them into the prison system. It listed their name, where they were from, what they were convicted of, how long their sentence was, and a physical description, including height and hair color. We will be preparing this for our records and in hopes that when we do courtroom re-enactments, which is one of SOHO's planned living history goals, we will really have some details.
So as we continue to look into the past, we now know that this information is accessible and we will continue having fun retrieving it. Stop by the Whaley House to see what we have uncovered.
...now we know what these walls are saying!
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If These Walls Could Talk, the Stories They Would Tell...
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