by Hans-J. Finke, Ph.D.

(The following talk was presented in conjunction with an Archives Week
Exhibit at the Ontario County Records and Archives Center. Since many of
my colleagues have asked me for copies, I finally weakened and gave in. 
Please note that the presentation is impressionistic, and definitely not
the final word on the topic.)

     Everyday, when we open the newspaper, we find the most
depressing stories, ranging from murder and assault to child
abuse and prostitution. The more mature members of society can
only shake their heads and bewail the disintegration of morality. 
After all, we know that our generation was always more mature,
honest and moral and that only the younger generation is
responsible for all the ills of society. What ever happened to
the sophistication we exhibited in our younger days - we danced
the bunny hop, the twist, and listened to such immortal lyrics as
"You ain't nothing but a hound dog."

     Well, those of you who are in total despair about modern
society, take heart! Our ancestors in the "good old days" of the
first half of the nineteenth century had a few problems of their

     We are in the process of arranging Court records of the
nineteenth century to make them accessible for research. The
documents which you have seen in the new exhibit are just some of
the examples of the darker side of history. We have found that
the modern trend to sue our neighbors, our doctors, and even our
lawyers is nothing new. The favorite past time of our ancestors
was to sue everybody possible for everything possible. Law suits
became big business in Ontario County from the very beginning. To
be sure, most law suits involved the recovery of money or
property. In many respects, the way our ancestors thought of
money and property was tied to English tradition and more
specifically to Puritan ethics. To be a freeholder - a person
with money and property - gave standing in society and before the
law. Despite the fact that credit and debt became a necessary
evil in a growing economy, debt was something not quite moral. If
a debtor was unable to repay his debt, he became an immoral
outcast of society. Although there were already the rudiments of
bankruptcy laws, a debtor still wound up in jail for anywhere
between thirty and sixty days. Only after 30 days could a debtor
petition to be freed from jail under the Insolvency Law, and the
most convincing argument was that his family would have to be
supported by the County unless he could work for the wife's and
children's support.

     Court records of the first half of the nineteenth century
are a valuable resource for the study of Ontario County history
and society. The court cases show how society differed from the
ideal. We often think of the "Good Old Days" as a period when
people had happy family relations, went to church, helped their
neighbors, were moral and upright, and spent most of their time
working for the good of society.

     A goodly number of our ancestors fell into this category -
just as a majority of people do now. However, just as in 1994, a
minority of our nineteenth century ancestors rejected the laws
and mores of the majority and clogged the court system with cases
ranging from incest and prostitution to assault, theft and

     The official guardians of morality of early Ontario County
resembled the officials in our present day County government:
They strove to protect the individual from bodily and financial
harm, and they wanted to keep the taxes as low as possible.

     From the beginning, the county budget showed a substantial
portion spent for social welfare programs. There was the Poor
House, the Idiot Assylum, and various other institutions designed
to take care of the less fortunate members of society. However,
the attitude toward the poor was much sterner than it is today.
Although the sick and physically or mentally disabled were cared
for, the able-bodied man or woman was expected to work and
contribute to the good of society. Vagabonds - those who showed
no visible means of support - were sentenced to the Poor House at
hard labor. Children who had lost their parents became wards of
the Poor House and were apprenticed out to farms and businesses
to pay for their upkeep. In the exhibit you will find one case
where the father was dead and the mother was in jail. Before the
boy was sentenced to spend six months in the Poor House, he had
no choice but to beg for his food. Non-residents, who showed no
visible means for their support, were shipped back to the county
from which they came from.

     By the middle of the century, the Poor House was no longer
used as an alternative to jail. Attempts were made to control
vagrancy and idleness by imposing monetary sureties of good
behavior. Since the surety or bail bonds were rather high, the
people without a profession usually wound up in jail. I'll just
give you three quick examples from 1846: John Kennedy was
convicted as a disorderly person and drunkard without visible
means of support. Since he had no money, he was thrown into jail
until he could come up with surety money. Thomas Ziely was
convicted as a disorderly person without profession or calling
who supported himself through gambling. Evidently he was not a
very lucky gambler since he could not come up with $200. Justice
of the Peace Robert Stoddard particularly differentiated between
the worthy poor and the incorrigible vagrants. He convicted
Charles Hinckley as a vagrant "for he is an idle person without
visible means of supporting himself (who) is running about the
streets, sleeping in barns and sheds." Stoddard considered
Hinckley unsuitable for the Poor House and threw him into jail
for a period of 20 days. 

     The Overseer of the Poor was one of the most important - and
most powerful - individuals in the County. In addition to
actually supervising the poor, he saw to it that the County was
liable for the support of the poor only if absolutely necessary.
For example, illegitimate births were relative common in the
early history of Ontario County. Quite often, the Overseer of the
Poor brought suit against the men who got the poor girls
pregnant. In July 1829 a girl from the Town of Seneca gave the
following "voluntary" disposition:
     ...Eve Haskins of the Town of Seneca who being duly sworn
     before the undernamed Justice of the Peace of said County
     says that she now is with child and that the child of which
     she is pregnant is likely to become a Bastard and to become
     chargeable to the Town of Seneca of Ontario aforesaid and
     that Nimrod Bennett of Seneca aforesaid is the Father of
     said child.

N. Hastings, Overseer of the Poor, ordered the Justice of the
Peace to proceed against Nimrod Bennett according to the Act for
the Relief of Cities and Towns from the Maintenance of Bastard

     During the first half of the 19th century, Ontario County
was relatively violent. Partially, I suspect, cheap alcohol was
responsible for much of the violence. We also have to remember
that Ontario County was a frontier county and as such attracted
misfits of society. Again, the Overseer of the Poor attempted to
prevent alcohol abuse by bringing charges against those who sold
unlicensed liquor. As early as 1806, the Bloomfield Overseer of
the Poor brought charges against Nathan Brian for selling illegal
alcohol. A Court case on 1818 will give an indication on how much
alcohol was produced in this area: Oliver Rose complained that
William G. Taylor absconded with "two barrels of Whiskey, five
hundred gallons of Whiskey, ten barrels (empty) and ten barrels
of Whiskey with a total value of $500. According to Rose, he
"casually" lost the booze and Taylor took it, fully aware that it
belonged to Rose, and then disposed of it. The Court found for
Rose - $ 452 plus $27 Court costs. I'd love to know the real
story behind this!  

     Throughout the first half of the 19th century violence
against women was a common occurance. Since we are just in the
process of arranging Court records, I don't have accurate
statistics. However, I have come across enough cases of assault,
rape, and incest to get the impression that women were no safer
during the 19th century than they are now. I have chosen only a
few examples to give you a feeling for the age. In June 1846,
Hiram S. Beach was charged for violently assaulting and beating
Mary Nevins. He was fined ten dollars. Evidently at least one
person thought that the fine was not punishment enough and Alonzo
Chase was charged with assaulting and beating Hiram Beach. Chase
had to pay a fine of one dollar. In the present exhibit, you will
find a case in which Phebe Lewis beat up Henry Allin on July 16,
1846. Phebe was thrown into jail for 30 days. Ten days later,
Henry Allin beat up Phebe Lewis and received only an eight dollar
fine. The difference in punishment does not seem fair, but
perhaps Phebe did a better job on Henry than vice versa.

     The first rape case in the County that I was able to find
was in 1798 by Oliver Willcocks against Rebecca King. One of the
strangest rape/incest cases was the case of The People vs.
Solomon Davis, who was charged with raping his daughter. While
Davis was in jail, the Sheriff's Office started to serve the
necessary subpoenas to witnesses. Lo and behold, the main
witness, the daughter, had disappeared. Either friends or
relatives moved the girl from location to location to keep her
from testifying against her father. She was finally discovered in
the village of Gasport after having been hidden away for over six

     In the exhibit, you will find several cases of prostitution.
Again, you have to remember that this was still a frontier
society and that single men significantly outnumbered single
women. Generally speaking, prostitutes were required to put up
sureties for good behavior for a period of one year. However, the
surety bond was stiff, ranging from $50 to $200, and most
prostitutes did spend time in jail because they were unable to
come up with the money. Just a few examples:  Eliza Hinckley was
convicted for being a common Prostitute and drunkard, is idle,
has no profession or occupation to support herself. Eliza was
supposed to find two sureties of $100 each for her good behavior
and had to remain in jail until she could come up with the money.
This was in April, 1846. By July of the same year she was
convicted again for the already mentioned charges plus for
keeping a house of ill fame in Geneva. An attempt was made to
close down houses of ill repute, and there are numerous cases
such as that of David and Nancy Abram who were jailed for keeping
a bawdy house.

     When we become involved in arranging Court records, it often
seems that the entire County population was engaged in the
favorite past time of beating up its neighbors. In one case,
Hamlet Hickox jumped on Jonas Atwell, struck him, pushed him down
3 or 4 times and badly hurt him. Samuel Featherly and others were
convicted of assault, battery and riot. A dozen or so people were
convicted for "riotously assembling to disturb the peace of the
School of District #2. The list of assaults and batteries goes on
and on and included the use of clubs, guns, knives, teeth, and
whatever other weapons the assailants could find. So much for the
theory that television is responsible for all our violence.

     In conclusion, I would like to caution any would-be
historian or researcher that sex and mayhem are only part of the
story. The nineteenth century was also a period of tremendous
religious revival; it was an era where individuals and families
contributed to the building of Ontario County as a nice place to
live. I chose the court records because they are part of our
history - a part which is usually ignored in your history
textbooks. Our newspapers tend to emphasize the sensational, the
darker side of society. I hope by now you will realize that
society has not changed that much, and that will survive even our
present crisis in morality.